A Spectacle of Life on Seal Island

Seabirds were once extirpated from the Gulf of Maine's Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge. Today, thanks in part to Audubon’s Seabird Institute, it's the site of several breeding seabird colonies.

On my last night on Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge, I sat in the bright bronze light of a sunset watching the wash of rockweed on the tideline. The only sounds were the lonely bell on a far-off lobster boat, the rhythm of waves, and the chorus of seabird song: Black Guillemots reedily squeaking, the shrill clipped kip of Common and Arctic Terns, eiders woah-ing in the intertidal. 

Over the past week I’d only interacted with the team of three incredible researchers who would be spending the summer on the island. We worked together, ate together, talked about birds together. Alone, I took long clambering walks on the rocks, looking for feathers. My cellphone barely worked. I had marine debris hooked in the hammer-loop of my work pants, bird poop in my hair, and a newfound appreciation for the music of Jimmy Buffett (rest in paradise) and the meaning of “island time.” 

I didn’t want to leave; I loved it. 

Located 21 miles offshore in the Gulf of Maine, Seal Island is one of the seven research islands managed by Audubon’s Seabird Institute. It has seen alternating eras of occupation and isolation; my presence there earlier this summer was a blip in its history. After the Wabanki were forced from the area, the island was, for over 200 years, a summer campsite for fishermen who hauled in groundfish and (now-ubiquitous to Maine) lobster in the surrounding seas. These same fishermen also harvested nesting seabirds on the island, precipitating their extirpation. By the early 1900s gulls, mostly Herring and Black-back, had overtaken the island, cementing the absence of colonial seabirds such as puffins and terns. 

From the 1940s to the 1960s, with the birds gone and the fishing camp dismantled, the U.S. Navy used Seal Island as a gunnery range and bombing test site. In fact, a sign posted at the island’s landing point still warns of unexploded ordnances on the island; I found, lodged between rocks, pieces of twisted copper that had once been used as fasteners on Cold War-era bombs. 

In the 1970s, after the island was transferred from the U.S. Navy to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a fire broke out. The origins of the fire are debated but the general hypothesis is that it was an act of arson that unearthed and set off dormant bombs. The detonations were heard from the mainland and locals reported seeing flames from miles away, the island blazing in the middle of a wine-dark sea. 

It feels symbolic that shortly after this fire the island became the second site for Project Puffin, a successful seabird restoration project that brought the Atlantic Puffin and other seabirds back to their historic nesting sites in the Gulf of Maine. The obvious avian metaphor here is that of the phoenix who rises from its ashes. After all of it, the fishing camp, the fray of bombs, the fire, Seal Island became the site of a project whose entire mission is the restoration of life. 

That was how a former researcher described the island to me: “Seal Island is a spectacle of life.” That made sense. The island’s unique and varied terrain is an ideal nesting site for a host of seabirds. Atlantic Puffins, Black Guillemots, and Razorbills make their nests, called burrows, in crevices between the island’s many rock faces. Craggy ledges of granite on the island’s southern tip host the last Great Cormorant colony in Maine. Grassy areas inland accommodate sizable Common and Arctic Tern populations and underground, in the sod, live Leach’s Storm Petrels. Thick thickets of raspberry vines provide shelter and nesting sites for eiders and gulls alike—one of our work days involved transecting the top part of the island, wading through these thickets to count their nests and eggs. 

The daily duties of a researcher on a seabird island depend mostly on the caprices of weather and, of course, the birds themselves. A typical day might start with a morning bird count which entails scanning the island with a high-powered scope and recording the birds you see. Then, if it’s your assigned day, you might record weather data—my favorite part of this was throwing a bucket over a cliff into the seething ocean, reeling it back in, and dropping a thermometer in to physically see the chill of the ocean. You can expect to spend at least a few hours in a bird blind with the aforementioned scope, either identifying the prey that the birds bring in (diet study) or re-sighting bands, emblazoned with a tiny sequence of numbers, that are affixed to a bird’s leg and serve as identification. Productivity checks are a big part of researcher life as well. This involves traversing a bird colony looking for eggs or chicks, depending on the time of year. 

When I arrived on Seal Island in late May, the seabirds had mostly returned to the island for breeding season. Many of them had already sought out their mates and familiar burrows—puffins, for instance, come back to the same mate and the same burrow annually—and were starting to lay eggs.

This is why I found myself one afternoon dangling belly-down off a low boulder, shining the thin beam of a flashlight into a dark opening between two rocks. Craning my neck into a space barely bigger than my hand’s width, I held my breath as the light caught a reflective glint: the eye of an Atlantic Puffin stared back at me, unblinking. Its breast feathers were frilled out, a sure sign, I was told, that the puffin was incubating an egg. Without turning away, I called to those behind me, “Puffin on egg,” and the observation was recorded on a clipboard. For a moment longer I lingered, looking at the bird and, barely visible to me, an egg beneath it.

Counting birds, catching birds, looking at birds—all business as usual on a seabird island. In a place so seemingly isolated, I was a little surprised to find that it teemed with life. That the island was once virtually depleted of seabirds seemed a miracle—they were everywhere now.