Island Research Program

Our island conservation and research program is an integrated monitoring, management and research effort. 

Our island conservation and research program is an integrated monitoring, management and research effort. We take an applied science approach to research with data and study results providing feedback to improve management and fine tune monitoring. While each island's research, monitoring and management program is unique to the suite of birds nesting on that island and the available habitats, we emphasize a standardized approach to facilitate comparison of data across islands and years. With this approach we are able to generate consistent long-term data sets which permit us to better understand patterns and variation in an inherently dynamic environment. We try to incorporate innovation and a fresh approach to common conservation problems faced by marine birds.

At the beginning of each season, we conduct a two-day staff training session to orient new and returning staff to the history of our program, and to current monitoring and research. Staff and volunteers receive additional training on each island and all staff and volunteers participate fully in data collection and management (data entry). Each island is equipped with a full compliment of research equipment and guidelines (Island Procedures) and work plans (for terns and alcids) which outline studies and work goals for the season and provide an overview of methodologies for current studies.

Island Nesting Bird Conservation Overview

Resident field camps:  A key tenet of our program is the establishment of field camps on seabird nesting islands (all islands managed by our program are also Maine Important Bird Areas). Resident staff, comprised of an island supervisor, research assistants and volunteers, conduct all monitoring, management, conservation, research and outreach activities on an island. The presence of resident staff serves the twofold purpose of providing site protection while also training staff on waterbird conservation techniques through a comprehensive integrated field program.

Management Activities:  The on-site management program conducted by island staff focuses on two of the principal threats or limiting factors to nesting seabirds in Maine. We conduct an active predator management program (on all islands) designed to reduce both the direct and indirect threats of a suite of mainland based, primarily human commensal, predators. We are also engaged in active management of island habitats to both improve habitat quality for ground nesting birds and reduce the spread of invasive and exotic plants on the islands.

Habitat Management:  The island habitats used by nesting birds are dynamic; new habitats are created and existing habitats degraded by a suite of natural and anthropogenic factors. Invasive exotic plants, like Asiatic Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculata), have spread to island habitats and threaten both nesting habitat and plant diversity. Likewise, tall pasture grasses, inadvertently introduced through the movement of sheep on and off grazing islands, degrade nesting habitat for surface and burrow nesting species (e.g. terns and storm-petrels) by creating dense monocultures. Also, seabird guano from large restored colonies enhances the growth of both perennial and annual plants in this wet temperate maritime climate. SRP has experimented with numerous techniques throughout the programs' history to improve tern nesting habitat.

Monitoring and Research Overview

Population Counts:  A basic part of our program includes both annual and periodic counts of restored and non-restored nesting waterbirds. Count frequencies vary between species and islands, but are conducted systematically to provide us with a "snap-shot" of population level change for designated species. Counts are often coordinated with other programs, states and provinces to provide a regional view of population change: for example, each year in mid-June, we conduct a coordinated ground count of all nesting terns in the Gulf of Maine – the data are summarized each year in the Gulf of Maine Seabird Working Group minutes.

Productivity and Chick Growth Studies:  How many and how well do they do, are two of the basic questions asked or addressed by policy and bird conservation planning efforts. While it is important to stabilize and ensure that all members of a population are not concentrated in one location, it is also critical to ascertain how well a species or population is reproducing. To address the second part of the initial question, we conduct annual baseline productivity and chick growth studies with multiple species on all islands and resolve to identify the factors contributing to the success or failure of a species or suite of species during a given season. This work is a hands-on activity focusing on study groups (fenced and unfenced nests or collections of burrows) and involves the capture, recapture, banding, weighing and measurement of chicks throughout the season.

Survival and Movement:  Each summer, perched on buckets, squeezed into our 3x3x5' blinds, we sit patiently, with spotting scopes, snacks, backpacks and datasheets reading band numbers (service and auxiliary bands) of birds attending each island colony. These data are incorporated formally (Capture, Mark, Recapture studies) and informally (individual breeding histories) into studies of movement, survival and nest and mate fidelity for several species including Atlantic Puffins, and Arctic and Roseate Terns. Several recent papers have been generated from data collected by Project Puffin staff and are providing new insights into survival and movement probabilities for these species.

Diet/Food Provisioning Studies:  Since 1987, we have been recording diet or chick provisioning (feeding) data for Arctic Terns on Matinicus Rock. Since this initial effort, we have expanded our provisioning studies to six species (4 terns and 2 alcids) and all seven islands. The data generated from our provisioning studies has provided valuable insight into keystone prey species for Maine seabirds, has been the subject of peer-reviewed papers, is the subject of ongoing research using new technologies and has contributed to policy decisions for Gulf of Maine fisheries. Ultimately we hope develop linkage between seabird diet on pre-recruit aged prey stocks and future harvest of commercially valuable species.

Graduate and Undergraduate Student Research:  We encourage students to conduct independent research that integrates with our ongoing program and provides feedback to our monitoring and management that will further our conservation efforts for these species. Students work closely with project staff to design studies that are realistic, clear and publishable. Students are asked to present their work at the end of the summer annual meeting of the Gulf of Maine Seabird Working Group which is attended by up to 75 senior and student researchers from throughout the region.

Read some TIPS from the National Audubon Society Seabird Island Researchers.

Downloadable Resources


Research Islands

Research Islands

Learn more about where we work to help seabirds. 

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Field Opportunities
Get Involved

Field Opportunities

Each summer we hire research assistants, supervisors and educators to work with us in Maine.

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