Floridians Fetch Feathered Friend, “Snark”

Snark in Vero Beach, Florida this past January. Photo by Doug Albert.

Not all great blue herons migrate, but most of Maine’s breeders choose to spend the winter months in warmer climes at the southern end of the U.S. (Florida) or in another country altogether (Cuba, Bahamas, Haiti).  In 2016, we fitted solar-powered GPS transmitters to 5 great blue herons  that automatically record GPS locations and transmit data to a website making it extremely convenient for biologists to track the movements of such individuals. However, if something happens to the heron or its transmitter when it is thousands of miles away, the technology is suddenly not very convenient.

In mid-March, I was checking movebank.org every evening to see if our tagged herons had begun their northward migration.  On March 25th, I noticed Snark, the male tagged in Orrington and named by students at Haworth Academic Center in Bangor, was not in his usual stomping grounds in Vero Beach. Instead he was in the middle of a different neighborhood 2.5 miles to the north.  It was possible he had just begun his journey and was in transit, but after a few more nights of no movement, I realized there may be a problem.

Map showing Snark’s last movements recorded by his GPS transmitter. His transmitter ended up in a different neighborhood than his usual wintering area, hinting that something may have happened to him.

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Heron Observation Network’s Ninth Year in a Nutshell

Nesting great blue herons at a colony in Brewer. Photo by HERON Volunteers Jane Rosinski and Gordon Russell.

Volunteers are Vital

From Eagle Lake to Milbridge to Eliot, the Heron Observation Network of Maine completed its ninth year of monitoring great blue heron colonies in an ongoing effort to better understand the status of the population.  Great blue herons are widespread throughout Maine; however, a noticeable decline in their coastal nesting population has occurred since the 1980s.  By enlisting volunteers to help keep tabs on colonies, we can cover on average over three times as many sites as if MDIFW staff and contractors were to do it alone.

In total, staff, contractors, and volunteers surveyed 139 colonies in 2017. With over 184 ground visits, 61 volunteers monitored nesting activity at 92 colonies.  Staff and contractors monitored an additional 47 colonies through aerial surveys and ground visits.

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Sedgey’s Travels End, But Learning From Nature Continues

Sedgey travelled over 7,000 miles in a year and a half. He nested in central Maine and wintered in central Florida. He died in North Carolina on September 25, 2017.

For those of you who have followed Sedgey’s travels over the last year and a half, he died on September 25th in North Carolina. Our research partner, John Brzorad from 1000 Herons, was able to locate and collect his remains to be examined by me and a few other biologists and veterinarians to determine the cause of death.

The average lifespan of a great blue heron is 15 years. We don’t know how old Sedgey was, but we do know he had two successful nesting seasons while we were tracking his movements with his solar-powered GPS transmitter, and he likely fledged at least two young last year and four young this year. On average, great blue herons lay 2-6 eggs and fledge 2-3 young each breeding season. Great blue herons have a 21% chance of surviving their first year. Once they reach adulthood (3 years and older), their chance of surviving each year is about 78%.

Sedgey at his nest with his four young in July 2017.

With wintering areas in Florida, the Bahamas, Cuba, and Haiti, Maine’s great blue herons are long-distance migrants compared to those living in milder climates who tend to be residents or perform short-distance migrations. Sedgey wintered in Florida last year. This year, he left Maine on August 30th, and he migrated as far as the southern coast of North Carolina. We suspect he stopped in NC rather than continuing to where he wintered last year due to the weather from Hurricane Irma. We were curious to see if he would remain in NC until spring or continue south after hurricane season was over.

Researchers measuring Sedgey’s culmen, or bill length. (Photo by Brittany Marinelli)

We have learned a lot from Sedgey. Out of all of our tagged herons, he was the earliest to begin his fall migration, and he also took the least amount of time to complete his migration (both fall and spring). He surprised us by nesting in a different colony the second year we were tracking him. In just one year and a half, he travelled over 7,000 miles! We will continue to learn from Sedgey as we further analyze his movement data, especially compared to the other GPS-tagged herons. We have his transmitter and hope to place it on another great blue heron next spring.

Video: Sedgey Feeding His Young

Video: Sedgey’s Favorite Post-Breeding Foraging Spot

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Meet Our Most Highly Pursued High-Tech Wader: Snark

Snark, just before release with his new transmitter harness (it was pouring, so he’s a bit wet and disheveled). Photo by Chip McKnight.

Have you heard about “Snark,” the first great blue heron in Maine to be outfitted with a GPS transmitter last spring, and the only one to be recaptured a year later?  The great blue heron is a Species of Special Concern in Maine due to a decline along the coast. By tracking the movement of individuals, we can learn more about their habitat requirements and needs, along with when and where they go in the winter.

Snark is an adult male tagged last spring on Sedgeunkedunk Stream in Orrington.  He was named by the students at Haworth Academic Center in Bangor, who helped biologists attract him to a trapping location.  At the time they chose his name, they were reading the Lewis Carroll poem, “Hunting of the Snark.”

