Last week on Appledore was chick banding week, and we assembled a diverse crew to aid in these efforts. The team handled the tough conditions and grueling work with persistent good spirits and a strong work ethic, and given that these are mostly volunteers, I am all the more astonished at how fully they threw themselves into the effort, in most cases, literally.
The team consisted of students from UNH, URI, UMass-Lowell, and Northern Essex Community College, two high school students, two middle schoolers, and a rising 5th grader. In addition, we had an assortment of adults, Alice Wynn, Erica Nardone, Christophe Courchesne, and Robin Schweikert, all varying numbers of years out from their formal educations, join us for part of the week. Thank you to those helpers as well for giving of your time and energies, especially as temperatures rose to nearly 100 degrees!
Over the years, we have shifted our focus during chick banding from simply banding as many chicks as possible to being more focused and strategic in which birds we capture, band, and sample. Most of the questions we currently have in our work hinge on the relationships between individual birds: do offspring show similar behaviors to their parents? Do parents all provide care to their young after the chicks fledge, or do some leave the fledglings to fend for themselves? How often do gulls change mates? Why do they change mates? This focus on particular chicks means a lot of traveling around the island and seeking out the target birds while, frustratingly, ignoring birds standing around that would be easier to catch and band, and this team did a fantastic job staying locked on our mission.
We also added a new sampling element this year, which made the banding process a bit longer, but we think will pay great dividends. We normally take a small sample of blood from each bird in order to determine its sex. This year, in collaboration with Dr. Kristen Covino, we began collecting feathers as well as additional blood to run stable isotope analysis on the chicks. These isotopes can tell us where in the food web an individual bird has been feeding–telling us, for example, whether they are subsisting mainly on marine based or terrestrial food items. The blood will tell us something about what the chicks have been fed over the past couple of weeks, while their feathers will give us a longer term view of what they have been fed since hatching.
We also made a blood smear for each chick. From those, we can do a white blood cell count, to see if there is any evidence of infectious disease, and we can also use the ratio between two types of white blood cells to give us some indication of how much stress the bird may have been under. The work of reading these blood smears will be partly performed by Northern Essex Community College students enrolled in my Introductory Biology course this fall. Those students will also be performing the PCR protocol that will determine the sex of each chick. Only a handful of students can come out to the island each year, but many more will get to participate in the gull project through this model, known as a Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience, and I am very excited, though also nervous, to be piloting this effort. Watch this space for more on that come September.
In addition to the banding activities, Mary and I stole hours wherever we could for our annual mapping-all-nests effort. We didn’t get to the entire island this year, but we managed to come close. It was brutally hot for this work, and drove us to an exhausted semi-delirium by the end, but we are pleased with our effort overall.
Now, we enter the home stretch of our field season, as our interns, Brielle and Rene, finish up their field work and enter all their data and finish up their projects before they depart the island. They will be returning to present their findings at the Shoals Marine Lab Research Symposium on August 10. Interested members of the public are welcome to attend the symposium free of charge, so if you are a Gullumnus, or otherwise a friend of the Gulls of Appledore and would like to attend, please register here.