The importance of learning the language

In coming to a foreign place it is often helpful to learn the language, not only the sounds but also the actions that accompany them. I have done passably in Europe with English, a smattering of Spanish, and an exuberance of gestures; but bought two tickets instead of one in France because I gestured with the wrong finger. Things could have gone worse.

Mutual understanding requires attention to one another, some sort of shared communication, and the ability to make adjustments based on feedback. Humans lacking a common language often resort to gestures and body language and that often works. Sometimes, when there is a common language, we find that technical jargon or local usage makes understanding difficult and sends the wrong message. Newcomers to Star Island often experience this. “Shoalers,” those who have visited the island before and adopted its norms, immediately embrace one another saying “You did come back.” Departures are marked by cries of “You will come back.” Contrary to a rumor once heard in the harbor, Star Island is not a sex cult or a bunch of Scientologist nudists, it is a conference center owned by a group of Unitarian Universalists and Congregationalists who run weeklong programs here, sometimes family camps, sometimes topic-related programs such as arts, natural history, international affairs, chamber music, and so on. The strange behaviors mentioned come about from a mix of cultural appropriation of the previous fishing community, adaptations of pirate-ghost stories, and an intimacy that develops from long conversations on the porch separated by a year’s absence. Star Island is, for many of its visitors, their “spirit’s home.” 

But the Shoals are also the home of many other species and understanding how to communicate with them is important. Birds use language for a variety of purposes. Being able to understand their messages enhances one’s experience of nature in many ways. I saw my first American oystercatchers and a willet on Smuttynose because their flight calls grabbed my attention. The territorial and mating calls of the song sparrow and the kingbird brighten my morning walks and announce the locations of these lovely birds. Catbirds and mockingbirds amuse with their conversational virtuosity. Warblers confound us with their chatter and their flitting invisibility. Sandpipers sound the alarm to their chicks to get under cover when they sense an intruder. All of these sounds and songs allow us to be more aware and more a part of our environment, but we are not really part of those conversations. 

Nobel-prizewinning animal ethologist Niko Tynbergen describes the ins and outs of gull society and communication in his masterwork, A Herring Gull’s World. Gull nesting grounds may appear scattered around the landscape but there is a strict protocol of warnings and threats that is maintained vigilantly by the gulls. Understanding what the gulls are communicating can make life simpler and safer while walking on the rocks during nesting season. 

There are gull colonies on Star, Smuttynose, and Appledore consisting of both Great Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls. The Black-backs are larger and more aggressive and in some places have pushed the Herring Gulls out but on the Shoals there are still plenty living on the periphery. The behaviors of the two species are quite similar. Some of the colonies on Appledore do not have human contact, others experience bird-banding which involves taking the chicks out of the nest, weighing them, marking them for observation, banding them, and returning them. Smuttynose has a large colony with minimal human interaction. Star has a decent size colony which sees regular human traffic from sightseers but little engagement with the chicks (although Star does have a license to puncture eggs when necessary). The aggressiveness of the gulls towards humans is influenced primarily by the amount and type of human contact previously experienced, the vulnerability of the chicks, and the speed and direction of approach.

On Star Island, where human intruders frequently pass by, the gulls are not usually as aggressive as on Smuttynose and Appledore. Nonetheless the same communication rules apply, there’s just a bit more leeway on Star. These rules change in the course of the nesting season. To not follow them can mean death to a gull, usually a slow one of starvation after a wing is broken or dislocated in a fight, or possible concussion for a human as the gulls deliver a fly-by knuckleball to the head of the intruder (It could be worse, terns go for the eyes). 

Black-back and Herring Gulls generally mate for life, unless there is no offspring,  and return to the same nesting location each year. A nest, once established, may be occupied for twenty years. The population of gulls on the islands has dropped significantly since its peak in the 1970s, primarily due to the closure of landfills and changes in fishing practices. Because of reduced population size and nest loyalty you might encounter a gull nest almost anywhere on the island that’s not maintained. The primary nesting ground on Star Island is on the southern prominence which is bare rock ledge with the occasional pool of mostly fresh water. 

Nest building and watching are shared activities. Standard courting behavior includes grass-pulling and vomiting: behaviors that demonstrate the skills required for building a home and feeding a family. One to three eggs are generally laid and they are usually attended by one parent while the other keeps watch or hunts for food. If a nest is unattended, rats or snakes or other birds may eat the eggs. The bird on the nest will rarely move from it though there is often a local community watch that cries a warning and then monitors intruders. So long as one does not directly approach a nest but moves at an angle that bypasses it, the gulls are generally tolerant at this stage.

Once the eggs hatch, the gulls become more aggressive and watchful. One parent watches the fledglings while the other hunts for food. The whole colony organizes to watch for potential predators with watchers stationed at the perimeter ready to sound the alarm. Gulls, when attacking, aim for the highest point so many people carry a stick above their heads or wear a hat. Generally, though, it is possible to avoid a confrontation by listening to the gulls. 

The first call they make is a tch, tch, tch which is the warning to the fledglings to head for cover. If you stop at this point, give the chicks time to find cover, and then avoid walking directly towards the fledglings there will probably be no confrontation. In the heart of the colony though, there are so many nests that it may be difficult to make a path that does not approach the chicks. If you move at a slant and they have time to find shelter, it’s generally safe. If you arouse the concerns of an adult gull you will hear the threatening call and they will fly at you. The first strike is either a mock charge or a poop drop. If this does not get you going in the right direction, they will circle behind you and fly in at speed, dropping a knuckle at the last instant to bean you as they fly by. This is disconcerting (and frightening for many) and means that you weren’t listening to the conversation or aware enough of your surroundings. 

