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Angry Birds Are Impacting New England's Fishing Rules

Seabirds are offering researchers a new window into the health of the ocean.
Robbin Ray
Seabirds are offering researchers a new window into the health of the ocean.

Six miles off New Hampshire’s short stretch of coastline, the Isles of Shoals attract day trippers, but there’s not much reason to stay. The islands — there are nine of them — have no restaurants, public hotels or seasonal rentals.

Yet Liz Craig has found a way to spend the summer here on White’s Island. It’s little more than a hill of rocks with a majestic old lighthouse perched on top.  She’s taken up residence in the lighthouse keeper’s cottage. The ocean views are exquisite, but the cottage has seen better days. The paint is peeling, there’s no running water and Craig needs to haul in propane for the stove.

“If you think of it as camping, it’s really posh," said Craig.

The whole place is for the birds — a threatened species of seabirds called terns. Craig, a University of New Hampshire biologist, is conducting research to help both the terns and another at-risk group, fishermen.

“Terns are excellent bio indicators of what’s going on in the environment,” said Craig. “They tell us a ton about what’s going on about the health of the Gulf of Maine and resource availability.”

To get to the birds, Craig waits until low tide and crosses a rocky path that leads to neighboring Seavey Island where there are thousands of terns. Smaller than seagulls, they’re white and gray with black heads and bright orange beaks. They circle close to human visitors and it’s hard not to think of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous movie, "The Birds." Craig, her research assistant and a WGBH News crew are wearing straw hats with wide brims — protection from the birds' aggression.


“When the birds are truly aggressive you’ll see me out here — not just with this hat — but I’ll put some padding in the base of it because they’ll dive bomb and hit you as hard as they can,” Craig said, “as well as throwing poop at you because they’ll do everything they can to try to scare you off because they perceive you — us — as a predator.”

Their message: don’t mess with mama bird. Or papa. They’ve come to breed. The island is the only tern colony in New Hampshire and one of a dwindling number worldwide. Tiny nests are everywhere — in rock crevices and in the tall grass where Craig has retrieved a chick.

“It has a wing of 179 millimeters,” she says as she juggles both the tern chick and a ruler. She’s been charting the chicks’ size and weight throughout the summer, much the way a pediatrician tracks an infant’s growth.

 "We can actually compare the weight and condition of the bird with the types of and amount of food the adults are bringing back to them,” said Craig. “They get their checkup.”

The checkups show many of the chicks are underweight, indicating they’re not getting enough of the food terns favor: herring and other bait fish. It’s a significant finding not only about the health of the birds, but also the ocean. If the terns are in trouble, local lobstermen who rely on the same fish could be, too. Data collected from this colony is factored into local fisheries management.  

“These terns are becoming an important player in these models which will help us sustain fisheries in New England,” explained Jennifer Seavey, executive director of the Shoals Marine Laboratory, which administers the Tern Conservation Program.

It’s one reason scientists want to see colonies like this one thrive. They also feel a duty to protect a bird that's long been in an an uphill fight for survival.  Terns were harvested in the 19th century for ladies’ hats. More recently, development has encroached on areas where they once nested. There’s also an age-old predator: seagulls. They poach eggs and even adult terns.

Just by being on the island, Craig and her research team deter the gulls and safeguard a new generation of terns. 

“The chicks are starting to fly and for me it’s the most amazing moment, because you get to see all the hard work you’ve put in and they’ve put in,” said Craig. “It’s a really exciting time of the season.”

Before summer’s end the terns will take off for destinations as far as Argentina. The research gathered on this island will be shared with other scientists studying terns — and ocean health — around the world.

Copyright 2017 GBH

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