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!)
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 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.