Dive bombin’ terns and lazy, sunny days


(Photo above) With fellow SCA/CDIP interns Emily Zhang and Rani Jacobson. Photo credit: Emily

What does it mean when you’ve been pooped on repeatedly? By birds, of course.

The birds in question would be common terns with their largest nesting population located on 17-acre Great Gull Island, one of Long Island Sound’s barrier islands. Great Gull has over 9,500 pairs of common terns as well as 1,500 pairs of roseate terns on the island! If you’re wondering why the terns were pooping on me, it’s simply because I was walking through their colony and stealing their chicks. Only for a minute though! My mission was to band tern chicks so that they could be trapped and identified in later years either in the States(usually Great Gull Island) or various locations in South America such as Brazil and Argentina.

Our crew for the week numbered eleven with the courageous and humble Helen Hays to lead us. Helen started the project in 1963 and has been rocking it each year since then. We began our service on Great Gull by unloading and storing the supplies and food that were to be used for the week. Friday was an easy-going getting-acquainted-with-the-island kind of day. Mornings began at 6am with some classic trapping using wire cages that had a little weight-triggered pedal to drop the door.

Setting a trap

Traps were placed over nests with chicks where the adults weren’t identified yet. Each nest has a tongue depressor marked with two numbers; a nest number and the number of eggs for the nest. Common terns typically max out at three eggs and occasionally we’ll find nests that only have one egg. A decent number of traps and we would momentarily return to headquarters before heading out again with bags to place the captured adults in. Terns have an incredible amount of attitude such as constantly attempting to peck sensitive hands. Back at headquarters measurements of beak length and weight are taken with their band number recorded as well. After the first set of data collection we release the birds we’ve caught on our first round and head out to see if their partner was trapped as well or not.

One hatched, two to go!

Once trapping is finished the crew heads out to do chick checks which involves banding new chicks. Some of the chicks are so fresh that their feathers are still matted! The ones that are a couple days old are possibly the downiest thing you’ll ever feel or hold. Tern chicks are adorable and many are just as sassy as their parents, oftentimes making it difficult to put a band on their kicking leg. Bands are applied with pliers that have two different sizes in the nose, one for the initial application and the second to close the band fully.

Checks go as long as the heat doesn’t become a threat to the chicks since their parents typically take to the air, attempting to dive bomb us and frequently hitting us with well-aimed droppings. A ridiculous percentage of the droppings makes it past our wide-brimmed hats and hits a person square in the face. By the way, all the hats have fake flowers attached to them because terns go for the highest point on an intruder. Doing this work and walking through the colony isn’t for this who are timid of heart. You’ve got terns constantly diving at you and every now and then they’ll stray from the flower and go for your head or back. Lemme tell ya, those beaks are as sharp as can be.

A generator was run for a few hours everyday and shockingly we had cell reception. Another surprise was how amazingly delicious the food was. I came in expecting camp food that would require a dousing of hot sauce but all our meals were spectacular. Heck, we even had candles lighting the room. Folks had the option of utilizing the solar shower but I opted for daily, sometimes multiple, swims in the ocean. And being on an island meant that I was able to see sunsets daily- something that I’ve often missed from my West Coast living. There was more downtime than I had figured which meant I was down at the dock and either swimming or soaking up some sun for a good number of hours. My beloved hammock was definitely put to good use.

Back at the front yard for a week, aka the dock

Things on the island weren’t always hunky dory though. During our chick checks we had a vial to collect the bands of chicks that didn’t make it. The higher than average mortality rate is potentially due to decreased fish stock in the ocean but there are some other theories. Even with the dismal record keeping, the experience is one that I would definitely repeat if given the chance. If you’re interested in helping out at Great Gull for the next breeding season, it’s an adventure open to everyone! Common tern fun can be here.

And if you’re worried about the safety of the animals, fret not. All chicks and adults were handled in a safe and gentle manner after detailed instruction and training.

The colony