A blistering banding week in the books

Last week on Appledore was chick banding week, and we assembled a diverse crew to aid in these efforts. The team handled the tough conditions and grueling work with persistent good spirits and a strong work ethic, and given that these are mostly volunteers, I am all the more astonished at how fully they threw themselves into the effort, in most cases, literally.

Most of the crew in one place. Back row, left to right: Jinette Galarza, Gus Muscato, Sam Clark, Franciel Moreno, Mary Everett, Allyson Pacheco, Rene Borrero. Front row, left to right: Sadrac Pabon, Malcolm Courchesne, Sarah Courchesne, Simone Courchesne, Marina Schnell, Mindy Prieur

The team consisted of students from UNH, URI, UMass-Lowell, and Northern Essex Community College, two high school students, two middle schoolers, and a rising 5th grader. In addition, we had an assortment of adults, Alice Wynn, Erica Nardone, Christophe Courchesne, and Robin Schweikert, all varying numbers of years out from their formal educations, join us for part of the week. Thank you to those helpers as well for giving of your time and energies, especially as temperatures rose to nearly 100 degrees!

Over the years, we have shifted our focus during chick banding from simply banding as many chicks as possible to being more focused and strategic in which birds we capture, band, and sample. Most of the questions we currently have in our work hinge on the relationships between individual birds: do offspring show similar behaviors to their parents? Do parents all provide care to their young after the chicks fledge, or do some leave the fledglings to fend for themselves? How often do gulls change mates? Why do they change mates? This focus on particular chicks means a lot of traveling around the island and seeking out the target birds while, frustratingly, ignoring birds standing around that would be easier to catch and band, and this team did a fantastic job staying locked on our mission.

Blood samples frozen for isotope analysis.

We also added a new sampling element this year, which made the banding process a bit longer, but we think will pay great dividends. We normally take a small sample of blood from each bird in order to determine its sex. This year, in collaboration with Dr. Kristen Covino, we began collecting feathers as well as additional blood to run stable isotope analysis on the chicks. These isotopes can tell us where in the food web an individual bird has been feeding–telling us, for example, whether they are subsisting mainly on marine based or terrestrial food items. The blood will tell us something about what the chicks have been fed over the past couple of weeks, while their feathers will give us a longer term view of what they have been fed since hatching.

We also made a blood smear for each chick. From those, we can do a white blood cell count, to see if there is any evidence of infectious disease, and we can also use the ratio between two types of white blood cells to give us some indication of how much stress the bird may have been under. The work of reading these blood smears will be partly performed by Northern Essex Community College students enrolled in my Introductory Biology course this fall. Those students will also be performing the PCR protocol that will determine the sex of each chick. Only a handful of students can come out to the island each year, but many more will get to participate in the gull project through this model, known as a Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience, and I am very excited, though also nervous, to be piloting this effort. Watch this space for more on that come September.

In addition to the banding activities, Mary and I stole hours wherever we could for our annual mapping-all-nests effort. We didn’t get to the entire island this year, but we managed to come close. It was brutally hot for this work, and drove us to an exhausted semi-delirium by the end, but we are pleased with our effort overall.

Now, we enter the home stretch of our field season, as our interns, Brielle and Rene, finish up their field work and enter all their data and finish up their projects before they depart the island. They will be returning to present their findings at the Shoals Marine Lab Research Symposium on August 10. Interested members of the public are welcome to attend the symposium free of charge, so if you are a Gullumnus, or otherwise a friend of the Gulls of Appledore and would like to attend, please register here.





What the interns are up to

Since 2016, the Gulls of Appledore project has hosted summer interns to live and work amid the colony for a ten week span. Most years we have managed to fund two interns (Mary Everett who now co-leads this project, was an intern in our inaugural year, in fact), and while much of their day to day work is the slow, incremental gathering of long term population data, each intern also gets to pursue their own research project, designed to fit into the span of their stay.

We are fortunate that our interns get to participate in the Shoals Marine Lab community, benefiting from the mentorship of both early career and long established scientists, as well as the company of other interns working on everything from seal conservation to trematode parasites to sustainable engineering projects.

