Tracking shearwater to far-off Tristan de Cunha

Date Published: 
August 18, 2018
Rich Eldred
News Type: 

Most people believe Monomoy Middle School is on Crowell Road in Chatham, but soon “Monomoy” will be on one of the most remote islands in the world – Tristan de Cunha, 1,500 miles from the nearest inhabited land.

That would be a long bus ride for the kids but fortunately they can sit at their desks and track the school’s namesake greater shearwater all the way from the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, just off Cape Cod, as it makes its 6,000-mile flight to the middle of the Southern Atlantic Ocean.

Scientists at the sanctuary have tagged eight shearwaters this summer with satellite transmitters and named them after local schools.

Middle school students will track the flight of their school’s bird as they wing their way south over the next few months. They’ll also have the option of following a rival school’s bird, such as Nauset, if they wish.

The program is a collaboration between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and teachers at each school: Monomoy, Nauset, Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School, the Mattachese Middle School, Barnstable, Morse Pond in Falmouth, and the Eddy School in Sandwich and Wareham.

“They’ve been doing this tagging program for a few years,” explained Melinda Forist, a seventh grade science teacher at the Monomoy middle school, and they wanted to do some outreach. They had the idea of naming the shearwaters after middle schools, so I got involved.”

Forist has volunteered at the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary as a bird counter for several summers, so she was a natural contact person.

The sanctuary actually tagged nine birds but the transmitter for one has already stopped sending signals.

Shearwaters are pelagic birds, only coming to land to nest. Otherwise they feed and live at sea. They summer at Stellwagen Bank and then fly to the east coast of South America and then make their way to a midpoint between Brazil and Africa where Tristan de Cuna and a few related volcanic islands are located.

The birds breed on Tristan de Cuna, laying one egg in the grass. Then they’ll fly 6,000 miles back and feed on small fish (sand lances) off Cape Cod and as far north as Labrador.

“They want to find out what the shearwaters are doing in the Gulf of Maine, where they’re going, and then match up the birds with data on sand lances, water temperatures,” Forist said. “When they tag the birds they take blood samples and sample the preen glands for toxins.”

The birds are tagged with a metal band on the leg.

The students come into the picture once school resumes. The sanctuary has prepared information packets on shearwaters for them to read and will provide a poster of the Atlantic Ocean on which students can track the daily movement of their birds.

Tracking information is available here:

“Nauset,” for instance, has spent most of its time around the sanctuary and between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. “Monomoy” (which still has the unromantic name of Volgennau6 on the website - the Volgenau Foundation is partially funding the project) has fittingly has flown around the Monomoy wildlife Sanctuary and traveled further offshore east of Nantucket.

“The [school whose] bird that travels the furthest or the longest will get a scientist from Stellwagen to come to the school to talk about the project,” Forist explained. “Traditionally the tags stop working around the end of October or November so it is not a long term project, but there are multiple activities the kids and teachers can do.”

The students will also have buoy data, so when the shearwaters are near a buoy they can check water temperatures, and if the birds hang around, it can be assumed they are feeding and have found conditions congenial.

“They can come up with their own hypothesis on what’s happening,” Forist said. “We’re developing habitat lessons, and lessons on the food web and energy flow, seabird adaptations and migration. It works perfectly with the standards we have.”

They’ll learn about the threats to shearwaters; being trapped in fishing gear (they dive 50 feet below the surface), pollution and climate change,

That’s advanced material for seventh grade general science. At Monomoy 150 students will be involved in eight sciences classes taught by Forist and Nancy Gifford. At Nauset Amy Fleischer is the contact and Paul Niles at the Lighthouse School.

Forist has taught at Monomoy and at Harwich before that for 24 years.

“I’ve been a lover of nature since I was born,” she said. “When I first moved to the Cape I was working on whale watch boats and I’ve been volunteering for five years counting seabirds (at Stellwagen).”

Perhaps some of her students will count their first shearwater this fall, and many more later, as volunteers themselves someday.