Unusual gull mortality event?

In late September, over a dozen dead gulls, both herring and great black-backed, were found on a single island in Boston Harbor. There have been numerous cormorants found sick or dead recently, and there is concern among veterinary and public health officials that Newcastle Disease, an intermittent scourge of cormorants, could have crossed into the gull population.

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Dead gulls retrieved from the rocks around Little Brewster Island last month. (photo by Sally Snowman)

There is no way to know whether Newcastle is the cause or death, or whether it’s something else entirely, or even whether all the gulls died of the same thing, without performing necropsies on the birds.

We are asking all our keen eyed gull observers to be on the lookout for sick or dead gulls (or other species of bird, for that matter), particularly if it seems like an unusually high number for the location.

If you do see such a thing, please let us know. If the bodies are fairly fresh, we may be able to come retrieve them and transport them for necropsy. Thank you, as ever, for everything you all do in service of understanding these creatures and their wider world, including whatever might be killing them.

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Surprises don’t fluster this gull

Dave Adrien, dogged and tireless gull spotter, often writes us with reports of not only the banded birds he’s seen, but what they get up to. Dave sent in this story from Plum Island in Massachusetts, and we knew it was a must-share with our fellow gull admirers. In Dave’s words and photos:

“As you know, 2E2 is a very adept camp raider – I’ve caught him in the act many times – but this one was priceless.

2E2 wanders up to this pile and starts to pick through it. See the striped beach blanket? Well, there is a woman under it. Don’t ask me why as it was probably 1000 sitting in the sun that day.

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2E2 rummaging through the shrouded woman’s luncheon. 

She thinks her husband has come back and is looking for something. She throws the blanket back. 2E2 jumps a mile but never flies off.

Not sure who was more surprised: the woman under the towel, 2E2, or me.

Undeterred, 2E2 simply saunters down the beach…

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…to the next victim.”

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As always, we are grateful for reports, photos, and stories about the birds. Only with all these pieces can we begin to put together even a partial picture of what their lives are like. Keep the sightings coming, everyone!

Wrapping up another field season

It’s something of a frenzied week for the Gulls of Appledore team. Our summer intern, Brett Davekos, wraps up his 10 weeks on island today, and tomorrow, Mary Everett and I will head out on a quick day trip to finish up mapping all nests and try to squeeze in another round of resighting. No one wants to face a regret filled winter of wishing we’d searched just a little harder to make sure we didn’t miss a banded bird nesting somewhere along the coves and cliffs.

Earlier in the month we spent a week banding chicks. Our goal was to band every offspring of a banded adult on the entire island, and we managed to come pretty close. Thanks to a genuinely phenomenal team, we got more done in three and a half days than we usually do in a full week of chick banding. These hard working individuals threw themselves (in many cases literally), into the work: launching themselves into brambles or onto thick mats of algae chasing birds; crouching for hours drawing blood from each bird and writing its band number in tiny, cramped figures on a sample tube; or keeping straight six simultaneous data streams being yelled out from the various banders and measurers (thanks Jinette!)

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July Banding Team! Back row, L to R: Sam Clark, Amanda LeBlanc, Jon Aguilar, Franciel Moreno, Kyla Marcelonis, Mary Everett, Drew Parker, Jinette Galarza. Front row, L to R: Alaina Rogers, Angelisse Feliciano, Sarah Courchesne, Sarah Kern

What we left unfinished at the end of the week, intern Brett has been working on wrapping up, traveling the island with his solo banding kit and making sure we get every target fledgling banded and bled, if it’s at all possible.

We’re very nearly done with the third year in a row of all island nest census and mapping, and Mary has some extremely cool images and animations of the shifts in both numbers and locations of nests that we’ll share with you in the future.  The birds that are equipped with GPS loggers are mostly still transmitting data to the base station, though as their young fledge and they leave the island for the year, that data will slow to a trickle and finally stop, and we’ll have to wait until spring to see if all of those birds return to breed in 2019.

I love studying gulls. I love being in their company and observing them, and I love all the questions that raises, and the prospect that we might be able to answer some of those questions. But above all, I love that I get to bring other people out to the island. The teams I assemble each year are a mix of high schoolers, college students, and fully grown adults, some of them many years out of school, but never tired of learning new things. Banding gulls is intense, dirty, exhausting work, and these teams volunteer to do it, often taking time off work to join us.

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The crew at work on day one.