We, of course, are partial to our own interns and their interests, and I am sure you share our enthusiasm, so, with about half of their time on the island already elapsed, it’s high time we introduced you to this year’s interns.

Rene Borrero is a student at Northern Essex Community College. Though his major has changed from Environmental Engineering, to Environmental Science with a minor in Biology, the common thread throughout has been his abiding passion for animals, conservation, and the natural world as a whole. Rene first came to Appledore two years ago for a short stint with our banding team, and he was captivated by the blood parasite survey work being done by David Mesta, a fellow NECC student and 2017 Gulls of Appledore intern.

We were delighted that Rene was interested in living on the island this summer and pursuing his own in depth research into the birds. Rene’s open hearted enthusiasm, curiosity, and desire to be of use to the world are contagious and, on the long hard days in the field, bolster even the most flagging of spirits.

Rene at the big board.

During my most recent trip to the island to check up on their progress, Rene showed me the master white board where he keeps track of the dozens and dozens of nests he is currently monitoring for reproductive success. His system delighted my compulsively organized heart, and I only became more and more pleased when Rene moved on to demonstrate the technique he is using to measure shell thickness in hatched eggs. Rene is working on a question regarding whether or not there is variability in shell thickness within a clutch of eggs. We know that the first chick to hatch is the most likely to survive, with the odds dwindling perilously for the third (and last) chick to hatch from a nest. What Rene is hoping to find out is whether or not the advantages of being the first-born are conferred from the very start, within the egg, and whether the first egg to be laid is stronger that the others or not. It’s labor intensive work, and tedious, and since some of the eggs that fail to hatch at all are rotten, the processing can get fragrant. Rene maintains his cheerful demeanor in the face of all these challenges, and we could not be prouder of his work on this project.

Brielle (in the poncho that is part of her protocol) explains her research project to visiting writer, Sara Donnelly.

Brielle Michener is our other intern this summer, and she joins us from the University of Rhode Island. Brielle grew up on a farm, so she is no stranger to hard, smelly work in challenging environments. She came highly recommended by a scientist at URI working on marsh ecology, and on the strength of her background, we selected Brielle for our summer project. We could not be more delighted with our choice.

Brielle is organized, attentive, and deeply committed to the gull project generally, and to her own summer research. Brielle is continuing with and expanding on behavioral experiments we began with the gulls last year. With Dr. Kristen Covino, of Loyola Marymount University in California, we have started looking at correlations between defensive behavior and testosterone levels. This is long-term work, so, in addition to aiding with that project, Brielle has honed in on a more narrowly focused question for her summer study; she is interested in finding out whether mated pairs tend to be similar in their defensive behavior, or divergent. In other words, do calmer birds tend to have calmer mates, while really reactive, amped-up birds find a mate with similar agita? Or, alternatively, do pairs tend to balance each other out, with one being more reactive, and one less? Brielle is interested in how these patterns of behavior might affect the likelihood that the pair successfully fledges chicks. She also asks excellent questions about how these behaviors might carry through into future generations, and her thinking has given us fodder and directions for potential future work.

It is a deep honor to be able to offer these opportunities to students each summer. We are able to do so only through the generosity of donors who fund the steep costs of the internship, which includes a stipend for each student. We strive to offer our internship to those who have not had experiences like this before, those who might never have seen themselves or people like them represented in ecology or field biology, and students from public institutions of higher education, including community colleges. It gives me a deep sense of pride to think of the intellectual lineage we are building through our project, of all the students who have aided us, learned from us, taught us, and who go back into the regular world as profoundly altered by life among the gulls as we have been over the years.

Our thanks to Brielle and Rene for giving their time and talents to us this summer, to Tracy Holmes and Bill Clark for the funds to make it possible, and to Julie Ellis, for entrusting to us the project she built.

