A week with the terns: Great Gull Island

Today you’re hearing from one of the interns in our regional office, Rani Jacobson. Rani is in the Career Discovery Internship Program and will be a junior this year at Ithaca College, where she studies environmental science.

Rani Jacobson with a tern chick. Credit: Venice Wong

Rani Jacobson with a tern chick. Credit: Venice Wong

After an hour of flying across the water in a fishing boat, the small Great Gull Island came into view. After docking, terns flew above us, screaming, and I could not help but feel a sinking feeling of apprehension as we were dive-bombed.

That first night we were introduced to the tasks for the week. We were given a small book of numbers that identified the tern nests, and we crossed off all of the nests that had known pairs of terns. This information would be helpful in determining which terns are paired with which and the likelihood of tern chicks being reared toward adulthood.

The following day, I woke up just before 6 a.m. to start work. We learned how to trap and handle adult terns and how to record certain information, such as weight, beak length and band number. The next part of the day was devoted to banding tern chicks, which was a bit easier and much more fun. We used pliers to put bands on the legs of the chicks and recorded the band number and how many chicks and eggs were in the nest, all while being dive-bombed by the adults.

The first few days I was scared of the angry terns and of being pecked at; all I could picture was what I would do if someone was handling my children and I had no idea what they were doing. I know that I would be just as angry as those terns.

But, the other CDIP interns had no problem and looked like professionals as they calmly trapped, banded and recorded information. Often they helped me with the adult terns and coached me on the best way to take the bird out of the bag, and they did not hesitate to stick their finger in the tern’s beak so that they could get control of the snapping.

Rani Jacobson with a tern chick. Credit: Venice Wong

Rani Jacobson with a tern chick. Credit: Venice Wong

We were all also assigned the task of collecting the dead chick bands and reporting chicks which had died prior to banding. Over the week we collected and saw many dead. The coordinator of the Great Gull Island Tern Project, Helen Hayes, told us that this summer the birds were having a hard time finding fish, resulting in more chick deaths. So as not to stress the terns out even more, we did not go out when the temperature was very high in the late morning and afternoon. At about 5 p.m. every day, depending on the weather, we would go out again and trap the adults to find more pairs.

The Fourth of July was probably one of the most unique experiences I have had on that day. Usually, I go to barbeques, hang out with friends, watch the fireworks on the Charles River in Boston. This year, I listened to the Star-Spangled Banner in the morning, courtesy of YouTube, put up the American flag, and had an “all-American” meal with the rest of the Great Gull Island team. The best part of the day was watching six different fireworks displays on the mainland and the lightning across the water as another storm blew in.

Rani Jacobson and a fellow intern.

Rani Jacobson and a fellow intern.

I had a fantastic week on the island, but Helen was the most inspiring part of the trip. She started the Great Gull Island Tern Project more than twenty-five years ago and is still running it. The time and effort that she has put in over the last couple of decades to ensure funding through grants from the American Museum of Natural History and keep bringing in and teaching new volunteers every week has been extensive and incredible. I hope that the project continues to be funded, because it is an experience everybody should have.

Check out the New York Times article on Great Gull Island, or see more pictures from Great Gull Island.

UPDATE: Rani is wrapping up her summer internship with us, so check out her video about her experience.

2 thoughts on “A week with the terns: Great Gull Island

  1. Anonymous

    I'm inspired to see that this generation of environmentalists will bring their field work and observations to their next challenge: advocacy, research or policy. Thank you for making the experience possible for these students and making science "real".

  2. Pingback: Capturing the Mission: Science Communications Internships | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

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