Spring time in December?

28 12 2013

Yikes!  What happened to the spring…and summer.  I last posted on this blog back in May when we were eagerly awaiting our flight to Sable to begin our spring fieldwork.  With good intentions I have been meaning to write several posts since then but the summer field season slipped away, and, well…here we are in December.  The new year is almost here so this is my last chance to redeem myself and make a post in 2013.

I can barely remember what I ate for dinner last night so remembering all our Sable adventures over the summer will be a hard one for me.  So here is a quick recap of our spring trip with lots of photos to share some highlights and jog my memory.

Charter plane landing at the Sable Island "airport" guided by a Parks Canada truck bearing a wind sock.  Photo: Rob Ronconi

Charter plane landing at the Sable Island “airport” guided by a Parks Canada truck bearing a wind sock. Photo: Rob Ronconi

Heavy rains in the spring caused some flooding at the Sable Island “airport” which delayed our arrival by 6 days.   Finally the water receded from the beach leaving a narrow landing strip for the charter plane to touch down between the dunes and some still flooded sand flats.  May 21…the new bird team had arrived with returning grad students Jess and Zoe, newbie Dani (with a huge grin on her face as she stepped out of the plane onto the Sable sands for the first time), and myself, Rob.

Acadia University research team for Sable, May/June 2013.  Jess, Dani, Zoe, and Rob around a whale skull.

Acadia University bird research team on Sable, May/June 2013. Jess, Dani, Zoe, and Rob around a whale skull.

Packing cameras and field gear, Zoe, Dani, and Jess are ready to catch some gulls.  Photo: Rob Ronconi

Packing cameras and field gear, Zoe, Dani, and Jess are ready to catch some gulls. Photo: Rob Ronconi

Already behind schedule, we quickly got to work with the first task of catching gulls.  As with previous years our goal with the gulls was to catch and deploy.  Having put out enough wing-tags for our studies in 2012, we are now deploying only VHF tags and satellite tags to track their movements electronically, but each bird still gets a colour leg-band each coded with a unique combination of three letters (like AFJ).  For keen gull watchers out there we still want your reports of these colour bands and there are plenty of wing-tags still out there flying around since 2011 and 2012.

After banding and tagging, Dani releases a Great Black-backed Gull.  Note the green leg bands.  Photo: Rob Ronconi

After banding and tagging, Dani releases a Great Black-backed Gull. Note the green leg bands. Photo: Rob Ronconi

Second mission for the spring trip was VHF tag deployments on terns at their two main colonies.  A network of receivers around Sable and on offshore vessels is set up to monitor the comings and goings of terns from their colonies.  This is Jess’s project for her master’s of science degree with the goal of learning more about their foraging patterns and identifying important foraging areas around the island.

After measurements, banding and tagging, a tern is released at it's colony by Jess.  Photo: Rob Ronconi

After measurements, banding and tagging, a Common Tern is released at its colony by Jess.  Photo: Rob Ronconi

Third mission was to track down VHF tagged Ipswich Sparrows.  In April, as part of her master’s project, Zoe tagged 21 Ipswich sparrows on Conrad’s Beach on the mainland of Nova Scotia.  A network of receiver towers deployed along Nova Scotia were set up to track their movements along the coast and their departure point for migration to Sable Island.  During May and June, Zoe spent many days climbing and walking the dunes to track down these sparrows on Sable to confirm their safe arrival.

VHF receiver station powered by solar panels.  This temporary station was set up at the last of the western dunes on the island to monitor VHF tagged birds that use the western spit for roosting and foraging.  Photo: Rob Ronconi

VHF receiver station powered by solar panels. This temporary station was set up at the last of the western dunes on the island to monitor VHF tagged birds: gulls and terns roosting at the west spit and Ipswich Sparrows coming and going during migrations to the mainland. Photo: Rob Ronconi

Final mission was a to conduct another census of the gulls and terns to confirm our findings from last year and get better estimates of population size for the island.  On Sable, gull nests are spread out all over the island making it near impossible to count nests directly, so gulls were censused by counting all visible adults that were standing in the dunes or flying overhead.  Fortunately, the island is long and narrow with good vantage points…it was good exercise to climb to dune tops and ridges every 200 or 300 m of the island!  The terns, on the other hand, were much more cosmopolitan and they nest primarily in two very large colonies at the east and west ends of the island.  To census terns, we did counts in quadrats (e.g. 10 by 10 meter plots) to estimate nest densities which were multiplied over the total area of the colony.   Census completed two years in a row now, we are working on a paper which summarizes the current population size and changes over time since surveys began in 1969.  This information will help Parks Canada establish a base-line for future long-term monitoring of these populations on Sable Island.

