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.

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