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


  1. Awesome! Sweet tern shots.

    1. Thanks! (Also for my first (and only) comment ever!)