What You Learn from 30 Years Tracking Seagulls on Protection Island

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Gulls at Cape George (Image: Carl Berger)
This story previously appeared in our partner site Rainshadow.

At dusk on an early summer evening, Protection Island just west of Port Townsend is silhouetted in a deep, red sunset.  A gentle breeze carries the murmurs of nesting gulls clustered along the shore and bluffs. Drifting in a boat off the southeast shore, Jim Hayward studies the scene through binoculars. “Any time now,” he says.

Twenty minutes after the sunset, the serenity is broken by a few bird calls, then by a hundred, then thousands.  “Here they go,” he announces.

In the next minute or so, thousands of gulls take to the air, swooping and soaring with a raucous cacophony of screeches.  As Hayward watches, some gravitate north across the island and into the gloom of the Eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca, while others swarm south into Discovery Bay.

But where?  How far?  That’s the question that has lured Hayward and his longtime friend and colleague, Gordon Atkins, from their Michigan homes back to their familiar territory on Discovery Bay.

Jim Hayward

Hayward’s night observations are perhaps an appropriate climax to five decades researching the population dynamics of gulls – 30 years of which have been focused on the Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge.  Over those years, the genial, soft-spoken Michigan professor and researcher has spent two months each summer living in a rustic, three-room cabin on the island, observing the mating rituals, nesting, egg-laying, and the hatching and fledging of the glaucous winged gulls that breed there by the thousands.

Sometimes he worked with his wife and colleague, Shandelle Henson, a mathematical biologist who helped crunch the numbers, translating data into usable information.   Sometimes he got help from students and fellow researchers.  But much of the time he worked solo, monitoring behavior, mapping nests, and hauling drinking water, food and fuel by boat from nearby Cape George.

With the help of research grants, his work became the raw material for some 40 research papers and for his recent book about his intellectual journey from the religious creationist dogma of his youth to the wonders of evolution.

Gulls make ideal research subjects, he says.  Their behavior and population dynamics are similar to those of other birds, but they’re big, white birds that are easy to see, active during the day and don’t seem perturbed by a scientist roaming through their nesting grounds. “But they’re also fascinating birds with complex behaviors,” he says.

Hayward’s research dates back to the 1970s when, as a graduate student, he studied gulls nesting on Colville Island in the San Juans.  In the mid-1980s, a colleague invited him out to Protection Island, an important nesting area for gulls, puffins, pigeon guillemots, rhinoceros auklets, and other seabirds. When the island was designated as a federal wildlife refuge in 1985, Hayward got permission to spend time on the island, studying bird populations. “I was interested in communication, the behaviors that keep living societies together.   For example, we began to understand that seemingly random gull calls have meanings, that there are complex sequences and postures that communicate.”

There are potential practical applications to researching gulls, Hayward says.   When he was doing his graduate work, the US Air Force asked his research team to help find ways to keep gulls away from runways – and out of jet engines.   They had success with placing dead gulls in strategic locations and with amplifying recordings of stress calls to ward off gulls.

But most of his research is more esoteric – of interest mostly to other researchers. Over time, for example, his observations revealed that nesting gulls tend to lay eggs in synchronized pulses rather than at random.  And he has studied predation of eggs and chicks by bald eagles that show up each summer as the eggs are beginning to hatch – work he mentioned in a recent New York Times article.

Like most science, Hayward’s work is driven primarily by basic human curiosity, a yen to understand one small slice of the natural world. “To me, it’s sort of a hunt, like a dog on a chase.” He says.  “Part of it is competitive.  You want to be the first to characterize this particular behavior.  But it’s mostly curiosity.  Scientists want to know how things work.”

Eventually, however, he realized it was time to move on. US Fish and Wildlife, which manages the island refuge, was reluctant to grant a continuing research permit.  He’s still publishing papers, but is handing off his ongoing research to Atkins. “I do miss the island, but not the stress of boating back and forth, hauling supplies.”

There was, however, that one nagging question. All those years, he watched the birds take to the air just past dusk and disappear into the night.  Where do they go?

In May, he came back to find out.   Equipped with night vision binoculars, he and Atkins followed them into the night, first to the north, then south into Discovery Bay. “I believe it has to do with instinctive predator avoidance,” he says.  “They don’t go far, maybe half a mile or so.” They float offshore, spaced, resting until just before dawn when they take flight again and return to the island.

And that’s that.  Hayward is now back home in Michigan, his work complete. And thousands of camouflage-colored eggs have hatched fluffy brown chicks that soon will take flight themselves and resume the cycle that has been part of Hayward’s life for three decades.

This article first appeared in the Port Townsend-based website, Rainshadow Journal.

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Ross Anderson is a founding member of the Rainshadow Journal collective. He retired to Port Townsend after 30 years of journalism at the Seattle Times.

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