Saturday, July 15, 2017

Great Gull Island: Part Three, The Research

Great Gull Island is known for its restoration and monitoring of the tern colonies nesting on the island by the American Museum of Natural History. In the 1950's the island's habitats were worked on and restored to elicit nesting sea birds to occupy the space available. In 1969, the museum staff, Helen Hays included, along with volunteers began monitoring the nesting birds that has continued to present times.
Species monitored are Common and Roseate Terns. The colonies are large, common terns have up to 10,000 pairs of birds and Roseate terns more than 1,000 pairs. This island harboring the largest roseate colony in New York.
Monitoring work starts early and during the busiest season can go one for many hours. At the time we went, past peak (early July) we mostly had morning and evening duties, weather and temperature dependent. You'll see, it's pretty rewarding work...
On our first evening, we prepared one of our many tools, putting together a pair book. This booklet helps us know what nests need trapping to pair up and monitor the adults, We cross out the nests that have already been done and then know, especially when we go out to capture adults that we don't repeat a nest.
Also this night we learned how to band a bird, put together our apron for banding in the morning that contained our pliers, notebooks, nest markers, flagging tape, and a string of leg bands.
The focus of our work was on the common terns, so much of what you'll see is COTE-centric, another group, worked exclusively on roseate terns.

The next morning, our first on the island, we went out bright and early to do what is dubbed "chick check." We are called over to headquarters in rhyme over the loudspeaker by Helen, where we then grab our gear, suit up, and head out-- slowly and carefully.

On day one, everyone seems so incredibly cautious. I know I felt nervous, the babies seem so fragile and putting a band on a leg that has only been exposed to the world for a day or a few is intimidating.

Holding a chick in my hand felt like such a special privilege it was also something so special, I was living my dream of doing field work! 

One thing I liked about this work, is at first I made mistakes. You are so overwhelmed by the scenery, the number of tasks you need to do, and how you need to do them fairly efficiently and move on.
Here is the tools of nest marking-- Tongue depressors give each nest a unique number and is either left blank to show it has only one egg, or marked with a 2, 3, 4 or even 5, to acknowledge the number of eggs/chicks. We record this in our notebooks, this nest, 7852 is in area D17 -- I figured out after a while that Helen used words like "Delta" to clarify the letter of the area for D. I also should be marking the date I labeled this nest and the number of eggs in it. After day one, I got a bit better at this whole thing and to be honest it felt good to learn from (minor) mistakes.


Sometimes we swept an area by walking in a line to cover ground efficiently. Crouching and laying low was what we did when getting ahead of the group. You can see the terns are never too far away.

The amazing camouflauge of the chicks made any walk for monitoring on the island a very stressful walk as you had to look down and see where exactly your foot was going to avoid stepping on these little babies.

Not everything is pretty on the island. When adult birds are found deal, we measure them and dissect them to determine the sex. We were offered to dissect a deceased roseate tern to determine its sex. I never dissected a bird before, so I was very much up for the challenge.

We all got a little stumped on what to do, this was very much a team effort.
I was happy to get my hands dirty...
Eventually we figured out that we needed to remove the GI tract to find the gonads of the bird to determine its sex... For those who are not aware, birds (with some exceptions) do not have genitalia. They have a cloaca, both males and females, and thats basically where poop and eggs come out and during reproduction, gametes travel through.

Finally, we called in Helen, the expert. We determined this bird to be a male.


In the back wall of the body cavity are testes, determining this bird to be male. To the untrained eye, we were in need of expert opinion.

On the evening on day 1, we also prepared traps. These chicken wire traps are for capturing the adult common terns and pairing them. This means we capture the mates from a nest, take their measurements, record their band (or give them a band if they are "naked"), and set them free before doing the same with their mate.
The traps are ACME-Looney Tunes style with a wire that holds the door open and when a bird steps in is triggered to slam shut. A simple lever design makes this trap work. And with the birds weighing around 120 grams, chicken wire makes for a fine trap, unweighted.

Captured adults are bagged in a small cloth bag to restrain them and keep them calm-- preventing injury. Back at headquarters they are processed and their data including bill length, band number, nest number, weight, and the bag used for capture (some have funny names). While all this is going on, ideally, the trap is set, in hopes of capturing the mate in the 15 minutes of down time between capture, processing, and release of the initial bird.
Before going out to see if you caught the mate, the bird in hand, or bag, is released!
Data sheets showing birds captured each day.



Not all chicks are super tiny, even those just a few days old seem far older than the newly hatched.

On our second day we all ohh-ed and ahh-ed over this newly hatched chick...

