Science Onboard a Ferry Boat

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Terns flying off the coast of Great Gull Island, in Long Island Sound, New York. Sarah Nystrom/USFWS

For travelers on the ferry between Bridgeport, CT, and Port Jefferson, NY, the boat ride is a pleasant way to pass an hour, whether they are on board for work or leisure. There’s the cool ocean breeze as the boat crosses Long Island Sound, and the possibility of spotting some wildlife — especially birds, soaring aloft the ocean currents.

What many passengers don’t realize is that the ferry is also part of a research project to study the movements of seabirds and shorebirds through the Sound.

On the roof of the P.T. Barnum is a newly-installed antenna that picks up information transmitted from birds wearing special tracking devices called nanotags. This information is downloaded to a computer, where scientists collect and analyze the data.

While there are many land-based tracking antennas located up and down the East Coast — from South America to Canada — this is one of the first successful attempts to collect data from a moving ship. Knowing more about what happens when birds such as roseate tern, piping plover and red knot are out on the open water will help scientists better protect them.

A tagged roseate tern. Andy Eckerson/USFWS

“Our hope is that this will provide new insights about a location that we know is important for birds but is challenging to monitor from land,” says Dr. Pam Loring, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “When we combine these data with that of the tower network along the coast, we can get a better sense of where these birds feed within and fly through the Sound, and learn more about what might be influencing declines in populations.”

Scientists are particularly interested in learning more about the movement patterns of roseate terns, a federally endangered species. Some of the world’s largest tern breeding colonies are found on nearby Great Gull and Falkner Islands, both located in the Sound. But biologists have observed a drop in the number of roseate tern chicks being born on Falkner Island in recent years.

A banded tern chick from Great Gull Island. Chicks are banded with a unique number that that will stay with them throughout life. Sarah Nystrom/USFWS

“A Grand Experiment”

The antenna was first placed on the ferry in the spring of 2018. During that first season of monitoring, there were a few mishaps — such as a power switch accidentally flipped to the “off” mode — that meant less data was collected than expected.

“We’re still working out some of the kinks, it’s a grand experiment,” says Scott Johnston, branch chief for migratory birds at the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Northeast.

Installation of the tracking antenna on the P.T. Barnum. Pam Loring/USFWS

Tracking antennas have been placed on boats before, but with limited success — one on a passenger ferry in Nantucket Sound and one on a small whale watching boat. Both times there was trouble picking up data. The challenge is cutting through all the interference that might be out on the water, explains Johnston. For this project in Long Island Sound, they tried a different antenna that had never been tested before in an attempt to figure out the best design for a boat.

A piping plover. Maureen Durkin/USFWS

In the 2018 season the antenna picked up movements of three birds tagged for this project — a common tern, roseate tern and piping plover — in addition to other wildlife wearing tags, such as bats, hawks and even a sora rail.

While the data from a few birds might not seem like much, it has provided information that scientists just didn’t know before — such as feeding locations of terns near the Port Jefferson ferry terminal.

But ultimately, what’s important is showing that this can work. If data can successfully be collected on a boat, it opens up a whole world of possibilities for scientists to learn more about bird movements on the open water, especially during migration.

“Cargo ships, cruise lines and other big ships are out on the water all the time, traveling up and down the coast — same as migratory birds,” says Johnston. “If some of these ships carried tracking antennas, we could collect even more and better data about what’s happening for birds when they leave land.”

The project is part of a collection of studies between USFWS and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to gain a better understanding of bird movements offshore. BOEM oversees areas of the Atlantic Ocean available to lease for offshore wind developments. With dozens of proposed offshore wind projects up for consideration, scientists are hoping to collect data and information about how such developments could impact migratory birds.

Science Takes Flight

For Fred Hall, vice president and general manager of the Bridgeport-Port Jefferson Steamboat Company, it was an easy choice to participate in this research project. Hall is an enthusiastic outdoorsman and conservationist, and knows how important the Sound is for outdoor activities such as birding, fishing and hunting.

A common tern with a fish in its bill. USFWS

“If the Sound is not in good shape, those recreational opportunities don’t exist,” says Hall.

In fact, this is not the only environmental science project his ferries have been part of. In 2003, scientists from SUNY Stony Brook placed environmental sensors on the P.T. Barnum to measure things like solar radiation, precipitation, salinity, sea surface temperature and more.

“We like to say ‘yes’ to these requests whenever we can,” chuckles Hall. “Our boats are out in the Sound every day of the year for 16 hours a day, going back and forth — we have a unique opportunity to provide data about what’s going on in the middle of the Sound.”

The 2019 monitoring season starts up soon — Loring and her team will re-install the tracking antenna on the P.T. Barnum in late May and begin downloading data shortly after that. With most of the technical kinks worked out, scientists are hopeful this season will yield even more information about our feathered friends at sea.

Partners on this work include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bridgeport-Port Jefferson Steamboat Company, the University of Rhode Island and the Motus Wildlife Tracking System.

Falkner Island research station and lighthouse. The island is part of Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge in CT. USFWS

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Migratory birds