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.”


  1. I have so enjoyed reading your blog and keeping up with your gull adventures on Appledore! I've only made it out a few times this summer, mostly to help with Celia's garden, but I'm due to return shortly. Should I run into you, I'll make sure to say hello. I sense you will not be on island much longer and as you know, you will surely miss it. But, you most likely will return to enjoy those special sunrises and sunsets - not to mention all the gull chasing. You've had quite a summer! Best of luck.

    1. Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed my blog! Unfortunately I'm leaving on Monday morning, but I'm sure the call of the gulls will entice me back here next summer...