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Lending a Hand to Maine's Island Birds.

For most of the year, Maine's 3,500 coastal islands are lonely, rockbound sentinels. But for a few months each summer, hundreds of the islands are transformed into marvelously raucous and lively homes for a unique assemblage of nesting seabirds, wading birds, and threatened and endangered species.

The Maine islands are a meeting ground of north and south, providing the only breeding sites in the United States for Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) and razorbill auks (Alca torda). With the possible exception of a few islands south of the State, the Maine islands also provide black guillemots (Cepphus grylle), Leach's storm petrels (Oceanodroma leucorhoa), and common eiders (Somateria mollissima) their southernmost breeding territories in North America. At the same time, Maine islands are the northernmost breeding sites for laughing gulls (Larus atricilla), snowy egrets (Egretta thula), little blue herons (Egretta caerulea) and tricolored herons (Egretta tricolor). Some islands also support rare nesting birds, such as the endangered roseate tern (Sterna dougallii dougallii) and the threatened bald eagle (Haaliaeetus leucocephalus), and endangered peregrine falcons (Falco pergrinus) find food for their young on the islands. Many islands and associated mudflats are used for feeding and resting by large numbers of migrating waterfowl, including recovering populations of Atlantic brant (Branta bernicla) and declining populations of black ducks (Anas rubripes). Other birds whose populations appear to be decreasing internationally, including some neotropical migrants and internationally important populations of migrating shorebirds, also depend on the Maine islands for undisturbed nesting, feeding, and roosting habitat.

As Stew Fefer, a seabird expert and Project Leader at the Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) Gulf of Maine Coastal Ecosystems Program, has noted, "These birds seek out Maine's coastal islands because they are generally free of human disturbance and mainland predators, but are situated close to rich feeding grounds." However, as development spreads along the eastern seaboard, such islands are attracting increased attention from potential users. Disturbances associated with second home developments and subdivisions, timber harvesting, recreational use, and aquaculture are increasing and sometimes threaten important island habitats.

To address growing concerns about habitat loss, the Gulf of Maine Coastal Ecosystems Program and Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge initiated the Maine Coastal Islands Project in the early 1990's to identify and protect significant habitat on the islands. The FWS invited key partners, including two State agencies and conservation organizations, to participate. The Gulf of Maine Coastal Ecosystems Program initiated the project by collecting and analyzing existing biological data to identify all islands used by nesting seabirds, wading birds, and endangered species.

Using specific biologically-based criteria, the project partners pared the list down to 294 nationally significant nesting islands, which represent less than 4 percent of the total acreage of Maine islands. Next, they determined the current ownership of each island. The partners learned that Federal and State agencies, private organizations, and individuals are providing permanent "protection for nesting birds on approximately half of the nationally significant islands. The Maine Coastal Islands Project decided to focus its work on protecting habitat on the remaining islands by working directly with private landowners to promote voluntary conservation measures.

"Partners in the Maine Coastal Islands Project all recognize that permanently protecting these nesting islands is the key; who holds the deed and who manages the property for the birds is far less critical," explained Fefer. "Therefore, we work opportunistically, capitalizing on the strengths of different partners as needed. Our coordinated approach allows us to realize our common goals when no one organization would be likely to accomplish its goals independently." Land protection strategies include private stewardship, conservation easements, technical assistance, resource management recommendations and actions, and acquisition by conservation organizations (on a willing-seller/ willing-buyer basis only).

Since 1994, 30 important nesting islands have been acquired by conservation organizations. Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge has expanded its holdings from 11 islands to 32. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, with support from National Coastal Wetland Conservation Grants, has acquired three important islands. Local land trusts and conservation groups have acquired six islands, frequently with management agreements and easements directed to a State or Federal wildlife agency.

However, to protect the birds, more is needed than conservation ownership. The FWS actively participates in the Gulf of Maine Seabird Working Group, a coalition of biologists from Federal, State, and non-profit organizations committed to restoring avian diversity in the region. The Gulf of Maine Coastal Ecosystems Program, in coordination with Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge and other partners, obtained a challenge grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to ensure stable funding for nesting bird restoration initiatives in Maine. Projects conducted in recent years on six FWS islands and three islands owned by conservation partners are playing a critical role in restoring a diverse assemblage of seabirds to the Maine coast.

Because public support for nesting island protection is critical, the Gulf of Maine Coastal Ecosystems Program, Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge, and conservation partners worked with 33 co-sponsoring organizations to plan and present four information forums throughout coastal Maine in the spring of 1995. The favorable response from attendees encouraged the FWS to move forward with an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that would permit the agency to remain an active participant in acquiring important nesting islands in Maine. A draft EIS, prepared in consultation with many interested parties, will be completed soon. After the document receives public review, the FWS will produce a final planning document to guide our continuing efforts to protect Maine's nesting waterbirds.

Lois Winter is a Wildlife Biologist and Outreach Specialist with the FWS Gulf of Maine Program.
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Author:Winter, Lois
Publication:Endangered Species Bulletin
Geographic Code:1U1ME
Date:Nov 1, 1998
Words:927
Previous Article:Restoring a Balance Among Seabirds.
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