It’s a beach day on Plum Island, the temperature flirting with 80 degrees three days before fall.
A college student here on Sandy Point Beach trains his binoculars on a great blacked-back gull’s leg band and reads aloud the ID.
“5T9,” he calls to Sarah Courchesne, co-leader of a long-term gull study based 20 miles to the northeast on Appledore Island, the largest of the Isles of Shoals.
Courchesne stills the pencil in her hand. Her eyes widen.
“I’ve known that bird since it was a baby,” she says, her tone rising on the word baby. “Actually, I knew that bird’s parents.”
Gull parents and chicks — their populations — are the backbone of the study.
New England gulls are in serious decline, under siege due to habitat loss and climate change, says Courchesne, an assistant professor and biology program coordinator at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill.
Her gull assessment flies in the face of commonly held views by people who see the big sea birds on grocery store roofs, in parking lots and on beaches and think the world is lousy with them.
Furthermore, encounters of the gull kind in those places aren’t always pleasant.
Some people call them flying rats, but the land- and ocean-going birds play an important role in the web of life, eating decaying marine creatures, spreading seeds and influencing the health of land and sea, say Courchesne and others.
Beyond that, pounding surf, soaring gulls and their mews, yelps and protracted laughs are inextricably tied to our sense of place at the ocean shore.
Offhand, Courchesne doesn’t recall if 5T9 had any chicks this summer on Appledore Island. (Gulls, like people, have their favorite haunts, and Sandy Point is popular with a number of Appledore gulls ).
Courchesne suspects 5T9, an adult female, might have taken a year off.
In and of itself, a barren year might seem insignificant. But for a species in decline, maybe even crashing, it matters.
Especially for a species that plays an important “bridge” role, relaying to the people who study them information about the ocean and planet’s health.
Actually, it’s not just great blacked-backs in decline. The more common herring gulls are as well.
Courchesne says Appledore once supported 450 breeding pairs of herring gulls. Since the early 2000s the colony has lost about 300 breeding pairs. The less plentiful great blacked-back gulls have experienced comparable losses, of about 75 breeding pairs.
And other gull colonies in the Gulf of Maine have experienced similar declines.
“These gulls are in trouble and their populations are declining, and it just looks like there are a lot of them, because they’ve been pushed up closer to humans,” she said.
“We’ve deprived them of a lot of their natural food supplies and a lot of their natural habitat. So now they are kind of rubbing up along side us and we assume they are doing great.”
Majestic and comical
Some refer to the two species, herring and great blacked-back, as white-headed gulls due to their shapely brilliant-white heads. They also have distinctive yellow beaks that hook at the end.
The health of these gull species found on land and sea in New England certainly matters to Courchesne, 39.
Gull health is also important to Courchesne’s sister, Mary Everett, 31, the gull project co-leader and a former gull project intern.
Everett is a UMass Lowell graduate and has interests in Geographic Information Series Mapping (handy in tracking gull movement) and writing.
On this afternoon, the sisters — both of whom are volunteers — are on a field trip with two volunteers, NECC student Mike Keogh of Newburyport and Salem State University student Susan Reditt of Salem, Mass.
They are recording sightings of gulls previously tagged with leg-bands on Appledore Island.
About a dozen gulls here are loafing — that’s the term researchers use. Gulls only spend a few hours each day foraging and feeding. The rest of the time they, like humans, cruise, explore, loaf and interact with other gulls.
Courchesne says they can be both majestic and comical.
On this unseasonably warm day, several families — human families — are enjoying the beach, basking in slanting rays. Shore water shimmers in the end-of-day light.
The Gulls of Appledore project, which studies the health and population of herring gulls and great blacked-back gulls, was started in 2004 by Julie Ellis of Tufts University.
It shifts into overdrive each summer at the Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore, the largest of a cluster of islands 6 miles off the New Hampshire and Maine coasts.
On the island, interns and volunteers, mentored by Courchesne and Everett, band adult and juvenile gulls.
The interns also map nest locations, monitor gull reproductive success, record the birds’ diets and take part in outreach programs. They present their findings at a symposium.
Last month, the journal Science published results of a study, said to be the most extensive to date, stating the total bird population in the United States and Canada has drastically dropped, by almost 3 billion, or 29 percent, since the 1970s.
Another story, reported widely in August, told of brazen gulls swooping in and plundering pizza and French fries from beach-goers plates. And, how Ocean City, NJ uses falcons, hawks and owls to scare off the would-be pizza heists.
The two stories are related.
Bird populations, say scientists, have declined precipitously due in large part to loss of habitat.
Courchesne says that is also true of gull populations, which have been hit hard by climate change.
Some science writers and others maintain the gull declines are a correction from an inflated peak population of the birds from the 1970s to ‘90s.
Courchesne maintains this view is more hypothesis than fact.
“We never have known what a ‘normal’ number of gulls should be, so we can’t know when a correction from an inflated population turns into a concerning decline,” she said.
“(There is) a mounting concern among those of us who work in the colonies that this decline seems to have no bottom,” Courchesne said.
There is no denying a gull’s life is hard. Starvation looms, as do storms and changing oceanic conditions. Especially in New England.
“The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than even the rest of the Atlantic, so the birds making a living here are being forced to face down a more severe version of climate change and ocean warming than birds in other places, and other oceans,” says Courchesne.
“All the other challenges — storms, heat waves, lack of food — every single one is worsened, exacerbated, maximized, by climate change.”
If gulls make it to adulthood and prove to be resourceful they can live 20-plus years and become prolific breeders.
Courchesne, up until this summer, rarely found dead mature gulls on Appledore.
But this summer she found six or seven of them, another researcher found about a dozen. The birds showed signs of paralysis, presumably from feeding during the summer’s outbreak of toxic, algal blooms — red tide.
When the summer breeding season ends, some Appledore gulls wing it to this beach at the very southern end of Plum Island; some gulls make food runs to the shore during the mating season.
Individual gulls frequent places that support their primary way of feeding, Courchesne says.
Some stay mostly at sea and fish. Some scavenge what they can on shore, taking what the outgoing tide leaves, or they seek what humans bring to the beach or discard.
Some gulls hang close to fishing boats, a mass of flapping wings above the stern. Some gulls frequent parking lots and landfills.
The latter might be an unwise survival move since landfill employees can and do legally shoot the birds.
Re-setting the reputation
Here on the beach, gulls are waiting for the tide to go out and peck the wet sand for clams.
Over the two hours the observers are here, Reditt reports seeing a juvenile gull being chased by an adult, and a renegade gull trying to steal a person’s lunch at the far end of the beach.
Keogh registers another sighting of a banded bird, announces its ID as 2E2.
The second sighting generates another excited response from Courchesne.
“2E2 is the most famous Appledore gull,” she says. “That bird basically lives here, and gets its picture taken more than any gull, so we have like a photo gallery of everything it has ever eaten.”
The great blacked-back’s gallery includes him strutting, loafing, neck deep in a picnic basket and gorging on a giant clam — and even one of him feasting on the blubber from a washed-up seal.
2E2 is also a legendary parent, in fact, he and his mate are superstar parents, Courchesne says.
Male gulls help with the rearing of the young, but 2E2 goes the extra mile.
“He cares for them not just when they are on the island, but when they can fly he takes them around and shows them the ropes and teaches them how to to eat,” Courchesne says.
“They stay with him for what looks like even a couple years.”
This year, however, not a single one of their three chicks made it.
The future for New England’s gulls may be precarious, but dedicated observers are watching and recording their findings.
And they want others, many of whom have a low opinion of the gull, to reconsider their perspectives and appreciate the birds.