Plum Island gull goings-on

It’s always been a half-truth, calling “the gulls of Appledore” by that name. Appledore is their summer home, singles bar, nursery for the young. But by September, they’re basically all gone, off to wherever they go. Sometimes we know very well where, other times not at all.

Plum Island in Massachusetts is a big long barrier island encompassing chunks of multiple towns, and also the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. At the far southern tip of the island is a bit of Commonwealth land: Sandy Point State Reservation. It’s down that way that we lay our first scene.

Map of Plum Island (via Historic Ipswich)

Dan Prima, frequent sighter of gulls, sent an email this week with the subject line “Showdown at Bar Head.” I opened the missive expecting news of a brief tiff between gulls, and maybe a photo. Most Famous Gull of Appledore, 2E2, lives on the southern section of Plum Island, down by a spot called Bar Head.

Dan described and photographed a scene that startled me, and left me feeling a bit uneasy about 2E2’s general welfare.

“So I was at Lot 7 on the Refuge scanning the ocean when I saw two Great Black-Backed Gulls squabbling on the water….at first I thought it was a food thing.  But when I watched in the scope for several minutes, I could see this was no food discussion.  This was a full fledged street fight!   After watching for 10 minutes, I went to video.  

The gulls finally separated, and I checked them real quick.  One was 2E2!  Of course, I went down the beach to check on him….couple photos show him a little beat up but he seemed to walk it off.  

Wondering if this other gull was challenging him for his mantle as top gull of the south end of the refuge.”  

The photos alone give a sense of the protracted and violent struggle. In one frame, one gull bites the other’s head. In another, a beak clamps the leading edge of a wing. One bird is dragged backward, webbed feet pitched up in the air. They roll across the sand and the surf advances and recedes around them repeatedly as they remain literally at each other’s throats.

2E2 is a generalist, and will feed on anything from seal carcasses to clams to unattended picnics. As Dan says, this battle was not clearly about food or any obvious cause at all. We don’t usually see fights this severe, even on the breeding colony. The physical risk of engaging in beak to beak combat generally means the gulls avoid it and settle their differences with displays and vocalizations. Whatever happened between these two could not be settled with words, evidently. I wonder about Dan’s speculation–2E2 is now at least twenty years old, and could be quite a bit older. Could he be vulnerable to challenge over…what? A particular bit of beach? The birds generally are not all that territorial off the colony, at least when there’s no food at stake.

It’s a weird little mystery, and the mysteries mounted when another of our gull enthusiasts, Kat Couree, wrote me this week to report another strange behavior regarding 2E2:

“Just sharing that I have heard about 2E2 twice in a few days exhibiting some interesting behavior ..maybe normal but nothing I have seen though I am not at lot 7 every day. Apparently he came down on a person in a  school group and swiped a sandwich from her hand..then flew off but didn’t eat it and came back to the group again.

I have never seen him go near people at all like other gulls in all the times I have been there. He usually stays off on the edges of everything.”

I agree with Kat; 2E2’s personality tends toward diffidence. He’s not usually the kleptoparasite kind, and when he does eat people food, he snags it only when some unsuspecting person has left it unattended. On Appledore, he’s not the most vehement nest defender. He has a generally easy-going demeanor and is neither particularly alarmed by people, nor all that comfortable approaching them.

Could it be that 2E2 is not doing well in some way? Maybe it’s just a strange/bad week for him. I know 2E2 can’t live forever, but I wish he would, and these reports of perturbations in his usual flow have me a bit worried, I confess.

My worries aside, this is the great joy of our long term banding: intimate knowledge of individual gulls; their families and friends and frenemies; their food preferences and personalities.

