First, There Was an Albatross

by Nathaniel T. Wheelwright

Photos by and/or courtesy of Nathaniel T. Wheelwright

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This is the improbable story of how Bowdoin College came to acquire a biological field station on a remote island in the foggy Bay of Fundy. It never would have happened except for a couple of extraordinary Canadian fishermen, a visionary Bowdoin student, and three rare birds, each from a different continent.

Ernest Joy was born in 1877 on Wood Island, a small island that lies just off Grand Manan in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. A fisherman by trade, Ernest had a naturalist's curiosity and keen eye. So, on August 1, 1913, when he saw an unfamiliar white seabird with a seven-foot wingspan offshore of Kent Island, he knew it was something special, and he did what any self-respecting ornithologist of that era would have done: he shot it. His friend Allan Moses, an accomplished taxidermist from Grand Manan, made a scientific specimen of the bird and identified it as a South Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross-the first known record of the species in North America.

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On August 1, 1913, when [Ernest Joy] saw an unfamiliar white seabird with a seven-foot wingspan offshore of Kent Island, he knew it was something special, and he did what any self-respecting ornithologist of that era would have done: he shot it.

Word of the rare albatross spread rapidly. The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) sent a delegation to Grand Manan to try to purchase the novel specimen for its collection. Moses had no interest in selling, but he agreed to donate it in exchange for the promise of joining a future AMNH scientific expedition to some exotic locale. In 1928, he got his wish, an invitation to serve as taxidermist on an 18-month safari to Tanganyika and the Belgian Congo led (and bankrolled) by a young amateur ornithologist and scion of one of America's wealthiest families, J. Sterling Rockefeller. The goal of the expedition was to collect specimens of the poorly known avifauna of the mountains of central Africa. Rockefeller quickly grew to admire Moses's work ethic and skill as a bird-skinner and, despite the fact that Rockefeller was only half the fisherman's age and far more worldly, the two got along splendidly. When Moses managed to capture the prize specimen of the entire expedition-a small green fruit-eating bird called Grauer's broadbill, only one specimen of which existed in all the world's museums—Rockefeller asked him how he could repay him. Sitting around the campfire in the montane forest above the Congo's Lusigi River valley, about as far from home, geographically and culturally, as he could be, Moses replied, "For a fraction of what this expedition has cost, you could buy a group of three islands in the Grand Manan area, have them declared a sanctuary, and thus save the Bay of Fundy eider ducks." (The proposal to establish a bird sanctuary on Kent Island and the neighboring two islands had actually been voiced in print six years earlier by Moses's sister, Sarah E. M. Smith, who published a paper entitled "Something of the Bird Life of Grand Manan" in the Maine Naturalist; in an odd coincidence, the editor of that journal was Bowdoin Ornithology Professor Alfred O. Gross.) Given how commonplace eiders are today, it's hard to believe that they were almost extinct a century ago. But from the Gulf of Maine south along the entire western Atlantic coast, there were estimated to be fewer than 30 surviving pairs, almost all of them nesting on their last refuge, Kent Island.

The Early History of
Kent Island

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Ten thousand years ago, thick glacial ice sheets covered Kent Island and the Bay of Fundy. After the climate warmed and the glaciers receded, a forest became established on the island, but rising sea levels gradually isolated and shrank the island, swamping trees growing near the shore (severe storms in the late 1970s exposed the fossilized roots of 3,300-year-old larch trunks which can still be seen at low tide on the west beach of Kent Island). For thousands of years, Abenaki from Passamaquoddy Bay canoed across the Bay of Fundy to Kent Island to hunt seals. Grand Manan resident Gerald Anderson remembers delivering milk as a child to the Indians' camp on the island during the 1920s while his father tended sheep there.