Thank you, Bill Clark

This May, I arrived at the dock to head out to Appledore and to my delight, found standing there, Bill Clark. Bill has been the one consistent thread running through the Gulls of Appledore project. He was there at its inception, volunteering to assist with Dr. Julie Ellis’ work on gull impacts on coastal ecology. It seemed to us over the years since that he had been irreversibly hooked, and that we would never lose his strenuous efforts on the project until death itself stole him away.

IMG_3709Bill has worked in many capacities since he started on Appledore back in the mid-2000s. He has captured birds, banded, data-recorded, enlisted his neighbors back home to build traps for us, run analyses on the data driven by his extensive questions, and, most recently, took over all communication with members of the public who submit reports of banded birds out in the world. Not only would Bill write an acknowledgment of the sighting, he would provide a full life history, such as we know it, of the bird: where and when we banded it, where it has been seen since, whether or not it came back to Appledore to breed, and who its mates and offspring have been. It’s a massive workload, and I knew Bill would not want to do it forever. So, it was with little surprise, but profound gratitude, that we received his resignation last month. Bill wants to free up that time for other projects, and he is active both physically and intellectually, so I know there are and have always been many things vying for his attention. I am astonished and thankful for all that Bill has given to this project. Mary Everett and I, who now run it, are always striving to be worthy of it, and of the efforts that Julie and Bill, above all, have sunk into it over the years.

9312888889_ba5ab0ca6a_oI cannot walk any inch of this island without it prompting a memory of Bill. By this rock, he’d always set his overturned bucket and have a sit, quietly recording the data amid the frenzy of birds being banded around him. On this trail, I would often encounter him walking back from the songbird mist nets, and he would ask for a report on how many hours we’d spent looking for banded birds, and though I always hoped to please him, he always wanted more data. More bands placed, more bands sighted, more insights into the lives of these creatures we briefly get to live among.

9315697438_bc999f378f_oA couple of years ago, we threw a surprise thank-you party for Bill, knowing that he might not be getting out as consistently year to year. Every year he does is a gift to me and everyone else he comes in contact with. I have grieved the loss of his company each time he has had to reduce his time with us. When he no longer spent the whole banding week with us, when he stopped running the traps himself, when we had to try and replace his precise and attentive data recording with a series of less reliable individuals. For the past few years, since we started running our summer long gull internships, Bill has quietly funded one of those interns each season. He has served in many roles on Appledore, not just on our gull project, but I like to think he loves the gulls best, and forever I will think of Bill when I read Niko Tinbergen’s quotation, “I don’t regret for a moment that I have spent so many hours of my life in the gullery.”

Thank you, Bill, for spending so many hours at the computer answering back each and every gull spotter across the eastern United States, and thank you for spending so many hours with all of us in the gullery. I hope we’ve made you proud.

Banding week turns multi-purpose

Last week was banding week for the gulls of Appledore, though this year, we packed in much more than simply banding adult gulls as is our wont. This year, we certainly did band birds, though our efforts are now focused on a specific population. We are striving to get both mates of a pair banded so we can address questions about where mates go in the winter, who, if either, provides care to the young after they leave the island, and so on.

Banding is only half the work of course. Once a bird is banded, the whole point is for people to see it and report it. And for us, on island during the breeding season, the point is to look for previously banded birds and find out where they are nesting and with whom. Time on the island is expensive and limited, so we often sacrifice the searching for banded birds in favor of banding new ones.


The team! kneeling: Kristen Covino (L) and Mary Everett. Back row, left to right: Mike McCarthy, Ray Stacy, Rene Borrero, Brielle Michener, Steevie Litchfield-Groves, Dan Walton, Sarah Courchesne

This year, we were lucky to have a team that was able to do an absolutely brilliant job of both. All the members of our team were dedicated, attentive, and up to a challenge, so, starting on the first day, we gave them a map of the island and sent them out to look for banded birds (and to figure out where, specifically, they were seeing those birds in a place they’ve never been before). The resighting efforts did not relent, and many of the team members even gave their free time to the activity. The result was multiple sweeps of the entire island and some very thorough data.