With a lack of pebbles, terns on Sable will build their nests out of whatever they can find.  Here are two Common Tern eggs laid in a nest of bits and pieces of coal, bricks, glass and wood... debris at the base of one of the old lighthouses.  Photo: Rob Ronconi

With a lack of pebbles, terns on Sable will build their nests out of whatever they can find. Here are two Common Tern eggs laid in a nest of bits and pieces of coal, bricks, glass and wood… debris at the base of one of the old lighthouses. Photo: Rob Ronconi

Okay, enough said about our spring trip and I promise to post again soon about our August trip to work with Ipswich Sparrows.   My New Years resolution is to post more frequently.  In the meantime I leave you with some random pictures of of Sable in the spring.

Rob Ronconi

Halifax, NS

On the eastern end of Sable Island there are very few fresh water ponds so horses dig holes in the sand down to the fresh water buried below.  Once the hole is dug, all the family members take turns slurping up the water.  Photo: Rob Ronconi

On the eastern end of Sable Island there are very few fresh water ponds so horses dig holes in the sand down to the fresh water buried below. Once the hole is dug, all the family members take turns slurping up the water. Photo: Rob Ronconi

From time to time the waves uncover shipwrecks from the sand.  I found this one near the west spit of the island in a place I'd never seen a wreck before.  Here one day, gone the next...I never saw this wreck again for the rest of the summer.  Photo: Rob Ronconi

From time to time the waves uncover shipwrecks from the sand. I found this one near the west spit of the island in a place I’d never seen a wreck before. Here one day, gone the next…I never saw this wreck again for the rest of the summer. Photo: Rob Ronconi

Small motor-sailing vessel Wanderbird anchored off of Sable Island at sunset.  Lead by Sacajawea Tours this vessel was here to visit the island the next day.  Now that Sable has become a National Park, there has been growing interest in tourism to the island.  Photo: Rob Ronconi

Small motor-sailing vessel Wanderbird anchored off of Sable Island at sunset. Lead by Sacajawea Tours this vessel was here to visit the island the next day. Now that Sable has become a National Park, there has been growing interest in tourism to the island. Photo: Rob Ronconi

Sable shoreline at dusk.  Photo: Roo Ronconi

Sable shoreline at dusk. Photo: Rob Ronconi

Harbour seal pup with it's mother on the Sable beaches.  A small number of harbour seals give birth to their pups here in early June.  Photo: Rob Ronconi

Harbour seal pup with it’s mother on the Sable beaches. A small number of harbour seals give birth to their pups here in early June. Photo: Rob Ronconi





Rainbow of gulls

2 08 2012

If you’ve been following our blog since we started last year, you’ll notice the gulls are getting more colourful as we go.  In order to help keep species and populations distinct, banding and wing-tagging efforts have adopted unique colour combinations for each species and region so that a gull’s banding location can be known even when the letter codes aren’t discernible.  So far on Sable we’ve put three colours in use including PINK for Herring Gulls TURQUOISE for winter banded Great Black-backed Gulls, and YELLOW/LIMEGREEN for summer banded Great Black-backed Gulls.  Check out some sample pictures below.

A colleague of mine working up in Newfoundland has added one more shade to the gull rainbow.  He’s using a BEIGE wing-tag with black letters  Here’s a little message from Alex who would appreciate your reports if you see any of these gulls too.

As part of a larger study, we put wing tags on 37 adult Herring Gulls on Gull Island in the Witless Bay Seabird Ecological Reserve off Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula.  The tags are beige with black codes like “X07″ or “X29″.  The birds were also fitted with the black-on-orange colour bands that have been used in Newfoundland for many years.  We know from other band returns that Newfoundland’s breeding Herring Gulls range from southern Labrador to the Carolinas.  Any resights can be reported to the Bird Banding Office/Bird Banding Lab (www.reportband.gov), or directly to me at alex.bond@usask.ca.  Photos, anecdotes, and stories of the birds are most welcome!   Alex Bond, University of Saskatchewan

Beige wing-tags were deployed o Herring Gulls from Newfoundland in a study this summer.

Beige tags were deployed on gulls from Gull Island, Newfoundland.

Thanks for your help and keep the sighting reports coming.
Rob Ronconi
Halifax, NS

Yellow wing-tags on an immature Great Black-backed Gull from June on Sable Island

Pink tagged herring gull landing on the water

A turquoise tagged Great Black-backed Gull from Sable Island in the winter.





TERN that frown upside down!

