Every 10 years or so, the Department of Environmental Conservation goes out to Little Galloo Island, 20 miles off the coast of Cape Vincent in Lake Ontario, to survey waterbird populations there. The island, with a few dead trees, some grass and a rocky shoreline, is a haven for colonial waterbirds, with nests of Caspian terns, herring gulls and tens of thousands of ring-billed gulls – the standard seagull seen throughout the north country.
Reporter Joanna Richards accompanied the state biologists out to the island this spring, which is a wildlife management area owned by the DEC, to get a look at this special nesting ground and see how the DEC does its work.
It's about 9:30 in the morning, and I've just boarded a boat at Cape Vincent. With me are a boat captain, several DEC staff, and wildlife biologist Irene Mazzocchi.
"Right now we're approaching Little Galloo Island and you can see the double-crested cormorants nesting in the trees," Mazzocchi says. "But on the bulk of the island are ring-billed gulls, and that's what we're counting today. We're gonna do a herring gull nest count and we're gonna start a ring-billed gull count."
We dock the boat and meet up with another boat's worth of DEC staffers on the rocky edge of the island. There are birds everywhere, warming nests on the ground and in the branches of a couple of leafless trees. Just-hatched chicks cuddle up against still unhatched eggs. There are thousands of nests to be counted, but they've got a system. They need a rope, spray paint, counting devices – and earplugs.
"So what we do is actually, we set up a rope, and we tie knots or ribbon at every 10 feet, and we actually walk a line, and you actually count the number of nests as we walk across the island, between your feet and either the person to your left or your right, depending on which direction we are heading. We do have a person on the very end who actually paints a line, so when we turn around we just follow the line back," Mazzocchi explains.
"OK, everybody's reset?" she shouts over the screeching gulls. "Counting to the left. Ready? Go!"
I've been given the spray painting job. When we get to the other side of the island, everyone consults their counters as Mazzocchi collects the tallies.
"One-two-five," says one DEC staffer. "One-three-nine," reports another. "One forty-eight," says a third.
We follow this process again and again, back and forth across the nest-covered island. Interspersed with the ring-billed gull nests are the bigger nests of herring gulls. The DEC staff keep counts of both. In the trees are the huge, black cormorants, guarding their enormous nests.
There is one hazard of visiting Little Galloo – flying poop. One DEC staffer takes a hit down his neck, while I get tagged three times by the gulls. Luckily, it misses my hair. Mazzocchi says despite that particular hazard and the incessant squawking of the birds, she loves visiting the island.
"I don't think there's another island quite as unique as this island is, not that many species," she says. "This is the only island actually in these waters with Caspian terns. Most of the other islands, they're small, they have trees, they may have some ring-billed gulls, but nothing of this size."
At the end of the day, Mazzocchi and her team have counted over 16,000 ring-billed gull nests and 509 herring gull nests. After a second trip to Little Galloo another day, they have a full count for the year: over 43,000 ring-billed gull nests.
Compared to the last nest count in 2008, the number of ring-billed gull nests is increasing, while herring gull nest numbers are also up by a few hundred – a good thing, says the DEC, since that species has been hurt by disease. And there are no greater black-backed gulls nesting here at all this year.
The Little Gallo Island count will be tallied in with data from around the Great Lakes to give wildlife biologists a clearer picture of waterbird population trends throughout the region.