Dodging Dive-Bombers on an Island in Maine [slideshow]

Text and photos by Shailee Shah, a Cornell University undergraduate (visit her on Flickr)

“It’s going to be the best summer of your life!” enthused Sarah MacLean as we drove toward Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to take a boat out to Appledore Island, my home-to-be for June and July of 2012.

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“Sure, yes, I’m excited,” I must have mumbled, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. Though I probably didn’t sound it, I was tremendously excited to start my internship at Shoals Marine Lab, where I would be joining a long-term project monitoring 120 Herring Gull nests, following their progress from eggs to chicks to fledglings. Sarah had been one of the interns last year and was full of anecdotes and advice.

Appledore Island  is the largest of the nine Isles of Shoals in the Gulf of Maine (see it on a map)—although “largest” is a relative term; one can easily walk the entire length of the island in about 20 minutes). In the colonial era it was a fishing community, and in the nineteenth century Appledore House hotel served as a fashionable retreat for artists and writers.

The hotel burned down in 1914, and on its foundation today stands Kiggins Commons, the main building of Shoals Marine Lab. Founded in 1966, Shoals is a marine research station administered jointly by Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire, where professors and students from all over the country gather for research on everything from barnacles to crabs, gulls to seals.

Upon my arrival I learned that though Shoals alumni may scatter far and wide, the island will always hold a part of them—or at least their shoes. Down a shady, surprisingly gull-free trail stands the Shoe Tree, festooned with dozens of shoes slung across its branches, the idea being that you would probably never want to wear your shoes again after a summer of Appledore wear-and-tear. The wide, comfortable branches of this tree soon became my favorite spot. I spent many an evening reading there, surrounded by shoes of generations of “Shoalers.”

Since 2008, two interns per year have monitored nesting Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls on the island under the guidance of David Bonter of the Cornell Lab and Julie Ellis of Tufts University. This year, it was to be Brendan Fogarty, a rising sophomore whom I knew from the Birding Club at Cornell, and me.

You couldn’t ask for a better gull study site than Appledore; they greet you with “yeow” calls as soon as you land on the dock. The island, one might say, belongs to the gulls. They are everywhere—more than 1,000 pairs—nesting in all kinds of habitat from the bare, rocky coast to bushes, and even under buildings.

Our days typically started at around 5:30 a.m. As the sun rose around us, Brendan and I would grab a bagel or some cereal (or, later in the summer, Snickers) as “pre-breakfast” and put on bike helmets and rain jackets before heading out to the gull colonies. No, it wasn’t raining, and we weren’t biking—our gear was to protect us from the gulls, which don’t take kindly to humans handling their eggs and chicks. They rise up in the air and swoop at your head, either slamming their feet into it or letting loose a generous shower of poop.

To kick-start the project, we marked nests for Brendan and me to follow over the course of our internship. I had heard stories and seen pictures, but I didn’t quite realize the intensity of the gulls’ defense until that first day, when, within minutes, I was christened with a fresh, white spatter on the back of my jacket and a neat, new hole in the styrofoam of my bike helmet.

For each nest we assigned a unique ID number, measured any eggs they contained, and noted the distance to the three nearest nests. These data can help us find out whether larger eggs give chicks a survival advantage, and gauge whether nesting density affects a nest’s chances of survival, since gulls tend to attack and eat each other’s eggs and chicks.

“It was just great being out on the rocks,” I wrote in my blog on the first night. “With the surf and the gulls, as opposed to in a library staring at a computer screen and wishing I were within the vicinity of such pleasures.” And it only got better as the summer progressed.

As the chicks started hatching, our field equipment went from a simple Rite-in-the-Rain notebook to calipers, scales, and blood-sampling equipment. On the hatch day, we took a tiny blood sample—about two drops, safely collected from a vein in the leg—to sex the bird. We also measured the head and bill, and weighed the chicks every other day till they were nine days old.

And, oh, how they grew! A day-old Herring Gull chick typically weighs 2.5 ounces and is a tiny, helpless little ball of fluff that can merely poop in defense. A nine-day old chick, on the other hand, can weigh almost four times that much and will run, hide, poop, vomit and bite in an effort to get away.

Mid-June, the peak egg-hatching period, was especially crazy. Nest-checks that started at seven could stretch to three in the afternoon, with around 20 new chicks to add to the rolls everyday. Brendan and I texted updates to each other like “Got my 12H47 chick! Mwahahaha!” and “Kamikaze Jr. is enormous now!”

Checking nests everyday provided a unique window into the lives of gulls. Once the chicks hatched, “vigorous” nest defense acquired a whole new definition; but so did gentleness. A three-pound gull coughing up food for its downy, softly peeping chick was one of the most moving spectacles of the summer.

Inevitably, many chicks simply disappeared, probably snapped up by a Great Black-backed Gull with chicks of its own to feed. Others would be found dead from cold, starvation, or fatal wounds delivered by neighboring gulls. And sometimes I would look under a rock I hadn’t noticed before and discover a healthy chick that I had been assuming dead for weeks.

At the end of two months the chicks that survived had molted into gray and brown flight feathers and were flapping their wings; and I will admit to a sort of proud-parent feeling when I saw a few early birds making it into the air on their first flight.

As chicks grew out of the nine-day range, nest checks ended faster and I found myself with free time on my hands. I spent a lot of it crouching in bushes with my camera, shooting day-old Spotted Sandpiper chicks, a pair of feisty Eastern Kingbirds, Common Eider ducklings, and even a vagrant Wilson’s Phalarope. We also spent a day at nearby White and Seavey Islands, where we helped out with an annual census of more than 2,000 Common, Roseate, and Arctic tern nests.

Thus, with plenty to keep us busy, two months flew by faster than a dive-bombing gull.

On my last full day on the island, I woke up early to catch the sunrise and wrote a final blog post as the sun’s rays slowly crept over the island I had come to love.

This summer, I learned a lot about gulls. I also gained a host of random skills like sprinting across rocks without falling, squeezing my hand into crevices to find chicks, and being able to tell if a bush is safe to jump into or will require some careful thorn removal after.

More than that, I learned to be disciplined (checking 75 nests everyday no matter what), to stay calm in emergencies, to work with others, to question everything I see in scientific terms, and to be patient and adaptable when things don’t go as planned (for that seems to be the nature of fieldwork).

On my way to that last breakfast I took a short detour to the Shoe Tree, adding my own poop-stained, broken-soled pair to the collection and bidding Appledore a silent adieu. And hoping what I’ve heard is true: that the island has a knack for luring people back every summer.

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