I also am deeply grateful to all the other folks who devote time to gull watching on Plum Island and elsewhere, helping us build up this picture. Some of these folks go beyond gull watching to gull rescue. Kat has worked to save sick and injured gulls in the past, and she’s not alone. Rounding out the gull news trifecta this week, I also had an email from Mike Paige, who has proposed, along with Kat, starting up a local gull rescue that, to my utter delight, they want to call “Wicked PISR” (as in “Plum Island Seagull Rescue”). Mike has seen gulls get into all manner of trouble, generally due, in some way, to human interference. He wrote:

“A few weeks ago I was at Sandy Point.  Some woman was fishing.  A gull grabbed her bait and got snagged.  Luckily I was there.  I was able to grab the gull because it was still on her line, cut the line free and carried the gull back to my space on the beach where a friend was.  The hook went through the beak but not the tongue, looked like just beak cheek.  I had my friend hold the gull. I went back to my car where I have a toolkit.  Got the wire cutters.  I was able to cut the barb off and the hook fell free,  My friend let go of it and it flew away.  There’s a success for you.  The gull must have pecked and bit my hands 50 times.  I had to stick something in its mouth so it couldn’t bite me and so I could get at the hook.  I bought my friend and I the smallest ever pair of bolt cutters so we can cut fish hooks.  Fish hooks for surf casting really should only be made out of iron so they’ll rust out of creatures’ mouths and fall away.  No more stainless fish hooks.  I still chuckle when I think how mad that gull was at me.”

In a fortuitous convergence, I now find myself in a better-than-ever position to help our gulls throughout their annual and life cycles: I have a new job as a Program Ornithologist at Mass Audubon, based at the Joppa Flats Education Center, just down the road from Plum Island. I get to help out leading bird outings to the Refuge and other local spots, and visiting with Plum Island based gulls is a real perk of the job. I hope I can also help facilitate Wicked PISR as they get off the ground, so to speak.

If we hear more about 2E2, whether more bizarre or untoward interactions, or just that he’s back to his normal self, you will, of course, be the first to know. In the meantime, keep him in your prayers, if you’re the praying kind, or just send him some good vibes, on the vibe radio frequency gulls usually tune in to.

Red Eye of Isles of Shoals

Back in June, I got the opportunity to give a joint public presentation on gulls through my dear friend, Sarah Kern, who coordinates education programs for the Forest Society here in New Hampshire. My co-presenter was lobsterman and author John Makowsky. John wrote a book called “Red Eye of Isles of Shoals” about the connection between him and a Great Black-Backed Gull he calls Red Eye. Their story went big when Red Eye suffered an ailment and needed care. She made a full recovery and returned to life at sea, and on the bow of John’s F/V Intrepid.

This summer, when highly pathogenic avian flu (HPAI) tore through the continent, the gulls of Appledore suffered mightily. Dozens of birds died, presumably of the disease, and I became worried about Red Eye too. Red Eye is not banded, but we presume she breeds on Appledore. In summer, John reports that she heads off toward Shoals after she grabs breakfast on his boat. Given that Appledore hosts the vast majority of gulls breeding in the Isles, she’s probably a gull of Appledore. In any case, we consider her an honorary one.

I wrote to John back in July to see if Red Eye was faring well during the avian flu outbreak. He sent back a note and pictures that delighted me:

“So sorry to hear about the gulls on the island. RedEye seems good — meeting me every day.
Usually she seems to only want fish bellies and small bites then leaving I assume to feed her young.
Her mate Hero then sometimes arrives. I think he does a good job as a stay at home Dad. He is not too quick at grabbing the fish I toss him and usually seems surprised when a herring gull gets it first.

My last two trips I was surprised to see both RedEye and Hero come on board together. Is it possible that their young are old enough to be left alone? I did watch RedEye head back after a while and Hero stayed longer before leaving too.”

Red Eye the gull strides across the bow of a lobster boat toward a severed fish head that seems to be staring directly into the camera lens.
A fish head that seems to convey a deep sense of foreboding at Red Eye’s approach.
Red Eye the gull grips the severed fish head in her bill.
It went exactly as badly as the fish head feared.

In answer to John’s question, yes, at that point in the year, it was possible that the youngsters could be left alone for stretches while both parents went out for a date together. Near fledglings on the colony are often just hanging out in groups while their parents are away foraging. These groups of youngsters are akin to human teenagers who travel in bands and don’t have to be watched as closely as the chicks do when they’re younger and more vulnerable.

