The life span of an albatross

We’ve had a lot on here about birds lately, and I know that many of you come to Star each summer for the bird walks and views of sea birds you might not see anywhere else. This article from the Washington Post recently caught my attention with its surprise header of how old a Laysan albatross can get and still produce chicks.

An Albatross (Photo Courtesy of The Washington Post)

Researchers have been blown away by their observations of this bird.

“It blows us away that this is a 62-year-old bird and she keeps laying eggs and raising chicks,” said Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the Bird Banding Laboratory at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel.

And think it means good things about the health of the North Pacific.

“These birds are emblematic of the health of the ocean and the health of that ecosystem,” Peterjohn said. “It has to be healthy for them to live long.”

Great article, but has anyone ever seen one in the North Atlantic or on the Islands? I know  that Laysan albatross range only in the North Pacific, and that albatross – in general – are found only in the North Pacific and Southern Ocean. But did you know fossil records indicate they once did live in the North Atlantic too? And, occasionally, we are even visited by a wayward visitor.

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Celia Thaxter on the burgomaster gull

The burgomaster gull

Since our previous post on the Isles of Shoals Flora and Fauana in 1895 talked about the burgomaster gull, we thought we’d share a poem by Celia Thaxter on the very same bird that was prevalent during her day. We hope that you enjoy.

The Burgomaster Gull

by Celia Thaxter

The old-wives sit on the heaving brine,
White-breasted in the sun,
Preening and smoothing their feathers fine,
And scolding, every one.

The snowy kittiwakes overhead,
With beautiful beaks of gold,
And wings of delicate gray outspread,
Float, listening while they scold.

And a foolish guillemot, swimming by,
Though heavy and clumsy and dull,
Joins in with a will when he hears their cry
‘Gainst the Burgomaster Gull.

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A historic look at the geology of the Isles of Shoals

Continuing from our last post using Frank Preston Stearns’s Sketches from Concord and Appledore  of1895, now a look at the geology of the islands:

Their geological structure is more interesting. It is generally supposed that the soil of New England rests on a foundation of primeval granite but it is not exactly that. There is very little true granite in New England, what is taken for it commonly being syenite, a rock indeed that differs from granite only in the substitution of horn-blend for mica.



Above Stearns is describing syenite which modern geologists describe as a coarse-grained intrusive igneous rock of the same general composition as granite but with the quartz either absent or present in relatively small amounts (<5%).

The so-called Quincy granite is a finer sort of syenite, which in the White Mountains are composed of syenite kept with granite. The Isles of Shoals are also mostly syenite, but there are large boulders of coarse granite lying about, and in some places the syenite changes suddenly to granite as if the two had been welded together. Then there are dykes of dark brown trap or ancient lava, from four to ten feet wide running across the island from south-west to north-east, and others again at right-angles to these.

If you recall, or look back to the last post, you’ll notice that Stearns comments that the Islands were never mountain tops. Here he describes how they may actually have formed due to volcanic action millions of years ago.

This would seem to indicate that the elevation of the surrounding plateau was due to volcanic action. The structure of White Island is very different from the others, a large portion of the rock being studded with innumerable garnets, while veins of some greyish white minerals run through it in which there are still smaller garnets.

Sterans, Frank Preston (1895) Sketches from Concord and Appledore. G.P. Putnam and Sons: New York.

A historic look at the flora and fauna of the Isles of Shoals

First a description of the Islands, pre-1895, from Frank Preston Stearns’s Sketches from Concord and Appledore:

They are mostly bare rocks, like mountain tops rising above the water. They are not however submerged mountains, for as their name indicates the sea is nowhere very deep about them. If the points of the horse-shoe had been turned toward the east instead of the west they would not have been habitable and the place would have been known to navigators as the Devil’s Reef, The Devil’s Horse-shoe or by some other term ominous of shipwrecks. The group of islands form a cosy though not very safe harbor where every evening in the mackerel season a small fleet of fishing-vessels sail in there to anchor for the night (223-224).


A herring gull

Stearns continues with an account of the flora and fauna of the Shoals. Notice some of the differences as you read, the lack of trees and the prevalence of burgomaster (glaucaus gulls or Larus hyperboreus). Recall that on John Smith’s 1614 arrival many of the islands did have trees, according to his description. But do we really believe Appledore to be home to that many green snakes?

As might be expected the fauna and flora  of the Shoals is neither rare nor extensive. Gulls are to be seen of course at all times – especially the large burgomaster gull, one of the finest of birds in size and ferocity, and in power of sight nearly equal to an eagle. In spring and fall, flocks of coot and the more fishy sort of ducks are to be found there together with a good many loons. Snowy owls are not uncommon in cold weather, and during winter almost any kind of Arctic bird may arrive there. A flock of eider ducks once took refuge and were shot under the same overhanging rock where the terrified servant-girl concealed herself when pursued by the murderer Wagner. There are probably more green snakes on Appledore than anywhere else in America. Wild roses and morning-glories are the only flowers large enough to attract the notice of a passing tourist, but Celia Thaxter has also written a pretty poem on pimpernel. There are no trees to speak of (224).

Sterans, Frank Preston (1895) Sketches from Concord and Appledore. G.P. Putnam and Sons: New York.