Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Last Sunrise

Last Sunday was my last full day on Appledore. For once, I managed to willfully wake up before the Sun. In the faint morning twilight, I made my way to the Stone Bench, trying not to scare chicks into running or flying out of their territories. Every scuttle and peep revealed an adult-sized chick with sleek, grey, white and brown flight feathers and shiny new green or black and metal bands where, only two months ago, the place had been overridden with tiny, fluffy, next-to-helpless chicks.

It was a cool, breezy morning, and I settled myself on the Stone Bench, pulled out my notebook and wrote my last blog entry as the Sun's rays slowly crept over the island, filling me with warmth and showing me the extraordinary beauty of the place I was leaving behind.

The sunrise

Writing this blog post

Here's what I wrote, slightly modified and polished in places –

It's about five in the morning and breezy. I'm sitting here on the Stone Bench in the early morning twilight to catch the sunrise; to see one last Sun rise over Appledore before I leave. The clouds in the distance are a warm, golden orange, promising a beautiful scene ahead.

I have “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music stuck in my head – Lindsay, Lauren and I finished the movie last night – and the gently lilting melody is strangely mixing with the numerous, constant yeow calls around me. Someone once tried to make a sarcastic remark, calling the yeow call “melodious”, and I completely failed to get it because, to be perfectly honest, I think it actually is a most beautiful sound, if not exactly melodious. And I'm going to miss it, so much.

I have a great view of the entire stretch of Norwegian, where the majority of my nests lie – or lay, rather, for we took the nest labels off yesterday – and I can trace my daily path through the colony with my eyes – I can even see 216's rock, 216 whose chicks I never failed to find – knowing I will never walk it again.

It has been a great run, a great summer. I can't emphasize the “great” enough, partly because I know that I will only realize the magnitude of it when I return to Ithaca (boy, was I right).

But, I can say this: I have learnt, experienced, grown and enjoyed more in the past two months than I have ever done before. Of course, I've learnt how to handle chicks and take a blood sample and band them and such. In fact, I've learnt a lot about gulls – how to tell when you've disturbed a gull too much or when it's going to poop as opposed to just hit or if a chick is not in its territory and thus needs to be rescued or the age of a chick just by looking at it. I've also gained a lot of random skills like sprinting across rocks and squeezing my hand under rocks and being able to tell if a bush is safe to jump into or will require some careful thorn-removal after.

But, more than all that, I have learnt to be disciplined (checking 75 nests everyday no matter what, without anyone keeping a check on me), to stay calm in emergency situations (of the kind when you stab yourself with an infected needle), to work with others (I've gained great friends in Brendan and Michelle, and, if you're reading this guys, thank you, for everything), to question everything I see in scientific terms and to take an active interest in trying to figure it out, and to be patient and adaptable when things don't go the way they were planned to (for that seems to be the nature of fieldwork).

I'm glad that Appledore seems to have a knack for luring people back every summer, and I'm sure that, if feasible, I will be back next year, running after and banding chicks, clambering up into the Shoe Tree to spend some time reading on my favorite branch and drinking in and delighting in the sights, smells and sounds – or, rather, the sound – of Appledore all over again.

One last visit to the Black Guillemot chicks who were already starting to grow in their wing patches!

Left my shoes on the Shoe Tree...

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Eat. Sleep. Gull.

Since its conception on Sunday, 15 July, Gull Chick Banding Crew 2012 has been, quite literally, rocking it. For us – that is, Dave, Julie Ellis, Justin Stilwell, Galina, Michelle, Luke DeFisher, Caleb Arellano, Michelle Lapointe, Steven and Bill – the day starts at daybreak.

We meet at the Commons at 5 15 to grab some pre-breakfast, usually in the form of cereal or a banana, and then head down to the Grass Lab to pick up chick banding gear and for a whole day of sprinting across rocks after Herring and Great Black-backed chicks.

For each chick we take a blood sample, put on two bands – a metal USGS band and a plastic Field Readable band, each with a unique code – and measure the bird's weight, tarsus and head + bill. The blood sample helps us determine the sex of the chick, in addition to other DNA analysis; the bands help us identify the bird as an individual every time we spot it, helping us track its movements as it migrates south for the winter and then, potentially, returns to the island to breed; and the measurements help us answer a range of questions, from how hatch order affects growth to do older birds have healthier chicks to difference in size by sex.