When the team members were not out looking for birds, they assisted in banding and sampling birds. Dr. Kristen Covino, now of Loyola Marymount University in California, is working on a study looking at testosterone levels and behavior in gulls. One of our summer interns on the island this year, Brielle Michener, an undergrad at University of Rhode Island, is working on that project, and the first phase involved some intensive field work.

For the testosterone study, we needed to get blood samples in a time-sensitive manner, and also obtain a contemporaneous fecal sample. This involved the highly scientific technique described as “putting the bird in a plastic bin lined with a trash bag and wait for it to poop.” Brielle and Kristen then spent their evenings processing the blood and feces for later laboratory analysis.


The team waiting for a gull to poop, and a gull waiting to not be in a box anymore.

Our second intern, Rene Borrero, of Northern Essex Community College, lent his hands to the poop sampling, and his summer project, likely looking at eggshell thickness and hatching success, will kick into high gear as the chicks all start hatching in the next week or so.

Both Brielle and Rene are off to a great start, and seem to be retaining positivity and bright outlooks despite all the feces.


From left: Mike, Sharon, Brielle, and Steevie

The rest of the team consisted of three Northern Essex students: biology majors Mike McCarthy and Steevie Litchfield-Groves, and lab science major Ray Stacy were all willing to jump into any task that needed doing, from catching birds, to drawing blood, to data recording. Sharon McDermot, Northern Essex’s Director of Academic Affairs Operations, joined us for a couple of days, though I wish it could have been longer, given her competence and enthusiasm. Dan Walton, an intrepid soul long out of college himself, became interested in the project after seeing me speak at a Nashua Audubon Society meeting, and contacted me about coming along this year. Lucky he did because he proved to be an enormously prolific re-sighter, going out for hours before breakfast and after dinner each day.

I am grateful to all our team members for giving of their time, and I also want to thank the people who contributed the funds to make it possible to get this team out the island. Tracy Holmes, Bill Clark, Sharon McDermot, and Brad Natti all sent donations to pay for the team’s room and board this past week, and this amazing team wrung every last data point they could out of their time on island.

The only drawback is this giant stack of data sheets that all need entering into the database. But that’s really the best kind of problem to have.

Student Research Assistants needed!

IMG_3357This summer, we will be banding gulls in May (the 20th-24th) and in July (the 15th-19th). We seek students to help us with this work. We can’t pay you, but we can pay for your boat transportation, your room and board for your stay on island, and all your meals.

You’ll gain experience capturing and handling birds, placing leg bands on them, taking measurements of their bodies, and drawing blood. It’s hard work, but it’s a lot of fun!




To apply, please email me (scourchesne”at”NECC.mass.edu) by March 29 with an essay telling me:

  1. why you’d like to participate,
  2. what your interests are in education and in life,
  3. what you can offer the team (hard worker? team player? positive attitude? you’re who we want!)
  4. which of the two weeks you would prefer (May or July)

NO experience with animals or islands necessary; we will train. Just bring a good outlook and willingness to work.

In memoriam, 4X2

When we give our usual spiel about gulls to visitors on Appledore Island, we usually tell them the conventional wisdom about survivorship: that mortality in the first couple years of life is high in gulls, but that birds who live to be adults generally live many years. Both the last two in memoriam birds defied that rule, living only a couple years beyond their adolescence. 4X2 is another such bird.

A Great Black-backed Gull hatched in 2012 near Kingsbury House, 4X2 was not seen again until 2015 when Dave Adrien spotted it at the wastewater treatment plant in Exeter, NH. Another long lapse in sightings followed, with the bird being seen once on Appledore near the High Tide Pier in 2016. It’s possible that it nested, though that location is heavily traversed by human observers, and generally, birds with nests there are seen many times over the course of a summer.

No one saw the bird at all in 2017, and then, this past summer, one of the Shoals Marine Lab staff members let me know he’d seen a dead, banded gull down on the rocks. “In good shape,” the staff member told me, since I am often hopeful I will find the birds fresh enough to dissect. I walked down to find it, and discovered 4X2, spread-winged above the high tide line. The body was not in good shape, as it turned out, with eyes sunken and the lightness of dessication. This is typical–from even a fairly close distance, bird bodies rarely look decomposed. The feathers remain in good trim even long after the intestinal bacteria have loosed their bounds and consumed the body from the inside.

