Great Gull Island Field Project

“Tiny Island…” about Helen Hays and GGI in NYT 2001 — 7/29/2016

I am sharing an article found in my archives at home.

“Tiny Island Offers View into Lives of Rare Birds: Terns come back to their Summer Home to Dive, Fish and Nest.”

By E. Vernon Laux, New York Times 8/21/2001

Photographs by Rebecca Cooney for The New York Times.

Common Terns confront a Roseate Tern on
Great Gull Island, home to thousands of the creatures.

GREAT GULL ISLAND, N.Y. — Motoring slowly across Long Island Sound, about an hour out of Niantic, Conn., the fishing boat comes upon hundreds of birds, diving headlong into the water in pursuit of small fish. It is a sign that the boat, and the researchers and volunteers on board, is nearing Great Gull Island.

For more than 30 years, Helen Hays has run the tern project at
Great Gull Island, whose rocky landscape, above, is dotted with
abandoned military barracks and observation towers and blinds for
visiting ornithologists. Almost every square foot of the island is
occupied by nesting birds, including the common tern, right.

Despite its name, gulls are not what has drawn these people to this island. Instead, it is known for the small diving birds, called terns. More than 12,000 of them live here, one of the largest colonies in the world for two species, the common and roseate terns.

The 23 researchers and volunteers are here to work with the birds and with Helen Hays, the woman who has led studies here for more than 30 years.

As it materializes from out of the haze and fog off the North Fork of Long Island, the heavily vegetated, rocky island resembles a military training ground. Its 17 acres are home to derelict fortifications built at the time of the Spanish-American War, World War II-era barracks and dozens of observation towers -plus blinds the researchers will hide in to observe their subjects.

Terns, nicknamed sea swallows by fishermen, are superb flying machines, the epitome of beauty on the wing. They are adept at plunge-diving, barreling headfirst into the water in pursuit of small live fish, which they capture in their beaks. They either eat the small wriggling fish on the spot or take them back to land to feed their young or their mates.

For the tern, timing is everything. Colony residents engage in virtually all aspects of the breeding cycle together, from their arrival at the is­ land to egg-laying and the fledging of their nestlings, then to their departure for southern wintering grounds. Researchers believe that this synchrony increases breeding success, especially in large colonies like this one.

Researchers and volunteers wear hats modified to discourage attack from the
dive-bombing terns of Great Gull Island.
Map by The New York Times; photographs by Rebecca Cooney.

The birds also find safety in numbers, putting up a ferocious joint defense against predators they can­ not thwart on their own. Great Black­backed Gulls and herring gulls would eagerly fall on eggs and chicks if the terns did not gang up and aggressively attack these clumsy but effective predators.

Great Gull Island offers another important advantage to the nesting terns: thanks to the efforts of Ms. Hays and her assistants, it is generally free of mammalian predators like rats, skunks and raccoons, against whom the small terns have few defenses.

Roseate terns are among the most intensively studied of birds. Ornithologists have caught and banded vast numbers of them, producing abundant data on their travels. Researchers know, for example, that Great Gull Island is home to more than 2,000 nesting pairs of roseate terns, the rarest tern species, along with about 10,000 nesting pairs of common terns.

Virtually every square foot of the island above the high-tide line is occupied by at least one pair of nesting terns. As a result, Great Gull Island resembles a set from Hitchcock's "The Birds."

Spending even a couple of days on the island is arduous. Terns are extremely aggressive in defense of their eggs and young, and when the researchers and volunteers venture out of the blinds, the belligerent birds dive-bomb them, uttering loud, abrasive calls.

Helen Hays, who heads
the research project there,
measures beak length
and other features
of banded birds.

Loretta Stillman holds the hatchling.

People on the island have taken to wearing outlandish hats equipped with antenna like projections to discourage these attacks. Still, working here is not for the faint of heart, and for their own protection visitors are not allowed on the island in the breeding season, from May to early September.

The restriction is for the safety of the birds as well. Because the birds nest so thickly on the ground, walking here is a slow affair; one misstep would easily result in crushed eggs or injured young.

The island is owned by the American Museum of Natural History and managed by Ms. Hays, a museum ornithologist who has become famous among birders for her work here.

Ms. Hays, who possesses great energy and has a twinkle in her eye, orchestrates the research and the comings and goings of volunteers, arranges their food and shelter, and controls access to the island.

She has been involved with Great Gull Island for 32 years, an exceptional amount of time for a field researcher. She took over the project in 1969 and has spent every summer, from April through September, over­ seeing all aspects of running this unique and critical operation.

The Nest of the Common Tern, built on
the ground, is hardly an elaborate affair,
and researchers must tread carefully
to avoid crushing the eggs.

This season has seen an unusual number of the endangered roseate terns arrive on Great Gull Island from one of their other primary homes, Bird Island in Massachusetts, as well as from Maine, Connecticut and the South Shore of Long Island. Ms. Hays said that on Aug. 6, about 1,500 roseate terns arrived on Great Gull Island, and they were still there last week, an unusually long stay.

“At the end of the season they disappear,” Ms. Hays said in a phone interview from the island on Friday. “I’ve been very excited because of the recent influx of roseate terns from other colonies."

Article posted by Sherry Felix, site designer and webmaster, 7/29/2016