As the breeding season on the Isles of Shoals ends, and the avian flu outbreak fades, we are hoping all gulls can enjoy a bit of downtime, and we wish them all the fish heads and bellies and varied foods they love. May the chips rise to meet you, gull friends. See you on island next year, we hope, healthy and hale.

Asking this gull, “cat got your tongue?”

…or, maybe just your syrinx?

Beachgoer and gull noticer George Ingalls sent in a video and a question about a curious encounter he had with a gull in Maine. The herring gull had approached him and some friends, obviously hoping for some food. George reported that the bird was making a very cat-like meowing sound. This did not surprise me, since gulls make a call called a “mew” and another called a “yeow” and it all can be a bit cat-like. The mew call is given with the head lowered and the neck arched. It’s communicative purpose can vary a lot–sometimes it’s to call the kids back if they’ve wandered to far, sometimes it’s to call a mate in to help with nest defense–basically, the mew varies with context. I figured the gull George saw and heard was doing a mew, but when I watched the video, what I heard was waaaay more feline than the standard gull sound.

The remarkably feline vocal stylings of a herring gull. (video by George Ingalls)

George had speculated that maybe the bird had damaged vocal cords or something like that. Birds don’t have vocal chords like we do, and their soundmaking equivalent of our “voice box,” the syrinx, is not high up in the throat like ours, but down in their chests, at the point where the trachea ends and splits into two bronchial tubes. Nonetheless, gulls do definitely suffer oral and throat trauma routinely, getting fishing hooks and such embedded in those tissues. It’s possible that this bird did have some sort of similar trauma that altered its voice.

We do encounter some variability in vocal performances among the gulls of Appledore. In our database there are notes like, “husky voice–very sexy” for some individuals. As with George’s gull, we never really know what accounts for these individual differences, but they are always cool to hear, and we’re grateful to George for capturing this one on video so we can all hear this bird produce less a mew than a meow.


Today’s post is by guest essayist Kayla Cannon.

Kayla is a summer 2022 intern with the Gulls of Appledore Project. Her research focuses include the cooperation between Great Black-backed Gull mates to defend their nests and the behavior of single gull parents (bereft of mates during the avian influenza outbreak) raising unfledged chicks. When she’s not admiring gulls, she studies biology at Bryn Mawr College, reads poetry, and plots her next backpacking trip. She hopes to soon undertake graduate research on avian behavior at the University of St Andrews and write a book that captures some of the wonder of the field.

At sunset, the gulls settle for the night. Breeding adults return from foraging to their nesting territories; birds without nests stand silhouetted on rooftops. The sky and sea lie quiet.

A sudden wind springs up. At once, the air is inundated with gulls. Creamy cocoa juveniles swirl by the hundreds on invisible currents. Silver- and black-winged adults join them. The twilight comes alive with their shouts.

Living on Appledore, I’m frequently treated to the sight of this jubilee. Whenever an especially favorable wind visits the island, the gulls—mostly non-breeding sub-adults; many breeding birds too—leap into it.

Why this exuberant response? There could be some practical purpose: for instance, a stiff breeze may provide the ideal platform for nest defense. During my research on the latter, I have experienced gulls defensively swooping with little effort when the wind raises them to a convenient position before each dive. Even birds that usually demonstrate less-intense defensive responses take to swooping on windy days.

Yet, many of the wind-riders are young birds without nests or chicks to defend. Adopting a position appropriate to aerial defense seems a waste of energy when they could instead lounge on a rooftop.

Perhaps the flight support that a gale offers assists foraging as well as defense. Yet, many birds glide over land rather than over water from which they might snag a fish.

The Tree Swallows of Appledore suggest another reason for gulls to ride the winds. These tiny islanders pick up fluffy gull feathers, not to line their nests, but to lift, drop, and recapture in mid-air. Dipping and tumbling, they turn them into toys. The game fine-tunes their skill in snapping flying insects out of the sky.

Gulls rely on expert glides to carry them over expanses of ocean and targeted swoops to catch fish near the surface. Such a life makes precise control of air currents essential. As swallows play with feathers, gulls play with the wind.

And perhaps they also soar for the sheer delight of it.