Putting a Field Readable band on a Herring Gull chick. Photo courtesy of Bill Clark.

Simple as that may sound, the process of collecting this information requires the chick to be stuffed into a modified-pant-leg bag and pinned down on its back by one person as the other person works on its legs, trying to avoid the poop that tends to spurt out of its rear end and keep the needle, band and calipers steady as it delivers powerful kicks with its webbed and sharp-toed feet. I wouldn't trade the experience for the world.

(Most of) the Gull Crew, banding three chicks simultaneously. Photo courtesy of Bill Clark. 

And the crew just gets better everyday. The very first day we broke the all-time record by banding 77 chicks. The next day we decided to push it and got to 85. The next day, yesterday, we just didn't stop and went up to 113. Today, we got about a decent 60/70 but worked from sunrise to sunset, with Justin finishing up the measurements on the last Black-backed just as the sun dipped over the horizon.

I must say, it is pretty darn awesome to put shiny, new, “adult” bands on chicks that I've kept track of since day one, picking up the little squealing fuzzballs, dabbing their bellies with marker and stuffing them in a tiny bag to get a reading like 60 grams on the scale. Those chicks now weigh between 800 to 1500 grams, have lost all their down and are already running around, flapping their wings, a few even succeeding to get about a foot off the ground.

The most bittersweet moment today was banding Laighton “A” chick. It was my first chick to hatch. I remember when, two months ago, Brendan and I snatched it and his sibling from their nest and Dave taught us how to poke needles in their legs to take a blood sample. I was so flustered, I think I ended up getting about half a drop. Today I saw it near his nest as we were heading up to P-K to band some chicks.

“Wait, Justin!” I called out., pointing to the chick “Can we band him?”

“Sure, go for it!” he replied

“OK!” I said and booked it into the bushes. But A chick was too quick for me and ran down the trail, flapping its wings as I gave chase. It reached the end of the trail and turned right, heading upslope, and, suddenly, with a strong flap, it was in the air!

“He is FLYING!” I cried, doubling my speed.

“Hang on!” I heard Luke call out of nowhere.

He had guessed I'd be chasing the chick up that trail, so he sprinted out from around the corner, throwing his bag at the bird to startle it back to the ground. It worked! Caught off-guard, the chick fell back to the ground and Luke was on it in the blink of an eyelid.

Needless to say, I got a whole capillary-tube full of blood from Laighton “A” chick this time, around and only had to poke it once.

There are many more chick grabbing and banding stories from the past few days, if only I had the time and energy to type them out right now. However, things are definitely coming a full circle as we approach the end of chick banding week. The banding crew consists of four out of the ten of us that took Field Ornithology at the beginning of my Appledore sojourn, the chicks that started out as eggs are beginning to look and behave more and more like their parents – though they'll retain their brownish juvenile plumage for four more years – I'm beginning to think about Ithaca and everyday showers and people I haven't seen in over two months and... and... civilization again. Scary thoughts that creep up on me as I am sitting on the deck watching a sunset or write make a note of when I need to measure a chick again, only to realize that I won't be here anymore on that day. I can't imagine life without constant yeow calls, nest-check stories, dessert anticipation at dessert, Shoe Tree evenings and all of the amazing, cool, awesome people that I've met or re-met here.

But I'll save that for the next post.

Here's to a continuation of the awesome chick banding run for the rest of the week! As Luke put it, “Eat. Sleep. Gull. That's it.”

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Discovering Portsmouth and Spotted Sandpiper Chicks

On Tuesday I took the day off and headed to the mainland to explore Portsmouth for the day. I met up with Kayla at the dock and we set off for downtown Portsmouth, making a brief stop at Starbucks to grab coffee and try out their new “green coffee” samples. I wasn't a big fan, however; I like my coffee dark and brown.

It was a cool, sunny morning and Portsmouth was just beginning to stir, the shops flinging open their doors and touching up their window displays. Less than two minutes into our ramble, we stumbled upon a quirky sign announcing a “Gurgle Pot (Produces a delightful "gurgle:" sound!)”.

