Empty nests

11 09 2015
Songbird bander Lindsay Herlihy helps my elder son release a cedar waxwing!

Songbird bander Lindsay Herlihy helps my elder son release a cedar waxwing!

This week, I went back to school, meeting several classrooms’ worth of new students. The campus, which had been a veritable ghost town, is now bustling again with bewildered and lost students, nervous students, and the feeling of optimism that comes with a new school year no matter how old you may be. Over the summer, I was focused on SEANET, and on spending time with my kids, and on the gull project on Appledore Island. For the first time, I combined those last two and brought my two sons out to Shoals Marine Lab for a meeting with the Director there, Jennifer Seavey. I’ve been out for gull banding just about every year since 2008, but I had never visited the island when the gulls were not breeding. It was a strange feeling, then, to encounter gulls loafing about near their tousled old nests, not trying to dive bomb or defecate on me. It was quiet and weirdly calm. The breeding birds were slowly departing, and the young almost all fledged and gone too. Lovely as it was, I couldn’t help but feel like the soul of the island was missing, not only because the gulls were going, but because there were no boisterous undergrads running around, working on projects, mucking around in tide pools,  or lying in the hammocks during downtime from classes. I won’t deny, it was pleasant to see this quiet side of Appledore, but it was undeniably strange to see all those abandoned grass nests where before I’d been chased off by individual gulls that I’ve known for years.

Broken eggs litter the ground on Seahorse Key. (Photo: AP)

Broken eggs litter the ground on Seahorse Key. (Photo: AP)

It got me thinking about another island with a whole lot of empty nests. Shoals Director Jenn Seavey previously worked on Seahorse Key in Florida. On that very island this year, thousands of waterbirds in the middle of the breeding season, disappeared. Many left eggs behind in their nests. Researchers say the birds were there on the 19th of May, and all gone when they checked again on the 21st. Was it a predator? Someone flying a recreational drone over the island? Hypotheses abound, but whatever it was, the disturbance had to have been profound to cause such extensive abandonment. Biologists found only a fraction of the birds from Seahorse had re-nested on other islands. The rest seem to have lit off for parts unknown. Whether they will come back next year is unknown. We will be in suspense until the breeding season rolls around again next spring.

Back on Appledore, we were also focused on filling up an island next summer. My colleague at Northern Essex Community College, Ken Thomas, and I, were meeting with Jenn Seavey and Julie Ellis about expanding opportunities for NECC students to take courses through the lab, and also potentially to help out with the gull project beyond the banding weeks in May and July. I came away from the meeting with a long list of people to see and things to do, and money to find, but I am optimistic that we will see community college students on the course rosters on the island next summer.

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