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.
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.