We went in to check it out, but unfortunately, it only gurgles if you pour water out of it and somehow we didn't think that the shopkeeper would approve of us pouring liquids into her pots. The display was accompanied by a short note on the “story” of the Gurgle Pot. Apparently, the artist had come across such a pot on a visit to France for a wedding. He didn't speak a word of French, and his hosts didn't speak a word of English – they took mutual comfort in the gurgling of the coffee pot at awkwardly silent dinners.

The Gurgle Pot, in a way, sums up my experience of Portsmouth: a small, quirky, eclectic town with a rich history and, for some odd reason, a plethora of hair salons.

For example, we found a shop, appropriately named The Salt Cellar, devoted entirely to salt: salt carvings, salt slabs and, best of all, flavoured salts – salts infused with everything from coffee to chillies. I quite enjoyed the lemon salt and Kayla was enthralled by the spicy ghost pepper salt.

The Salt Cellar

"Fleur de Sel" flavoured salt

For lunch we decided to try out a tiny breakfast & lunch place called Colby's that we happened to happen upon just as our stomaches got to the rumbling stage. Hands down, the best poached eggs I've ever had. 

Kayla and her egg scramble at Colby's

And, of course, a meal in Portsmouth is never complete without Annabelle's ice cream. Unfortunately, the heat of the day made my Kahlua Chocolate Chip a tad difficult to eat, resulting in a lot of ice cream drippage on someone's parking lot. It was still delicious, however, perhaps more so for the weird stares I attracted as I tried to lick all sides of my cone at once.

After food, we paid a visit to the Discover Portsmouth center to check out an exhibit on the archaeological discoveries made on the Isles of Shoals, mainly Smuttynose and Star Islands, by Nate Hamilton and his class. It was a great exhibit, with actual fragments of clay pipes, pottery, bones and arrowheads found on the isles displayed alongside complete examples of each from other collections, thus helping one visualize what the fragments might once have looked like. 

How fish was dried on the Isles of Shoals, back in the day

Highlights included a “Touch Table” (for Kayla) and an axe, the murder weapon of the famous Smuttynose murders (for me).

Kayla at the Touch Table

The axe! (and me)

We also checked out the Strawbery Banke museum, or rather just the museum store since the ticket prices were a tad too high, and a rather good bookstore called RiverRun Bookstore. That's just about all that a town needs to win my approval, a good bookstore.

Back on Appledore, we discovered that things had been pretty busy while we were away. An injured seal pup that Michelle had noticed a few days back while checking nests had been rescued and taken to a rehab center, some snail mail that I had been waiting for for a while had finally arrived, and, best of all, the Spotted Sandpiper eggs from Yellow Flower Nest were hatching!

Thus, yesterday, I spent another blissful hour hiding out in the bushes opposite the nest and getting some sweet shots of the little, but already quite skittish, sandpipers as well as the parent. As Brendan aptly put it when I emailed him the baby sandpipers photo, “The island is just pumping out cuter and cuter creatures as the summer goes on!”

Day-old Spotted Sandpiper chicks!
Spotted Sandpiper, une 
Spotted Sandpiper, deux
Random Red-winged Blackbird

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Crouching in Bushes Pays Off, Eventually

I was feeling antsy and unproductive yesterday afternoon, for, with Dave gone, nest-checks done and any attempt at analyzing playback videos only leading to serious procrastination on tumblr, I wasn't really getting anything done. It was a nice, breezy, cloudy day and so, after my umpteenth tumblr dashboard refresh, I snapped the lid of my laptop shut, grabbed my camera and set off to stake out the Spotted Sandpiper nest.

I hid myself in a convenient bush of stinging nettle across the trail from Yellow Flower Nest. The sandpiper flushed off when I got there, of course, but I was prepared to wait for it to come back, however long it would take.

It took a while.

I crouched in the nettles for over an hour, getting stung to no end by fire ants and, quite hilariously, not being noticed by the five people that walked by, two of them actually stopping to have a conversation right in front of Yellow Flower Nest. I was tempted to jump out at them, binoculars and camera at the ready, yelling “sandpiper!” and gesticulating wildly. Needless to say, I controlled the urge.

However, just as my attention was starting to wander and I was looking up trying to spot a gull that had just wooooshed by, I heard a soft weet. And there it was, not more than two meters away from me, a cautious little Spotted Sandpiper, fidgeting, looking around and running up and down the trail on its surprisingly fast, spindly little legs.

