Thursday, May 31, 2012

Field Ornithology 2012, Breaking Records All the Way

This post is a shout out to all of my Field Ornithology classmates + Sarah and Dave. We had a great day of dedicated birding yesterday where we birded both on the island as well as on the mainland (at Creek Farm), and of course, on the boat ride to and fro, and racked up a total of 79 species, breaking the previous day record for the Field Ornithology class by a whole 8 species! And that too without getting normal, common species like Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea), Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) and Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura). 

The total 79 + a mammal list, on the right
So, basically, you guys are awesome and I'm so glad I decided to take this course this summer. I'm sure we're going to break the course bird list record by the end of the week!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Wilson's Phalarope, Prettiest Shorebird Ever?

I have only a half hour to write this post before the day's bird list. Hence, I must prioritize. Hence, I must write about the female Wilson's Phalarope that showed up on the island yesterday and is, as of now, still hanging around, pecking at things and swimming prettily in the swale.

Backing up a little, we had a seabird cruise yesterday where we got on the Heiser and, to use Sarah's phrase, “booked it” south till we were well out of sight of the mainland and the isles. It was a gray day and the boat wasn't the steadiest. We saw absolutely no Wilson's Storm-petrels (which is incredibly weird because I remember them being quite abundant last year), much less fulmars or shearwaters. We did see a Fin Whale. For about a minute. Needless to say, we weren't the happiest bunch when our feet touched land again.

And then, right when the last of us stepped off the boat, the radio crackled and Phil yelled, “Dave! Bill wants you to go to the swale. He says he has something you would like to look at!”.. or something to that effect. That made all of us perk up a little but we figured it was probably a Greater Yellowlegs or something. So we ambled towards the swale and, as we turned the bend, saw all of the bird banders from the banding station crowded together, long lenses on camera pointed towards the most beautiful and elegant shorebird that I have ever seen. Here, judge for yourself. She was being most co-operative. In about ten minutes, Brendan, Sarah and I were sprawled out in the mud, and gull and goose poop at the edge of the swale, clicking away. And, I must admit, I was whimpering. Not just because the bird was absolutely beautiful but also because a "normal", female Wilson's Phalarope would currently be in the North-Western United States, not the extreme North-East, i.e., off the coast of Maine!

In the Wilson's Phalarope, as in many other shorebirds of the same family, the mating system is polyandrous. That means that the female mates with a bunch of males, with the male taking care of the clutch of eggs that she lays with him while she moves on to the next one. Hence, the female is the brighter and more attractive of the pair. She also seems to have the ability, or should I say the magnetic power, to keep me glued in the mud for forever, just looking at her through my bins in simple, complete admiration.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

In-Tern-ing, a Day with a Cuter Version of Gull

After a few failed attempts at starting off this post, which might have involved getting distracted by tern pictures (read on!), I made myself a list of everything I need to say so I could have some sort of outline in my head and actually write this before midnight. As of now, I have seventeen bullet points in a second word file and I am sure I am missing at least a handful more. And, to be honest, if I didn't have a camera, I wouldn't be able to believe that all of the stuff on this list happened in the last two days. It seems like its been an age since I got to Appledore, not just a little more than a week, simply because the days have been absolutely burstingly full of exciting birds, silly jokes and epic poop stories. Oh, that just reminded me of an eighteenth bullet point. Alright, let's see if I can do this.

I am going to start with today just because it's fresh in my mind (since yesterday feels like it happened a month ago anyway). Morning dawned a tad chilly and foggy. We trooped down to check out what the bird banders were up to at the dementedly early time that is 6 AM. However, all of my complaints about the earliness of the hour died a well deserved death with the steady influx of lifers (birds I had never seen before) that kept coming from the magical mist nets of the Banding Station. We got a Canada Warbler (Cardellina canadensis), Acadian Flycatcher (Empidonax virescens), the cutest Empid – a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (Empidonax flaviventris ), Blue-headed Viero (Viro solitarius), Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus), Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), Blackpoll Warbler (Setophaga striata), Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus), Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis), Veery (Catharus fuscescens), Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapillus), Gray-cheeked Thrush (Catharus minimus), Lincoln's Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii), and a veteran female Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) with a little blue on her plumage! I can't underscore the productiveness of the Banding Station any more than by saying that it made us late for breakfast. No one on Appledore is every late for a meal if they can help it because the food is beyond delicious; and, quite frankly, the thought of chocolate chips in my oatmeal is what gets me out of bed at 5 every morning.

