What have 30 years of research and monitoring on Maine seabirds taught us? That the marine environment is changing fast. That ocean birds may be failing to adapt. That few threats—from ocean warming and offshore energy development to competition from commercial fisheries—could have been foreseen when Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge staff began the work in the early 1980s.


For the work, the refuge received a 2012 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Rachel Carson Award for Scientific Excellence. The refuge, which comprises more than 50 islands, is using the research and monitoring data to manage seabird colonies and, staff members hope, stem the birds’ decline.


Consider the Arctic tern. Its 36,000–plus mile annual migration from Antarctica wintering grounds to Maine breeding grounds is the world’s longest; the bird makes the equivalent of two round trips to the moon in its 30–year lifetime. Small light–sensing units called geolocators have documented the distance flown.


But in recent years, counts of Arctic terns have dropped by 42 percent, from 4,224 pairs in 2008 to 2,467 pairs in 2012. “There are fewer pairs of Arctic terns breeding in the Gulf of Maine, and those terns that do breed are producing fewer chicks,” says refuge biologist Linda Welch. “They’re doing very poorly.”


Some researchers suspect climate change is disrupting the birds’ food chain. “So it might be the birds can’t find enough food to rebuild their body stores and regain the energy they need to fly from Antarctica all the way back to the coast of Maine in good enough shape to start breeding again,” says Welch.


Or take the great shearwaters that summer in the Gulf of Maine. Satellite tags show the large birds forage across the entire gulf—not just near the coast, says Welch. She hopes developers will consider that when deciding where to place proposed offshore wind farms.


Tracking devices may help researchers determine why some Maine seabirds can’t find enough fish to feed their chicks. Arctic terns forage for herring and other small fish at the water surface; unlike puffins and razorbills, they can’t dive. The refuge’s Machias Seal Island once hosted the largest tern colony in the gulf. But in 2007, a fish shortage led 3,500 tern pairs to abandon their nests. “They haven’t raised any chicks since,” says Welch.


Other Maine colonies are having similar trouble. While the problem appears worst for Arctic and roseate terns, puffins and razorbills are affected. Puffins are generally still able to produce chicks, but often those chicks are smaller, says Welch.


Marine productivity levels, currents and water temperature all influence fish distribution. Increased Arctic ice melt could also affect water chemistry and fish location. “It’s not an easy problem,” says Welch.


New tracking technology is making seabird research easier. But interpretation of movement patterns, population changes and productivity rates relies heavily on visual data painstakingly collected over the past 30 years. It’s not glamorous work. Each summer, seasonal technicians live on the colonies and monitor the seabirds. They document how many pairs return to the colony, how many eggs are laid, how many of those eggs hatch, how often chicks are fed, and which species of fish are brought to the chicks. Researchers compare notes with U.S. and Canadian conservation partners also monitoring the gulf.


“Having a long–term monitoring effort has been critical to our understanding of changes in productivity and seabird diet,” says Welch. “For example, with the Arctic terns, we had 25 years of population growth. Now we have five years of population decline. Our management actions haven’t changed. Our predator control actions haven’t changed. So we know something else has changed.”


Susan Morse is a writer–editor in the Refuge System Branch of Communications.