The island's first year-round occupant was a British settler named John Kent, who arrived in 1799 with his wife Susanna and five children (three more were later born on the island). Kent earned a living piloting ships through the treacherous waters of the Grand Manan Archipelago. He also quarried and burned limestone to manufacture plaster, using driftwood to fire up a 10-foot diameter rock-lined kiln that is still visible on the island's eastern shore. After Kent's death in 1828, his widow lived on the island for another 25 years, surviving on turnips, potatoes and other root crops as well as gull eggs collected each spring and preserved over the winter in a barrel of waterglass. A lonely limestone gravestone marks their burial site. For the rest of the 19th century, Kent Island was mostly uninhabited, until the McLaughlin family bought it in 1920.


A man of his word, Rockefeller was determined to fulfill the promise he made to Moses deep in an African forest. In an effort to conceal his identity and keep the sale price down, Rockefeller worked through an agent to purchase Kent Island from the McLaughlin family in 1930 for $25,000. He designated Moses and Moses's friend Ralph Griffin as guardians of the island and built them a simple un-insulated "warden's house" in which to live. The wardens' job was to prevent visitors from raiding the eiders' nests for their eggs and down. With the extinction of the last passenger pigeon in 1914, public concern about the decline of North American bird populations had resulted in passage of the 1916 Canadian Migratory Bird Convention Act, which made it illegal to disturb birds or collect their eggs. But harvesting seabird eggs had been a tradition and an important source of food in the Canadian Maritime Provinces for generations, and the new conservation laws were largely ignored. (In fact, throughout the 1920s, Kent Island's owners earned cash by renting the island by the day to parties of "eggers"—even today, some older Grand Mananers look forward to collecting gull eggs each spring.) So Moses and Griffin had their hands full protecting the nests of eiders and gulls. Rockefeller also gave the men responsibility for tending a large vegetable garden and caring for a cow, a flock of sheep, and-his most controversial scheme—a silver fox ranch. Ever the entrepreneur, Rockefeller decided to breed foxes on the island with the idea of marketing their pelts to help pay the bills of his new bird sanctuary. Moses, however, was unenthusiastic about raising predators in the middle of a seabird sanctuary, and the project quickly fizzled (traces of the foxes' wire-mesh pens are still visible next to the dorm on Kent Island).

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With the Depression looming, Rockefeller began to have second thoughts about his venture in the Bay of Fundy. His association with the AMNH had put him in contact with some of North America's most prominent ornithologists. One of them was Dr. Ernst Mayr, a towering figure in evolutionary biology renowned as a leader of the NeoDarwinian Synthesis and the person responsible for the definition of "species" used in biology today. Mayr was intrigued enough by this remote seabird island to accept Rockefeller's invitation to survey the birds of Kent Island in 1932 along with Professor Gross, during which Mayr produced the first detailed map of the Three Islands. According to a letter Mayr wrote me in 1988, it was he who persuaded Professor Gross to send someone to Kent Island to conduct a thorough study of Leach's storm-petrels, robin-sized nocturnal seabirds related to albatrosses.

So, two years later, while Professor Gross accompanied Commander Donald MacMillan '98 on an arctic expedition, his son Bill Gross, a 19-year-old Bowdoin student who had just finished his freshman year, and three other Bowdoin students launched the "Kent's Island Expedition of 1934." The young men camped on the island while they banded and observed seabirds. Three months later, the "four pioneers" were fetched by MacMillan as he sailed south from Labrador in the schooner Bowdoin.

The Three Island Archipelago
and the Eradication of
Introduced Snowshoe Hares

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J. Sterling Rockefeller's 1936 gift transferred title of 200-acre Kent Island to Bowdoin College, but the other two islands that comprise the Three Islands, Hay (80 acres) and Sheep (30 acres), were owned by Henry Ingalls and were not for sale. Born on Hay Island, Ingalls figured that was as good a place as any to spend a life. So until he died in 1939 at the age of 81, Ingalls fished a herring weir that still stretches between Hay and Kent Islands. After his "housekeeper" Hanna Cheney died in the 1950s, Hay and Sheep Islands were bought by Grand Manan fisherman Wesley Ingalls (no relation to Henry) and then passed to Wesley's nephews, Junior (Owen) and Jack. Junior's son Russell has been caretaker of the field station since 1990. In 2004, thanks to the willingness of the Ingalls family and major gifts from Bill Gross, David Webster '57 and other loyal friends of Kent Island, Bowdoin was able to purchase the two islands.