Spotted Sandpiper, checking out its surroundings

Presenting, Spotted Sandpier from Yellow Flower Nest

Eventually it hopped onto the rock and started preening, trying to look as nonchalant as possible but avoiding even looking its nest. I fired away.

Fluffing out its feathers, trying to appear nonchalant

After much cautious weeting, and after cleaning each flight feather at least twenty times, the little shorebird hopped down onto its nest... and disappeared from sight.

I had stupidly chosen the worst vantage point possible for Yellow Flower's shrubbery was completely blocking my view of the nest. I tried to move as silently as I could, but the sandpiper was having none of it and flushed in an instant. Oh well. Better luck next time, I suppose.

Today, it was the Eastern Kingbird nest's turn to be stalked. Who would have known that they would prove even harder to stalk than the fidgety sandpiper. I crouched in a, thankfully stinging nettle-less, bush for over three hours as the sun set around me, watching the pair of kingbirds fly back and forth between two trees, calling, preening, fly-catching, and, best of all mobbing an adult Herring Gull, but never venturing close to their nest.

The pair of Eastern Kingbirds. An overexposed shot that turned out artsy!

The pair.

Eastern Kingbird with moth

Eastern Kingbird, preening

The female was being such a tease! The nest was on a tree that was right in the middle of her flight path between the two other trees, and every time she swooped by my heart would leap into my mouth for it would look like she was going to land on the nest.

The female, taking off yet again

The bursts of adrenaline, and associated sightings of Grey Catbirds, Carolina Wrens and Herring Gulls getting mobbed, kept me rooted to my spot, despite the steady loss of feeling in my legs. 


I managed to trace the entire process of my dessert being digested before the female finally decided to pay a brief visit to her nest, allowing me to snap a grainy picture, before flying off again, landing on a nearby perch and sitting there looking pretty in the light of the setting sun.

The female on the nest!

Lookin' pretty

Ah, the setting sun. When it finally got too dark to get a good picture of the nest, regardless of whether the bird decided to return to it or not, I made my way back to Kiggins and, emerging from the bushy walls of the Turbine Trail, I was treated to the most marvellous sunset I have ever seen. The sky was on fire; broad, colourful streaks of the most magnificent fire, stretching across the entire swath of sky like a rich tapestry. Nothing, nothing, compares to an Appledore sunset.   

Saturday, July 7, 2012

All of the Bird Babies

Today was officially Bird Nests / Adorable Bird Babies / Bird Reproductive Effort day. Well, it actually started yesterday while we were doing data-entry. During a pause in the entering of data, Dave casually remarked, “Oh, I found the Spotted Sandpiper nest today!”

By the Spotted Sandpiper nest he meant the nest I had been looking for for weeks now. Every time I would walk up the trail to the dock, to go check nests at Pepperell Cove, a sandpiper would flush out from this one big rock on the side of the trail, and I would always notice it a split second too late to pinpoint the location of its nest.

One day, out of sheer frustration, I even climbed up onto the rock and braved a full-fledged Great Black-backed attack to comb what I thought was every inch of the rock for the nest, all to no avail. And here was Dave telling me that all one had to do to see the nest is walk up to the rock and look down.

“Are you serious?” I asked him. “OK, I'll go find this nest tomorrow.”

Tomorrow rolled around and I spent literally fifteen minutes, pacing the length of the rock, inspecting every single indentation really, really closely and not spotting anything. Just then the Seal Interns happened to walk by.

“Are you looking for the sandpiper nest?” Christine asked as she and Lauren walked up the path towards me.

“Yes, and I can't find it! Apparently only Dave can see it!” I cried, throwing my hands up in frustration and looking down.

And there it was. Nestled cosily behind a yellow flower and under some leaves. Four neat little eggs. The evocation of Dave's name was the needed magical touch, I suppose.

Discovery of the Spotted Sandpiper nest

Similarly, while walking back from a low-tide survey for banded gulls yesterday evening, Dave remarked, without breaking stride, that he'd found an Eastern Kingbird nest.

“What, where?! Wait, the Turbine Trail? No way! I see those birds every day!”

Yep, I do. And everyday I miss their glaringly obvious nest staring down at me from a tree branch that literally juts out onto the trail, almost as it were begging me to notice it. And, somehow, I had managed to ignore it for days. 

