Poets for Science
Global Gallery

Field Studies

Location

–Bowdoin College Scientific Station
Kent Island, New Brunswick, Canada

  1. First, There Was an Albatross

Ernest Joy spotted the bird
lost or adventuring from
south of the equator, spied it
flying offshore from Wood Island
the yellow-nosed albatross
rare in the North and close enough
to shoot as naturalists in his day
did so numerous were the furred
and feathered and finned. Joy gave
the bird to Allan Moses, island naturalist,
skilled at taxidermy who knew
the Museum of Natural History
would want the skin for study
and so traded it for passage
to a Congo expedition hunting
Grauer’s green broadbill
to fill the museum’s collection.
The team crossed Lake Tanganika,
traversed the plateaus of Marungu,
sailed north to Uvira, trekking
by foot with a caravan of porters
into the upper Congo forest.
Moses found the bird feeding
on berries in a vine-draped tree
while others were off in the bush.
They returned to find Moses
asleep in his tent, green broadbill
lying dead on his chest. With what
satisfaction, they wrote, we proceeded
to dissection! Moses complained.
All this for one dead bird? (935 birds
to be exact.) Will you do nothing,
he complained to his sponsor,
for the eiders back home on Kent Island?
Mere finger of grassy meadow and
rocky shore safe enough for nesting.
First, came the albatross,
though it knew nothing
of the human story it became.

  1. Navigation of the Leach’s Storm Petrel

Science wanted to know
what they know, sooty little
tube-nosed ocean runner,
fork-tailed forest-burrower,
night wanderer, transient in
the sweet musk of woods.
How do their find their way?
What’s their sense of place?
Do they know a sense of
belonging when they return
from a year at sea to breed
in the forest where they hatched?
Or is it just work to repair the burrow?
They stagger around at night
on forest paths. They don’t
understand the land
but they need it. A man
who studied the colony
for half a century took
some petrels to Ireland
to see if they could find
the way back. First bird returned
before the man did. Was it
nine days or thirteen?
Do the numbers matter
when the bird just knew,
its inner compass reading
longitude and latitude, skirting
open ocean swells to arrive
where it knew it should be?

  1. Site Fidelity of the Leach’s Storm Petrel

At night the pairs chuckle and purr
sometimes in harmony
nestled in their burrows
ghosting the forest with
their chatter. They have a lot
to say after spending so long
in solitary flight with nothing
on their minds but light
and wind and the scent of prey
that draws them onward.
They might fly four hundred
kilometers from land
seeking lanternfish and krill,
loading oil to bring home
for the chick. They winter
at sea flying as far as South Africa,
intimate only with water
until some brain or body switch flips.
Who can explain the call
for another, the call for home?
Together again, same time,
same place, next year,
more faithful to burrow
than to spouse, grooming
the nest with soft leaves,
fresh grass, they talk
and talk throughout the night.

  1. Petrel Chick

What did I know
lying in the darkness
where I had hatched?
At first I loved the smell
of loam, musk, the dampness
of the underneath. Then came
a fishy scent though
what did I know of fish?
Bill to bill my lunch
was served. I had no
control over where
I lived, when or what
I ate. But sufficient
to my status as a puff
of proto-feathers the meals
kept tunneling down
from the spot of light
at burrow’s end. I knew
to raise my mouth
to what arrived.
I had no idea what I was
or what I was meant to be.
Ridiculous, I know, that
I should have a voice.
Sleep and eat and roll over
in the earthen dark
that was life until
I grew so blubbered
I could barely turn in my sleep.
I squeezed out of that earthhold
when I caught the open ocean scent
that told me I had wings
and I was gone into
sea-spangled spume and sky.