The island alters people. One of my students from Northern Essex Community College, Amanda, already knew she wanted to pursue marine biology, but toward the end of our week on island told me she was confused by all the options she realized there were–all the questions to be asked, and partly answered; all the ways of looking at things. It’s the kind of confusion to be embraced. Another student, Jon, spent his evenings alone by the water, lying on his back and looking at the stars. Franciel, a high schooler, borrowing our spotting scope to planet watch each evening, said he’d been thinking about becoming an astronomer, but it just seemed like so much school. Jinette, who was once my student, and is his constant and steadfast mentor, talked with him about how to break down such a seemingly insurmountable thing into parts. How not to give up when the road is so long you can’t see past where it bends. My dear friend Sarah, head of education at the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick, was, to my great delight, able to join us, bringing her open spirit, and expert animal handling skills. In addition to tireless field work, she immediately began spreading the word about our project through her network of wildlife supporters.

The teams are ephemeral–different people join us each year. Some faces return, but others move on to other things, new schools, new careers. I have ten years’ worth of photos of the students we’ve brought to the island, taught to band and bleed, taught to read a gull’s movements and postures. The work tires me out, frustrates me, takes me away from my family. Sometimes I consider not doing it at all, and whether it’s worth it. But those are questions common to all forms of teaching. When I am on the boat to go back home, scratched, bruised, dirt-smeared and stinking, I find, every time, they’re asked and answered.

 

 

Logger data. Sweet, sweet logger data.

Last month, in addition to our annual adult banding activities, we had the good fortune of having scientist Kate Shlepr on island to show us how to safely deploy solar powered GPS loggers on our birds. While Great Black-backed Gulls can be intimidating to work with, their large size means we can attach loggers with good size solar panels, allowing frequent pings to the satellites, and therefore a read on where the birds are every 15 minutes.

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Loggers are attached via a leg harness and sit low on the bird’s back. So far, we have had no issues in any of the birds.

Since we deployed the loggers a month ago, we’ve been performing weekly downloads (thanks to our intern, Brett, for staying on top of that) and can visualize the data via Google Earth.

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Pushpin icons indicate a known position, ordered numerically. The bird’s logger i.d. in this case is 29, and the number preceding that is the position.

Each bird’s data is downloaded to a base station on Appledore whenever the bird is in range. At the end of the breeding season, once the gulls disperse, we will take down the base station since the birds will not be in its vicinity all winter. We will wait, with bated breath, until next May when we redeploy the base station and, hopefully, start to pick up signals from the tagged birds as they return to nest again. Return rates for adult gulls on Appledore are upwards of 80% each year, so our chances of seeing these individuals again are good.

While much of our choice on which birds to tag was opportunistic, we tried in at least some cases to select birds that have not been re-sighted previously anywhere off island. We are deeply curious about where these birds overwinter, roost, and forage.

So far, the loggers indicate that some birds are vastly more pelagic than others. In the past month, some of our tagged birds have not visited the mainland once, preferring to forage exclusively offshore. This would explain the dearth of sightings by humans on shore. Knowing that birds forage offshore is not sufficient in gulls, however, since they could either be fishing for themselves outright, or begging for scraps off fishing vessels. Brad Natti, lobsterman and gull re-sighter, has suggested that we use AIS data to see how the tracks of where ships have been traveling overlaps (or doesn’t) with our gull logger data, and we think this is a very exciting line of inquiry that we intend to pursue once the field season winds down.

There are so many questions these loggers can help us answer, and if you have any, we welcome yours too. Watch this space for more on these special gulls.

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The look a gull gives you when you are complicit in placing a logger on its butt.

Copious thanks to thank after May banding

The bramble scratches are healing, and the bruises from gull bites are faded to yellow, so it’s high time to offer you all a wrap up of our May banding week this year.

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An all NECC Team: (L-R) William Thu, Molly Cronin, Sharon McDermot, Mary Everett, Sarah Courchesne, Jessie Taveras, Kiara Sanchez

The overall numbers may not look impressive versus previous years (25 new bands placed, 29 birds sampled for testosterone and cortisol, and 5 GPS loggers deployed), but given the range of the projects, and their newness to us, we are very pleased with the outcome.

More than anything else, I want to offer my thanks to everyone who makes this work possible. It has occurred to me that no one currently working on the Gulls of Appledore project draws any salary. This is entirely a volunteer based endeavor, and we could not do this work without the donations, in both time and money, of many generous individuals. For this week in May alone, we have to thank:

The Northern Essex Community College student team (Molly, Jessie, William, and Kiara), who have jobs, and needed to take time off work to come do a week’s unpaid labor on the island with us.

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Jessie learns to band while William expertly restrains.

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Fortunately for us, Molly discovered a love of careful data recording.

