The Birds: Studying the Gulls on Protection Island

   In mid-afternoon, the word goes out across the eastern end of Protection Island – a cacophony of seagull cries that might translate as: “He’s back.”
   And here comes Jim Hayward, that scientist, armed as usual with a clipboard and a portable scale, stepping carefully through the grasses, peering into nests and meticulously recording what he sees. 
   His reception is best described as mild annoyance. One by one, the gulls waddle off their rudimentary nests, turn and watch Hayward inspect their handiwork – one or more eggs the color of Army camouflage. If gulls could put their wings on their hips and roll their eyeballs like a Disney animation, they would. But then Hayward moves on, and they return to the nests
    Fact is, Hayward has become more or less part of the family. If seniority counts for anything, he has as much claim to this stretch of prime waterfront real estate as the gulls do. Each summer for 21 years, he has returned to resume his lifetime of research with glaucous-winged gulls, several thousand of which nest in the Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge.
    To most of us, the island is an alluring image, like Bali Hai, shrouded in offshore mist and strictly off limits to visitors. But to Hayward and his wife, both PhD professors at Andrews University in Michigan, it is a rare, outdoor laboratory, one of the best places on earth to study the biology and behavior of gulls and other seabirds. Each spring, they return to the island to resume that work. 
    If it sounds idealic, consider the living conditions. For three months, home is a rustic cabin atop the island.  They haul all their food, drinking water, fuel and anything else they need by boat from the Cape George marina. They sleep on a mattress on the floor, do all their own repairs and maintenance, and bounce around the island in a rickety pickup truck that is more rust than steel. And, for all this, you will never hear a single complaint. “We are grateful to be here,” Hayward says.
    In their own way, so are the gulls. These are the same birds you’ll see gliding in the slipstream of your Puget Sound ferry, or begging for French fries at McDonalds. And thousands of them, mostly glaucous-winged gulls, return each spring to nest on Protection Island – followed soon thereafter by Hayward and Henson.
    Funded by the National Science Foundation, they are studying the dynamics of breeding colonies – the factors that influence or govern gull populations. “We’re interested in patterns of behavior,” he says. “ What they do, and why they do it.”
    Gulls are ideal subjects for such work, Hayward says. They nest in large colonies and they’re comfortable around people. They’re larger than most birds, and they live in the open, where they can be monitored. They are active during the day. “And they have an interesting, complicated behavior, which has been studied for many years, so that it is fairly well understood.”
    They monitor gulls in several ways. First, they maintain an observation station from the top of the bluff, overlooking the grass-covered spit that extends half a mile to the east, toward Port Townsend. “This is one of the best places in the world to study gulls,” Hayward says. “You can see everything.”
   From that vantage point, they use high-powered spotting scopes to scan their research plots, carefully recording bird-by-bird what their subjects are doing at every hour of the day.
Meanwhile, they maintain banks of digital video cameras, trained on the same nesting areas, running continuously.
    When the birds begin to lay their eggs – usually in mid to late May – Hayward begins his daily tour of the research area, walking through designated plots, inspecting some 300 nests scrawled into the low grass near the shore, counting eggs. Each of hundreds of eggs is weighed, marked and recorded daily for two months – from mid-May to mid-July. Eventually, all this data is entered into Henson’s solar-powered laptop computer, where the number-crunching occurs.
    They’re trying to understand, and eventually predict, how gull numbers will fluctuate based on certain factors – sunlight, temperature, tides, predators and the like.
     For some years, Henson hoped to apply “chaos theory” to gull populations. Chaos is the idea, largely developed by the late Edward Lorenz, that attempts to use seemingly minute changes in biological systems to explain and even predict larger events that appear unrelated. To illustrate his theory, Lorenz suggested a butterfly that flaps its wings in Brazil and sets off a chain of events that leads to a tornado in Texas.  Gulls seemed like logical candidates for chaos theory; in fact, Lorenz is said to have considered using the illustration of a gull, rather than a butterfly, flapping its wings.
    Years of work, however, now suggest that gull behavior is best understood not by chaos, but by synchrony, Henson says. Gulls lay their eggs in synchronized “pulses,” she says – lots of eggs on one day, far fewer the next day, then back to higher numbers the third day. 
   “Why would birds lay their eggs in synchronization?” she asks. “That’s what we’re trying to determine.”
    Similarly, they used their data to create a mathematical model that uses tides and time of day to predict, for example, how many birds will perch on the pier at Protection Island. It worked. 
     And so what? Why should we care about when gulls lay their eggs? Hayward offers some practical applications. Gulls, for example, tend to become pests around cities and airports. As scientists increase their understanding of behavior, they could come up with strategies for dealing with birds.
     In a broader sense, gulls provide models that help scientists understand other animals’ behavior. “We’re trying to develop new mathematical techniques to do hard science and ecological field counts,” Henson says. If science can learn to predict fluctuations in gull numbers on Protection Island, they are likely to learn something applicable to ecosystems.
     And, Hayward adds, “I’m just curious. I want to know why gulls are calling now and not later. I want to know why there are more birds in one plot than another. I want to know why they lay their eggs in synchronized pulses.”
     Besides , it brings them back to a place that, despite the rugged living conditions, has become something of a second home. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s also play,” Hayward says. “Later in the summer, when we’re not collecting data so intensively, there’s time to relax in a unique place, with no TV, no Internet, no stereo, no cellphones. It’s a sanctuary for us as well as for the gulls.”

(  (From the Port Townsend Leader, July 2008.)

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