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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Great Gull Island

Air Date: Week of July 31, 1998

Great Gull Island, off the coast of Southern Connecticut, is a nesting place for thousands of terns. They migrate there annually from South America in order to raise their young. This has enabled scientists to study a single colony of terns for the past thirty years, yielding a wealth of information about their behavior. Jim Metzner recently visited the island with his family. He relates his experience, and how the visit was experienced by his seven-year old daughter.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Great Gull Island, just off the coast of southern Connecticut, is a sanctuary for thousands of terns. These sea birds migrate there from the south Atlantic each year to nest and raise their young. Scientists from the American Museum of Natural History have been studying these terns for the past 3 decades, and that's a long time to study a single colony of birds. But a new look can also offer a refreshing perspective, especially if the eyes and ears belong to Sarah, the 7-year-old daughter of Jim and Dolores Metzner. The family recently visited Great Gull Island.

(Gulls call)

J. METZNER: On our first day at Great Gull, Lance, one of the volunteers who work on the island, takes us on a path towards the area where the terns nest. Almost as soon as we near the path, birds start circling overhead, telling us in no uncertain terms that we're on their turf.

(Screaming gulls and footfalls)

LANCE: When we walk through, we need to try to stay on the path and avoid the clumps of grass, because the smaller birds will hide down in there among the grass. I'll show you when we get down the way.

(Footfalls and more screaming gulls)

LANCE: One of their main defense mechanisms is to drop fecal matter on us, as you may have seen already. So we'll probably get hit a couple of times, but we'll try not to worry about it too much.

(More footfalls and screaming gulls)

They're pretty good shots, too. Let's take a look and check here.
This is about, I'd say, 2 weeks old.

SARAH: Cutie!

LANCE: Yeah.

SARAH: Can I hold him?

LANCE: Well, he's a little feisty. He might jump out of your hands, so--

SARAH: Can I try?

LANCE: You can pet him, though.

SARAH: Can I try? Can I try to hold him?

LANCE: Okay. Here you go.

SARAH: Hi, sweetie. He's so cute!

LANCE: We'll put him back here where he's safe. See how well they hide?
They get right back in there.

SARAH: Yeah.

LANCE: Yeah.

METZNER: With 20,000 birds nesting on the island this season, the scientists and volunteers have their hands full trying to observe the terns' behavior, catalogue every nest, and band every bird. They're under the direction of Helen Hayes, who's been coming to Great Gull for nearly 3 decades.

HAYES: There's a pipping egg.

METZNER: I'm sorry?

HAYES: The pipping egg, you see, has a little hole? And you can see the bill moving. You might even hear it.

(More screaming gulls throughout)

METZNER: Can we show this to Sarah?

HAYES: Yeah.

METZNER: Sarah, something very special to see.

HAYES: Could you hear it in there? Cheeping and it's pecking at the shell to get out.

(Cheeping sounds)

HAYES: Sarah, you see this is the little chick inside the egg, it's making a hole.

SARAH: Oh, oh, oh! It's hatching, it's hatching!

HAYES: Uh huh. With its egg tooth, that little capped area.

SARAH: So that means I can keep the egg?

HAYES: Oh, well, I don't know about that.

D. METZNER: It's going to take him a while to get out of there, sweetie.

HAYES: Listen to it. You want to listen to it? You can hear it.

(More cheeping sounds)

HAYES: Can you hear it?

SARAH: Cutie.

HAYES: There. It's a lot of work to get out of the egg.

J. METZNER: Well, this egg even has a number on it.

HAYES: Uh huh. That's the first egg in the clutch, and it will hatch first. Then the other one will hatch either tomorrow or maybe later today. Okay, we'll put it back now.

SARAH: It's bigger, it's bigger.

HAYES: Mm hm. Yeah, the hole is getting bigger and bigger, and soon the chick will pop right out.

SARAH: Maybe when we come back in 5 minutes, he'll be out.

HAYES: That's true. Maybe it will be. We'll see.

METZNER: The chicks, which hatch in July, are usually flying by the end of August and ready to depart on the trip to South America by the end of September. Helen Hayes and her volunteers depart shortly thereafter and return the following spring, just before the first terns arrive in May. Although we are guests on the island for only a few days, we genuinely feel at home there. It's easy to share the sense of unbridled enthusiasm expressed by the scientists -- and my daughter. From Great Gull Island, I'm Jim Metzner for Living on Earth.

SARAH: Mom, now I can show you all the wonderful rocks I found on the beach.

LANCE: There you go.

 

 

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