Student explains the legend behind his nickname“the Birdman”

unnamedHis friends know him simply as, “the Birdman.”

This past summer, Paul Dougherty ’16 spent ten weeks working for Project Puffin, an organization founded by celebrated ornithologist Dr. Stephen W. Kress, and affiliated with the National Audubon society. The original goal of Project Puffin was to reintroduce the seabirds eliminated from their historic nesting grounds in the Gulf of Maine.

The organization brought back a number of terns, a type of seabird—as well as the titular puffin—to islands across southern Maine, an area in which the birds almost completely disappeared. “What project Puffin does is protect nesting habitats and conduct research [on the birds],” Dougherty explained. “I learned lots of things. I learned how to band [tagging] bird chicks, like little tern and puffin chicks. I learned how to identify all the different fish the birds were bringing back. The experience showed me the importance of collecting good data.”

In addition to the analytical portion of his experience, Dougherty described his overall observation of the birds to be rewarding. “We would do these feeding studies where we would just sit in a blind for three hours and just watch the terns and puffins bring back fish to their chicks,” he said. “We would record species of fish and size of fish, which was cool because that will tell you about fishing conditions. I learned how to cook using a camp stove and how to live in a tent for ten weeks.”

Dougherty doesn’t consider himself to be an outdoorsy person and had to adjust to living in a tent. “I’m from Massachusetts. I’ve never really been camping or anything longer than COOT. That was a bit of an adjustment, but I got used to it. I’d do it again,” Dougherty said.

“We were out on these nesting islands, with only two to five people on them. I got to move around, but some people were out there for a whole season,” he explained. “I wasn’t on one island longer than two or three weeks. We would camp out there and study the birds.”

“We measure[d] the chicks as they grew to learn about growth rates and record what fish they’re bringing back, which also indicates changes in the ocean. We band chicks so they can maybe be sighted in the future. We did a lot of re-sighting of adult birds with bands and that was kind of cool because after you looked at a bird and recorded its band number, you could plug into the database and see where else it’s been seen, where it was originally banded [and] how old it is,” he explained.

The bands Project Puffin uses include an identification number printed on a light aluminum weight that is then wrapped around the leg of a bird. “It’s like a social security number,” Dougherty said. “Every individual bird gets a unique band number. Some species of more concern, like puffins and the arctic tern, also get a field readable band, which only usually has two letters and two numbers which has the possibility of maybe repeating but makes field identification for field re-sighting much easier and sometimes they get a band with a geolocator on it.”

Geolocators, also known as GLS tracking and geologgers, are small devices that can identify where an individual bird has been. According to Dougherty, puffins have high nest site fidelity, so they tend to return to the same burrow each season. “If you reach into a burrow, grab a puffin, put a geo locator on it, and then go to the same burrow the next year, you can take the geo locator off and see where they’ve been.”

Dougherty found the arctic terns particularly interesting, since they migrate further than any other bird in the world. “It’s cooler to see the geolocators of an arctic tern. The ones in Maine are in the very southern tip of the breeding range,” Dougherty said. “Some of them breed really far into the Arctic, and they spend all winter at the South Pole to maximize the hours of light they get. An arctic tern sees more hours of sunlight than any other animal in the world.”

Dougherty has been passionate about birds from a young age. “I started getting into birds when I was in third grade,” he recalled. “I don’t know why. My parents aren’t into birds at all. I guess I went to nature camp and just had a few experiences that showed me how cool they were—like seeing a falcon or something—but I like to go birding a lot. This summer allowed me to do real fieldwork for the first time and also go birding on these really great highlands and see all kinds of things I’d never seen before.”

Some people disagree with Project Puffin’s methods because the organization prioritizes more at-risk species over gull species and other common predators that could harm the tern and puffin colonies. Thus, people are questioning the morality of prioritizing one species over another in an attempt to bring one back. “Basically there’s a ton of gulls out there—way more than there have been in the past—because they are able to feed on trash, like lobster bait, during the winter, so there’s an unnaturally high number of predatory birds. With regard to the efforts to try to continually kill them every year, it allows the ‘alcids’ (puffins) and the terns to maintain a foothold in Maine.”

“My stance is that it’s justified in the end because without the active human management of these islands, it’s thought that the tern colonies wouldn’t last for very long. I think the terns have a right to be there since they’ve always been there,” Dougherty asserted. “It’s really terrible having to kill so many gulls. Thankfully, I’ve never had to do it, but I did get to eat one.”

In regard to gulls, Dougherty does his best to avoid “birding elitism.” Mustering his patience, he explained that there is no bird that is actually called a “seagull,” though there are many different gull species that are similar to one another. “I try to catch myself when I get mad at people for saying ‘seagull.’”

As for now, the Birdman will head to Australia this spring and the breadth of new avian creatures this new frontier has to offer.

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