Back home, post-gulling

5 06 2015

On one of our last banding days, a group of birders showed up on the island. We gave them the whole gull banding dog and pony show, and it turned out that one member of the group was a reporter for New Hampshire Public Radio. Though his story focused mainly on the songbirds migrating through, he did include a clip of me describing gull-inflicted injuries. While this is not positive for those hoping to raise public opinion of gulls, I still think the story is worth sharing.

I also wanted to share some photos of our gull banding team–Bill Clark, longtime gull banding volunteer, took some really great photos of our group and the work. Take a look at his collection on Flickr, and please indulge me while I share two pictures that I find very funny.

A gull regards Bill’s camera head on. This is always funny.


Julie sets a trap while Peggy Friar staves off attack.

I am set up at my dining room table right now, where I am working on SEANET encounter rate data from 2010-2014. I am swearing never to permit such a backlog again. It’s going faster than I had expected, though it remains tedious work. Soon, I will have numbers for Cape Cod Bay at least, and you can be sure, you will be the first to know.

Return from Appledore

1 06 2015

The rains descended on our last morning of gull banding week this year, but fortunately, we had already wrapped up most of our work while the sun was still shining the previous evening. In the end, we managed to capture and band over fifty adult gulls, and later this summer, a second team will head out to band hundreds of pre-fledglings. As you can see, the adult banding is much slower going, but the advantage is that the adults are far more likely to return than any given juvenile, which suffer substantial mortality in the first year. So, we hope to cover our bases by doing both types of banding.

We were fortunate that Julie Ellis made it out for a couple days this years, wrestling free of her children for 48 hours or so. Hilarity ensued, naturally.

Julie and UNE student Taylor Ouellette take measurements on a gull. If these are their game faces, we're in trouble.

Julie and UNE student Taylor Ouellette take measurements on a gull. If these are their game faces, we’re in trouble.

The team gradually gained in skill over the course of the week, going from the skittish neophytes you see here to the confident gull-stalkers they were by week’s end.

Ally Pittman watches a trap from a rocky vantage point.

Ally Pittman watches a trap from a rocky vantage point.

They were also extremely good at relaxing.


From left: Alisa Povenmire, Bill Clark, Peggy Friar, Jamie Zananiri, and Ally Pittman (foreground).

Jamie was our diligent and detail-oriented data recorder, and Chandler Maagoul was Chief Sitter and Snacker.

Jamie was our diligent and detail-oriented data recorder, and Chandler Maagoul was Chief Sitter and Snacker.

Of course, even while working with live birds, my heart is with the dead ones, so I share with you this carcass we found on one of the rocky beaches of the island between two raucous gull colonies:


Luckily I snapped a photo of this Great Cormorant since Superstar Bird Nerd and Ornithology Professor David Bonter publicly called my i.d. into question. Take THAT, David Bonter!

Now, it’s back to computer work. Feast or famine around here, when it comes to the outdoors, it seems.

Another morbid website, and goings on in the Gulf of Maine

19 05 2015

You may already be familiar with WHER, the Wildlife Health Event Reporter, where members of the public can submit their reports of sick, injured, or dead wildlife. Your SEANET beached bird data gets hoovered up by that very site, so you can see what birds your neighbors, or distant SEANET kin are finding. Now, there’s an additional tool out from USGS National Wildlife Health Center, conspiratorially named WHISPers. This site draws together wildlife mortality reports from government agencies and other partner groups. Though you, as an individual citizen (scientist) cannot contribute to this particular database, you can see what’s turning up. Here’s a screenshot of the results I got when I searched for events in my home state of New Hampshire:

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 10.25.57 AM

Cool, huh? One gets not only geographic information, but in many cases, a confirmed or suspected diagnosis. Take a look around the site when you have a chance.

Now, I abruptly turn to some happenings here in the northern SEANET reaches over the next couple weeks. First up is our annual pilgrimage to Appledore Island to band gulls for the ongoing work of our own Julie Ellis. Through the generosity of a private donor, I was able to select four worthy students from my institution, Northern Essex Community College, to join our Gull Team this May. They are packing their bags and borrowing binoculars in preparation for the trip, and truly, none of them have any idea what they’re getting into.

Finally, in June, I will be meeting with faculty and administrators from my college and from the Gulf of Maine Institute to discuss possible collaborations and partnerships for our students. This is an exciting prospect and I will, no doubt, have some news on that front as the summer progresses. Never a dull moment, Seanetters. Though sometimes I do wish for a bit of a breather…

Rainbound on Appledore Island, among the gulls

28 05 2014

This week, your blogger is off on Appledore Island in very southern Maine helping out with our own Dr. Julie Ellis’ gull banding study.

First of all, I think you should all know that our own Dr. Julie Ellis had a baby girl this weekend–the brand new Ruby Ellis Hoffman is well and home with her proud parents and big sister!