A recently banded Lincoln's Sparrow
And the banding station was not even, by far, the best part of the day. After breakfast, and a brief presentation on terns at White and Seavy islands, we set out in the Heiser with the director of the tern project himself, Dan Hayward, and his wife and two adorable children, the older of which, Emily, is four and can already tell the two gull species apart. The project was started in 1997 and had tremendous success in establishing nesting pairs of Common Terns in its very first year. They used tern dummies and what Melissa Hayward calls “happy tern calls” to lure the birds to nest on White Island for the first time in over 40 years. Currently, the two islands, which are connected at low tide, are home to over 2000 nesting pairs of Common Terns (Sterna hirundo), around 40-50 pairs of Roseate Terns (Sterna dougallii) and around 10 pairs of Arctic Terns (Sterna paradisaea). The numbers are maintained by controlling gull predation. The interns literally just stand and wave their arms and clap their hands, though they do often have to resort to lethal control.

Terns are... the best way to describe them, I think, is in Sarah's words. “It's as if evolution took everything that is bad and disgusting about gulls and made it cute.” Case in point – the terns have nuptual feeding just like the gulls but the males bring back whole fish for the females instead of regurgitation; the terns will dive-bomb you when you walk up to their nest but instead of a loud, scary yeow, they emit an endearing toy-machine gun sound; they will poop on you when ticked off but it is nothing compared to the quantities of excrement that a gull can dump on you making you run to a shower; and, of course, they don't eat each others' eggs or chicks. So, gulls are cute but I was completely enthralled by the terns.

Common Terns

Common Terns

Common Tern flying elegantly

Common Tern trying to show me who's boss. So cute.

Common Tern trying to show me who's boss, again.

A cute Common Tern yeow

Additionally, from up on the lighthouse, we saw a Roseate Tern and from the base of the lighthouse Dan Hayward spotted a male King Eider (Somateria spectabilis) in full breeding plumage! I heard about the King Eider when I was walking back from observing the terns up close from a blind and, needless to say, I hightailed it up to the lighthouse. We had been looking for this bird for a week ever since someone reported it last Sunday and the views we got were very, very fulfilling. And, additionally additionally, we spotted a couple of Ruddy Turnstones (Arenaria interpres) in the intertidal and found a Spotted Sandpiper nest. On the whole, quite the successful trip!

After lunch (which involved one and a half chocolate cupcakes), we had a bunch of lectures scheduled but, luckily, Dave asked me to go help Justin Stilwell and his crew catch and band adult gulls! Ok, I must rephrase that to better communicate the sheer excitement of gull banding, as opposed to stewing in a hot classroom. An example might help. Justin decided that the best way to capture this one Black-backed sitting on its nest would be for me, him and another girl (Kelsey) to simply corner it and grab it. So the three of us fanned out around the nest and, at the word 'go', whacked through the semac towards the gull that got spooked and ran towards me. Thinking back, and looking at the size of the Black-backed currently flying outside the window, I am quite astounded that I did what I did; I pounced on the bird and held it down receiving quite the peck in the process.

Scars of gull-wrangling

It was the most awesome thing ever! And then I learnt how to, or rather tried to but didn't quite get the hang of it, clamp a heavy steel USGS band on its leg. Successful afternoon! And time to move on to a successful evening. And indeed, after dinner, which involved rhubarb pie and ice cream (at this rate, I might need to start a “daily dessert” tab), we headed to the Shoe Tree, clambered up on its branches, and had the day's Bird List that was punctuated by hilarious stories and Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) calls.

The last couple of our Bird Lists have been graced by Brendan's bagpipe music. He plays the variety of pipes called Uilleann pipes and it is something of a surreal experience, sitting on a tree or in a comfy chair in K house, staring out at the fading light with a light Scottish jig filling your ears.

Brendan with his pipes

Yesterday afternoon we visited Smuttynose Island, the site of an infamous axe murder in the 1800s. Our main purpose, however, was quite un-historical – we were out to find a Black Guillemot nest! As we made our way down to the rocky intertidal we saw a bunch of them bobbing around about a hundred meters out on the water and one even flew out of the rocks to join them but, sadly, even after about a half hour of extreme bouldering, we didn't find a nest.

 We, did, however, find some Purple Sandpipers and got pretty close.

Purple Sandpipers on Smuttynose

Purple Sandpipers flying away

 Then, as part of a lab for the class, count some Black-backed nests, found a pipping egg and got dive-bombed.

A pipping Great Black-Backed Gull egg

Brendan getting dive-bombed

And we even found a banded gull on the island, thus automatically getting an A for the day! Since gulls are only banded on Appledore, and are thought to be very philopatric, it is extremely interesting when we find any of those birds returning to another island to breed for the summer.

