Bowdoin Celebrates 75 Years of Science at Kent Island

Story posted August 13, 2009

The Bowdoin Scientific Station is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the first Bowdoin College-sponsored scientific expedition to Kent Island, in the Bay of Fundy.

The Bowdoin Scientific Station (BSS) is a biological field research station, which is owned and operated by the College.

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Sami Nichols '09 and Priscilla Erickson, Kenyon College '09, banding and measuring Savannah sparrow nestlings at the Bowdoin Scientific Station on Kent Island, New Brunswick.

J. Sterling Rockefeller purchased Kent Island in 1930 to protect the last few remaining breeding pairs of common eider ducks in the Gulf of Maine/Bay of Fundy Region.

He donated the island to the College in 1936 under the condition that it be maintained as a research station and wildlife sanctuary.

Thanks in large part to the protection of Kent Island, eiders have once again become common throughout the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Maine.

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The Bowdoin Scientific Station's wharf and waterfront buildings.

Nearby Hay and Sheep Islands were purchased by Bowdoin in 2003 to preserve the ecological integrity of the entire Three Islands archipelago and provide additional research opportunities for BSS personnel.


During the summer of 1934, Arctic explorer Donald MacMillan brought a group of four Bowdoin students, led by sophomore William Gross, to Kent Island aboard his schooner, the Bowdoin.

MacMillan dropped off the students and they spent the next three months on the island mapping its geology and plant communities, and studying its nesting seabirds.

In addition to performing the first scientific studies on Kent Island, these students, known as the "Four Pioneers," were instrumental in brokering the agreement that resulted in Rockefeller donating Kent Island to Bowdoin.

BSS was the first field research station in North America to be operated by an undergraduate liberal arts college and has been a member of the Organization of Biological Field Stations since 1988.

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Damon Gannon

"Unlike most other research stations operated by undergraduate institutions, BSS is much more than just an outdoor classroom," says BSS Director Damon Gannon. "It is a working research station."

"Top scientists from all over North America come to BSS because they can conduct research here that would not be possible elsewhere."

In addition to being a center for advanced field research, BSS has trained and inspired thousands of young scientists by giving them the opportunity to work in close collaboration with senior researchers.

BSS has an international reputation in the fields of ornithology, marine biology and meteorology.

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A Savannah sparrow that is part of a 20-year-long study led by Professor Nathaniel Wheelwright at the Bowdoin Scientific Station. Each sparrow is given a uniquely numbered aluminum leg band and three colored leg bands so that researchers can identify individual birds for long-term study.

It is the site of the two longest-running scientific studies conducted by individual researchers: Charles Huntington's study of the Leach's storm-petrel, a small seabird, and Robert Cunningham's study of weather.

This summer marks the 55th year of a demographic study of Leach's storm-petrels, by Huntington, professor of biology emeritus and former director of BSS (1953-1988).

"This is the world's longest-running scientific study of any wild animal population conducted by a single investigator," says Gannon.

"Chuck has conducted storm-petrel research on Kent Island every summer since 1954. At the age of 89, he returned to Kent Island this summer to check up on the birds, some of which he has known for almost 40 years."

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Evan Fricke '11 examining a Leach's storm-petrel in the seabird nesting colony on Kent Island.

Huntington's persistence laid the foundation for dozens of other researchers investigating various aspects of storm-petrel biology on Kent Island and elsewhere.

"There have been 51 peer-reviewed papers published on the storm-petrels of Kent Island since Chuck began his work — most of which wouldn't have been possible without Chuck's demographic database," adds Gannon.

BSS scientist Bob Cunningham studied Kent Island's weather for more than 60 years.

His research on industrial pollution and "acid fog" was part of the scientific underpinning for the passage of the federal Clean Air Act, a landmark piece of legislation that has significantly improved air quality and made progress in reducing the problem of acid rain.

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