When eagles or snowy owls come to call, the whole colony rises up and hounds it, following it everywhere on the island with raucous calls, harassing it from behind. I have seen, at different times, a young eagle and a snowy owl cowering in corners, sheltered by rocks, hoping to escape the anger of the mob. Usually though these intruders make one foray and then head back to the mainland where hunting is easier.

On White Island, where the much-smaller terns nest, it is necessary to wear a raincoat, a baseball cat with a diaper under it, and sunglasses to venture out. Still one is constantly dive-bombed by the terns, even the short dash from the covered walkway to the lighthouse isn’t safe. Perhaps this is because most of the people that the terns contact on island are involved with activities like banding the chicks or observing them from a blind. Studies have shown that crows remember the faces of people and treat them according to their past behavior. Anecdotally, although all intruders are attacked, the banders face the worst assaults.

Understanding others requires sympathetic listening and attentive observation coupled with an informed awareness of context. Some level of understanding can arise across species and language boundaries if we are attentive and patient enough. In the wild, relationships mostly come down to whether or not one is perceived as a threat. Would that it were this simple amongst people.


Tinbergen, Niko. The Herring Gull’s World. Basic Books, 1961.

Mysterious Sea Serpent Seen on Star Island

By Clinton & Charles Robertson from RAF Lakenheath, UK & San Marcos, TX, USA & UK – American eel (Anguilla rostrata), CC BY 2.0, Link

This is an island of mystery and awe. A few weeks ago an 8-10 foot long, cylindrical animal was reported washed up near the breakwater. Investigation revealed that it was in fact not one organism, but three, American eels, above the tide line situated in such a way that they looked like one continuous serpent. How did this happen? The eels’ heads were buried in the loose rock where a freshwater drainage runs down from the art barn ponds. The last full moon was almost two weeks before and the eels were pretty dried up. It had been a wet spring with high fresh water levels.

If eels were an anadromous species like salmon, spawned in fresh water and spending their youth and adulthood in saltwater only to return when the mating frenzy was upon them, then this would be a relatively easy mystery to solve. These eels had found a source of freshwater and were trying to swim upstream to spawn. But that would be fake news!

The American eel is a catadromous species. It migrates from saltwater to fresh, only returning to its breeding grounds in the Sargasso Sea when it is adult and ready to mate. Rachel Carson described their incredible migration in her first book Under the Sea Wind.

So the mystery remains. Why would three adult American eels wiggle themselves up on the rocks on the night of a full moon in May? What watery scent drove them to their deaths? Is there some elixir in the pond water that drives eels mad with desire? Are they the succubi of the white lady who walks these shores? Only the Vaughan Cottage curator can answer that question.

Nick Mahoney Interns

Hello everyone!

I’m Alex, one of the two Nick Mahoney interns sharing time between Appledore and Star Island, I thought I’d tell you a bit of what I do. I’ve been out on the Isles of Shoals since June 14th, and I know I’ll miss it once I leave this Monday. Since June I’ve been learning a lot about the culture, history, and natural science of the Isles of Shoals, and I use this knowledge to help give tours on both Star and Appledore Island. On Appledore I participate in the UNH Marine Docent program, and on Star I help out Arthur in the Lyman V. Rutledge Marine Lab. In addition, Ana (my co-intern) and I have also been working on our own project. During the month of July we surveyed children and adults on their opinions on Gulls. This information helped us create a Gull education program, and if you return to the Isles of Shoals next year, you will see the fruits of our labor in the form of informational posters, signs, and pamphlets around the island. Ana and I find the Gulls to be fascinating, charismatic, and at times, humorous birds. We hope you can learn to feel the same way. I’ve learned a lot and really enjoyed my time on Star this year, and I am truly grateful to have been one of your Nick Mahoney interns this year.

How the Lyman V. Rutledge Marine Laboratory Was Born!

Two accounts come to us of how the Lyman V. Rutledge Marine Laboratory was born, courtesy of the Star Island staff and their archives. If you’ve ever wondered how this treasured education center ended up on such a small, granite Island well, then, you’re in luck. Simply read on!

Our first account comes from Frederick T. McGill on the lab’s 25th anniversary:Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 7.27.32 PMScreen Shot 2015-04-22 at 7.27.40 PMScreen Shot 2015-04-22 at 7.27.46 PMScreen Shot 2015-04-22 at 7.27.52 PMOur next account comes from Roland D. Greeley, the then president of the Star Island Corporation:Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 7.30.30 PMScreen Shot 2015-04-22 at 7.30.47 PMScreen Shot 2015-04-22 at 7.31.04 PMScreen Shot 2015-04-22 at 7.31.14 PM

A Summer Diving in WHOI’s Sumbersible Alvin

For those of you who missed it, one of our fellow shoalers had a busy summer (at least part of it) diving in the U.S. Navy-owned Deep Submergence Vehicle Alvin and living aboard the R/V Nautilus (based out of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution).

Check him out during his pre-cruise interview where he describes his research into the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on deep sea ecosystems:

Erik Cordes, an associate professor at Temple University, is a collaborator in the ECOGIG project which works to understand the impacts of oil and gas—naturally occurring and accidental—on the deep sea ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico. Find a photo album and description of their work on the Nautilus web site here.

As for Erik’s summerwhich may also have yielded footage for the film he is working on with other Star Islanders, Acid Horizon—his quote on the Nautilus Web site summarizes it well:

“I have loved exploring the oceans since I was a kid playing on my grandfather’s boat in the Gulf of Mexico and in tide pools on the Isles of Shoals in the Gulf of Maine. I am always excited to join the Nautilus as we go more places that no one has ever seen!”

Follow the Nautilus all the time here:
Find the ECOGIG album here:
Find Erik on the Nautilus here: