They're not just boring seagulls

I have to admit that as I write this, all I can think about is Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls" lyrics. Except for I like to sing it "In a West End town, a dead-end world...the East End boys and Western GULLS". Of course, the gulls on Protection Island are mostly Glaucous-winged Gulls (GWG). But many of them are varying degrees of hybrid between GWG's and Western Gulls. I think the reason I'm so defensive about gulls is that the average person is so used to seeing them (often eating at dumpsters or using the restroom on your car) that they reduce gulls to the level of pigeons. Which ALSO isn't fair. Pigeons are technically doves people and gulls are incredibly successful seabirds with hilarious personalities. Successful? Yes. They are numerous, aren't they? And very speciose.

Just look at this fellow preening. Isn't he beautiful?

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There are two GWG colonies on Protection Island, one of them quite large. I spent every morning recording and observing Pigeon Guillemots in the marina which is also the epicenter of the large gull colony. Between the rock crevices full of nesting guillemots, the high tide embankment lined with gull nests and the rocky beaches with scattered oystercatcher eggs, it was a busy, exciting place to watch. Gulls are very protective over their nests. They will absolutely dive-bomb you and I've heard many stories from other scientists who have studied gulls on the island which detail thumps to the hard hat that nearly knocked them over. A bird colony where hard hats are necessary? Yes. Gulls do not enjoy human presence around their babies. Also, imagine this many gulls...times a few thousand...

Glaucous-winged Gull

...and now try to think up another reason you would want to wear a hard hat whilst walking among and under all of these flying birds.

Recognizing the difference between male and female GWG's takes a bit of practice. They both gather nesting material, build the nest, and incubate the eggs so you can't cheat and tell one from the other just by their parental duties. The key indicator is the shape of the head. And even that is not always reliable. Males have a skinnier, longer looking head while females' seem more puffy. Because birds can change their body shape just by adjusting their feathers, you have to observe gulls for some time before you can form a hypothesis on sex.

Try your hand at these guys.

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

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I counted 4 males and 2 females. What about this one? (I've given you three poses to choose from.)

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) - Protection Island, WA

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) - Protection Island, WA

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) - Protection Island, WA

I'm going to go with female here but this gal is tricky. It's nearly impossible without seeing them move around in person.

I'm betting some of you are still saying to yourselves, "Ok Steph, I've seen a gull before. And now I've seen one from every angle. Still a bit bored." That's about to change.

Soon: babies. But first! A few happy parents before their chicks hatch.

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

And now...the little camo babies!

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

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Glaucous-winged Gull

And here's a mama regurgitating fish for her babies:

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I hope you've enjoyed the photos and videos of the gulls and that you might be willing to give them another chance and take a closer look. I will say this in your defense. The GWG's did snack on one of my study chicks and I didn't appreciate that. I saw the culprit and wished I had a slingshot. So, one bad gull. There's one in every crowd.

Come back Wednesday for a look at the wildflowers and other flora on Protection Island!

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

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Tufted Puffins on Protection Island

20130620-DSCN0431 It was my second or third day on Protection Island. Dr. Jim Hayward of Andrews University took me out in his boat with a few other castaways to have a look at the northwest side of the island. There were eagle nests on one stretch and as the cliffs became steeper, westward, crevices and burrows erupted with tiny black flashes of wings. At one time, many more Tufted Puffins lived on the island. Now, there are only a handful of breeding pairs. They nest right next to their cousins, Rhinoceros Auklets. The rhinos, as you know, are my main study species and were my principal cause for inhabiting the island.

This was my very first look at a Tufted Puffin.

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Notice the two feather tufts that run down the back of the head. Those are both the namesake of the puffin and an attractive accoutrement for the breeding season. During winter, the tufts fall off and black feathers fill in the white spots on the face. The puffins also shed the enormous red bill plates and leave the birds looking almost unrecognizable from their summer costumes.

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Tufted Puffins were once a common bird all the way down the California shoreline but are now being seen less and less (even decreasing in numbers as far north as Protection Island, my field site). This is due to a host of introduced predators: rats, foxes, mink, feral cats and dogs, and livestock like goats, sheep and rabbits. Of course, the most direct threat to Tufted Puffins is human disturbance. This is partly why Protection Island went from being a vacation destination to a refuge where tourism and fishing are not allowed on the island at all. The Dungeness crab fishery is very present around the island but vessels must stay at least 200 yards away to respect the buffer zone that the birds utilize, especially during the breeding season.

It is a beautiful and important island worth protecting.

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Come back tomorrow for another post on this double-feature weekend!

2birdfeature #4

20130719-DSCN1290 Today's 2birdfeature presents a challenge. Every birder in the history of the world wrestles with an ID from time to time. Today is my day. I gave myself 10 minutes to ID this sparrow species above and I have come to no sure conclusion. Have a closer look.

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Most importantly, I know the bird is a juvenile. Two things tell me this right away. Have a look at the base of the bill. See that little yellow fleshy bit? That is a relic of being a baby. It disappears gradually and is then covered over by feathers. Secondly, the condition and coloration of the feathers tell me that the bird is young. Possibly only a week or two post-fledge.

What else do I know about the bird to make me assume sparrow species? Bill shape. It's not deep enough for a finch bill and not skinny enough for the bill of a vireo or thrush. Plus sparrow species are very numerous and populous in Washington, USA.