4H5 -- my A for the day -- looking at its feet

Walking up from the dock upon our return, Obi, Sarah, Dave, Yun and I stumbled upon a newly-hatched eider duckling stranded in the middle of the road. Its mother was nowhere in sight and menacing gull-shaped shadows were swooping over it. So, naturally, we all went “awww” and scooped up the little tyke, took a gazillion photos with it and then (quite literally) tossed it into an accommodating eider crèche.

The eider chick, photo courtesy of Sarah MacLean
The day ended well with a very welcome hot shower, my first in a week. Of course, its only been a day and I'm already smelling of guano again. Such is life. I love it!

Great Black-backed Gull... flying

Common Yellowthroat, on my way to check nests

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Two Very Full Days Mashed into One Post

I've realized that much of what I prefer to write here is heavily dependent on whether I have photographic evidence to back it up. Unfortunately, my camera ran out of battery yesterday and was charging all day today so I have very little to say about today. But the reason for the death of the battery was a fairly spectacular day of birds yesterday, which I plan to write expansively about in this post, especially since its only 8 45 and I am already done for the day.

So, quick paragraph about today: woke up at the usual hour and went and measured a bunch of new eggs that had been laid in the nests I am monitoring. Gulls, as mentioned earlier, have a fairly constant clutch size of three but, interestingly, the three eggs differ in size and weight. They also hatch at different times - or, as the technical term goes, asynchronously – giving chicks that hatch earlier (chicks 'a' and 'b') a distinct advantage over the later chick (the 'c' chick). Thus it is important that we measure the dimensions and weight of each egg, and then later which chick hatches out of which egg, to see whether the largeness of an egg is determines its hatch date. It was a beautiful, misty morning, with the fog rolling in and a pair of Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrranus tyrranus) singing away on a sumac tree as I walked to the “Norwegian”.

The rest of the Field Ornithology class went to observe at the banding station where they caught and banded some cool warblers – a Canada Warbler (Cardellina canadensis), a bunch of Common Yellowthroats (Geothlypic trichas), a Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia) and an American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla). Later in the day Dave also gave us a talk about bird banding and its importance and uses and we practiced setting up mist nets. The plan is to set up some mist nets of our own, as opposed to the banding stations', where we can catch and band some birds for the class. Having just taken Dave's Bird Banding class, and enjoyed it most thoroughly, I can't wait to get my hands on some sweet warblers! Its a great experience, actually holding the birds you normally see perched far away on a tree with binoculars; an almost addictive pleasure, I think, having met a lot of banders who have been banding birds for years and who can process multiple birds per minute!

After lunch we got on the Heiser and headed to another island in the Isles of Shoals, Star Island, keeping our eyes peeled for any sign of a King Eider (Somateria spectabilis) that has been sighted around it. The fog, however, foiled our attempts and the most we could get was some really good looks at a few Purple Sandpipers (Calidris maritima). (And this is where I wish I had had my camera with me). Up on the island, which is home to a hotel and a lot of eerie monuments/cairns dedicated to dead people, we saw a bunch of beautiful warblers – Magnolia, Blackpoll, Chestnut-sided, Yellow, Wilson's – and also got to hear Dave's infamous 'agricultural talk' about a turnstile and some steps on the side of an old stone wall. Enough said.

Wow, that paragraph quickly turned into three. And indeed, today was a fun warbler-filled day that ended with a Bird List in K House (where the director, Willy Bemis stays when he's on the island) that involved a lot of laughter. I must say, I am kind of sad that this class is only two weeks long. The Bird List is a Field Ornithology tradition where someone plays a musical instrument and we go around the circle, listing the birds that we saw that day with generous interjections involving jokes, snide comments and much dancing when someone gets a lifer.

Speaking of lifers (and here's a convenient segue back in time so I can finally get to photographs), we were out on an “island cruise” yesterday when we spotted a Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) flying perpendicular to our path. We got a decent look at it and then half turned to look at other birds on the water when Dave shouted, “It's coming back! It's going to fly over us!” And fly over us it did, almost as if it were trying to dive-bomb the boat. Or perhaps I'm just thinking too much gull. One way or the other, it made for a good photo.

Northern Gannet being majestic
Other neat stuff we saw on the cruise included a Black Guillemot up close (or as close as you can get to one before it skittishly flies away), another Northern Gannet sitting awkwardly on a rock full of gulls and cormorants, some gray seals bobbing in the waters and some Common Terns on White and Seely islands which are home to a very successful tern-restoration project.

Black Gullemot being skittish

Gray Seals
The awkward Northern Gannet
Cormorants, gulls, eiders and some seals!

