As we stepped off the boat we were handed sticks to hold over our heads to give the birds a safer target and given instructions on how to walk on Great Gull Island. DO NOT TAKE A STEP BEFORE LOOKING AT YOUR FEET. Terns are not picky about nest placement or what would normally be considered a nest. They will set their eggs on any surface, including a well-worn path or concrete.
We took a short walk to one of the main buildings on the island where the volunteers gather to eat, sleep and do their research. It is here where we met Helen Hays, who has directed the project from it’s earliest days and has been working on the island for over 50 years. This is not exactly an easy place to live and work. Great Gull Island has no running water, plumbing or power lines. Visitors and volunteers use outhouses, wash with rainwater, and depend on bottled water deliveries from the mainland once a week.
I quickly realized I wasn’t here for pictures, we were told to put away our cameras and phones and get ready for some work. We were given a complete rundown on the plan of the day: setting out to find new nests and mark with GPS coordinates, and count eggs on existing nests. We broke up into two groups of 10 and with the help of each respective leader, Joe Dicostanzo and Mathew Male, quickly got the hang of what we were doing. One of the terns defensive moves is to poop on their target and I got a big hot one down my neck about 5 minutes in.
I have been dive bombed by Seagulls before but these were the most aggressive birds I have encountered. My job was to write down nest numbers along with the number of eggs on a pad and had it knocked out of my hand several times and ended up with a few cuts as well.
The sound of thousands of birds in close proximity and agitated is incredibly loud, however several times it seemed like the entire island would instantly go quiet and almost the whole colony would fly away only to return a few minutes later. I asked Mathew about it and his theory was a predator like a hawk could have appeared and got the entire group’s attention instantaneously. We also noted some spots with a bunch of cracked eggs, indication of a raid by Green Herons.
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