If you think you know what this little bird is, please venture a guess! I haven't the time to spend on thoroughly identifying him or her.

The second species today is a bit easier to ID.

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Blackish Oystercatchers are visually striking shorebirds with a very loud call and a propensity to scuttle along the rocks searching for mussels, limpets and barnacles to eat. They nest on bare rocks or tiny depressions in the sand that they scrape. Usually, oystercatchers position their nests as close to the high-water mark as the tide permits. Oystercatchers often have a low success rate hatching chicks because of their very exposed nests. If they get up to feed, gulls and mammals capitalize on the opportunity to snack on their eggs. Also, it would be very easy to step on their eggs if one was not being careful, as is the case for many shorebirds.

I took the following photos on a particularly foggy morning so the color and lighting is off. I hope you enjoy this beautiful bird anyway! See you this weekend!

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2birdfeature #2

Bald Eagles and Great Horned Owls weren't the only raptors on Protection Island, turns out. There was also a nest of Northern Harriers tucked away in the grassy heart of the island. I missed the male (a bluish-grey almost owl-looking hawk) because his family duty had already been fulfilled. Males typically stick around to feed the female while she's incubating her eggs and then maybe two weeks after the eggs hatch. But I did catch the female on several occasions. I should actually say that she caught me with her "kyeh kyeh kyeh" chatter. She wasn't overly fond of me existing on the same island as her nestlings. 20130621-DSCN0552

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I suspect that this is the closest I ever came to discovering where her nest was. She was not happy about it.

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I donated all the bird carcasses I found during my stay on the island to the Burke Museum in Seattle, WA. One of those carcasses was unfortunately (and fortunately, at the same time) one of the harrier chicks. Harrier nestlings often wander around their nest after they get their sea legs and this one wandered a bit too far and was likely killed by an eagle or owl. I think it was one of only two chicks, which is a small brood for a Northern Harrier. The size of the brood is directly related to how well voles reproduce prior to harrier breeding. If it's a good vole year (lots and lots of voles to snack on), there will be more eggs in the nest.

The second bird today will be the Northwestern Crow. What do these two birds have in common? They both wanted me to get the hell away from their nests and did not hesitate to tell me so. The Northwestern Crow is smaller than other crows (see Making My Way to Protection Island for more on these crows).

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If you like posts in the middle of the week, let me know. Next time, we return to Newfoundland to scope out the winter birds of Quidi Vidi Lake.

Let's talk about songbirds

Last night in a meeting with my M.Sc. supervisor we had a look at the new Handbook of the Birds of the World illustrated checklist--which is stimulating for people who are obsessed with birds. He bought the non-passerine version (the one without any songbirds in it; think chickens, herons, kiwis, boobies, anything that cannot be considered a little dickie bird). As we flipped through it marveling at the number of chachalaca species extant in our world, I was quick to dismiss songbirds saying that they weren't nearly as interesting as owls or flamingos. A dime a dozen. Take a tiny bird, add a bunch of different color swatch possibilities and there you have it. But I don't really think that, of course. Songbirds are immensely diverse. I'd like to say that they have a plethora of life history methods but what does life history really mean? Life history is a combination of these essential events: mating, chick rearing, nesting habitat (both physical and social), diet, predator/prey interaction, etc. There's a lot of work that goes into living wild. Protection Island was flush with songbirds.

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The poles at the ends of the floating dock in the marina were equipped with nests made from pipe meant for the resident population of Purple Martins. More Tree Swallows than martins nest in them but both species are present.

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Here's a Tree Swallow. You'll notice that the nests have pieces of wire protruding from their tops; this is to discourage Glaucous-winged Gulls from landing atop the structures and covering them with guano. The wire works in theory.

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This is a female Purple Martin preening in the sunshine. It was difficult to get a photo of a male. They are iridescent flashes of lightning coming to and from the nest. Below is a pair of martins.

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The male looks black here but indeed he is bluish-purple, especially in the ultraviolet light spectrum which our eyes cannot see.

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This is the only sub par photograph I have that somewhat shows the luster of the male Purple Martin's plumage. Notice the purplish head in contrast with the oily black breast and belly. This species prefers to nest near water (and humans) if possible and eats mostly ants and wasps. The dirt road running from the marina, up the hill to the island's plateau top is aerated with thousands of tiny holes that ground wasps call home. These wasps are probably a staple in the martins' diet. Every year the martins leave the island during migration which ultimately ends in Bolivia or Brazil.

While we're on the topic of swallows and martins, I also had some Barn Swallow neighbors during my stay at the old house on the island.

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This nest might look ugly but it is a perfect, thermoregulated, laboriously constructed home for 2 adults and 4-5 nestlings. All of those bumps on the nest are individual mud pellets that were mixed with horse hair or dry grass while wet to give the fortress some staying power. The process of mixing and placing mud pellets one by one takes 7 - 10 days and then the female swallow will line the nest with feathers for warmth. As the nestlings grow, she takes the feathers back out so that her chicks aren't overheated. The average lifespan for one of these nests is 12 years but they've been known to stick around for up to 48.

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I was lucky to be on the island long enough to see the little darlings fledge the nest. Above is the first chick to fledge.

Check back soon for more on the songbirds of Protection Island!