18 06 2012

                Before our time on Sable comes to an end I would like to introduce you fellow readers to two additional species that breed here on the island: the Common tern, and the Arctic tern! I am quite proud to say that these feisty little guys are the focus of my study.  These migratory seabirds breed in colonies that vary in size; from fewer than ten pairs to thousands of pairs in a relatively small area. The main component of my project involved capturing terns while they were incubating their eggs, which meant a long wait after we arrived. The terns were definitely worth the wait!

During the two weeks prior to catching terns, I would make a random count of the number of eggs in the first twenty nests I came across in the colony every two-three days.  I quickly learned that the terns are very territorial and protective of their nests. I strongly recommend a jacket with a hood; mine is now completely painted with presents from the defensive birds! One of my favourite things about walking through the tern colony is being able to see the different nests and eggs. Some terns take the time to make beautiful little nests lined with soft vegetation; others are more impatient and pretty much sit in the sand and call the indent their nest.  Eggs also vary in size and colour patterns.

Terns build small nests out of all sorts of vegetation. This nest was made out of still growing sandwort on the east spit of Sable.

In order to catch the terns, we used cages with trap doors and hoop nets that could be triggered from afar. We were really happy to find that it did not take long for the terns to return (they are very dedicated to their future chicks!!) which meant that we were very efficient. Radio tags that will allow us to monitor their movements were attached to thirty-five birds at the two largest colonies on the island. The crew quickly learned to never look up while walking through the tern colony to retrieve the captured birds.

Box traps are set over top of tern nests to catch them. When they walk in, they step on a plate that triggers a door to close behind them.

Jess holds a Common Tern just before releasing it after it’s been measured, weighed and tagged.

We also completed an island-wide census of the breeding terns by visiting the colonies that had been located by past researchers (look for the results in a future blog post). Unfortunately most of the smaller colonies were no longer present on the island. However, while traveling to the eastern tip of the island one day, Zoe and Rob were fortunate enough to come across a group of endangered Roseate terns!! Five were seen together on the beach at a Common and Arctic Tern loafing area near the East Light colony.  Everyone was extremely excited due to continuing decline of the species. I am happy to say that precautions were taken so that they remained undisturbed and photographs were taken from a large distance.

Roseate terns are an endangered species in Canada and the USA. Sable Island is home to a small breeding population of this species. About 5 pairs of Roseates are known to nest among the large Common Tern colony near East Light on Sable. These ones were seen loafing on the beach about 200 meters from the colony.

I think I speak for the entire crew when I say that our experience here on Sable has been one that we will never forget. From dealing with charismatic birds to spending time with some really great people, it has been quite the month! Even though we will be leaving soon, we hope to return sometime in the future to continue our research and gain even more experience! So make sure you all tern-your frowns upside down because there will be more Sable posts to come!

Cheers,

Jess Stephens

Carefully walking among tern nests to catch terns in traps, terns take direct aim at intruders.





The science of patience

10 06 2012

Catching gulls on Sable Island requires a lot of patience.  The gulls are shy of human presence and any disturbance within a colony will set all the gulls in a giant mayhem for quite some time.  So typically, when trying to catch Herring gulls on their nest, we have to wait one hour before calm settles down again on the colony and gulls will return to their nest.  During that hour, we are hiding under our “invisible cloak” a.k.a. a sand coloured bed sheet.  While waiting for the gulls to return, there is only so much distraction one can have crouched in an uncomfortable position, in the sand, under a bed sheet.  This is an intense game patience, with the possibility of a reward if a gull gets caught, or the perspective of another hour of waiting if it escapes.  It might not be physically tiring, but this part of the day can be mentally draining… It’s all in the name of science.

Under the “invisibility cloak” Zoe vanishes right before the eyes of the gulls.

Like any work, being in the field has its share of repetitiveness: catching sparrows, breakfast, trying to catch and tag some gulls, lunch, trying to catch and tag more gulls, dinner, sleep, repeat from step one.  Yet, as anyone who has ever done field work knows, field work is not all that monotonous and we experience a fair amount of adventures each and every day.  There is the time Zoe and I were trying to catch sparrows with a mist net and ended up catching a horse!!! Surprisingly, both the net and the horse came out unscathed.  Carrying a 50 pounds battery up 8 flights of ladder style stairs to the top of the light house, now, that’s an adventure.  But today, the gull catching work is officially over and we are getting ready for some new adventures: tomorrow we will be banding our first Ipswich Sparrow nestlings and over the next few days, we will catch our first terns!!! I`m not sure if we are moving up in the world of birds, but we are switching target size, that’s for sure.  It’s been a long 4 weeks for Jess, whose project is on terns, but she can not hold the excitement any longer.

