Citizen Scientists Track Sanctuary Seabirds

By Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary staff

May 2017

Off the coast of Massachusetts in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, December is a chilly time of year. But it's also a perfect time to track seabirds, which in turn can help sanctuary researchers monitor ecosystem health.

Now in its seventh year, the Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Stewards (S4) program is building a database that will help sanctuary managers identify long-term population trends for sanctuary seabirds and provide information on the health of the larger ecosystem as well. Seabirds follow their food sources, including fish, and tracking birds can help researchers assess water quality and resource availability. Since seabirds are much easier to spot than some other keystone species in the sanctuary, they are an excellent barometer of change in the environment. By tracking seabirds, scientists can better understand changes that affect important recreational and commercial fish species such as Atlantic cod and halibut, as well as the sand lance that many birds, fish, and whales eat.

A Cory's shearwater catches a sand lance.'
A Cory's shearwater catches a sand lance. Studying shearwaters helps researchers track ecosystem health and changes. Cory's shearwaters are typically a warmer-water species, but are being seen in increasing numbers at Stellwagen Bank. Photo: Peter Flood

First thing in the morning on December 20, volunteers participating in the combined S4 winter survey and the 2016 National Audubon Christmas Bird Count set sail for the sanctuary. "The S4 program is an interesting partnership between Mass Audubon personnel and sanctuary volunteers," says Wayne Petersen, Mass Audubon's director of the Massachusetts Important Bird Area program. "We work cooperatively to systematically gather much-needed information about the seasonal status and abundance of seabirds using the national marine sanctuary."

Led by the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary volunteer program coordinator, Anne-Marie Runfola, nine volunteers -- including expert birders, data recorders, and nature photographers -- took to the ocean for this annual sanctuary event. "Without volunteers, we would not be able to collect this important baseline monitoring data in the sanctuary," says Runfola. "They provide high-level expertise, great energy, and a network to spread the word about why this program is important and how people can get involved. With their help, we collect data annually on five full-day standardized cruises on our research vessel Auk, and 50 whale watch trips with our industry partners."

The observers were pleased to tally triple the number of common murres (48) and quadruple the number of razorbills (64) compared to last year's winter cruise, but no northern fulmars or shearwaters were observed this year. Petersen hypothesized on the difference in shearwater numbers. He suggested the possibility that in 2015, a combination of warmer-than-usual ocean temperatures and a super-abundance of the small bait fish called sand lance may have delayed the long-distance migration departure of great shearwaters headed to the Southern Hemisphere for the winter.

Each year, citizen scientists participate in the Christmas Bird Count in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

The observer team also spotted a number of marine mammals, including humpback whales, common dolphins, harbor porpoises, and harbor seals, Also to the citizen scientists' surprise, an adult Atlantic puffin was observed during the research trip. Juvenile puffins -- which have smaller, less colorful beaks than their popular parents -- are sometimes seen in the sanctuary, but adult puffins are more unusual. But following the cruise, when one of the birder/photographers zoomed in on his photos, he realized he'd spotted an adult puffin. "How often does one take a picture of a puffin in Massachusetts by accident?" asked Tim Factor, the volunteer who photographed the bird. Upon enlarging his photos, Factor realized that he had clearly captured an image of an adult puffin sitting on the water with its signature oversized orange beak plainly visible, making this one of the highlights of the cruise.

adult atlantic puffin
The picture was blurry, but the beak made it clear: the S4 volunteers spotted an adult Atlantic puffin! Photo: Tim Factor

The S4 program plays a crucial role in documenting seabird populations, and volunteers are proud to take part in this effort. S4 member Jane Sender explains, "Anyone who loves birds knows that they're under tremendous pressure from a lot of different directions. Seabirds in particular are struggling -- struggling to reproduce, struggling in the face of climate change." S4 can help, she says: "So anything that we can do to try to document some of this change and hopefully bring on some action that's going to help them, that's really an important thing."