But now that I know where it is, my mission is to produce photographic evidence of its existence, with one of the parents on it. The same goes for the sandpiper nest. Today I spent a half-hour crouching in the bushes in front of the nest with a camera as the sandpiper stood about ten meters away, bobbing his tail nervously and refusing to return to its eggs. Ah well, I am going to keep a close watch on that yellow flower now.

The next bird on the nest/egg and chick/reproduction list is the Barn Swallow. Today we set up RFID gear on three Barn Swallow nests – nests NN, 300 and 206 – to continue Brendan's project of monitoring nest-visits by PIT-tagged swallows. I got a crash-course in the working of batteries, circuit-boards and antennas, and the importance of duct tape in holding all of the above up on the rafters around a swallow nest.

All three nests had chicks. Barn Swallow chicks are altricial – when they hatch they are blind, tiny, have almost no down and can barely thermoregulate their alien-like bodies. All they do, for the next two weeks or so, is sit in their cup-like nest and open their gaping yellow mouth wide as their parents shove food into it. Not a bad childhood, if you ask me. And they are cute in their own, – admittedly, non-gull-chick-like – way.

A Barn Swallow chick

I went back in the afternoon to check that the parents were OK with the RFID antennas around their nests, and hadn't abandoned their nests. Crouching in the cool underside of P-K lab, on a sketchy but mud-free blanket, I got some nice shots of one of the NN parents feeding its offspring. Looking forward to some good data from that nest tomorrow!

A Barn Swallow chick, poking its head out over the RFID antenna encircling its nest
Barn Swallow mealtime!
Parent on nest NN

Along with swallow nests under Dorm 3, there's also a Carolina Wren nest that we discovered a few days ago. I went to photograph it today. However, as I walked up to it, nothing happened, no parents flushed off, no calls emanated from within. Assuming the parents were off foraging, I reached a hand in to check for the eggs. 

Bad idea.

The incubating bird shot out like a angry bee, incidentally pushing one of its eggs out in the process. I backed off immediately but its loud, angry chatter followed me all the way down to the Commons. Lesson number one and only: BE ULTRA CAREFUL, ALWAYS.

The Carolina Wren nest
A ticked off Carolina Wren 
Ticked off Carolina Wren part 2

And we were, in the case of the next nest: the Black Guillemot nest. Kayla and I ensured that we approached the nest very slowly, saw the guillemot fly off, and spent no more than five minutes gushing over the cuteness of the chicks. They were still two balls of black fluff, but oh so much sassier! As I reached my hand under the rock for them, one of the chicks, that tiny little barely 70 grams of fluff, actually lunged at my fingers and tried to bite it off! Not that it met with much success. But it didn't give up and kept hissing, showing off its splendid red gape, as Kayla held it in her hand. 

I am cute and I know it: Black Guillemot chick
All of the sass
Red gape
So much smarter than gull chicks who just poop and run away, almost always in the direction of a Black-backed nest. I must admit, I am quite enamored of Black Guillemots and may or may not have spent many hours researching them, and people who study them, stumbling upon this excellent article about George Divoky's research, in the process.

And, last but not the least, dumb but no less adorable and amazing Herring Gull chicks. A nest under the porch of Kiggins hatched recently and yesterday I spent an hour recording the chicks peeping, feeding, tripping over each other and snoozing. Here's a sampling of some raw footage (caution: loud gulls in the background) -


I was going through my photographs from yesterday and happened upon one of this Yellow Warbler hatchling that I'd completely forgotten I'd seen yesterday at P-K lab. It was hopping around in the bushes, following its mom around and begging furiously for food.

Yellow Warbler fledgling

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Fluffiness, Nearest-Neighbor Party, Bad French and Mounds of Data: All in a 17-hour Day's Work

Dave Bonter came out to the island yesterday, and his presence is already beginning to have magical effects. He went out to check nests with Michelle today, for he's going to take over for this weekend when Michelle's going home. They started at about 5 15, I was a slow poke an started at 5 30. It was a decent day, and I finished north island by breakfast.

Feeling rather good, I returned to the RIFS lab, deposited my helmet, jacket and tackle box, and went upstairs to grab a bowl of oatmeal where I encountered Dave talking to Kayla and gesticulating wildly at his phone. “Come over here!” he said as soon as he saw me.