Because of this happy event, Julie cannot, rather obviously, be out on the island herself, but we are striving to do her proud. So far, the weather has been somewhat unfavorable. Yesterday, we caught a brief window of dry, though cool, weather, and managed to band and draw blood from a scant three adult Herring Gulls. Alas, at that point, the wind picked up, and later in the day we started to get some rain as well. We devoted a few hours to scouring the island for any banded gulls and appear to have picked up a few subadults who may be back for the first time since being banded as chicks. After lunch though, the weather drove us inside and we’ve been pinned down since. Now, we’re hunkered down, sheltering from a steady rain.

Sarah Chieng and Sean Jeffery scan for banded birds, while a gull scans them in turn.

Sarah Chieng and Sean Jeffery scan for banded birds, while a gull scans them in turn.

For now, I introduce our May gull team: the intrepid Bill Clark, gull guru, is here of course, and your guest blogger (Sarah Courchesne still) and our student recruits: Carly Emes of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry is back for another round; Sean Jeffery, who just graduated from North Shore Community College; and Sarah Chieng, who also just finished up at North Shore with a veterinary technician’s degree. We are looking forward to clearing skies and warmer temperatures in the coming days so we can go on a banding spree and search for ever more banded birds as well.

Take a summer course at Shoals Marine Lab!

19 03 2014
Not a bad looking campus, huh?

Not a bad looking campus, huh?

At this point, readers, I am no longer asking, I am telling you and those you love to take a course at Shoals Marine Lab! Yesterday, marked the close of the application period for the one week research assistantship helping us with gull banding, but there is still time to register for one (or more) of the many amazing courses SML is offering this summer. I want to make a particular plug for two courses: Field Ornithology is in grave peril and will be canceled if the minimum enrollment is not met. The course, run by my friend David Bonter, is a fabulous opportunity to learn about birds and their ecology while in their very midst. I cannot fathom why that course is not at maximum enrollment, so let’s get it there!

I have a couple of my own students at North Shore Community College interested in Field Animal Behavior, another course in need of more students. Check that one out and the rest of the summer course catalog, or pass this information along to anyone you know who might be interested. High school students, college students of all stripes, and life-long learners are all welcome. If the sticker price has you balking, rest assured that generous financial aid (in the form of scholarship) is available, and you need only enter some simple information from your FAFSA in order to apply.

I maintain that no New Englander should live her lifetime here without ever at least visiting the Shoals. Why not immerse yourself entirely (and this is likely to be both a literal and figurative proposition) in our Gulf of Maine ecosystem?

The Herring Gull’s World

23 07 2013

By now, most of my feces and regurgitate besmirched clothes are washed and drying on the line, and I have had a few moments to think about the events of the past week. I was out on Appledore Island banding gull chicks, and taking blood and oral and cloacal swabs. Oh! The glamour!

My knees ache from seven days of crouching or kneeling on granite slabs, and there’s a small bit of blood spatter that may not ever come off of my field pants. A small souvenir to remember the birds by.

The work is always hot, grueling and dirty, and when I explain what I am off to do, most people I meet (on the mainland) look at me with brows furrowed and ask, “Why?!” I suppose I understand, and people have been giving such responses to gullers for a long time. I direct your attention to the middle paragraph of this page from Nobel Laureate Niko Tinbergen’s The Herring Gull’s World:


None of that middle paragraph is wrong; it is chaotic, and it is feces stained, and the birds do attack with substantial force when their chicks are menaced. But what Tinbergen and all of us gullers know is how enthralling the colony is too.

This year, we put together a great team of gull catchers, banders, bleeders and swabbers. They came from Virginia, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Two of them were students at North Shore Community College where I teach biology and animal science. One of them, Nick Lovasco, wrote a truly lovely letter of thanks to the benefactors and mentors who afforded him the opportunity. You can read his letter here.

For Nick, and for just about everyone else who comes out to Appledore to work with the gulls, their perspective is permanently altered. Nearly all begin making plans to come out the following year before we’re even finished with this year’s work. I catch them gazing out at the ocean, or watching a gull chick peep incessantly at its sleeping parent. They want their pictures taken with the birds; they want leg bands to take home as souvenirs. One student, when allowed to take a blood sample herself, choked back amazed tears after succeeding.

An early morning in the field for the gull team.

An early morning in the field for the gull team.

More than the science we do, this is what keeps me going back again and again: watching students’ eyes open, literally and figuratively, to the natural machinery all around them, and, for my students at least, to the ecology of their own coastal backyard.

Tinbergen says most things best, about gulls anyway, whether it be about their diets: “Also, the food is never red…it is always half-digested, and whether it be fish, kittens, starfish, earthworms, clams or crabs (to mention some of the more common kinds of food), it is never red.” ¬†or their calls: “The voice of a Herring Gull is wonderfully melodious. Of course I am biased, but I think there is no finer call than the clear, sturdy, resounding cries of the Herring Gull, carried away by the wind along the wide beach or over the undulating dunes.” But the best summation of all, I think, is this:

“I don’t regret for a moment that I have spent so many hours of my life in the gullery.”

Me neither.