Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Great Gull Island - how I met the "Jane Goodall" of Terns!

At the beginning of August, I had the opportunity to take a day trip organized by the Mystic Seaport over to a little rock of an island in the middle of Long Island Sound, called Great Gull Island.  It's a bird sanctuary and research station for 2 species of terns (roseate & common terns).  Managed and run by Helen Hays, this 'sturdy older woman' has been doing this for almost 50 years now! It dawned on me she was definitely like the "Jane Goodall" of terns rather than primates.  She spends six months of the year on the island working with the birds, banding them, counting them, gathering data. There is no electricity or running water. Bottled water is brought by boat each week from Connecticut along with other research volunteers. During winter she's back in her apartment in New York City analyzing data from her summer work.

As our boat pulled up to the short dock on the island it took some maneuvering to get us tied up to disembark. The water in that part of the Sound seems rough even in good weather.  As soon as the passengers unloaded, our boat anchored off away from the island in a safe place.  As soon as we crossed that dock, wow, what an assault to the senses!  I was met full force with the intense smell of ammonia from all the bird guano! Ripe. Once away from the pier the smell was much less intense, and I was able to think about the other things I was there to see and experience. 

 The island was formerly a fort, Fort Michie built in the late 1890s and closed after World War II. All the structures still remain, and now some of the 'lookouts' act as 'bird blinds' so you can watch them without 'worrying' them!  It's a major stopover on the Atlantic flyway for migration.   Between construction of the fort and the popular fashion of feathers in ladies hats at the time, the tern population took quite the hit.  

The place is now owned by the American Museum of Natural History, and is part of the state of New York. The researchers have been turning it back to the terns, making it habitable for them.  They've tracked the numbers hatched each year and watched the steady growth of these colonies under their care. Common terns nest on the ground, and blend in with their surroundings.  The nests have been flagged (so no one steps on them), and each nest is marked with a little wooden 'tongue depressor' with the number of eggs per nest They watch to make sure each of these eggs hatch and makes it to fledglings. 

(can you spot the egg in this photo?)

I had brought my sketch book that day, but there was SO MUCH activity that I felt I needed to simply observe everything that was going on, take a few pictures, and commit to memory every thing I saw. I watched as terns soared over head just over the ocean and then back to land each with a little fish hanging out of its beak....over and over again!  I watched in awe at a territorial fight between three birds on the ground - one of them a youngster wanting a fish from either of the elder two. But now was his time to get tough and go fish.  On the bench near the kitchen/work center was a dead tern that someone had found and brought over for observation- beautiful and sad Though I don't know what had brought about his demise, I was grateful for the respect shown him, and the chance to have a close look at him.  

 I highly recommend a view of a 2012 New York Times article (and video) for a better idea of the importance of this place:
Ms. Hays and her teams of volunteers and researchers have been quite successful in their long efforts.  This  island now holds one of the worlds largest colonies for these two species of terns (common and roseate)!  

If you'd like to know more about my "New England Letters" take a visit to my Etsy shop: 
I offer a fun subscription  to real mail - a painted letter each month of some place in New England that I've visited during that time.  I've been painting and sending these out for a year now! I wasn't sure I'd last a whole year - but I had 4 subscribers so I knew I had to complete their subscription!  I love it - I've grown to look forward to finding interesting stories and places each month to share with my readers.  It also makes a wonderful gift for "arm-chair travelers", or those who miss New England and don't live in the region any more. If you know someone that might be interested, please share this email (blog post) with them! Thanks!!

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