Uh, oh, I thought. That smile, it's simply too wide.

“Did they hatch?! Oh my god, you're kidding!” I exclaimed. “They hatched and you didn't even call me?!”

Nope, he didn't. There on his nifty iPhone were pictures of two fluffy little Black Guillemot chicks that they'd found on their way to nest-checks in the morning, and they hadn't even bothered to inform me. Of course. The rest of the morning was spent in scornfully throwing dagger looks at Dave and Michelle every time they mentioned the chicks which, believe me, was often.

However, the cool part about the discovery, aside from the sheer awesomeness of the chicks, was that the chicks were from another nest, not the four-egged nest that we'd found a month ago but a neighboring nest that we had somehow completely overlooked! The four-egged nest hasn't hatched yet, but there's still hope, and it's good to know that there is more than one nest on the island, raising the possibility of there being even more than two! Time to perhaps re-embark on a guillemot nest hunt?

It got extremely hot after breakfast. Dave and Michelle still had to finish their nest-checks so they donned their helmets, drank plentiful water and headed out while I settled myself in the coolness of the RIFS lab and read a great paper on Black Guillemot egg fostering (Divoky and Harter 2010) where they describe a case of a pair of guillemots taking over the nest-cavity of another pair and kicking out the two eggs of the first pair but then, eventually, for some odd reason, gathering the eggs back into the nest-cavity and incubating them along with an egg of their own.

Two interesting results: 1) the egg of the usurpers didn't even hatch while the eggs of the previous owners did and 2) the eggs of the previous owners hatched ~28 days after the commencement of re-incubation. 28 days is the normal incubation period for Black Guillemots but the eggs had been left out in the cold for over 14 days! A case of suspension of development in extreme weather conditions? Perhaps. It gave me hope for the four-egged nest that has been due for a while now.

After lunch, it was data-entry time. Dave had sat down with us the yesterday and pointed out that there were a lot of nests where no chicks had been seen for over seven days, nests where the chicks were probably dead. Thus we needed to finish up the “Nest Summaries” on all such nests, filling out all the information – GPS references, number of eggs, number of chicks, egg measurements, cause of nest failure, habitat etc. – for each nest. It was a tedious task, not made any easier by the fact that we were very full and sleepy after lunch.

To make it more interesting, we decided to talk only in French. Data-entry usually involves one person reading something to the effect of “Nest 315, two chicks; Nest 8, no chicks...” from the field notebooks and the other person typing in the data. Today data-entry sounded more like “trois cent cinquante.. wait, no, quinze! Deux chicks!” (we didn't think to look up the French word for chicks beforehand) and we finally realized that it wasn't quite working when I came to the day's entry for 12H225, the birds at which nest have been affectionately named Grape Jelly and Toast by Michelle.

Deux cent... vingt-cinq! Oooh c'est Grape Jelly et Toast!” I exclaimed.

Michelle turned to me with a horrified look on her face and cried, “Wait, what?! Grape Jelly ate Toast?!!”

Needless to say, much time was wasted in paroxysms of laughter. But we refused to quit, powering through even the 280s and 290s, the horrid quatre-vingt series. Realization of the day: French numbers are especially hard because, as Michelle put it, “you have to add and multiply in the same sentence!”

Once we tired of data, because it never ended so the only way to end it was to tire of it, we headed out to have a “Nearest-neighbor Party” with Dave. One of the things that we measure on nests is the distance to the three nearest nests, a job that, ideally, requires three people: a note-taker, a one-end-of-tape-measure-over-nest-holder, and a running-around-with-other-end-of-tape-measure person. We needed to measure the nearest-neighbors for a bunch of new nests that we'd just started monitoring, so, taking advantage of Dave's presence, we dragged him out into the colonies, turning it into a party.

First stop: Black Guillemot nest. Finally, after a whole half-day of waiting and snarkily commenting on Dave and Michelle's exuberance, I got to reach my hand into the narrow rock fissure and pull out the most adorable baby bird I have ever seen.

It took me a solid minute or two to even find the tiny little thing. I was groping around under the rock going “Uh.. Dave.. I don't think they're here” when my fingers suddenly felt something warm, fuzzy and downy, and I let out a squeal of joy. “Ah, I think she found it, Michelle,” Dave remarked drily.

