Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Three eggs and a prayer

Your run of the mill three egg nest.  One of them is unlikely to make it far in life!
Kent Island is an offshore seabird colony.  When people hear about our summer home, they say "oh, that must be so peaceful".  No.  Not at all.

Everywhere you go; there they are.
We are surrounded by gulls, eiders, guillemots, petrels, and eagles; all in their breeding season, all desperately trying to survive and raise a chick or two to pass their DNA on to.  Gulls are the most obvious of our residents (though not the most numerous; those are Leach's storm petrels).  We have quite a lot of herring gulls (as in thousands), plus a few black-backed gulls thrown in for good measure.  Herring gulls can be annoying; especially when they poop on you or dive bomb you or scream in your ear (my personal favorite) to keep you away from their nests.  But they're also very funny, and easy to observe.  They often visit camp at night, when the june bugs are out, and watching them catch these big bugs is amusing.  Later in the season, they also visit the blueberry bushes surrounding camp, to gobble down the berries.  There's nothing funnier than watching a big gull swimming through the blueberry bushes plucking tiny lowbush blueberries off the branches.

Right now the gulls are all sitting on nests; which you can find all over the island.  Some are right above the high tide line on the beaches; some are in the tall grass; some are up in the ferns on South Hill.  Herring gulls lay three eggs each year; each one on a consecutive day.  In the old days, islanders would collect gull eggs every summer, and to make sure they were getting eggs that hadn't developed into chicks yet, they would choose eggs from nests with only one or two eggs in them -- so the eggs were less than two days old.

A modern dinosaur sitting on her nest. She looks like one mean momma!
Hiding behind Priscilla's gravestone -- the perfect place for a nest.

The third egg in the nest is the "insurance policy".  It's smaller and lighter than the other eggs, and the chick hatches later, grows slower, and is more likely to die than its siblings.  Unless there is an abundance of food, the third chick is pretty much doomed.  We see those third chicks die quite a lot -- death is a big part of life on a small island.

So why have three chicks if only two are likely to survive?  In really good years, all three can survive.  Other years, that third chick is a back up -- if the first two (hardier) chicks die, all the resources can go towards the little guy.  Chicks die a lot -- preyed on by eagles, blackback gulls, and ravens, or killed by other herring gulls if they wander to far from their own nest.  So the third one sometimes comes in handy.  But if the first two aren't killed before fledging, it's a good bet the runt won't make it.  And if the first two do make it?  The mom didn't lose too many resources on that third egg anyways.

Pretty soon chicks will be hatching out all over the island.  When that happens, the gulls will get even more aggressive and irritating (ever tried to walk through a patch of divebombing gulls that use poop as a weapon?).  But the babies are pretty cute for their first few weeks.  I'll post some shots of those when they come along.  In the meantime, if you're interested in another Kent Island blog, check out Emily's.

Even though gulls are a pain in the butt, they're rather amazing.

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