Great Gull Island, Part 1.

I promised myself I wouldn’t miss a post on Great Gull.  The problem is, theres so much to talk about on the subject finding the time to record it was proving to be challenging.  But, no matter, here is my account.

Great Gull Island is a 17 acre island located near the mouth of the Long Island Sound, surrounded by Plum, Fishers, and Gardiners Island and positioned in the race, a deepwater channel running through the vicinity into the Block Island Sound.

Despite its size, GGI is a special island.  Up until 1949 it was a Military base, home to a massive stone fort, a maze of underground tunnels, and multiple gun implacements- one of which was “Big gun”, the largest rotating gun on the planet during its time.  All of those things (except the actual weapons) remain as ruins.  Now, since 1949, the island is a research station run by the American Museum of Natural History.  Under the direction of the fabulous Helen Hays, the Island has been transformed from a Military stronghold into a bird stronghold.  Most specifically, a Common and Roseate Tern stronghold.  The largest Common Tern colony in the world, and the largest Roseate Tern colony in the western hemisphere.

For a week this summer, the island was home to me and 5 other volunteers ( few compared to the numbers out in peak season) and it was an incredible week.  Although without plumbing, running water, or electricity, life could not have been any better- Constant companionship with thousands of terns ( Adults, tiny newly hatched chicks, and every stage in between), beautiful surroundings, water to swim and fish from, awesome people to spend the day with, Catbirds and Carolina Wrens nesting in our bedrooms, Seals, fish, and insects all around, and no shortage of good food.

We were there to work.  That was our plan; to band, trap and record data on individual terns and the colony.  Because of our timing though, most work had died down and we found ourselves working only a few hours in the early morning before it got too hot.  There were two main things we did in those hours.  The first was trapping.  Teams of two would go out into the colony with all the necessary gear and set up mesh traps over nests with newly hatched chicks.  On average we set up traps on two nests per day (just my team) and after adults entered the traps to feed their young, we would collect the birds and put them in pouches on our packs to be banded back at HQ.  Once in the banding room we would take out the adults and record the band number, bill length, and weight.  If the bird was unbanded then we would band the adult.  Once all data was collected from these birds they were realeased back into the colony.

Holding a tern. Big hats are in style out there to protect you from the various things the colony has to offer.

Helen holding an unbanded COTE

The average bill length for an adult was about 35 mm.

Unfortunately the Roseate Banding season had ended as all the chicks live in the rocks along the beach and trying to remove them could prove stressful to the parents.

The second task was known as Chick Check, where everyone goes out into the thick of the colony and looks for unbanded chicks.  Chicks came in many forms.  Regular chicks are the tiny downy ones that stay in the nest and do not resist capture.  Chicks that are old enough to leave the nest and run around frantically when you go after them are known as “Elephants” on the island.  Chicks that are old enough to have emergent adult plumages and begin to “hop-fly” are known as “Orvilles.”  We were after all of them- and catching chicks is a lot of fun.  I earned a place as a Chick catcher because of my young age; I would go right into the thickets and come out with Orvilles.  Because chicks cannot navigate back to their nests from far away, we banded the chicks right there when we caught them and recorded the band number and nest site.

Banding a newly hatched chick.

Holding an “Elephant”

The definition of adorable

A young Orville.

As fun as all our work was, most of the day was too hot to band or check, so we were left to do the 1001 other things to do on the island.  Including the most important- truly learning terns and photographing them.  All coming in Part 2- stay tuned!

Collecting a COTE from a trap.

– Brendan

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