Me, poop-stained shirt, silly smile, adorable guillemot chick
The rest of nearest-neighbor party was, admittedly, not as fun and exciting, but at least we got things done. Plus, we saw a Red-breasted Nuthatch fly into the intertidal to, presumably, forage for insects which was pretty interesting since they tend to normally forage along tree branches.

As we were walking towards Transect 5, Michelle pointed out an awkward gangly-looking Black-backed chick that was just starting to lose its down and molt in its flight feathers. “Doesn't it look like an old man?” Dave asked, his tone dripping with sincerity. “... an old man crossed with a vulture!” I think it was at about that point that I began to feel at a loss for words.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Lose a Camera, Gain a Hawaiian Gull

Michelle and I woke up with the sun yesterday, and got our nest-checks done in record time so as to be able to go on a whale watch with the rest of the island at 10. It was a beautiful early morning, cool and cloudy, perfect nest-check weather, that quickly deteriorated into a freezing rain shower. We bundled up in multiple layers, rain-pants and Muck boots, boarded the Gulf Challenger, and headed off east, towards the middle of the Gulf of Maine. In spite of the rain and fog the view of the Isles of Shoals, as they receded from sight, was beautiful. The fog lay thick and low over the water, enshrouding the islands in a golden-blue haze and each breath was a fresh wave of salty sea-spray and clean rain-smell.

My camera, however, didn't fare so well. Attempts at photographing Wilson's Storm-petrels (Oceanites oceanicus) left it thoroughly soaked and, as I discovered later, out of commission. In fact most of today morning was mostly spent in a haze of panic, trying to hastily google “Wet Canon Rebel XS” and procure dry rice from the kitchen without giving off the impression of being more insane than the impression of loopiness that my helmet-wearing gull-poop-covered self has already produced.

The best photograph I could get of a Wilson's Storm-petrel, the fidgety little swallows of the sea

My camera, in rice

Well, at least we saw about eight (according to Michelle) Minke and Fin whales. And got all of our nest-checks done before the rain set in. And my camera should work – I turned it on after it had lain in the rice for a while and the LCD flashed on. However, I don't know if anything else is damaged and can't test it till I can get hold of some lens-cleaning fluid to get rid of all the rice grain powder. Thus the rest of the photographs for this post are, unfortunately, mobile phone photographs, most of them taken with my crappy Nokia 6350.

Today was final exam day for the Evolution class and presentation day for Animal Behavior. Thus we, the interns, thought it would be nice to host a Hawiian-themed dinner and decorate the Commons, just to cheer everyone up a bit after a rigorous three-hour final. Well, it was mostly the seal interns' brainchild, but Michelle and I pitched in, making Hawaiian-shirt wearing gulls, picking flowers and arranging them and sneakily taking photographs of Hal Weeks, the Assistant Director of SML, in a purple squid hat.
My festive gull
A flowery snail, photo and snail courtesy of Michelle Moglia
And a festive seal
Picking flowers with gull-stick, only on Appledore

Hal Weeks, in his squid hat
There was quite a bit of excitement as we were making the decorations in Laighton last night when two work interns walked in with the news that there was a dead Harbor Seal pup off of Larus Ledge. The Seal Interns popped into action, asking for specifics, hurrying out to grab flashlights and inform people and getting hold of gators to bring the seal back, while Michelle and I could only manage to stare at each other in distress – for it was a baby seal that we'd seen, alive and happy, while conducting nest-checks a day ago! It cast something of a damper on the decoration-preparation festivities and, tired after having woken up at sunrise, we went to bed early.

However, the grand Hawaiian banquet went off well today, and the nice sunny day, quirky accents at data-entry and ice-cream sandwiches for dessert lifted my spirits considerably. Working in the field, especially with gull chicks who are liable to death by starvation, cold and predation, exposes one quite starkly to the fact of death and also helps one come to terms with it. Life ends, it happens, and since it can't be prevented, there is no use crying over a once alive and fluffy chick – one can only hope to learn from it; learn how the population works, what kills the chicks, whether hatch order determines survival, whether the chicks of sub-adult gulls die more than those of adult gulls and other such cool questions that we are only just beginning to glean the answers to!

The Commons, looking festive