Of what value is a gull? by John Anderson

by Natalie Springuel

A few years ago, I had the great pleasure of facilitating a meeting of the newly forming Gull Working Group, an alliance of gull researchers in eastern North America. The meeting was hosted by John Anderson, faculty at College of the Atlantic (where my Sea Grant marine extension office is located). John and many of his colleagues had observed disturbing patterns of decline in the supposedly ubiquitous herring gull and great black-backed gull populations in both the northeast U.S. and the Canadian maritime region.

Equally disturbing was the lack of coordinated research to document the decline. Sea Grant provided program development funding for the meeting, and later also supported the publication of a special issue of the journal Waterbirds, which will outline research results and a growing collaboration between international researchers who look to gull species as potential indicators of ocean ecosystem health. As John recently explained to me “as generalists, they [gulls] should be highly adaptive to changing conditions and that their populations are crashing suggests broad and deep problems within the ecology of the region.”

John is quick to credit his students at College of the Atlantic for their role in scientific understanding of island and seabird ecology. In the breeding season, he takes groups of students to one of COA’s island research stations where, for weeks on end, they tally and observe and measure and weigh nesting birds. In the story below, John shares a bit about one of his students, and also one of his birds, each clearly benefiting enormously from their relationship with the professor.

Of what value is a gull?
by John Anderson, W.H. Drury Professor of Ecology & Natural History, College of the Atlantic

gull known as k2A
The gull known as K2A.

I would like to introduce you to two Mainers. K2A is a herring gull. She hatched from a nest at the south end of Great Duck Island in June of 2015. Great Duck Island is a line of light on the southern horizon for most tourists looking out from the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National park. It is also one of the oldest gull colonies in Maine, with records going back to the nineteenth century. In a time when gull populations around the western North Atlantic are plunging, Great Duck’s importance as a robust colony can only increase.

K2A’s nest was one of over six hundred in the shadow of the lighthouse tower, watched over by students from College of the Atlantic, and protected in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy and the State of Maine. Hers was one of three eggs, but one of her siblings died in the first week after hatching. She was the smaller of the two surviving chicks, growing slowly on whatever her parents could bring to feed her.

Audra McTague is a student of gulls. She was born in Newport, Maine, which to most tourists hurrying to the wonders of the coast is just a truckstop on Interstate 95. It is also the gateway to the great wild lands that stretch north to the Canadian border.

Life isn’t always easy. Audra’s Dad was involved in a horrifying automobile accident which left him permanently disabled. Audra worked hard at school. She was selected to Upward Bound, a program that works with high school students to help them enter careers in math and science. She went on expeditions in the wild lands and along the coast. She applied to the College of the Atlantic, and was accepted Early Decision. Before she even started at College of the Atlantic, she joined a team of students studying gulls on Great Duck Island.

Every year a small sub-set of nests on Great Duck is selected for close monitoring in order to determine survival and fledging success. Chicks are banded using metal federal bands, and weighed and measured each time they are caught. It is a stressful process for everyone: chicks are good at hiding, adult birds strike at researchers, researchers want to move quickly so as to minimize their impact on the birds, but not so quickly that they run the risk of injuring anyone. If a chick makes it to three weeks or so it gets an additional colored band: maroon with a white letter/number combination that can be read by someone with sharp eyes or a pair of binoculars. On the 22nd of July Audra banded Federal Band Chick 58636 as K2A.

Summer faded. K2A was small for a fledgling, and light weight is not a good sign in a bird that has a long distance to go, and Great Duck birds had been known to disperse as far south as Florida. The highest mortality in gulls probably occurs in the first three to six months of life as they learn to operate in the wide world on their own.

September, and the young gulls were all gone. Audra was in college for the first time–a first generation college student, studying stars and biology, and human ecology.

Winter, and snow, and more classes. Sometimes Audra goes out to look at snowy owls and bohemian waxwings, but her teachers want her chained to a desk. K2A is a memory of sunny days on islands and the foghorn calling.

Then, in the middle of January, a birdwatcher in Pascagoula, Mississippi saw a gull with a band on its leg. He focused in with his camera and caught the band numbers. The picture went on Facebook, and now we know where K2A is. She has traveled over 1,500 miles from Great Duck to spend the winter beside the Singing River. There are islands, and crabs, and other gulls to meet, and cars, and predators, and pollutants to avoid. If she survives the winter she will probably drift north to the Chesapeake Bay, and if we are lucky, maybe birders there will spot her and report her progress. For the next three years she will ride the winds and haunt the sandflats and harbors. She will know the capes and islands of the Carolinas.

Audra is in school. She wants to give back and she wants to learn. This summer she is arranging for some of the next generation of Maine Upward Bound students to spend a day venturing to Great Duck to see gulls and guillemots, to hold a wild bird in the hand and to dream of long flights to new horizons. She will be giving presentations to Maine high school students about why science and math matters, and why one must also bring these things to the out-of-doors and the out-of-doors to the classroom. Later in summer she will be working in a lab in Boston, studying the role of stress hormones in the ecology of the gulls back in Maine. Carhorns will replace foghorns, but on the edge of the harbor there will still be gulls to remind her of the winds to seaward.

In three years K2A will be an adult. She may return to Maine to breed and produce her own chicks. They may in turn be banded and pass down the river of air and time to the south and back in an endless wheel of life and living, linking Maine to the wide world and the wide world to Maine. In three years Audra will graduate from college, first in her family to do so. She will set off on her own journeys, new birds, new islands, new horizons.

Gulls can live a long time –more than 20 years. K2A may grow used to young scientists coming to check her eggs, band her chicks, learn how data points can give a trend and how a trend can become a prediction. Audra will be a scientist, with students of her own. Her hair will start to grey, and days in the field will etch lines in her face, oars will mark calluses on her hands. Of what value is a gull? Maybe only this: the lessons of the free air and the wild sky, that science is born in patience and brought forth in care and wonder, that the world is a wide and wilder place than any text book can ever teach us, or, as Gordon Bok reminds us:

The gull on the long and lifting swell
Is the world a given wing…

~ end ~

If you would like to hear more from K2A, John, Audra and other students, tune in to Maine Sea Grant’s Coastal Conversations radio program on WERU (89.9 FM in Blue Hill or 99.9 in Bangor or streaming/podcasting at WERU.org) on April 8, 2016, 10-11 AM.