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Satellite Tags on Razorbills: A First!
Northeast Region, July 31, 2013
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Satellite tag on a razorbill
Satellite tag on a razorbill - Photo Credit: Linda Welch, USFWS

Biologists at Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge have recently become the first researchers to successfully tag razorbills with satellite transmitters. So far, 10 razorbills breeding on Matinicus Rock and Petit Manan Island have been fitted with solar satellite tags. You can follow the daily movements of the birds by visiting:
http://www.seaturtle.org/tracking/index.shtml?project_id=881

 

Razorbills are a stocky, crow-sized seabird, which reside in arctic and subarctic marine waters from Maine to Northern Russia. As a member of the Auk family they are closely related to puffins, guillemots and murres. Razorbills prefer the open ocean, only coming ashore during the breeding season to lay one egg in a rock burrow or crevice. The male razorbill will escort the chick to sea 18-20 days after it hatches, and they remain together for up to two months. Razorbills feed primarily on herring and hake and may dive more than 100 meters to catch these prey items.

Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge and its partners have worked for the past 30 years to manage and restore seabird colonies along the coast of Maine. The Refuge currently supports 90% of the Atlantic puffins and 85% of the razorbills breeding in the United States. While we have extensive data on size, species composition, and distribution of breeding colonies, very little data has been collected regarding the movements away from the colony. The small number of breeding colonies and the limited geographic distribution of the managed colonies increases the need to maintain suitable foraging habitat within commuting range of the breeding colonies. Adult razorbills must find enough food to feed themselves and their growing chick. The location of foraging habitat is highly dynamic, and may vary depending on water temperature, current, or forage fish availability.

The Gulf of Maine supports a tremendous diversity of pelagic seabirds that rely on these cold, productive waters during a portion of their annual life cycle. For species such as Atlantic puffin and razorbills, the Gulf of Maine represents the southern limit of their breeding distribution in the United States. As with any species at the fringe of their distribution, these birds are likely to be highly sensitive to changes in habitat and prey availability resulting from global climate change. Managers are concerned that increasing sea surface temperatures, changes in commercial harvest rates of key forage species, and potential offshore energy development could now threaten the ability of this region to support pelagic seabirds.

During the winter of 2012-2013, razorbills were documented hundreds of kilometers south of their normal range. In addition, hundreds of dead razorbills, puffins and murres washed ashore on beaches from Florida to Maine. The reasons for these mortality events and range shift are unknown. The data provided by this satellite tagging effort will provide the first insights into the daily and seasonal movement patterns of this species of conservation concern.

Objectives:

1) Document foraging behavior and the location of foraging habitat for chick-rearing razorbills

2.) Document movement patterns of parent/chick pairs following departure from the breeding colony

3) Determine migration pathways, habitat use, and wintering areas for razorbills in the North Atlantic

4) Document characteristics of marine habitat occupied by razorbills, and predict how environmental change (i.e. climate change or offshore development) may influence the availability of these habitats

This information will play a critical role in the evaluation of offshore energy development for both conservation agencies and potential developers. While the conservation community is clearly supportive of green energy, we believe it is imperative that wildlife conservation be considered during the planning and development of these projects. This research will help us guide the energy development into regions of the coast that are less likely to support large concentrations of pelagic seabirds.

The razorbills in this study were named for important leaders in environmental conservation. For more information please contact: Linda_Welch@fws.gov


Contact Info: Beth Goettel, 207-236-6970, beth_goettel@fws.gov



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