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” 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.

The Known Dead

As the year wanes, it’s time for all the newspapers and magazines and news shows to put together their “In Memoriam” features, looking back on the notable, the infamous, and the famous dead of the last twelve month. For us at the Gulls of Appledore project, we also consider our dead. Most of our banded gulls will die in some place and at some time unknown to us, and we will simply stop hearing about them from our volunteer gull spotters. We never know for sure that these birds are gone for good; in some cases, birds reappear after not being seen for years. But for the most part, especially with our reliable breeders, if a few years go by with no contact, we assume the birds are dead. In some cases though, we get confirmation of the where and when, if not always the how, of our birds’ deaths. This December, I have a few of their stories.

M99 was a female, banded while still a chick in 2012. She hatched in a nest near Kingsbury House on Appledore Island. While many gulls won’t come back to their home colony until they are three or four years old as they approach breeding age, M99 was an early prospector. She was seen near Dorm 2 when she was barely a year old, in August 2013. Throughout the rest of that summer and fall, she turned up often on Plum Island and Salisbury Beach in Massachusetts. Then she dropped off the radar for more than a year. These kinds of lapses in sightings are not uncommon, especially in young birds, who seem to wander further afield and show less site fidelity compared to adult birds in winter time.


Mates M99 and Z09 on Salisbury Beach in spring 2018. (photo by Kiah Walker)

By April of 2015, she was back at Salisbury Beach, showing up reliably week to week. That spring M99 was only three years old. It’s not unheard of that birds that young breed, but M99 never showed up on Appledore that summer, and she spent the winter of 2015-2016 on Salisbury Beach. In May of 2016, she was spotted on the island, on a trail very near where she had hatched four years previous. It’s the only sighting we have of her that summer, so she may have nested, but it is somewhat unlikely; nesting birds typically are seen more than once as they come and go tending their young.

She spent the following winter on Salisbury Beach again, and in April, 2017, observer Dave Adrien included a note with his sighting: “So tell me, is there any history between M99 and Z09? They sure were acting chummy?” At that time, there was no history we knew of between the two, but it turned out they definitely had a future together. We suspect they may have had a nest on one of the less visited ledges on Appledore in summer of 2017. Both of them spent the winter on Salisbury Beach, and by April 2018, they were seen acting chummy again, and Kiah Walker wrote in with a photo and a report that she’d seen them “sharing clams” on Salisbury Beach.

We don’t know exactly what went wrong after that, but a beach walker saw M99 later that spring on Salisbury Beach looking weak and ill. She kept an eye on her, and we even worked out a plan to try and catch her for transport to a wildlife clinic, but by the morning, she was dead. She was a young gull, not even six years old, with no obvious signs of injury, but feathers hide a multitude of sins, and without a necropsy, we have no inkling what may have happened. M99 was survived, though only briefly, by her erstwhile mate, Z09. He met a bad end later that same season, and his In Memoriam will be our subject for the next post.


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.


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.

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.


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…


…to the next victim.”


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!)


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.


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.