Ownership of the entire archipelago safeguards Kent Island from development of the neighboring islands and introduction of invasive species. It has also paved the way for the eradication of snowshoe hares from Kent Island. The hares had been deliberately introduced to Hay Island in 1959 by Wesley Ingalls, who envisioned his nephews supplementing their income by selling hares at $3 a head to biomedical researchers and beagle hunting clubs on the mainland. The burgeoning hare population soon spilled over to Kent Island, where the herbivores decimated every birch, spruce and fir seedling, threatening the demise of the island's forest and forest-breeding birds (including Leach's storm-petrels). It took a grant from the Davis Conservation Foundation and several years of intense hunting and trapping, but in 2008, for the first time in half a century, Kent Island is now free of snowshoe hares and its forest floor is covered in a carpet of young trees.


Back at Bowdoin, Bill Gross championed the idea of establishing a biological field station on Kent Island. As he told me in 1987, his inspiration was the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, which Bill had visited as a boy during one of his father's sabbaticals. Compared to the species-rich tropics, Kent Island was a biological desert: there were fewer than a dozen tree species on the boreal island and no reptiles, amphibians, or terrestrial mammals (other than several bat species). In contrast, Barro Colorado Island had about 500 tree species and 100 mammal species. But no other liberal arts college in the country possessed its own biological field station, and Kent Island's teeming seabird colonies called out for scientific study. So Bill Gross proposed the notion to Rockefeller—and Rockefeller accepted, "selling" Kent Island to Bowdoin College on January 30, 1936. According to the deed, the price was a nominal "One dollar ($1.00) and other good and valuable considerations," with the stipulation that "the grantees shall use the said Kent's Island for scientific purposes only and shall maintain on the said Island a bird sanctuary."

Ernest Joy, who had shot the albatross that started it all, was hired for $25 per month to replace Moses and Griffin as year-round warden. From 1935 until 1941, the Bowdoin Scientific Station offered summer programs and grew in terms of facilities, scientific discoveries, and national prominence. Then World War II struck. In the Sixth Annual Report (April, 1942) field director James Blunt '41 wrote, "We all felt it a relief to get away for the summer from the war-torn United States into peaceful Canada, where we could study how things lived while the rest of the world was learning how to kill." Radio and boat traffic in the Bay of Fundy was restricted by the Canadian government, and the field station was largely abandoned. Joy continued as caretaker, supplementing his meager and unchanging salary by selling the skins of muskrats that he introduced to the islands. To combat the isolation of island life, he exchanged letters with one of the students, Bob Cunningham, who had first come to Kent Island as a 16-year-old high school student in 1937 to milk the cow and man the fledgling weather station. The 12-year correspondence between them, archived in the Grand Manan Museum, presents a singular and poignant record of life on Kent Island during the early years of the Bowdoin Scientific Station.

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It was Bowdoin alumnus and Yale graduate student Raymond Paynter '47 who resuscitated the field station in the post-war years. Paynter's detailed demographic studies of herring gulls and tree swallows ushered in a new era of professional biological research on Kent Island. But after Paynter moved on to take a faculty position at Harvard, the Bowdoin Scientific Station again fell into oblivion. Ernest Joy's lifelong companion Carrie Chase became ill in 1948 and, though Joy tried to signal for help by lighting a fire on the shore, she died in September. "It's a mighty lonely place," Joy wrote to Cunningham in 1949, vowing never to spend another winter there. The low point for the Bowdoin Scientific Station was when the deserted field station was vandalized in the early 1950s.