Reporting live from Sable Island, Ingrid Pollet

Team gull set a trap at a Herring Gull nest on a ridge top.

Ingrid and Zoe wait at a mist net for Ipswich Sparrows. Or maybe they’ll catch a horse!





Back to the Beach

8 06 2012

At 40km long with only five year-round (human) residents, Sable Island is probably Canada’s biggest and most fantastic beach.  That is if you like pounding surf, blowing sand, horizontal rain, fog (and more fog) and a few hundred thousand seals that leave “gifts” on the shores.  Donning mitts, touques, full rain/wind gear, and “invisibility cloaks” (see the upcoming blog entry by Ingrid), our research team has assembled on Sable for the 2012 field season.  The team has doubled this year to account for quadruple the work load planned.  Ingrid and Rob have returned for another season of gull wrangling and brought Zoe and Jess, two Masters students from Acadia University.  Both are starting new projects tied in with the gull study but they seem to have a preference for the smaller birds that don’t draw blood when they bite.  Jess will be studying the foraging habitats and diets of terns around the island and Zoe is tracking the migration of the Ipswich Sparrow, Sable’s endemic sub-species of Savannah sparrow.

The new gull crew from Acadia University providing navigational aid to passing traffic on North Beach, Sable Island. From left to right: Rob, Zoe, Ingrid, and Jess.

Admittedly we’re a little behind in blog entries since we’ve been here 3 weeks already.  We arrived May 15th, earlier than last year, so we could catch Great Black-backed Gulls, a task most easily done when they are incubating their eggs.  Too late for that, the chicks were already hatching during our first few days on the island so we had to switch tactics.  We started catching Black-backs by setting traps around dead seals that they forage on (illustrated guide below… “how to catch a Black-backed Gull in 4 easy steps”).  No guts, no glory!

Building on last year’s project with Herring Gulls, this year’s mission is to deploy VHF tracking tags on Herring Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, terns, and Ipswich Sparrows to study their movements around the island, interactions with offshore gas platforms, and migrations to the main land.  Full speed ahead since day one, we’ve deployed 50 tags on gulls, colour banded almost 100 Ipswich, and nearly caught a horse (unintentionally of course) that walked through and dragged down one of our mist nets.  A special technological treat for this year are the 6 solar-powered satellite tags that will allow us to track Herring Gull movements year-round for 2 years (stay tuned for maps in future blog entries).

Since I’m bad at keeping the blog entries up to date I’ll be sure to get the rest of the crew to write a few words over the coming week before we finish up.

Rob Ronconi

Main Station, Sable Island

Step 1 – The Bait.   Jess and Ingrid hide traps (leg-loop carpets) in the sand around a dead seal. Black-back Gulls can’t resist!

Step 2 – The Wait. The intrepid researchers wait and watch until the black-backs get caught.

Step 3 – The Catch (and watch out for the horses). Horses pass by as Zoe and Jess run to grab the gull caught in the trap.

Step 4 – and Release. After tags are attached a black-back springs free.





Black-backed Blizzard: winter tagging on Sable

24 01 2012

During December and January, Sable's shorelines and dunes get crowded with resident grey seals that come ashore to give birth, feed their pups, and mate. Gulls mill about the seal colony in search of food like placentas from seal births, dead pups, and carcases of seals washed ashore.

The Sable landscape is completely changed in the winter.  The waves are bigger, the wind is stronger, dunes become sand storms, the lush vegetation dies back and the resident population explodes!  Not the human population but the population of native wildlife that migrate to the island.  By mid December, this island is crowded with grey seals that come to Sable to give birth, nurse and fatten up their pups, and mate.  With thousands of seals on the beaches and dunes, it’s a spectacle to behold … the sights and sounds are reminiscent of a zombie movie with seals crawling every which way, moans, groans, snarling and snapping at your feet as the females protect their pups, the young learn to crawl and the big males compete for mates.  They are wonderful, adorable (the pups), powerful, and assertive creatures.  Recent estimates showed that more than 65,000 seal pups are born here annually making Sable the largest grey seal colony in the world – learn more about research that’s been conducted here by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) for several decades now.

Along with the seals come the gulls that “flock” to the island to feed.  The winter medley of Sable gulls is much different from the summer breeding population.  In the summer, Herring Gulls outnumber Great Black-backed Gulls by about 4 to 1.  In winter, Great Black-backed Gulls are the dominant species probably numbering in the thousands (2000-5000 would probably be my best guess).  For every 200 Black-backs there’s maybe 20 Iceland Gulls, 1 Glaucous Gull, the occasional Herring Gull, and other rarities like the Lesser Black-backed Gull.

