Friday, May 24, 2013

What a Biology Professor does on Summer Break

The semester is over.  I'm tired and ready for summer.  Sleeping late.  Working in the Garden.  Getting attacked by angry gulls.  You know, the usual.

Last week I went to Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island Maine.  This is a research island.  While you can visit you should not expect 5 star accommodations.  Rooms are dorm style with two sets of bunk beds in an unheated/un air conditioned room and one half bath for each two rooms.  Showers are in another building and are heavily discouraged (one or two per week, unless you really get covered with gull poop).

I went out to work on two different projects.  One was a gull banding/ re sighting project that is monitoring the gull population long term.  We located and noted previously banded birds, found their nest sites when possible and banded a few new gulls (if a banded birds was breeding with a non-banded bird we went after the non-banded mate).  

Now if you think this is easy...

That's right.  We're wearing bike helmets.  There are two species of gull that breed on the island (well....  I'll get to that in a sec) - Herring gulls (smaller and paler backs) and Greater Black Back Gulls.  When they are nesting they can be quite aggressive and will attack people.  They dive bomb pedestrians and either 1) poop on them and/or 2) smack them in the head.  They can and do draw blood if you aren't well protected.

 Greater Black Backed Gull on nest

Herring Gull

Now to that other gull species...  We were fortunate to spot Pierre on my walk about.  He's a Lesser Black Backed Gull, a species normally found in Europe.  

The Lesser Black Backed on the Left, Herring Gull on the Right

Several years ago Pierre showed up on Appledore and bred with a Herring Gull female.  They successfully reared chicks.     Since then he has returned several times and bred with several different Herring Gull females.  I guess you could say he's an ex-pat Brit living it up with the American Gullrs.

For the first time (I think) this year we found what could possibly be one of Pierre's offspring.  A Hybrid Lesser Black Back - Herring Gull cross.

So she looks a lot like a Herring Gull expect for the legs (not a great picture of her legs).  Instead of the normal pink her legs are kind of yellowish (her feet are still mostly pink).  We had hoped she would hook up with a local Herring gull and nest where we could get at the nest so we could catch her and get a blood sample to confirm paternity but if she's nesting we never saw where.

Note:  I am calling it a "she" but it's very difficult, often impossible, to determine gender in gulls

Note 2:  Yes, different species of gull can often interbreed and produce hybrid offspring.  It's one of the things that makes gull identification a bit more tricky than most people would expect. 

Note 3:  I didn't get any photos of my main project on this trip.  I was collecting samples of gull feces for a study on viral diseases in wildlife.  Not exactly glamorous but it did earn me my field biology nickname:

Guano Girl!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Edgy Gardening

One of my neighbors (a very good gardener) believes in using the wisdom of the ages to plant her vegetable garden.  She waits until after memorial day to plant tomatoes because that's the way it's always been done here in New England.

Not being a local AND being an observant person I know that spring is coming earlier and earlier (global climate change, ya'll!).  Every year that I've lived her I've put out my first tomatoes early.  Just 2 or 3 plants in the bed near the driveway.  Every year that I've lived her these plants have done just time and I get the first tomatoes of the year.

This year is no exception.  This guy and his buddy (not pictured) went in May 5th.

Don't tell my neighbor how this is cheating.

Why cheating?  Did you miss the cheat comment?  

I plant them near the driveway.  In a slightly warmer microclimate.  The driveway holds heat from the day and the plants closest to it stay warmer.

Now I haven't had a tomato killing May frost in the four years I've lived here so I could probably get away with a different location for the tomatoes but I do like to hedge my bets.

It's also how I manage to keep Mexican Feather Grass (Nassella tenuissmia), commonly considered a zone 7 plant in my zone 6 garden space.

I cheat.


Monday, May 13, 2013

Star Trek Weekend in My Garden

No, no, no.  NOT next weekend when the next Star Trek movie comes out.

No, I'm not confused with Star Wars Day from a few weeks ago (May the 4th be with you).

THIS last weekend was Star Trek Weekend in my Garden.  My Asclepias tuberosa (Oragne Butterfly weed) has been up for over a week now.  It's the official last plant to come up in my garden.  Once it's up I go around and see who didn't survive the winter.

This past winter was particularly difficult for plants.  Early on it was a mild winter and early in the spring it got warm and several plants broke dormancy.  Then real winter hit and we were cold and snowy for weeks (months... years???).  Some of the plants that broke dormancy were hit hard by the cold spell.

He's dead, Jim.

Jim, he's dead.

I'm afraid he's dead, Jim.

The Contorted Filbert (Corlus avellana 'Contorta') was not much of a surprise.  I bought it at an end of year sale and it was the most horrifically root bound plant I'd ever seen.  

The Rosa (Don Juan) was a surprise.  It had done well in the past but this year it was dead down to the graft.

The Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis terniflora) was also a BIG surprise.   You can see last year's growth.  But down at the soil level the stems were rotted (see second picture).  I'm very dissapointed in this one but it does give me a chance to power wash and re-stain my deck this summer....

I also lost a couple of Agastache but I have plenty of seedlings that I can move around to fill in spaces so that's not a big problem.

I hope you get the Star Trek reference by now.  If not see below.