View from the Island Cruise
Another view from the cruise

And the cruise ended, as a lot of things on Appledore tend to end, with a beautiful sunset.

To continue the trend of traveling back in time, yesterday morning went pretty well too with a very cooperative pair of Song Sparrows singing in a bush on my way to nest checks, a baby eider crèche and an epic Great Black-Back Gull fight which involved some vicious neck-grabbing action.

Baby Eiders
One of the Song Sparrows checking me out
Gull Fight
This post was going to be much more extensive and sarcastic, and exciting, of course, but I ended up skyping my boyfriend and am now ready to drop with exhaustion. So I'm just going to with this photograph that, to me, quite perfectly illustrates the appeal of gulls who, quite literally, rule this island.

The King of the Island -- a Great Black-Backed Gull flying over the vegetation

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Short Post, Mainly for the Sake of Misty Photographs

A fine, white mist has descended over Appledore for the last couple of days, along with the rest of the students for Field Ornithology, the class I am taking in conjunction with the internship. It has been a whirlwind of island tours (I think I've been on three so far), gull-nest tours, introductory lectures and new faces. However, some things never change on the island. Specimen number one: A07, otherwise called Peanut Butter Cookie, the food thief – a banded Herring Gull, one of the Appledore legends, who has returned for the summer and is back to ferociously guarding his foraging territory on the porch of the Commons, even in the crummy weather.

Peanut Butter Cookie on the rain-splattered porch of the commons

Let me correct that – I meant the beautiful, rainy, admittedly chilly but quintessential Appledore weather. The mist has actually made for quite the stirring view. Looking out over the ocean, the white fog hanging over the waves screens the mainland, and even the other islands, from view making Appledore seem thoroughly isolated. And indeed, I feel all of my “mainland-worries” – grades and school and parents and friends-not-at-Shoals – blur into an indistinct, I'll-get-to-it-later area in my brain as I settle into the rhythm of life on the island. I haven't showered in five days and I couldn't care less.

The Heiser disappearing in the mist, with a conveniently located flying Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

In other news, my co-intern, Brendan “Gullsmith” Fogarty has also descended upon the island, already blowing us away with several heroic feats that shall go un-expanded-upon, mainly because I am going to see his face at pre-breakfast every day for the next two months and would thus like to remain on friendly terms.

Brendan, very excited about data entry

And now I need to go finish up on some reading for class tomorrow. Soon, hopefully, I will get a chance to write an extensive post detailing my daily schedule and all of the other interesting things I think up to put in here during the day!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Guano Hit # 1, # 2, # 3, # 4...

I'm sitting in Kiggins Commons, staring out at the Portsmouth lights twinkling on the mainland on this cool and clear night with a cup of piping hot Swiss Miss by my side and a pleasant, tired out feeling in my leg muscles. The foghorn booms intermittently over the dark waves and the gulls are still calling. The gulls. I have come to see them in a whole different light in just one day. And no, in case that sounded ominous, not a bad light; I'm just tired and it's hard to compose sentences that reflect the sheer excitement and glee I experienced this morning as we ventured into the gull colonies on the rocky coasts of Appledore to mark nests (that I and my co-intern, Brendan Fogarty) will be monitoring all summer and measure the eggs in them.

A Herring Gull nest with the standard three eggs

My alarm went off at 5. At 5 30 AM I dragged myself out of my cozy sleeping bag and into the bathroom where Sarah met me with a bright smile and a “good morning”. I must have mumbled something incoherent. But a banana and a short, brisk walk to the Norwegian (a section of the east coast of the island) in the brightening sunlight lifted my mood. It was the four of us – Sarah, Dave, Kayla and me – and Tracy Holmes, who can, I think, respectably be called a gull-veteran going out to label nests and take preliminary measurements like the dimensions of the eggs and the distance of the nearest nests. After fumbling around a bit and almost dropping an egg or two, I got the hang of the process. Clamber to nest, glue label to rock-face, measure and weigh eggs and, on occasion, help Kayla and Sarah with the distance measurements. Oh and look out for angry, dive-bombing / pooping parents. Because the gulls' primary defense mechanisms are their sharp beaks combined with their sheer weight and/or their bodily fluids, squirted. I think I really started to feel comfortable sticking my hands into gull-nests after a Great Black-Backed dove towards me and squirted me neatly on the back. Needless to say, my black backpack now has a beautiful, pied facelift.

