Note: We are deeply grateful to Helen Hays, Director of the Great Gull Island project since its inception in 1963, for inviting us to visit, arranging our transportation across the Long Island Sound, and giving us this amazing day of birding and adventure. To learn more about Helen and this wonderful island, visit http://greatgullisland.org/.
Roseate Tern, photo by Joseph Hernandez
On Thursday, August 1st, a small group of us met for a special trip to Great Gull Island, one of the largest breeding grounds for Common & Roseate Terns in the world.
We met the group at the dock in Niantic, CT and took an hour-long boat ride out to the island. Everyone was talkative, trading stories of rare birds and unusual birding experiences. As soon as we were out on the water the grim weather forecast we had been hearing for a week was proven untrue. It was a beautiful, sunny day.
Trailing behind us was a small, wooden work boat, so old and ragged it seemed a miracle it could stay afloat. Thankfully it did because it was filled with a week's worth of supplies for the researchers. Due to the loss of the island's dock to Hurricane Sandy, the rickety boat was the only way to get close to the island.
As we came within a few hundred yards of the island, all talking stopped; to be replaced by the screechy calls of the innumerable terns wheeling through the air above us. Binoculars, water bottles and eager birders piled into the work boat. When we reached the island we made a wet landing, climbing out into the surf and forming a fire-brigade style chain to help unload the supplies and haul them up to headquarters.
We were warmly greeted by Helen Hays, the renowned ornithologist whose life's work is studying these terns. The terns were...aah....not so thrilled with our arrival and constantly swooped at our heads, protecting their nests, some of which sat directly in the middle of the main path.
After a brief moment of oohing and aahing over a tern chick strolling on a nearby boulder we stowed the supplies we had brought with help from the interns and volunteers that were already on the island.
Ms. Hays quickly ushered us to headquarters and gave us a brief, rapid-fire lecture about the work she does, the history of the island, and some statistics about their current successful season, all seemingly without taking a breath.
Apparently Great Gull Island was once an army base during WWII. It was eventually abandoned and AMNH purchased it for the unheard of price of one dollar in 1949.
The threatening weather forecast still loomed so Ms. Hays quickly split us into two groups and we began our tour of the island. Nearly every tuft of grass seemed to hide a greenish/brown speckled egg. While overhead a living tornado of white feathers and orange beaks swirled noisily around us.
Studying a Common Tern Chick
Suddenly Ms. Hays bent down, looking into a small, square box with a hole cut in the side. Without even blinking, she reached in and plucked out a tiny, fuzzy, Common Tern chick. As she let each of us hold the chick she explained that the boxes had been put out to provide shade for the chicks on hot days. Then she pointed to a small white speck on the chick's beak and asked if anyone knew what it was. I recognized it immediately, it was an egg tooth indicating that the chick which I now held in my hands was newly hatched. I was star struck! Releasing the fluffy little chick back into its box, we continued on our way.
Our group stopped again to examine a little immature Common Tern, hiding quietly at the base of a bush. Ms. Hays referred to it as an "Orville" since at this stage it was capable of flight but it wasn't very good at it. She seemed pleased that we all understood her joke.
We reached our first destination, the underground tunnels connecting many of the buildings on the island. To make the experience more fun she insisted that no one turn on their flashlight. She guided us through the tunnel by telling us to keep our right hand on the wall, and our left hand on the person in front of us. It was eerie. We stopped to view an ancient, rusty old car which had been abandoned in one of the underground rooms of the fort. Flashlights were allowed but only for a few moments. There was almost nothing left but a rusted shell. On the bumper, a prankster had placed a sticker that read, "This car is illegally parked."
We continued until we emerged inside a large room that had been transformed into a bird blind. Our viewing area was at ground level with the birds so we could peek out and view them sitting on their nests and feeding the immatures. Another trip through the tunnels led us back to the mounting platform of what had been the fort's largest gun. It was now instead, a 12 foot deep greenish pool. We exited the tunnels and switched guides.
Terns were everywhere! Photo by Sue Freiburger
A college student led us through another short tunnel to the rocky, northern side of the island which is a haven for the Roseate Terns. (An instant life bird for several of us.) To our excitement we watched a Roseate immature receive food from its parents – directly in front of us!
Walking back through the egg-laden grass, one of our older members, who would be staying to volunteer after we left, grabbed a large Common Tern chick out of the shrubs. This one was not quite as agreeable as the one previously discovered in the shade box. It peeped loudly and kicked its feet in the air. We now realized it might not be as easy as we had thought to band thousands of chicks each season. This was confirmed by the small scar on our friend's hand. He said it was given to him by a disgruntled mother tern.
Our last stop for the day was the old lookout tower. About 3 stories tall, it gave us a great look at the entire island and as we learned from our guide, it is one of the only places to catch a breeze on a hot summer day. He explained that some of the volunteers had slept there during the recent heat wave. The view was stunning and showed everything: the Roseate Terns nesting rocks, the grassy main nesting area for the Common Tern, the dormitories and headquarters, (the roofs of which were studded with terns), a nearby lighthouse, and sadly, the little workboat coming to take us home.
After a group photo with Ms. Hays, we reluctantly left the island. We packed the work boat with empty supply containers and viewed a lone American Oystercatcher who silently watched our departure. We waved goodbye to those on the island, including some of our youth birders who were staying on the island to help out for the next week. The water was a little bit rougher now as the storm began to approach. Every available seat on the boat was filled with a tired, happy birder and many vowed that we would return next year as volunteers. It was a day we will never forget.
— Truth Muller, age 13
NOTE: Sean Murtha (Youth Member Brendan Murtha's dad) was on the island, too, as official Artist in Residence.
You can see the Great Gull Island artwork Sean created this summer at
List of Birds Seen on this Trip
by Eamon Freiburger, Joseph Hernandez, Marc Katz, and Truth Muller
Great Black-backed Gull
Species Total: 17