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Meet One of Our High-Tech Waders: Sedgey

Biologists attach a GPS transmitter to Sedgey, a male great blue heron captured in Orrington.

Have you heard about “Sedgey,” one of five GPS-tagged great blue herons that IFW and students across Maine are tracking?  Sedgey is a male tagged last spring on Sedgeunkedunk Stream in Orrington.  He was named by the middle school students at Center Drive School, who helped biologists attract him to a trapping location.  Here are some fun facts about Sedgey:

  • He was the first tagged heron to migrate south for the winter, departing on September 1st.
  • It only took him five days to get to his wintering area, north of Lake Okeechobee in Florida.
  • During migration, he flew nonstop from Massachusetts to Georgia in 29 hours! He was clocked flying as fast as 59 mph, likely due to a strong tailwind provided by Tropical Storm Hermine. Herons typically fly 15-30 mph.
  • He was the first tagged heron to return to Maine this spring, arriving on April 4th, taking only seven days to get back.
  • He nested in Bradley last year, but this year he surprised biologists by nesting at a different colony in Brewer. Herons usually nest in the same colony year after year.

Sedgey migrated to Florida in September of 2016 (shown in dark pink), and returned to Maine this April (shown in light pink).

Do you want to follow our tagged herons online to see where they are nesting, feeding, and when and where they migrate?   It’s easy!  Just follow the instructions here.

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Volunteers Essential for Keeping an Eye on Maine’s Herons

Young herons close to fledging at a colony in Milbridge. Photo by HERON Volunteer, Dick Brubaker.

Now that winter has finally decided to show up in Maine, I figured I should report on our 2016 field season before the 2017 season is knocking at our door.  I guess it takes a blizzard to get me to stay put long enough to enter and analyze the past year’s volunteer monitoring data!

The Heron Observation Network’s volunteers have been monitoring great blue heron colonies across Maine for eight years now, and this past year’s effort was just as important as the first year of monitoring.  We had 71 volunteers monitor 109 colonies this year, with well over 224 ground visits.  Thirty-two of our volunteers documented their time and mileage, and reported a total of 542 hours and 5,517 miles.  Those hours and miles are equivalent to over $14,000 in match that will be used to leverage federal funds for more survey, monitoring, and research efforts.  A big thank you to all those who participated!

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Tracking Maine’s Great Blue Herons – Online!

Adult great blue heron, known as "Pine Pond," trapped and tagged with a GPS transmitter in Orono.

Adult great blue heron, known as “Pine Pond,” trapped and tagged with a GPS transmitter in Orono. (Photo by Brittany Marinelli)

This spring, MDIFW tagged five adult great blue herons with GPS transmitters as part of an ongoing effort to better understand the state’s great blue heron population.  After a significant decline in the number of nesting pairs on Maine’s coastal islands from the 1980s to 2007, MDIFW listed the great blue heron as a Species of Special Concern and began a citizen science adopt-a-colony program called the Heron Observation Network.  By marking and following individual adults over several years, MDIFW hopes to learn new information regarding daily movements, habitat use, colony fidelity, migration routes, and wintering locations of Maine’s herons.

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Photos From 2015

2015_HERON_SlideShow2

Click image to start video.

This video is a showcase of photos taken by volunteers and staff throughout the 2015 colony monitoring season. It is 9 minutes long, complete with music, captions, and photo credits.  Thank you to everyone who shared your magnificent photos for inclusion. Think Spring!

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Species Spotlight: Why Egrets are so Great!

A Snowy Egret sporting its plumes which were once more valuable than gold. Note its yellow feet. Photo by Ron Logan, taken in Florida.

A Snowy Egret sporting its plumes which were once more valuable than gold. Note its yellow feet. Photo by Ron Logan, taken in Florida.

It’s the end of December and our colonial wading birds have flown the coop for warmer locales.  Can’t blame them, can you?  Despite their absence at this time of year, now is when I think of two species in particular: the Great Egret and the Snowy Egret, and it’s not because their feathers are as white as snow.  It was the near extinction of these egrets that sparked the formation of the National Audubon Society as well as the first annual Christmas Bird Count.

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HERON Volunteers Fill Crucial Information Gaps

Great blue heron nest discovered and photographed by Paul Cyr.

Great blue heron nest discovered and photographed by Paul Cyr.

This past spring while I was focused on completing an extensive aerial survey effort to estimate the statewide breeding population of great blue herons, 76 Heron Observation Network volunteers quietly continued their important work.  For seven years now, these citizen scientists have visited great blue heron colonies across the state to document nesting activity, including the number of active nests and the number of young produced.  These data from the first six years of volunteer surveys fed directly into the design of this year’s dual-frame aerial survey, and the data collected this year and over the next few years will feed into similar aerial survey efforts to determine the population trend.

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