As final resting places go, a body could do worse than the shores of Appledore.

I wanted to retrieve the bands in any case, so I went to get some garden loppers and sever the legs. As I went to cut I could see maggots writhing in the skin bags of the hock joints. Having removed and pocketed the bands, I carried the bird back to the rocks, and, standing on the little lip of dirt under an apple tree at the sea verge, I flung the carcass over to the general area where I’d found it. But something didn’t seem right about it. I looked at the bird, crumpled on the rocks, footless, but otherwise not very different from how I’d found it, and I couldn’t leave it. I scrambled down the rocks, retrieved the bird again, and set it, belly down, wings outstretched, on a stone under the tree. I ran my hand over its back and apologized for flinging it. I thanked it for bearing the bands for us the entire six years of its life, and then I left it there.

We know very little about 4X2’s life. Nothing about where it went off island, aside from that time at the wastewater plant, or about whether it had found a mate this year before it died, or even why it died, but it is a great privilege and responsibility of this work to know a bird like this–to have laid human hands on it once as a youngling, and once again at death.

In Memoriam, Z09

In my last post, I shared the history, such as we know it, of M99. Her apparent mate, during her brief life, was Z09. He too died this year. Z09 hatched in 2013, quite near where M99 had hatched the previous year. Z09 entered our database with this terse notation about the day he was captured: “Regurgitated sausage; no bander reported.” That same combination of highly specific detail interspersed with lapses in information would characterize Z09’s whole life, as we understood it.

After fledging at the end of summer in 2013, no one reported any sightings of Z09 for the next two years, when he returned to Appledore and was seen once near Kingsbury House, hard by where he hatched. At two years old, he was a long way from being ready to breed, but like M99, Z09 seems to have been an early prospector.

After that sighting on Appledore, no one saw him again until the following spring when he was spotted at the boat launch in West Haven, Connecticut. It’s possible that that’s where he spent the previous winters too, since gulls often show fidelity to their winter sites, but the youngest birds are notoriously peripatetic, so he may well have been much farther afield in those years when no one saw (or noticed) him.

What is clear is that when he turned up in Connecticut in April 2016, he was readying for, or already headed, north; four days later, he was seen on Salisbury Beach in Massachusetts. He was not observed on Appledore at any time that summer, but neither was he seen anywhere else. By the fall of 2016, he seems to have settled in to overwinter on Salisbury Beach, with several different observers spotting him. In April 2017, he was seen closely associating with M99, so it seems they had established a pair-bond by then. Reviewing the sightings of both birds, it turns out that on at least one day the previous fall (November 6th, 2016), both birds were observed on the beach, so it appears they had ample opportunity to get to know each other in the months leading up to the breeding season. We don’t know precisely when the birds begin to look around for potential mates, but the scene on Salisbury Beach suggests an opportunity for us to do some more detailed observations there to try and parse that out.

From here on, Z09’s story coincides with M99’s almost to the very end. Just like M99, Z09 was seen once on Appledore in the summer of 2017. At four years old, he was of breeding age at that point, and was seen in the same area that M99 was, also once, that same summer. Perhaps they nested, perhaps not. Z09 overwintered on Salisbury Beach again, just like M99, and by the spring of 2018, their pair-bond was again evident on the beach, up until M99 died in April. Z09 was not seen again after that.

IMG_1909In July 2018, we were on Appledore and out criss-crossing the island mapping all the nests. On the same shrubby ledge where we think it possible that M99 and Z09 nested in 2017, we spotted a gull carcass thoroughly decomposed and beginning to come apart. We always examine these finds, and when we did, we found Z09’s band, and found also that his body was stuck to something. Turning him over, we found a length of fishing line wrapped tight around a bush with one end leading to Z09’s head, where a fish hook was lodged through his bill. We retrieved the line, we retrieved the hook, and the bands from his legs, and let him rest there, relieved of all the objects that humans, out of curiosity or carelessness, had asked him to carry.