One of Paynter's most enduring contributions was introducing Chuck Huntington to Kent Island. Huntington, a fellow graduate student, first visited the island in December 1947. When a faculty position at Bowdoin opened up six years later, Huntington jumped at it. Almost immediately, he initiated what may well be the longest-term study of a single population of any animal or plant species ever carried out by a single individual. His focus was Leach's storm-petrel, the same species that had intrigued Ernst Mayr and Bill Gross. During his 34 years as Director of the Bowdoin Scientific Station and 20 years of "retirement," Huntington has banded tens of thousands of storm-petrels and scrutinized their breeding biology. His landmark study set the stage for numerous long-term collaborations with leading ecologists such as Drs. Robert Ricklefs (U. Missouri-St. Louis), Haven Wiley (U.N.C.), and current Bowdoin Scientific Station Director, Bob Mauck (Kenyon College) who is serving his final year as director, after which he will be succeeded by Damon Gammon. Discover magazine named Dr. Mark Haussmann's (Iowa State U.) investigations of aging in Kent Island's storm-petrels and other birds one of the "100 Top Science Stories of 2003." Equally impressive long-term research on Kent Island is Bob Cunningham's long-term observations on meteorology, which he summarized in a 1998 paper entitled "Fog Studies in the Bay of Fundy over a Span of 60 Years."

Getting to Kent Island

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Sitting in the middle of the Bay of Fundy, 15 miles from the coast of Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, is the remote Canadian fishing community of Grand Manan Island. Of the dozens of small islands and rock ledges that lie in an arc offshore, the most isolated is Kent Island, the last piece of land between Grand Manan and Bermuda. As the albatross flies, Kent Island is only 165 miles from Bowdoin College, but the trip takes all day-and that's assuming everything goes smoothly and there are no delays at Canadian customs, the ferry has space, the tides are favorable, the winds are light, and the fog is not too thick. The trip from Brunswick begins with a four-hour drive east across Maine to the international border crossing at Calais-St. Stephens. It's another hour to the coastal village of Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, from which a ferry sets sail every four hours or so for the hour-and-a-half crossing to North Head, Grand Manan. From there, it's a half-hour drive south to Seal Cove, where gear and food must be transferred to a lobster boat for the hour-long ride to Kent Island, then transferred again to a dinghy to get ashore. Depending upon the tide, it takes 15 to 30 minutes to hike across a mudflat and through a spruce forest before you finally arrive at the center of Kent Island.


More than 190 scholarly papers resulting from research conducted on Kent Island have been published in peer-reviewed journals. In the last 20 years alone, 42 Kent Island alumni have gone on to graduate school to earn their doctorates in ecology or related fields; eight have been awarded prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowships.

On November 6, 1949, Ernest Joy wrote one last time to Bob Cunningham before leaving Kent Island forever. His letter ends, "I have lived a long but not a very useful life but it can't be helped now I see where I could of done better. with love to all Ernest." If Joy could have witnessed all that has transpired in the nearly three-quarters of a century since the Bowdoin Scientific Station was established, could he have been more proud? Thanks to the dedication and vision of the two Grand Manan fisherman and a young Bowdoin student and three rare birds—the albatross, the Grauer's broadbill, and the eiders themselves—the Bowdoin Scientific Station has inspired and trained hundreds of young scientists from Bowdoin College and many other colleges and universities, giving them a chance to study biology on a magical island with a rich history.

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Author's note: Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Natural Sciences Nathaniel T. Wheelwright directed the Bowdoin Scientific Station from 1987 to 2004.

Further reading on the history of Kent Island: Gross, W.A.O. 1936. Kent’s Island—Outpost of Science. Natural History 37: 195-210; Graham, F., Jr. 1980. To Kill an Albatross. Audubon Magazine (September). 8-9; Ingersoll, L.K. 1991. Wings over the Sea: The Story of Allan Moses. Goose Lane Editions, Fredericton, New Brunswick. 151 p.; Annual Reports of the Bowdoin Scientific Station (1936-1949; 1987-2007). Bowdoin College Library.

Support for Kent Island is part of The Bowdoin Campaign. To learn more about this need, visit the academic affairs section of www.bowdoin.edu/support, or contact Eli Orlic at eorlic@bowdoin.edu.