New Year’s Gales on Sable

22 01 2013

Happy new year everyone!  The gull research world has been very busy lately which has made me quite neglectful of this blog since the summer field season.  I just got back from another trip to Sable Island which reminded me to update you on some of our gull work.

This winter’s trip to Sable was especially cold, snowy, and WINDY which made for difficult gull catching.  The Sable Island weather station recorded maximum wind gusts of more than 60 km/h on 8 of the 13 days we were out there and gusts of 93 km/h, or 50 knots, estimated on January 11th…the day we were supposed to leave but our flight was canceled.  With these blowing winds the whole island feels like sand blasting in a wind tunnel and evenings are spent wiping sand from the corners of your eyes.  Nonetheless, we managed to catch 12 Great Black-backed Gulls (same as last year) and deployed colour leg bands on each of them.  Like last year, our captures were assisted by carcasses….of seals.  The gulls are ravenous in the cold winter days so we set our traps around the dead seal pups where the gulls flock to scavenge on tasty blubbery morsels.  This year’s captures were assisted by one extra rotten and extra large carcass that fed dozens of gulls at a time… a large male sperm whale had washed up on shore some time ago and was decaying in the surf while being pecked at by gulls.

Washed up by tides and waves, a large male sperm whale decays on the beach.  Two full grown people easily fit jaws of this beast.  Photo by Rob Ronconi.

Washed up by tides and waves, a large male sperm whale decays on the beach. Two full grown people easily fit into the jaws of this beast. Photo by Rob Ronconi.

Here are a few pictures to share the awesome sense of the Sable land and seascape in the cold winter months.  Stay tuned to the blog over the next couple months and I’ll bring you stories of Sable gulls that have been spotted this past fall at garbage dumps, beaches, 100’s of km offshore, and even a cemetery.

Happy gull watching in the new year!

Rob

Halifax, NS

Sable horses take shelter in the valleys between the dunes.  Photo by Rob Ronconi

Sable horses take shelter in the valleys between the dunes. Photo by Rob Ronconi

In the past Sable was known as the graveyard of the Atlantic where hundreds of vessels met their fate.  Winter storms move mountains of sand revealing portions of shipwrecks.  Poking out of the sand for only 2 days, the remains of this wreck may not be seen again for decades.  Photo by Rob Ronconi

In the past Sable was known as the graveyard of the Atlantic where hundreds of vessels met their fate. Winter storms move mountains of sand revealing portions of shipwrecks. Poking out of the sand for only 2 days, the remains of this wreck may not be seen again for decades. Photo by Rob Ronconi

Gale force winds blow the tops off waves on January 11th when winds gusting to 93 km/h were recorded at the Sable Island weather station.  Photo by Rob Ronconi

Gale force winds blow the tops off waves on January 11th when winds gusting to 93 km/h were recorded at the Sable Island weather station. Photo by Rob Ronconi

Blowing sands pile up against sleepy seals on the beaches (note the passing gull ... for the sake of the blog about gulls).  Photo by Sarah Wong

Blowing sands pile up against sleepy seals on the beaches (note the passing gull … for the sake of the blog about gulls). Photo by Sarah Wong

In the late daylight hours, passing clouds let in only a few rays of sun far out to sea from Sable.  photo by Rob Ronconi

In the late daylight hours, passing clouds let in only a few rays of sun far out to sea from Sable. photo by Rob Ronconi

Sanderlings dodge the frigid waves on the shores of Sable January. Photo by Sarah Wong

Sanderlings dodge the frigid waves on the shores of Sable January. Photo by Sarah Wong

Dressed head to toe in insulated rain gear, a researcher walks among the debris field of the old East Lighthouse that has been destroyed by decades of wind and shifting sands. Photo by Rob Ronconi

Dressed head to toe in insulated rain gear, a researcher walks among the debris field of the old East Lighthouse that has been destroyed by decades of wind and shifting sands. Photo by Rob Ronconi

Frozen sand and cutting winds carve these temporary sand sculptures in the dunes. Photo by Rob Ronconi

Frozen sand and cutting winds carve these temporary sand sculptures in the dunes. Photo by Rob Ronconi

A female grey seal swims around in iced water in one of the temporary ponds from winter storm surges that flood the beaches. Photo by Rob Ronconi

A female grey seal swims around in iced water in one of the temporary ponds from winter storm surges that flood the beaches. Photo by Rob Ronconi





The Ipswich are back!

1 10 2012

Each of the 44 Ipswich that got released with a VHF tracking tag also got a unique two colour combination of bands on its left leg. The right leg has a standard metal band with a unique number registered to the Canadian and US banding offices.

We returned to Sable Island at the end of August to deploy
transmitters on the Ipswich Sparrows.  This time around the weather
was great, it was hot and sunny every day and we managed to find time
for a couple swims in the ocean with the seals.  The Ipswich were
finishing their breeding season and they were everywhere.  It was
incredibly easy to capture this years chicks, they often started
flocking to the mist nets as we were setting them up.  The adults were
more weary of these strange new “perches” and we spent a lot of time
trying to figure out a plan of attack.  In the end we became expert
sparrow chasers and got 20 adults, but we were outsmarted by many
more.

