Reliving our past
For the birds — Young Lawn biologist gets to know area’s Manx shearwater population This article was originally published in the Sept. 7, 2011, edition of The Southern Gazette.
The smile on Sheena Roul’s face in a photo where she’s tenderly cupping a baby seabird sums up how the 23-year-old biologist from Lawn feels about her seabird research.
Green hills and yellow wildflowers serve as the backdrop for the picture, which was taken on Middle Lawn Island in 2009 by Memorial University’s Dr. Anne Storey.
At the time, Ms. Roul and fellow student Michelle Wille were studying the Manx shearwater species of seabirds.
Ms. Roul has since graduated from Memorial with a bachelor of science (honours) degree. The results of her study on the status of Manx shearwater seabirds at the Lawn Islands Archipelago Provisional Ecological Reserve will be published in ‘Osprey’, a quarterly magazine published by Nature Newfoundland and Labrador (formerly the Newfoundland and Labrador Natural History Society).
Manx shearwaters are medium-sized, long-winged seabirds.
As nocturnal birds, they only return to the island at night. They are as amazing as they are mysterious, Ms. Roul said during a recent telephone interview.
Just as remarkable as the birds themselves is the fact that Middle Lawn Island is the only known breeding colony for the species in North America.
“They found their way there in the 1970s, and they began breeding there.”
The world’s population of these seabirds is estimated at approximately 300,000 breeding pairs, 94 per cent of which breed in Britain and Ireland.
Ms. Roul explained that in the 1980s there were about 300 breeding pairs of Manx shearwaters at the reserve.
“In 2009, I only found one chick and for the breeding season in 2010, I didn’t find any.”
As a follow-up to her 2009 research, Ms. Roul conducted a study to evaluate the breeding activity of Manx shearwaters on Middle Lawn Island and to determine if the seabirds continue to visit and prospect on surrounding islands.
Her research was commissioned by the Parks and Natural Areas Division of the provincial government’s Department of Environment and Conservation.
During her visits, she placed automated digital acoustic recording devices at Middle Lawn, Offer and Colombier Islands.
She mounted the wildlife acoustics on wooden posts and secured them to the ground.
Ms. Roul laughed as she recalled her research.
“I’d go there by speedboat. Someone in the town would take me to as close as a rock as possible, and I’d make a leap for it.”
The recording devices allow biologists like Ms. Roul to tell the difference between male and female vocalizations and to get a general number of their populations.
After retrieving and analyzing the data, she concluded that Manx shearwater activity was only detected at Middle Lawn and Offer islands.
Her paper notes that the majority of vocalizations were recorded on Middle Lawn Island. Of the 764 aerial vocalizations recorded on the two, 52, or 69 per cent were made by females.
Because the seabirds are burrow nesting, Ms. Roul also carried out burrow searches on Middle Lawn Island. Her search yielded a few seabird carcasses, including two Leach’s storm petrels and two Manx shearwaters.
Sadly, of the burrows searches, she noted no Manx shearwater adults, young or eggs were found.
Ms. Roul feels that habitat loss and predators on Middle Lawn, Offer and Colombier islands appears to be the major factor limiting the species population viability.
“I’d go there by speedboat. Someone in the town would take me to as close as a rock as possible, and I’d make a leap for it.” Sheena Roul
She also believes that, if conservation efforts could be implemented, the Manx shearwater population within the reserve could increase.
“There are storm petrels there, and on nearby islands, there are kittiwakes, so it’s a great area for species diversity and a great area for food with a big school of capelin that come in every year.”
Ms. Roul would like to see continued research so that the birds that have been living here for over three decades get the protection they deserve.
She’d also like to see the word ‘provisional’ removed from the reserve’s title and see it established as permanent.
“I am optimistic that, in time, and with more research, we can help this species thrive in the great seabird sanctuary of the Lawn Islands Archipelago Ecological Reserve.”
Dr. Anne Storey photographed Sheena Roul of Lawn with a Manx shearwater chick on Middle Lawn Island in the summer of 2009. Ms. Roul was collecting data for her Memorial University honours thesis at the time.