The "R" on this nest marker tells us this is a newly hatched roseate tern chick! Roseate chicks after a day have dark legs that differentiate them from the common chicks. And if their nest is marked, that makes telling the difference easier. In general the roseates nest under things like rocks or terraces built into the hillsides.

Another bigger chick. Thise one is still too young to be an "elephant," but even at this size they can get a decent move-on!

Reason as to why we wear those hats...



You can see that nifty apron we wear to carry all our tools. The bands are kept on a nice necklace with aquarium tubing for easy access, especially when there is a chick in your hand. An extra free pocket, I learned is also a great tool for putting a chick into safely while you assemble your gear.

Many of the youngest birds show a white dot on their beak tip, that's their egg tooth, used to help them escape the egg during hatching.

The band is put on in two steps, using the outermost portion of the plier to cuff the band around the leg and then the innermost portion is used to tighten and secure the band around the leg.
On these little chicks you could see the blood vessels just under the skin which made this task sometimes very intimidating.

getting my nerd on. That is 100% pure honest happiness, even when covered in angry tern poops.

Flagging is used to mark a newly hatched nest, this makes it a good candidate for trapping adults later in the day. The flags signal where to come back to. But at this point in the year flags are everywhere so it's another challenge to remember where all of yours are!

Like I said, folks on boats must wonder what is going on, if they are not aware of what happens on GGI. The group hard at work on chick check, even Helen, in the middle, bands chicks right alongside us. It is an absolute honor to work alongside her.

Molly puts a band on a chick, which by day 3, we are all feeling like pro's. Molly is a veteran, and I am so glad she introduced me to this project!!

You can see the gentle care that goes into banding the little chicks. Everyone is so delicate and I know I am not the only one who coos and records all my data in song while holding a chick. Maybe I am the only one for the latter...

We did some chick checks on the beach. This was scary because the eggs look like rock and the rocks on the beach are not necessarily held into their place, they moved, tumbled, and fell under your weight sometimes-- making this task on walking here 20x's more terrifying.

And yeah, the chicks look like rocks too.

As the chicks grow you can see their beaks get longer their forehead getting that gentle slope and those wing feathers coming in!

Watch me succeed and have little mini fails in banding COTE chicks... all while getting dived at.

A common tern perches on one of the radio receivers for terns who are nano tagged. These receivers track their movements between this island and other locations. Gathering information on where birds go to possibly fish or spend time during the time they are on the island. We have learned that sometimes bird just go to another area for the day. I suppose all parents need a break sometimes.

Trapping the adults can sometimes just be a laughing stock... who is outsmarting who. These adults are interacting with their nest from outside, or above.
Put some vegetation over the nest finally helps get an adult in, but my door didn't close! This is when you get stealthy and go back to the trap from the door side so that they run toward the back wall. Thankfully I caught this adult and its mate, so they don't have to be bothered again!

The trapping and processing process on GGI as seen through the GoPro...

My favorite part of trapping and pairing the nests is the release!


I was really stoked in finally getting the hang of the processes for doing nest marking...

Chick checking, and pairing adults. My notes got better, my confidence was sound, and I felt really good about what I and everyone who came was doing.

There is something amazing about holding these little chicks in your hand, they come into the world near helpless, but in a day are off scuttling around and a day or two more running around. They are amazing little creatures and to think of how much more is to come, like a flight to Argentina come fall, before returning next April-- and then everything in between.
My friend, Molly, she trapped a bird who was 24 years old! To think of the flights it has taken locally, and on migration, its so amazing to have held that in your hand. The oldest bird on the island was 28- that's pretty amazing for something that feel little more than feathers.
You truly gain an amazing appreciation for these animals when you are immersed in their world. Like I said, doing this felt an absolute privilege. This is what I dreamed of when I was a kid, and here I was, living it out! It was an honor to work with Helen and the team there for the season and to assist with their study that has been going on since before I was even a consideration to this world.

This is what a scientist looks like!
I asked for this photo with the thought of that activity you do with kids, "Draw A Scientist!" And every kids draws a white man in a white coat with a test tube in hand. But science is far more diverse, women can do it, people who aren't white can do it, and kids can do it. Our lab coat is replaced with field clothes to protect us from poop, aprons carry our equipment, and that hat is our safety gear. Hurray for breaking the mold!

Did I mention that this was an absolute dream come true?
I felt so much emotion while doing the thing that I love most, contributing to scientific work, studying animals (BIRDS!), and being able to do this for work!

The cute factor is just an extra special perk... The empathy felt really provides the drive to want to just be able to do everything you can for these animals, including waking up before 6am to help count them up, band them, and contribute to the growing database.


For more information on the GGI Project: www.greatgullisland.org