Blending in with its surrounding grasses, this Ipswich shows a white VHF tag on its back and red and yellow combination of bands on its leg.

We tagged 44 in total and banded them with unique color bands on their
left legs.  We are hoping to track their migration down the Eastern
coast of Nova Scotia this fall through radio telemetry and reports of
any sightings.  If you see any color banded Ipswich Sparrows, please
report the color combination or send a photo through this blog, or to
Zoe Crysler at zcrysler@gmail.com.  This will provide important
information on their movements for the project and improve it’s
success.

Once again the work on Sable was a whirlwind of an adventure, but I’m
looking forward to finding out what these birds do once they leave for
the winter.

Zoe Crysler

Two banded and tagged Ipswich side by side. The bird on the left shows its white VHF tag for tracking their movements and the bird on the right shows off its yellow and green colour leg-bands.





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.





Island leaving…Island living

21 06 2012

Gulls – check!

Terns are tagged, gulls are geared, sparrows are spreading… our job is done, yet we are still here.  This is part of the hazards of working on a somewhat remote island:  you never know when you are getting on and certainly never know when you are getting off.  Up until a few days ago, there were 8 of us (human that is) on the entire island.  That’s about 0.23 people /km2, or the equivalent density of the Falkland Islands.  Five horse-loving tourists arrived on the island a few days ago.  The island is suddenly over populated, it’s time to go, yet we are still here.   As we see it, we are sharing our accommodation with them.  In their eyes, it’s probably more them who are sharing their accommodation with us as we were supposed to leave on the same day as they arrived.  But the weather decided otherwise.  After a beautiful month with limited days of rain or fog, the fog arrived earlier this week, in all kinds of shades and thickness, and no plane can land in this weather on the hard packed sandy beach that we familiarly call the “airport”.  It’s now Thursday and we are getting ready to spend another extra day (or is it days?) on the island.  Once the frustration is put aside, it gives us the opportunity to tweak our set-up, to check on the status of our birds, and to catch /band a few more sparrows.  As much as we appreciate being here and would gladly spend more time on the island, we all have plans for the rest of the season, and are getting itchy for the next adventures.  Not knowing if today is going to be the day we are flying home makes for awkward planning…. Island living, there’s nothing like it.

Ingrid Pollet (still on Sable Island)

Sparrows – check!

Terns – check!

 





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.





Ipswich-aroo

13 06 2012

Although this is a blog about the magnificent Sable Island gulls, I think there is a bit of leeway to (Ip)switch species for a moment and talk about some of the other feathered friends that live on the island.  We are also working on Ipswich Sparrows while we’re out here.

The Ipswich work has been a lot of fun so far and we’ve even started banding chicks.  We catch them using mist nets and call playbacks so we all know the Ipswich song very well by now.  It’s hard not to hear them all around you while you sit and wait for the much larger gulls to be trapped.  It’s once you have a sparrow interested in the speaker that the action starts.  The best way to catch them seems to be to run at them and flush them into the net.  Sometimes they outsmart us and escape the net at the last moment, but we don’t give up!  We’ve managed to catch most of the sparrows we’ve set our eyes on with one or two exceptions of some particularly wiley individuals.  No one likes being outsmarted by a sparrow.

Jess sets up a mist-net just out of reach of a passing horse.

 

We’ve caught a few surprises too; magnolia warbler, cedar waxwing, northern waterthrush, and a blackpoll warbler.  It can also be a challenge working around wild horses, one has run through our net (both the net and the horse made it out in one piece), but they have also managed to chase sparrows into our nets which has been a huge help.

 

Zoe delicately removes an Ipswich Sparrow from a mist net.

A male Ipswich Sparrow with a red leg bad and metal (numbered) band. Females get blue bands. During the breeding season it’s easy to determine the sex of birds (females have a brood patch and male don’t). We’re banding sparrows now with colour bands so it will make it easier to tell apart the males and females in late August when we return to tag them.

 

Getting the chicks is a bit trickier at first, since the nests are so small and well hidden in the dense ground cover.  Once you find one you just have to wait until they are big enough to band but not old enough to be forced out of the nest too early.  Then you can just reach in and get them.  They start out with just a bit of down along their head and back which looks like a little Mohawk, and the rest of the feathers grow in after that.  After waiting 6 days for the first set of chicks we were finally able to band our first nest yesterday.   We should have a couple more ready in the next few days and we’re all very excited to band more little Ipswich chicks!

Zoe Crysler

Ipswich conceal their nests among grass and shrubs on Sable. Each summer pairs raise up to three clutches of 3 to 5 eggs.

After only 12 days of incubation, these hungry little mouths emerge.

 

 





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!








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