Research Update: S4 – The Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Steward Program

 

Leach's Storm Petrel by John Sill

Leach’s Storm Petrel by John Sill

Seabirds constitute one of the most difficult groups of birds to systematically monitor, particularly when they are at sea and away from their breeding colonies.  Fortuitously, the inshore location and rich marine biota of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary provide a unique opportunity to support a long-term seabird monitoring program.

In 2011 Mass Audubon joined Stellwagen Sanctuary staff in initiating the S4 Program (Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Steward Program). The goal of this program is to systematically gather baseline data about seabird seasonal distribution and abundance within the Stellwagen Bank Important Bird Area (IBA).  By using sanctuary scientists and Mass Audubon personnel working in concert with trained volunteer observers, seabird data has now been systematically gathered for six years.  It is hoped that this information will increasingly inform seabird scientists and Massachusetts residents about how seabirds utilize local marine waters.  More importantly, the information will hopefully also help predict future environmental impacts possibly caused by climate change and its effect on the regional marine ecosystem.

Since the initiation of the S4 Program in 2011, regular seabird surveys have been conducted at least six times throughout the year along a 63 nautical mile-long transect located within the Stellwagen Sanctuary. Observations recorded during these surveys have collectively provided hundreds to thousands of sightings annually of a majority of the seabird species regularly utilizing the Stellwagen Sanctuary. In addition to the observers participating in the regular year-round systematic surveys, volunteer observers coordinated and trained by Stellwagen Sanctuary and Mass Audubon staff, have also been monitoring seabirds on public whale watching vessels the during the regular whale-watching seasons.

With concurrent regular monitoring efforts taking place in the sanctuary of other marine features including physical ocean characteristics, plankton, fish, and marine mammals, it is hoped that the information gathered will gradually help elucidate both short-term and long-term fluctuations taking place in seabird distribution and abundance that may possibly correlate with climate change. The S4 project represents a unique opportunity to allow citizen scientists to partner with both Mass Audubon and a federal agency to support local research and conservation efforts.  Future editions of The Warbler will provide highlights of some of the already noteworthy findings provided by the S4 Program.  For more information and volunteer opportunities with the S4 Program, contact Wayne Petersen, Director of the IBA Program at wpetersen@massaudubon.org.

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