Two california gulls standing on top of a tufa mound with a reflective lake in the background.

2013 California Gull chick banding marks 30 years of gull research at Mono Lake

This post was written by Ryan Price, 2013 Birding Intern.

Since 1983, ornithologists have monitored California Gulls (Larus californicus) at Mono Lake in what is one of the longest bird studies in the Western US. This research gives us insight into the changing dynamic of the nesting California Gull population and gives us a way to measure Mono Lake’s productivity since the birds feed on brine shrimp and alkali flies. You can read more about the gulls here.

California Gulls at dusk on Mono Lake’s islets. Photo by Ryan Price.

Each year, ornithological researchers Kristie Nelson and Ann Greiner make three trips out to the islets east of Negit Island. The first trip (which happened around Memorial Day) is to count all the California Gull nests on the islands. The second trip (July 7–11 this year) is to band all the chicks within designated research plots set up on the different islets. And the third (planned for early September) is to count the mortality among fledglings to get an estimate of how many chicks survived “childhood.”

An aerial view of the California Gull nesting habitat on Mono Lake’s islets. Mono Lake Committee archive photo.

This year, I was lucky enough to help out with the chick banding trip. On July 7, we headed out to Krakatoa Island, where a faux volcano was constructed for the 1952 movie “Fair Winds to Java.” Camping under a dilapidated movie set on a strange desert island is an unforgettable experience unto itself with Violet-green Swallows zipping around, and jagged basalt boulders covered in tufa to scramble up and down from boat to camp.

For the banding project, we use 10 by 20-meter plots that have been set up for years to band a subset of the nesting population. The majority of the gulls use the islets Twain and Tahiti, the two largest of the Negit Islets. We used four plots on Twain, three on Tahiti, and one plot on Coyote, an islet of Paoha. We typically worked early mornings and late afternoons so as not to stress the gull chicks (and ourselves) during the heat of the day, however, a spray bottle was on hand for a liberal spritzing to keep chicks and researchers cool alike.

Kristie Nelson affixes a band to a California Gull chick. Photo by Ryan Price.

Entering the plots and banding chicks is a generally chaotic process. We coordinated the setup of baby fences to corral the gull chicks into a small enclosure over the cries of thousands of parent California Gulls. With the chicks corralled, the banders (Nelson and Greiner) setup their banding station, usually right next to the corral for easy transfer. Myself, Zach Michelson, and Nora Livingston swapped roles as scribe and wranglers. We either supplied the banders with new chicks to band, or wrote down data like band numbers and weights over the deafening cacophony of protective parents demanding their chicks’ freedom.

A newly-banded California Gull chick (right) stands with its parent in a chick banding plot. Photo by Ryan Price.

With a metal band on one leg from the US Fish & Wildlife Service and either a small blue band or a large red band on the other leg, the chicks are released and free to venture out toward their respective territories. The chaos of banding is somewhat relieved when the released gull chicks find their parents and cuddle up underneath them after a few pecks from neighboring adults protecting their territory. A stark reminder to respect your elders.

A chick with its new red leg band. Photo by Ryan Price.

While banding chicks we saw many adult gulls with metal bands on their legs, and since 2009, researchers have been using large red bands for easier field identification (you can see a list of sighting of gulls banded at Mono Lake on page 15 of Nelson’s 2012 report). So next time you are out birding keep an eye on those yellow California Gull legs for signs of Mono Lake research.

As we relaxed in our camp on Krakatoa the last day on the islands, we watched young gulls take their first flights around Tahiti as strong winds aided them on their maiden voyage. A few days later and we would have had gull chicks flying away from us as we tried to corral them into our enclosures. A true treasure of Mono Lake is in the sheer number of California Gulls which come here to feed and raise their young, taking advantage of such an abundant ecosystem.

Top photo courtesy of Point Blue Conservation Science.