Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge

The coastal islands and peninsulas of Maine form a chain of stopover points along the ocean's shore that is critically important for countless migrating birds. Each year large flocks of waterfowl, raptors (hawks, falcons and owls), shorebirds and songbirds follow this chain as they migrate between northern nesting grounds and southern wintering grounds. Undisturbed offshore islands also offer valuable nesting sites for seabirds. Some of the most important natural areas along this coast are protected and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The four National Wildlife Refuges on the eastern Maine coast offer extraordinary habitat for migratory birds. The mainland site and twelve rugged islands provide safe nesting, feeding and resting habitat both for colonies of nesting seabirds and for migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds and raptors.

The mainland property, Petit Manan Point, has foot trails where you can observe a variety of coastal wildlife.

Hardly a Wilderness

Though refuge islands are regaining their wild character, they still show signs of their long human history. Native Americans probably used the islands almost from the time the glaciers retreated. Various tribes of the Algonquin Nation used the coast of Maine, fishing and hunting big game, furbearers and birds. Europeans arrived in the 1500's, attracted by the extensive forests and rich resources of the sea. By the 1800's, most of the larger islands supported people for at least part of the year.

Two refuge islands had villages with schools and stores, supporting the mariners who made a living from fishing. Farmers established"saltwater farms" to grow hay and graze sheep. Most islands were clearcut; some even had mines and stone quarries.

The U.S. Lifesaving Service and then the U.S. Coast Guard built and maintained light stations. Several entrepreneurs tried to develop rustic resorts or hunting preserves. And always, seabird colonies provided eggs, feathers and meat for those who harvested them.

All of these activities affected the wildlife populations that traditionally used the islands, particularly the seabirds. The gradual abandonment by humans and protection of many Maine islands has allowed migratory bird populations and other wildlife to begin to return.

The Refuges

Refuge lands have been obtained through transfer or purchase with the help of the U.S. Coast Guard, The Nature Conservancy and private individuals.

Petit Manan
Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge is a 3,335-acre Refuge that includes property on Petit Manan Point, Petit Manan Island and portions of two other islands, Bois Bubert and Nash.

Petit Manan Point (1,991 acres, Steuben) has a rugged, windswept character with over ten miles of ocean shoreline. Habitats include red and white spruce forests with some mixed hardwoods, jack pine stands, coastal raised heath peatlands, blueberry barrens, old hayfields, fresh and salt-water marshes, cedar swamps, granite shores and cobble beaches.

Bois Bubert Island (1,155 acres, Milbridge) is much like Petit Manan Point in character and wildlife. It runs parallel to the point, about one mile to the east. Although most of the island is refuge, some private inholdings remain.

Petit Manan Island (nine acres, Steuben) lies two and a half miles south of the Point. This treeless island has long been one of the most important islands in the Gulf of Maine for colonial nesting seabirds. It is also the site of an automated U.S. Coast Guard light station with an imposing 123-foot tall granite lighthouse tower that is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Nash Island (five acres, Addison) is a nine-acre treeless island lying about seven miles east of the point. It is a former tern nesting island that now hosts nesting eider ducks and gulls.

Cross Island
Cross Island National Wildlife Refuge is a 1,703-acre island complex donated to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1980 by Thomas and Virginia Cabot (through The Nature Conservancy). Located in Cutler, the complex includes six islands: Cross Island (1,654 acres); Scotch Island (ten acres); Outer Double Head Shot (14 acres); Inner Double Head Shot (eight acres); Mink Island (11 acres); and Old Man Island (six acres). Dense stands of red and white spruce, balsam fir, yellow and paper birch and red maple. Rocky cliffs, some over 100 feet high, cobble beaches and salt marshes dominate the shoreline.

Cross Island has resident populations of white-tailed deer and furbearers as well as nesting bald eagles and osprey. Waterfowl, shorebirds and raptors stop here on their migrations. The Double Head Shots and Old Man Islands are covered with grasses and raspberry thickets, with some stunted red spruce trees. They are important for colonial nesting seabirds, attracting colonies of common eiders, Leach's storm-petrels, black guillemots, and double-crested cormorants. Old Man Island is one of only four nesting sites for razorbills in the Gulf of Maine.

