By Beth Daley
Matinicus Rock, an island off mid-coast Maine, already has the distinction of being Maine’s most diverse seabird nesting island.
The young Manx shearwater (US Fish and Wildlife Service photo)
Still, researchers got a huge surprise earlier this month when they found a young Manx shearwater bird on the island - the first time the species is known to have reached an age old enough to fly in the United States.
Researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Audubon discovered the chick in a relatively shallow burrow – one of six on island. At first, they thought it an adult: shearwaters have been observed on the island, part of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, for twelve years.
But on closer examination, they found remnant patches of fluffy light gray down around the legs that gave them proof it was a nearly fledged chick.
"This is what we all work and hope for;” said Stephen Kress, director of Audubon's Seabird Restoration Program.
The team almost missed the discovery. It takes 120 days for a pair of shearwaters to hatch and raise a chick until it's old enough to fly. If researchers arrived a few days later, they may never have found evidence the chick hatched on the island, 26 miles off Rockland.
The birds, with their awfully cute scientific name Puffinus puffinus, nest throughout the eastern North Atlantic, especially in Great Britain. Related to the albatross, the crow-sized birds have a wingspan of nearly three feet and are named because they fly low over the water. Great Britain studies suggest they may live 56 years and travel over five million miles.
The birds have visited the western North Atlantic since the 1950s and their breeding was first confirmed in 1973 when a pair produced a chick on Penikese Island in Buzzards Bay but it was not clear what happened to the chick. While another breeding pair was confirmed on an island in Newfoundland, there were only tantilizing clues the bird was nesting in the U.S.: A shearwater was seen on the 22-acre Matinicus Rock in 1997 and a nesting burrow was found the next year. An egg was even found in 2005 in the burrow but it never hatched. In 2006 and 2007, up to 19 Manx shearwaters were seen around the island and burrows were found in 2008. The young shearwater was found in one of the burrows.
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