May banding wrap-up

I write this with fingers stiffened and sore; Appledore and its gulls dealt us all the usual maulings–bruises and flayings by fierce beaks, slashed shins from wading through chest-high raspberry patches, and the sore shoulders and banged up hip bones that result from lugging rebar framed gull traps and buckets of gear all over the island.

We ran a small but highly experienced team this year; in addition to Mary Elizabeth and I, veterans of last year, Sean and Dylan, were able to return again. One-time intern and long-time friend of the gulls, Taylor, came along too. In addition, we were fortunate to have Ford, Fred, and Phoebe on loan to us from the songbird banding station for an afternoon, and we banded like crazy for a few hours. For the first day and a half of our time, we were also joined by Dartmouth student Helen, who is investigating mercury levels in the seabirds of the Isles of Shoals. We got her some lovely matched sets of second secondary feathers.

A gray sky over a rocky outcropping. Great Black-backed gulls stand on the rocks, and common eiders swim in the ocean at the base of the ledge.
Out in the colony as the rain was closing in.

In general, May is a mix of tasks. We have to walk the whole island searching for every banded bird we can find that has set up housekeeping. We label each of those nests, and then go back repeatedly to determine if the bird’s mate is already banded as well, or is a target for us to capture and band. We lost about a full day to rain, constraining us even further, so I feel most pleased at how many birds we did manage to band. We also obtained fecal samples for Dr. Kristen Covino’s ongoing research into testosterone levels and nest defense behavior.

A gull, restrained with a hand gently on its bill and another over its back.
Mary Elizabeth prepares to release a now-banded bird on Sandpiper Beach.

Above all, I found myself thinking of how we treated each other this week. All our team members kept the birds’ well-being at front of mind, trying as best we could to minimize the disturbance and stress we cause. Perhaps more than in any year before, however, I found myself focused on how to make the week as low stress and low disturbance as I could for our human team too. As we’ve gone through the shared global trauma of the pandemic, I have thought more and more about how to conduct myself in the world. There is no reason we can’t do good, careful science while also extending each other radical grace, acceptance, and care. We strove to do that for each other this week, checking in on each other’s exhaustion levels, boredom levels, depletion levels. Trapping gulls is an adrenaline-spiked activity. I, at least, get a little amped up and shaky every time I trap, catch, or handle a bird. It’s a task that takes complete focus, and we do it again and again.

Being in the colony requires sensory vigilance, and that takes its toll on all of us. Add to this the hard work of lugging gear around in the sun and wind, and crouching and bending and scrambling, and it’s no wonder we ended each day exhausted. We get knocked in the head by gulls, bitten by them, shat upon by them. One of them showered a group of us in feces, and some of it landed in my mouth and in the corner of my eye. My washed clothes and backpack are still out on my clothesline two days after I got back home, still carrying a faint whiff of fish and rot.

I am full of gratitude for the team we had this week. We got through it with good humor, kindness, and mutual support. Thanks to all of you. I’d go gulling with you anytime.

A person, laughing, wearing a black bike helmet with a mohawk of spikes holds up a pinkie finger with something balanced on top.
Sarah has made a new friend…
Close up of that pinkie finger reveals a somewhat downtrodden or bemused face drawn on it in Sharpie, and a limpet shell hat on the top.
…in a jaunty limpet shell cap.

July banding “week” a qualified success

In a normal year, we head out to Appledore Island in mid-July to catch and band the young of the year. They grow fast, and we have to try to get there in the sweet spot when they are large enough to band, but not large enough to fly away when we chase them. This year, with COVID restrictions still in place, Shoals Marine Lab could not give us time on island until the end of July and early August. We decided to chance it anyway and accepted the slot.

Within hours of arrival, it was clear that most of the young birds were fledged, fledging, or dead. The island had a calm, quiet quality that I am ill-accustomed to. We elected to try banding the next day, and if the pickings were slim, we’d truncate our trip and leave early. Reader, the pickings were slim. That morning we set out chasing after the young birds, and in most cases, instead of remaining earthbound and running around like chickens, they simply lifted off and glided several meters away each time. We had no hope of catching most of them, though with a madcap strategy of flushing them into thickets and then leaping in after them, we came away with over two dozen banded chicks, as well as a crop of raised welts and wheals on our skin from a heady blend of poison ivy, raspberry thorn, and stinging nettle. For science.