Franklin Island
Franklin Island National Wildlife Refuge is a two-island complex totaling 20 acres. It includes 12-acre Franklin Island in Muscongus Bay, about six miles from the town of Friendship. Covered with spruce trees and raspberry thickets, the island has one of the largest common eider colonies in Maine with over 1,300 nests. Osprey and black-crowned night herons also nest here. The island was acquired in 1973 from the U.S. Coast Guard, which still maintains an automated lighthouse tower here.

Two Bush Island lies about sixteen miles east of Franklin Island and seven miles south of the town of Owl's Head. This eight-acre treeless island is owned by the U.S. Coast Guard which maintains an automated lighthouse tower. The Coast Guard leases the island to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at no charge, so that we can protect and manage valuable seabird nesting habitat.

Seal Island
Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge is a 65-acre treeless island lying about 21 miles south of Rockland in Knox County. A bombing and shelling target from World War II until 1952, it became a refuge when it was transferred from the Navy in 1972.

This remote, grass and granite island offers prime seabird nesting habitat with boulder fields and ledges for puffins, razorbills and black guillemots; grass and ledge areas for terns; raspberry and grass thickets for eiders; and soft peat and glacial till soils for burrowing Leach's storm-petrels. As the name implies, harbor and gray seals frequent the island, attracted to the rich fishing grounds offshore.

Seal Island once had the largest Atlantic puffin colony in the Gulf of Maine. For over 200 years, however, fishermen used the island as a summer campsite while fishing for herring, groundfish and lobsters. They also harvested the nesting seabirds for meat, eggs and feathers, eventually wiping out the colonies by the late 1800's. Although herring and great black-backed gulls, common eiders, double-crested cormorants and arctic terns recolonized the island during the first half of this century, puffins never returned. Terns nested on the island as recently as the 1950's but were crowded off by increasing numbers of gulls, a typical scenario repeated on many islands in New England. Seal Island is now the site of a joint project involving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Audubon Society and the Canadian Wildlife Service to restore the puffin and tern colonies.

Wildlife of the Coast

Refuge forests, grasslands, rocky outcrops, tidal wetlands and mud flats and the rich fish resources of surrounding waters attract wildlife throughout the year. Spring and fall migrations draw flocks of waterfowl, particularly black ducks, common eiders, goldeneyes and oldsquaws. Raptors and songbirds also use the islands to rest and feed during migration. Shorebirds feast on invertebrate animals in the marshes and mud flats, putting on fat to carry them on their long flight to South America.

Some migratory birds stay here in other seasons. Rafts of black ducks and eiders spend the winter feeding offshore and in protected bays. Songbirds, eiders and ospreys stay through the summer to nest in grass, thickets or trees. One special group of nesting birds is the seabirds.

The offshore islands, particularly treeless ones, offer valuable nesting sites for a great variety of seabirds. Common and arctic terns, endangered roseate terns, Atlantic puffins, razorbills, black guillemots, Leach's storm-petrels, laughing, herring and great blackbacked gulls and double-crested cormorants all find prime habitat in which to raise their young. The islands are crucial to nesting success because they are usually free of mammalian predators and are surrounded by the ocean's rich fisheries resources for a food base.

Endangered species are a special concern. Peregrine falcons and bald eagles use refuge lands during spring and fall migration. Eagles also nest on remote, forested islands and over-winter here where they can feed on fish and carrion. Roseate terns nest with other terns on some of the grass-covered islands.

Marine mammals also use this region extensively. Harbor seals are here throughout the year, using refuge and other islands for loafing, basking and giving birth to their pups. Gray seals are less common but are present year-round, usually on the outer islands. Harbor porpoises, finback and minke whales, and endangered right whales occasionally explore the bays seeking the rich supply of fish and invertebrates providing by ocean upwellings near islands and ledges.

On Petit Manan Point and some of the larger islands deer, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, porcupines, snowshoe hares, beaver and raccoons are common. Moose and black bear are also sometimes seen.

Managing for Wildlife

Habitat protection is the most important management goal for these refuges, but refuge staff also actively manage certain areas and populations for key species in need of help.

Biologists monitor population trends and nesting success for many species.

On Petit Manan Point blueberry fields are burned on a three-year rotation to keep areas open for courting woodcock and to provide a food source for deer, whimbrels, ruffed grouse and a variety of songbirds. Hayfields are mowed periodically for similar purposes.

