“Crossed Slowly Seaward”

{One of our May gull team, Mary Everett, provided this post-banding reflection. I know you will all want to read it.}

When I was first informed of the Shoals Marine Lab gull banding program, it was described to me as a wild affair involving minimalist accommodations, transportation via boat, and bike helmets to protect one’s skull from the onslaught of birds hell-bent on ensuring their reproductive success. I was immediately intrigued.

We departed for Appledore Island and the Shoals Marine Lab from downtown Portsmouth in the late morning. The boat ride out was a sunny and pleasant one. Dr. Courchesne, our fearless leader and expert Gull wrangler, pointed out the other islands in the archipelago & some passing terns, we gawked at the massive mansions dotting the coast, and talked a bit about what to expect the first day. The Gull group very briefly acquainted ourselves with one another, just a few words here and there between taking in the sights or resting on the boat’s concrete deck. When we arrived at Appledore Island, all the passengers on the boat – the gull banding interns, the summer course students, instructors, and a few research interns – created a long human chain on the ramp leading up from the rocky inter tidal to the dirt and grass path where two small John Deere Gators waited to carry our decidedly light baggage to our equally modest bunks.

The walk to our bunks revealed a few things about the island: it was covered in gulls and a forest of poison ivy, somehow fire ants had made it there, yet despite or maybe because of all this, it was a beautiful place. Once we got our things settled, we headed to a brief orientation. All of the employees and researchers who spoke at that first meeting had a similar message about Appledore Island: this Island is unique, in its ecology and its research projects, and the time one spends here is doubly so. For the next 6 days, I myself came to know how true that was.

Our group assembled, finishing introductions and receiving some instruction on how to properly carry out our practices – trapping, restraining, bleeding, banding, measuring, and releasing Great Black Back & Herring Gulls – before Dr. Courchesne spotted an unbanded herring gull outside of the classroom, and had it captured in her bare hands within moments. It all seemed so simple and easy, with that capture. How naïve we all were!

Mary, possibly nursing ant bites, or some other typical island-induced injury.

Mary, possibly nursing ant bites, or some other typical island-induced injury, waits for a trap to be triggered.

For the week following, we learned what trapping gulls really takes, for us non-superhuman interns. Honestly, the seasoned skills of our leaders, both Dr. Courchesne and the program’s head, Dr. Julie Ellis, actually caused other ornithologists on the island to stop when passing and whisper to their students “Watch this, she’s the master. It looks easy…it is not.” It takes patience, in waiting for reluctant gulls to ignore giant metal ACME-style traps teetering over their nests and step inside. It takes strategy, in figuring our the best way to fit a sandwich-bag sized cloth sack over the business end of an angry gull armed with a 40mm + beak without suffering bodily harm. It takes a cool, calm demeanor to try and swiftly, safely, and quietly draw blood, measure, & weigh a terrified bird with a five-foot wingspan, and it takes a weird, only exhibited by Drs Courchesne and Ellis, wrist strength to actually get those unwieldy bands on the birds. Once those bands are on however, you have a bird that will (ideally) give back to the program. When someone 400 miles away in Jersey sees a Herring gull with a green field readable band, stealing a sandwich from a toddler, the program gets data – and that person gets something too. There is a unique type of excitement, being part of research in this way. While on the island, I found a few old bands, weathered and nearly unreadable. Being able to look these bands up and see that they were banded on the island years and years ago, seen in New York or Florida for a few years after that, back on the island to mate, was amazing.

I am passionate about making information regarding our environment accessible and relatable. Having experience in safe handling of wildlife, knowledge of local animals and their behavior, and an appreciation for the processes behind field science aids me immeasurably in being a better informed & more well-rounded resource, wherever I may end up. I am delighted that I had an opportunity to work under Dr. Courchesne and Dr. Julie Ellis. That I had the opportunity to meet and converse with them, to discuss ideas and even just listen in on others during meal times, was incredible. I met researchers and professors from all over, and the absolute nerd in me was a bit star-struck, I must admit. They’re like ornithology rock stars! Published! In journals! Science Friday on NPR featured them! When I told this to my husband in a rare and brief call home, I could tell that the silence that followed my exclamations was filled with a smirk on his end of the telephone. He barely kept himself from laughing as he said “I love you, Mary….” an I love you that clearly meant “My wife is the biggest dork in the whole world.”

The persistent and lone Herring Gull amidst the Black-backeds.

The persistent and lone Herring Gull amidst the Black-backeds.

These gulls  return each year once mature, to mate and fledge their young. They return with an amazing fidelity. One brave Herring gull, nested among a particularly aggressive Black Back colony, had been banded in that same area, and sighted on that same location on the island ever since. It is amazing to be a part of this, to know this information because you were a part of it. And so, after a week of bracing ourselves against dive-bombing Black Backs, nursing fire ant bites and sunburns, we loaded our bags up into the hold of the boat. Looking back up the rocks at this now-familiar place, I felt exhausted and satisfied but hopeful that I, like these innately compelled gulls, might return some day.

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