What the interns are up to

Since 2016, the Gulls of Appledore project has hosted summer interns to live and work amid the colony for a ten week span. Most years we have managed to fund two interns (Mary Everett who now co-leads this project, was an intern in our inaugural year, in fact), and while much of their day to day work is the slow, incremental gathering of long term population data, each intern also gets to pursue their own research project, designed to fit into the span of their stay.

We are fortunate that our interns get to participate in the Shoals Marine Lab community, benefiting from the mentorship of both early career and long established scientists, as well as the company of other interns working on everything from seal conservation to trematode parasites to sustainable engineering projects.

We, of course, are partial to our own interns and their interests, and I am sure you share our enthusiasm, so, with about half of their time on the island already elapsed, it’s high time we introduced you to this year’s interns.

Rene Borrero is a student at Northern Essex Community College. Though his major has changed from Environmental Engineering, to Environmental Science with a minor in Biology, the common thread throughout has been his abiding passion for animals, conservation, and the natural world as a whole. Rene first came to Appledore two years ago for a short stint with our banding team, and he was captivated by the blood parasite survey work being done by David Mesta, a fellow NECC student and 2017 Gulls of Appledore intern.

We were delighted that Rene was interested in living on the island this summer and pursuing his own in depth research into the birds. Rene’s open hearted enthusiasm, curiosity, and desire to be of use to the world are contagious and, on the long hard days in the field, bolster even the most flagging of spirits.

Rene at the big board.

During my most recent trip to the island to check up on their progress, Rene showed me the master white board where he keeps track of the dozens and dozens of nests he is currently monitoring for reproductive success. His system delighted my compulsively organized heart, and I only became more and more pleased when Rene moved on to demonstrate the technique he is using to measure shell thickness in hatched eggs. Rene is working on a question regarding whether or not there is variability in shell thickness within a clutch of eggs. We know that the first chick to hatch is the most likely to survive, with the odds dwindling perilously for the third (and last) chick to hatch from a nest. What Rene is hoping to find out is whether or not the advantages of being the first-born are conferred from the very start, within the egg, and whether the first egg to be laid is stronger that the others or not. It’s labor intensive work, and tedious, and since some of the eggs that fail to hatch at all are rotten, the processing can get fragrant. Rene maintains his cheerful demeanor in the face of all these challenges, and we could not be prouder of his work on this project.

Brielle (in the poncho that is part of her protocol) explains her research project to visiting writer, Sara Donnelly.

Brielle Michener is our other intern this summer, and she joins us from the University of Rhode Island. Brielle grew up on a farm, so she is no stranger to hard, smelly work in challenging environments. She came highly recommended by a scientist at URI working on marsh ecology, and on the strength of her background, we selected Brielle for our summer project. We could not be more delighted with our choice.

Brielle is organized, attentive, and deeply committed to the gull project generally, and to her own summer research. Brielle is continuing with and expanding on behavioral experiments we began with the gulls last year. With Dr. Kristen Covino, of Loyola Marymount University in California, we have started looking at correlations between defensive behavior and testosterone levels. This is long-term work, so, in addition to aiding with that project, Brielle has honed in on a more narrowly focused question for her summer study; she is interested in finding out whether mated pairs tend to be similar in their defensive behavior, or divergent. In other words, do calmer birds tend to have calmer mates, while really reactive, amped-up birds find a mate with similar agita? Or, alternatively, do pairs tend to balance each other out, with one being more reactive, and one less? Brielle is interested in how these patterns of behavior might affect the likelihood that the pair successfully fledges chicks. She also asks excellent questions about how these behaviors might carry through into future generations, and her thinking has given us fodder and directions for potential future work.

It is a deep honor to be able to offer these opportunities to students each summer. We are able to do so only through the generosity of donors who fund the steep costs of the internship, which includes a stipend for each student. We strive to offer our internship to those who have not had experiences like this before, those who might never have seen themselves or people like them represented in ecology or field biology, and students from public institutions of higher education, including community colleges. It gives me a deep sense of pride to think of the intellectual lineage we are building through our project, of all the students who have aided us, learned from us, taught us, and who go back into the regular world as profoundly altered by life among the gulls as we have been over the years.

Our thanks to Brielle and Rene for giving their time and talents to us this summer, to Tracy Holmes and Bill Clark for the funds to make it possible, and to Julie Ellis, for entrusting to us the project she built.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s