The team crouches around a young gull, restrained in a canvas bag, as its blood is sampled and bands placed. The parent looks on from a dirt pile.

We were running a lean team anyway, with Mary Elizabeth and I marginally in charge, and our crew of gull catchers: Sean, Dylan, Val, Emma, Isabelle, Marina, and Beck. All of them had volunteered their time with us, taking a break from mainland obligations (and paid work) to aid us in our endeavors. We also had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Anjali, who has spotted banded gulls for us for a while, and has a particular fondness for 2E2. We instructed her on where to find him on island (reliably on the roof of the Sunset Pavilion gazebo), and then later, she joined us for gull catching too. We had some intriguing conversations about her plans to pursue a PhD, and her interest in studying gulls for same. Hopefully, we’ll be following up on how our project might plausibly be patchworked in with the expertise of some data wonk/analysis types to forge a science synergy we’ve long imagined.

After the fair amount of success we had on Thursday, we found that there were precious few chicks left for us to band. They either could fly, or were unflighted, but not part of our study population. So, Mary Elizabeth, Sean, Val, Isabelle and I headed off island on Friday morning. This saves our project some money, but there was yet work to be done, so Dylan, Beck, Emma, and Marina remained behind to spend two and a half days focused on resighting banded birds on island. This critical work sometimes gets set aside when banding is in high gear, but there is truly no point to banding if no one ever goes looking for where those bands turn up. With the human population on Appledore lower than normal because of the pandemic, we had fewer students and other visitors to make incidental sightings for us. It therefore struck us an excellent use of time and funds to station our partial team there to traverse the whole island and scour it for every band they could spot. We left them with a bag full of binoculars, a spotting scope, bike helmets, and their own intrepid spirits, waving as our boat headed for Portsmouth.

As ever, this project runs almost entirely on volunteer power, time, and energy. It is with profound gratitude to everyone who gave all three this summer that we set this field season in the books, and hope for better days, and banding weeks, next year.

Anthropomorphize that Rat with Wings!

Today’s Guest Blogger is UNH student Rachel Lewis, a current Field Ornithology student on Appledore.

Those pesky seagulls, stealing food at the beach, dive-bombing the peaceful beach goer. It doesn’t take much to see why so many people find gulls annoying and intrusive. And yet, with a little more understanding and a shift in perspective, the beachgoer may not be so inclined to call these birds their (obviously affectionate) nickname, “rats with wings”.

2E2 pilfering. Photo by Dave Adrien

Introducing: anthropomorphism, the practice of applying human characteristics like thought and emotion to anything that is not human. The object can be anything from a lamp to a god, to (you guessed it) a gull. Many people, ranging from the general public to lab scientists, hear the word “anthropomorphize” and immediately think ‘Wait! I shouldn’t do that! That’s bad!’, but that’s not entirely true. Sure, at the current moment there is no way to be 100% sure that an animal is feeling what you and I would describe as sadness, happiness, longing, love, etc., but to observe any animal in its natural habitat is to be immersed in its world. To study its behaviour, even through simple methods like focal sampling, is to try and understand the world through its eyes.

Author and marine biologist Carl Safina, in a 2015 interview with Becca Cudmore for the National Audubon Society, was asked the question, “How did you come to distinguish ‘who’ from ‘it’ animals?”. Essentially, this question is asking ‘why do you find it inappropriate to hurt some animals, but not others for entertainment or study’. Safina talked about how they are fine with other people fishing or hunting deer, but think someone killing a dolphin, ape, or elephant as murder. When they delved deeper into why they felt this way while writing their book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, Safina made the connection that the latter animals experience personal, individual relationships in which what happens to the individual significantly affects others in its family or population. The ‘who’ animals remember each other. They build societies and families off of interactions with each other. Safina gave the example of ravens relating to each other, like primates do.