  1. Parent-Offspring Conflict

We take turns leaving the nest
to forage, one fasting
the other flying as far
as it takes, Georges Bank
or Cape Cod, to gorge
on krill for the little one
and the mate we’ve left behind.
Sometimes out there
in the beyond with no
markers of time and place
it just feels right to keep going,
the forest burrow, a bother
all duty and constraint.
Besides we live so long
we barely age at all.
Telomeres, biologists say,
fragment as they age.
Not ours. So what
does it matter if this year
one bird does not go back?
There will be more chicks
and more. Some years
we get out there in the grey
where the sea and the sky mix
and the land—what is land?
This year it’s all about flight.

  1. Floral Constancy of the Bumblebee

Flowers because they are grounded
in earth have an electric field
around them, the biologist says,
fact becoming poem. She studies
how bumblebees learn
what flowers to visit for nectar.
Transects map the pollinator
network of the island. Leafcutters,
she says, make sleeping bags
from circles they cut from rose leaves.
Sweat bees, she says, favor
Queen Anne’s lace. If you are a bee,
she says, visiting hawkweed,
yellow rattle, dewberry, milkweed,
blueberry, clover, and vetch
you need to learn with each flower
how to get down into the sweet.
But if you specialize on one
blossom shape you can get
right down to business.
A good plan, she says,
because it takes a while to learn
how to handle a flower.

  1. Learning in the Savannah Sparrow

Bird brain, we humans say,
to put someone down. But try
making a nest in the grass
on an isolated northern archipelago,
raising your chicks in the open
where gulls and ravens prey.
Try flying on the power of your
thin feathered arms to spend winter
in a southern clime a thousand miles away
then flying back to the same meadow
to mate, knowing how to avoid
close relatives for pairing,
the whole cycle playing like
an earworm year after year,
and each summer learning
the song the meadow is singing
and carrying that tune
with you wherever you go.

  1. Fog Heaven

Being a matter
of numbers and vials
the cloud physicist
found it
easy to live
in a cabin the size of
a heavy stillness
that wants
to dissipate.
He mastered the art
of bottling fog.
I slept with his ashes
perched on a shelf
no one ready
to let him go.
But the stars
kept waking me
or was it
the ghost asleep
in the corner
wrapped in tin foil
as if to protect him
from too much light
and lush night
upon me like
moss on a forest log.

NOTES:

“Field Studies: Kent Island.” “First, There was an Albatross” is a title borrowed from Nathaniel Wheelright’s 2014 article in Bowdoin Magazine telling the story of Ernest Joy’s discovery of the albatross near Grand Manan Island and the establishment of the Bowdoin College Scientific Research Station. J. Sterling Rockefeller wrote in The Auk: Ornithological Advances in 1933 about the expedition to the Congo to find Grauer’s Green Broadbill. Rockefeller did in fact do something for the nesting eiders. He purchased Kent Island and donated it to Bowdoin College as a refuge for birds. In 1954 Chuck Huntington began his research on the Leach’s storm petrels that nest in burrows on Kent. His work continued for fifty years. His obituary states that he “amassed longitudinal data on a single population of animals over an interval and at a level of detail that are perhaps without equal in field biology.” At present the petrel study is the second oldest continuous data set in the world. About 25,000 petrel pairs currently nest on the island; of these about 75 pairs are tracked. The population has declined 30% since 2014. The work continues with ornithologists Bob Mauck and Mark Haussmann. An article by John M. Pearce on the philopatry (site faithfulness) of the petrel was published in The Auk in 2007. Nathaniel Wheelright has led Kent’s research on savannah sparrow migration and breeding. Heather Williams currently studies the song culture of savannah sparrows. Patty Jones, current Director of the Field Station, conducts the work on the nectaring behavior of bees. Robert Cunningham, cloud physicist at MIT, came to the island in 1938 to study fog. He slept in a tiny cabin named Fog Heaven. The data he collected helped lead to the U.S. Clean Air Act of 1970. He painstakingly gathered data on Kent for 60 years. This sequence of poems, then, is something of a collaboration with a community of scientists who have devoted their working lives to learning what one remote little island in the Bay of Fundy has to teach us.

By Alison Hawthorne Deming

Published in Alaska Quarterly Review