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!

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