I have been observing the gulls on Appledore Island, Maine, USA for just a few days. Yet, still, in this short amount of time, I find it impossible to observe their behaviour and still come away thinking  that these birds are pests. Currently, the Herring and Great Black-Backed Gull populations on the island are nesting, hatching, and raising chicks. This has given me the unique opportunity to observe interactions between mates, parents, and offspring, and to see how willing the gulls are to defend their young from any perceived threat. The commitment that these birds have to parenting their young is quite endearing, even as they charge you for unwittingly getting too close to their nest, hidden in the brush on the side of the trail.

A lovely couple caring for their chicks.

I have seen mates rushing back to the nest to help defend from a gull attack. I have seen mates working together to build their nest, exhibiting ‘choking’ behaviour when they agree, which to me looks like a vigorous bird nod, each time eliciting a smile from behind my mask. I have seen chicks begging for food. I have seen eggs being incubated. I have seen parents protecting their hatching chicks, and mates exhibiting partnering behaviours, like trusting each other enough to turn away and let them watch your back. There have even been off-island observations of chicks from past years coming back and their parents feeding them still, even when they have a new clutch for the year. With each new behaviour that I have been lucky enough to observe, it becomes increasingly clear that the lives of these gulls are built off of these interactions on Appledore throughout the nesting and breeding season. They construct intimate relationships with their relatives as well as their mates. If these relationships were to be altered or lost, it would significantly affect the well-being and quality of life for the individual gull. Safina would refer to a gull as a ‘who’ animal, and so do many of the researchers on Appledore who coexist with the gulls through every breeding season.

Back to the beachgoer: it is important to remember that on the beach, we are in the gull’s habitat, their hunting grounds. Why wouldn’t they try to eat? It is not their fault that we are providing food while they are looking for it. Appreciating where you are can quite abruptly change your perspective about the behaviour of animals you affect. So, I challenge you to think about whether or not you really believe that a bird with such capacity for connection can truly be the rat-with-wings pest many assume it is. And while we’re at, what’s so bad about rats?

Here is an example of nest building that I observed:

Remove, replace, reband

Generally speaking, banding week is about placing things, adding things. True, we may steal a few feathers or a bit of blood, but the main purpose is to put bands on birds and then release them to go about their days, months, years, lives, as they were, but now individually identifiable to us humans, with our notoriously poor ability to recognize individual animals by face, or posture or mannerism. We didn’t capture all that many unbanded birds today, and the theme of the day’s work often seemed to be more about removing things.

In 2018 and 2019, we deployed backpack style GPS loggers on a few of the gulls. We intended to recapture the birds in 2020 and remove the loggers, but, well, 2020. Today, we discovered one of the logger bearing birds sitting on a nest under some of the island’s solar panels. For some reason, the logger is no longer transmitting, so we captured that bird to relieve it of the burden it’s been carrying for a few years now. Hopefully the data locked up inside this little device can be downloaded once we send it back to the company. Here is the logger:

And here is the patch of skin where the logger was in contact with the bird’s back.

We were relieved to see it had suffered nothing much worse than some broken feathers and light scabbing, but it still felt good to remove it and let this bird go back to not bearing this burden for the sake of our curiosity.

We did capture a few birds that were entirely new to us as well. One, a rather calm, sedate female, was largely unperturbed by our presence. Being grabbed off her nest and put in a bag, however, disturbed her peace enough that she regurgitated an earlier meal of potato chips and rice. Her apparent close associations with humans and their food was also illustrated by the evidence of a less pleasant run in with human refuse: the monofilament and string wrapped tight around her foot.

We snipped it off and inspected the foot, finding early abrasions and indentations that would likely have progressed over time had we not chanced upon her. Pleased to have relieved her of this painful entanglement, we released her with a much more comfortable set of anklets, but not before she gave me rather an impressive twisting bite to the wrist. Mary was eventually able to pry her off, and we returned her to her nest where she re-ingested the potato chips. They were not doubt just as delicious on their second trip down her esophagus.

We had hoped she’d be a good candidate for the stress hormone study, since we had all of us marveled at her sedate demeanor, but alas, the requirements for participation in that study are strict: the bird must already have three eggs in the nest, and she had but two.