We worked through the morning, stopping only for breakfast and lunch and, of course, to watch Black Guillemots (Cepphus grylle) fly in and out of the rocks around Broad Cove, potentially looking for a nest site, their red feet flashing in the sunlight; to admire Sarah's discovery of a beautiful, freshly dead Herring Gull that now resides in the freezer (beside a fresh, banded Great Black-Backed that I found later in the day); to hear Tracy and Dave gossip about crazy ex-interns; and to take pictures of interesting gull behavior like females begging the male to regurgitate food (sexy!) and Dave getting repeatedly dive-bombed.

Sarah with her find

Great Black-backed Gulls. The female is begging the male for regurgitated food.
Dave on the defense

It was just great being out on the rocks, with the surf and the gulls, as opposed to in a library staring at a computer screen wishing I were in the vicinity of such pleasures. It was also really cool getting to handle the eggs and learning things like immature gulls have a black spot on their tails and that gulls eat eider chicks.

The "I See You" look
After lunch, I stayed in to work more on my individual research project, of which this blog is the namesake, while the rest of the crew went out to find more nests. And after a delicious dinner, which ended on a delicious chocolate cake note (I'd forgotten how well they feed us here), I went out to flag as many gull nests as I could around the buildings (the area called “campus”, where the nests are more scattered, as opposed to the “colonies” which are on the coasts and are more dense). But I got distracted by a dead Black-Backed and then a Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) , some Common Yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas) and what I thought, in the dying light, was an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrranus). I think I need to wake up even earlier than 5 and go shoot some warblers soon.

Perhaps tomorrow. There, having inserted an anticipatory note that will hopefully keep you following my blog, I will end this post, leaving you with a photograph of an orb-weaver that Kayla found on my jacket today.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Gulls, I See Gulls!

“What is that?” I exclaimed, about half and hour ago, as something on the roof scurried and elicited a bunch of thuds. “Gull,” replied Sarah MacLean and Kara Pellowe immediately in “what-else-could-it-be” voices. And indeed, what else could it be on Appledore? Yep, you read that right; a bunch of finals, an up-till-2 30 AM packing spree, a seven hour car ride and a short, refreshing boat ride later, I am here, on Appledore Island in the Gulf of Maine being treated to spectacles of gulls mating and the sounds of Common Yellow-throats (Geothlypic trichas), Carolina Wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus), Gray Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) and, of course, the ubiquitous Herring and Great Black-Backed Gulls yeowing, kek-keking, mewing and just generally going at it at the start of their breeding season.

Two Herring Gulls mating outside the dining hall at Shoals Marine Lab

The day began with a 6 AM alarm that turned into a 6 30 AM whine and cereal in a mug, as a consequence of having packed and moved everything out the day before. But by 7 30, Sarah MacLean (last-year's intern and this year's TA for Field Ornithology on the island), Kayla Garcia (Lobster Intern extraordinaire) and I were speeding onwards, on our way to Portsmouth, NH which is where the boats from SML dock. Portsmouth also happens to be home to one of the best ice cream shops in the country, Anabelle's, and David Bonter (who teaches Field Ornithology and also mentors the Bird Internship), generously treated us to some of the best ice cream in the country, which completely lived up to its reputation.

Two scoops of delicious Dutch Chocolate ice cream at Annabelles, Portsmouth, NH
At 4, we boarded the Heiser and jet-propelled our way to Appledore. It was a clear, sunny day with excellent visibility allowing us to see the island from the Portsmouth harbour itself. We passed some Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus), gulls and even a Common Loon (Gavia immer) flying over the deep blue waves and as the island drew nearer, and I could make out the rocks and the buildings, a sense of excitement came over me that seemed to be a continuation from last summer. It was almost as if I was picking up from where I left off, with the two semesters in between having passed in another time and place. The smallness, uniqueness and seeming remoteness of Appledore does that to you. It feels like a bubble that runs on a different temporal scale than the rest of the world and as Sarah was describing, coming back to the mainland after two months and seeing cars instead of gulls can be something of a culture-shock. 

Kayla Garcia (left) and Sarah MacLean aboard the Heiser
Coming back to the island after a year, however, was quite the opposite. The gull nests are in the same exact spots as last year and the food equally, if not more, delicious – i.e. two of the most important things haven't changed. What has changed, or rather, evolved, is my attitude towards them. I am over counting barnacles (which was the brunt of the Ecology and the Marine Environment class last year) and moving on to gulls! Onwards and upwards and it is going to be hard work but it is also going to be, in Sarah's words, “the best summer you've ever had!”


A warm welcome to the island by a nesting Great Black-Backed Gull (bottom right)

This summer officially starts tomorrow with 6 AM nest-marking so I had better hit the sack, but I will definitely have more adventures to report very soon!

A beautiful sunset, with the promise of many more to come over the next two months