Why so many gulls on this remote sandbar?  They come here to feed and fatten up for the winter.  In winter, food resources are often scarce for wildlife, but Sable offers a smorgasbord for gulls.  The large seal population presents rich and nutritious meals of protein and fat from placentas left over from births, dead pups that are weaned too young, and seal carcases that are washed ashore after being killed by sharks.

I had the great pleasure to spend New Years on Sable where I worked for 2 weeks in December/January helping colleagues from DFO with their long-term seal research program.  We were conducting seal population census, monitoring pup production, and and recovering tags from seals involved with the Ocean Tracking Network project.

During our “spare” time, three of us that were staying at the East Light Field Camp (Sarah, Damian and myself) were busy trying to catch gulls.  Since they were already cued in on dead seals, we took advantage to set leg-noose carpets around seal carcasses.  While feasting on the open carcases their legs would get caught in the nooses and we were on standby right as this happened.  Winter gull catching is not for the faint of heart… frozen fingers, blowing sand, blood and guts (from the seal carcases and also from the gulls regurgitating on us once they were captured), and aggressive seals.  During our last capture session a snow storm set in just as we were finishing up with our last bird.

Just after sunset, as a snow storm sets in, Sarah and Damian release an adult Great Black-backed Gull after tagging it during our last day on Sable Island.

We measured, weighted and tagged 12 Great Black-backed Gulls this winter with turquoise wing-tags and green leg bands.  With some vigilance this summer, hopefully we’ll discover where these gulls came from (Maine? New Brunswick? Newfoundland?) to forage on this rich bounty of Sable seal flesh!

Rob Ronconi, Halifax, NS

P.S. Special thanks to Simon who cut out all the tags for me back in Halifax!

Damian holds a young Great Black-backed Gull ready for release after tagging. Maybe Damian is contemplating a career change now from seal biologist and photographer (lidgardphotography.com) to ornithologist.

East Light field camp where we stayed for 2.5 weeks in December and January. This field camp is run by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography.

Blue/Turquoise wing-tagged adult Great Black-backed Gull flies by mother grey seal with her pup.





Chick round-up

16 06 2011

By the time we arrived on the island on June 6th, the Great Black-backed Gulls had already hatched their chicks.  By mid June the chicks were getting big and running around while being guarded and fed by their diligent parents.  This is a great opportunity to catch young gulls, before they can fly, and outfit them with their own colour bands.

Chicks lay calmly on their backs as they await their turn for banding.

When their not hiding in the vegetation, chicks are running fast.  We were often outsmarted by these 20-day old birds who evaded capture by disappearing in the grass, running down and over steep dunes, and, most effective of all, swimming off into the surf.    We succeed in banding 28 chicks but they were too small to be fitted with wing-tags.

Ingrid, Susan, and Damian round up three chicks for banding.

A Great Black-backed Gull chick runs off with its new green band.





Catching gulls on Sable

13 06 2011

Sable Island is sand bar – approximately 40 km long and 1.5 km wide – located about 200 km offshore from mainland Nova Scotia.  Despite its isolation, Sable is home to a diversity of fauna including grey seals, harbour seals, wild horses (that were introduced to the island in the 1700’s), and a wide variety of bird species.  Gulls, terns, and occasionally Leach’s storm-petrels, are the only seabirds which nest on this island.  Both Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls breed on Sable, but detailed studies of these species have not been made here since 1971 when it was estimated that ~2000 pairs of Herring Gulls and ~600 pairs of Great Black-backed Gulls were nesting on the island.

Ingrid climbs the ridge of a sand dune to reach a Herring Gull nest on top. Gulls on Sable nest in small colonies often on dune ridges and slopes.

In June of 2011, a small team of keen biologists set out to Sable Island to initiate a new study of the gulls that nest on Sable.  Rob Ronconi and Ingrid Pollet, from Acadia University, worked on Sable for 2 weeks catching and tagging gulls.  We stayed at “BIO House” with grey seal biologists from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans who helped immensely with the logistics of working in this remote place.

Eggs are temporarily swapped with "dummy" eggs to protect the real eggs during captures of nesting adults.

At this time of year Herring Gulls were still incubating their eggs which allowed us catch them by setting traps over their nests.  Catching gulls on Sable was easier said than done – the uneven and shifting sands made it difficult to set traps and the gulls were more skittish than on other islands where I’ve worked before.  Many times we were duped by these crafty birds…gulls are much smarter than people give them credit for.

Rob releases Herring Gull fitted with pink wing-tag "AAR"








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 58 other followers