Some of the freshwater marshes on the Point are managed to provide optimum waterfowl habitat. The water level in former cranberry bogs is raised or lowered to create additional food and nest sites. Nest boxes are placed in the marshes, providing safe, dry nest cavities for wood ducks and hooded mergansers as well as songbirds.

On the seabird nesting islands, herring and great black-backed gull populations are maintained at levels that reduce competition for nesting space for the less common species such as terns, laughing gulls, puffins, razorbills and black guillemots.

On Petit Manan Island, which has historically been one of the most important seabird colonies in Maine, growing populations of herring and great black-backed gulls displaced nesting terns and laughing gulls in the late 1970's. The refuge's seabird management program, which included removal of the nesting gulls starting in 1984, successfully restored the tern and laughing gull colonies. As a side benefit, a colony of Atlantic puffins also began nesting here. A similar program is now underway on Seal Island, in cooperation with the National Audubon Society and the Canadian Wildlife Service. Puffin chicks are being transplanted from Canada to restore a former colony and some nesting gulls have been removed to prevent gull predation. Biologists are using decoys and sound recordings to encourage terns to reestablish a colony.

Some areas of the refuge must remain closed to visitors to protect nesting species and their habitat from human disturbance during the nesting season.

Enjoying the Refuge

Petit Manan Point has two foot trails that offer visitors a chance to see and photograph wildlife in several coastal habitats. Birch Point Trail (three miles round trip) is a gently sloping walk through blueberry fields and woods to the salt marshes on the northeastern corner of the point. The Shore trail (one mile, round trip) is a more rugged, strenuous hike that leads to the eastern shore of the point with views of several heaths and cobble beaches. To minimize wildlife disturbance we ask that you stay on established trails.

To enjoy the refuge trails, you can park in the small lot at the end of Pigeon Hill Road off U.S. Route 1 in Steuben. The Point is open from sunrise to sunset all year. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing on the trails are good ways to see winter wildlife. Shellfishing is permitted according to State and town laws. For more information contact the Refuge Manager.

The island units in these refuges are accessible only by boat. To protect nesting seabirds, which are very sensitive to human disturbance, all islands except Bois Bubert and Cross are closed to the public during the seabird nesting season, April through July. Landing on the islands can be hazardous because of tides, currents and weather conditions. We therefore urge you to contact the refuge staff before attempting to visit any of these islands.

For the safety of visitors and wildlife, camping, fires, firearms and motor vehicles are prohibited on refuge lands. Pets are permitted on the trails as long as you have them on a hand-held leash no longer than ten feet.

Seal Island is closed at all times due to the danger of unexploded ordnance.

A Wildlife Calendar

Events may vary by one or two weeks, depending on weather conditions.

Spring (March-May) - Waterfowl migration begins after ice-out, usually by the end of March. Herring gulls, great black-backed gulls and eiders begin to nest in April, followed by terns, laughing gulls and the alcids (puffins, guillemots and razorbills) around mid-May. Ospreys arrive in April, and eagles begin to nest by the end of March. In the fields and clearings, male woodcocks can be seen and heard performing their courtship flights at dawn and dusk. Male ruffed and spruce grouse start drumming in the woods.

Summer (June-August) - Summer is the season when nesting seabirds, eagles, ospreys, songbirds and waterfowl raise their young. By mid July, shorebirds begin to arrive from northern nesting grounds on their long migration south. In August, the terns and alcids begin to migrate. Male eiders start to congregate offshore in large floating flocks, or rafts, for the fall molt.

Deer give birth to their fawns in June. Wildflowers such as orchids, azaleas and iris bloom throughout the spring and summer.

Fall (September-November) - The shorebird migration peaks in September and the raptor, waterfowl and songbird migrations begin. By late October, large rafts of oldsquaws and buffleheads can be seen offshore. Flocks of black ducks collect on the ponds and bays. Peregrine falcons and merlins glide along the shore. Deer begin the breeding season in November.

Winter (December-February) - Common and red-throated loons, large flocks of sea ducks and an occasional dovekie, king eider or harlequin duck ride the waves offshore. Great cormorants and Bonaparte's gulls are common. In most years, snowy owls migrate here from the northern tundra. Boreal chickadees, spruce grouse and ruffed grouse are easier to see.

Year-round White-tailed deer, snowshoe hare, porcupines, raccoons, bobcats, coyotes and other wildlife species can be seen year-round. The best viewing times are early morning and late afternoon.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 23 Oct 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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