This has been a theme of our banding work this week; the team’s overall impression is that the colony is slow to get started. Many nests still have two, one, or even no eggs at all yet, putting a damper on the hormone sample collection aspect of the work. We’ve been lucky to be able to trap such birds since many of them are not all that motivated to return to the nest (where we place the traps) until they have a full clutch of three eggs to incubate. One of these cooperative birds with only two eggs so far is a very dear old friend of ours.

2E2 is rather a famous gull in these parts. A denizen of Plum Island in Massachusetts most of the year, he’s been breeding on Appledore since our study began in the early 2000s. He received his 2E2 band back in 2006, and in recent years, it’s been showing increasing signs of wear and tear (the band, not the bird–2E2 himself is still full of vim and vigor, as well as clams, skates, stolen picnics, and the flesh of washed up dead seals. He has a varied palette.)

Today, we managed to catch 2E2 and replace that band. Normally, we issue a new alphanumeric code when we replace a worn band, but 2E2 is so well known by that moniker, we couldn’t bear it. Luckily, Robin Haggie, who manufactures our bands, kindly made us a replacement 2E2 band which we placed today. Here you can see the 15 year old band alongside a newly minted one.

The plastic thins and becomes brittle over time, and we’d have been lucky to get one more year out of this old band before it broke clean off. Now, 2E2 goes back out into the world with a shiny new band ready to be seen and reported. As we entered the data on his recapture this evening, Mary and I talked about the inevitable time when we won’t hear any further word of 2E2. Most likely, we’ll never know when and where he died, we’ll just stop getting reports of his exploits, and one year, he won’t turn up at his accustomed nest site beside Sunset Pavilion here on Appledore. But may that be many, many years hence.

We’re back!

Today was our first day of gull banding in nearly two years. We lost 2020 to COVID entirely, and didn’t set foot on island at all. There was a certain satisfaction in knowing the birds were having a breeding season of peace, unperturbed by banders or all and sundry students, staff, and faculty trundling to and fro near their nests, but we did pine for the lost data, and what we’ll never know about who mated with whom in 2020, and how their babies fared. But, onward we go. Mary Everett, co-lead of the project with me, has been the advance guard, on island since the 17th. Our intern, Dylan, joined her on the 19th, and the rest of us wandered in yesterday. We benefited greatly from Mary and Dylan’s groundwork, so it was easy-peasy to get right to it.

Me in collared shirt, spike helmet. Because you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have.

This week, we’re back, and the muscle memory of trapping, catching, bleeding, and banding kicked in as if we we never left. We have a small but absolutely lovely team of banders: Robin, Sue, and Sharon. Dylan is as diligent, clever, and bright as you could possibly want a person to be. They are on top of the data, shrewd in their observations, and, to my Type A heart’s delight, extremely tidy in their field notes. It is an easeful pleasure to work with this team. Gull banding is dirty, tiring, taxing work, but with the right crew, our first day’s work sped by and we were more successful that we’d anticipated. We recaptured a few birds who needed replacement bands for ones they’d lost, and in one case, we inspected a worn band but decided to leave it in place. 2V2 was banded back in 2012, and this band looks to have several more years’ of life in it.

As usual, we are working on several overlapping projects at once: the long term, social and family structure and life history work that we see as the backbone of the whole gull endeavor; a more recent focus on hormone levels and how they correlate with nest defense activity (working with Dr. Kristen Covino); and analysis of the stable isotopes in blood and feathers from the birds that can tell us what sort of foods (marine vs. terrestrial) they’ve been eating (also in concert with Kristen).

Dylan, Sue, and Sharon setting a trap as the gulls disapprove.

After the day’s banding activities wrapped up and Mary and I turned to data entry, the rest of the crew headed back to out to search for more target nests so we can hit the ground running tomorrow morning. We hope for another fabulously productive, fun, satisfying day like this one. I’ll be sorry to see Sharon and Robin leave us on Monday morning, so we are all the more motivated to derive as much benefit from their positivity and cheerful work ethic as possible before we wave them off at the dock.

Until the morrow, gull friends.


Sunset, ocean, I mean, if you’re into that sort of thing.