Inspiring Students, One Bird At A Time

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Monomoy Regional Middle School

Tammy Silva from Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (left) works with Linda Welch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to tag a shearwater. MELINDA FORIST PHOTO

CHATHAM Somewhere over George’s Bank, flitting over the wave tops, there’s a shearwater named Monomoy. And another named Nauset. You could almost pity the one named Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School.

The seabirds are part of a number outfitted with radio tracking tags by researchers at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and named in honor of area middle schools whose students will follow their progress in the weeks ahead.

“It works beautifully with our curriculum,” Monomoy Middle School science teacher Melinda Forist said. Forist volunteered to assist on a recent tagging trip and helped apply the small tags to eight shearwaters. The tags are expected to last a month or two, regularly transmitting the bird’s location to a database, where researchers can track their preferred feeding areas.

“What they really want to know is what the shearwaters are doing and where they’re going in the Gulf of Maine,” and what parts of Stellwagen Bank, in particular, they frequent. The birds’ preferred food source is the sand lance, a small fish. “The shearwaters are going to be wherever the small fish are,” Forist said. Researchers are also interested in the toxins and environmental contaminants that may be affecting the birds. The project is a partnership with the refuge and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Shearwaters, so named because they fly at very low levels over the ocean, “shearing” off the tips of the waves, are a key part of the pelagic ecosystem. That makes them the ideal study subjects for middle schoolers, Forist said.

“We do a lot of ecology, studying the food web and how energy flows through ecosystems,” she said of Monomoy’s seventh graders. The lessons match perfectly with curriculum standards for ecology, “but we also have standards about behaviors and adaptations that allow organisms to be successful,” she said. Changes in shearwater feeding patterns would fall in that category.

Officials at the Stellwagen sanctuary donated large posters students can use to track the locations of their birds, provided by teachers who have access to the live database. Students will also learn how to plot latitudes and longitudes and get some practice with their math, as well.

The tags will report each bird’s position through October or November, after which time the batteries wear out. They are applied to the birds using special sutures designed to degrade over time, allowing the tag to fall off.