Sharon McDermot (NECC), Brad Natti (lobsterman and frequent offshore gull sighter) and Megan Natti (NOAA), who not only came out to assist us in our work, but paid their own way to do so. This frees up our funds to allow more students to join us in the field, so it’s a double benefit. Sharon even donated extra funds to help with the expenses of the students’ stays on island.

Kate Shlepr, who gave her own time to fly up from Florida and spend two days with us teaching me to place GPS loggers on the birds.

Dr. Kristen Covino, who donated her research days to us to partially offset our costs to stay on the island.

Tracy Holmes and Bill Clark, whose incredible generosity has made this work financially possible, and have made it an opportunity for students who could never travel to the island on their own dime. Their funds have also enabled us to offer a paid internship to one or two students each summer for the past three years. This year’s beneficiary, Brett Davekos, has fully immersed himself in the Shoals Marine Lab life, in ways both literal and figurative. Thanks go to him too, for spending 10 weeks away from family, friends, and real life to work on our project.

Bill Clark also gives enormous amounts of time to the project, responding to each and every member of the public who writes in with a report of a banded gull. Bill sends back a full life history on each bird. It’s only because of this kind of public engagement and education that we sustain this army of larophiles on the lookout for our birds.

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Mary Everett (L), Sarah Courchesne, and Julie Ellis all in one place at one time.

Mary Everett co-leads this project with me for no pay, and spends more time in the field mentoring our interns than I am able to. She brings a suite of skills to the project that I can’t match, and without her, none of this would run.

Finally, thanks to Dr. Julie Ellis, who started the project almost 15 years ago, and who entrusted it to us. The honor is all mine.

Commencing testosterone and behavior project

Last week we headed out into the field for an unusual and eclectic mix of projects involving the gulls of Appledore. Normally, our goal is to focus solely on resighting any and all banded birds nesting (or just hanging around) on the island, and on banding any unbanded mates of our birds. We did try to get that done, especially the resighting, but this year, we are working on two new projects that took up a good deal of time. Here’s the scoop on the first one.

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Brett Davekos has jumped right into the work and to life on the island. The gulls may be less enthused.

Our summer intern, Brett Davekos, recent graduate with an Associate’s degree in Biology from Northern Essex Community College, is looking into whether or not variability in nest defense behavior is correlated with plasma testosterone in Great Black-Backed Gulls. This work is a collaboration between us and Dr. Kristen Covino, gullumnus, postdoc at Canisius College, and soon to be Assistant Professor at Loyola Marymount University.

The first phase of this work involved collecting blood for baseline testosterone. This meant sampling the birds before they got too amped up by our presence. From the first sign of alarm in the bird, we had ten minutes to trap, capture, and bleed. Fortunately, we discovered that we work a lot faster than I had thought, and we managed to collect 27 useable samples within the time constraint.

The second phase of the project will be Brett’s. He will be testing the behavioral responses to human approach in the sampled birds. It may be some months before Kristen’s lab is up and running to process the plasma samples, but keep an eye on this space for more on Brett’s work.

Kiah Walker Reports Behavior of M99 and Z09

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Photo of M99 and Z09 sharing food by Kiah Walker at Plum Island, MA on April 17, 2018

Kiah comments: “I’d be very surprised if M99 and Z09 weren’t a mated pair. Why else would they bring each other food like that (especially in consecutive years)? Very interesting!”

Both M99 and Z09 are ‘known age’ gulls.  Both Herring Gulls were banded on Appledore Island in Maine. M99 was banded as a chick July 16, 2012. DNA indicates M99 is female. Z09 was banded as a chick July 14, 2013, the DNA sample for Z09 has not been run..

Last year, 2017, Dave Adrien also observed M99 and Z09 on April 20 in very close association at Salisbury Beach. Dave’s comment was: “So tell me, is there any history between M99 and Z09? They sure were acting chummy.”  Z09 was on Appledore in May 2017 but no nest was recorded and M99 was not reported on Appledore Island in summer 2017 but that does not mean that they did not nest as a pair on Appledore Island or elsewhere.  They will be worth watching for this summer on Appledore.

We have several reports now of gulls pairing up, “chummy” as Dave says, during March and April. Some bonding appears to be exhibited ‘off-island’.  The well-known 2E2 and 5T9 have repeatedly shown very close association in late winter at Sandy Point more than 20 miles from their nesting area on Appledore Island .

Thanks to the many individuals who take the time to report banded gulls and behavior.  Kiah’s behavioral report and photo are appreciated as were Dave Adrien’s last year and the many, many, others.