Author Archives: Joan W.

Joan's Video

Joan Walsh: In the field at Great Gull Island

Ever wonder what we do in the field? Check out this video of Bertrand Chair, Joan Walsh, marking Roseate Tern nests on Great Gull Island, NY. Jeff Collins, Director of Conservation Science at Mass Audubon, asked Joan to share what a day in the field looks like on Great Gull Island. Joan has worked on Great Gull Island off and on for 39 years. The island is home to 18,000 Common Terns and 3,000 federally endangered Roseate Terns.

When she reaches a Roseate Tern nest box, if there is a nest, she marks it with GPS coordinates and records data on eggs and nestlings. Roseate Terns prefer to nest under vegetation or in man-made nest boxes. The work seen in this video was part of Joan’s 5-day effort to mark nests.

Important: It is illegal to approach or disturb a nest without a permit. Joan works under a permit to research Roseate Terns and Common Terns.

*Video footage was sped up when Joan is doing the nest box marking to fit more content in 1 minute. Joan is not that speedy!

50 Years Of Discovery At Great Gull Island

A Season With The Terns

I first visited Great Gull Island as a volunteer in 1980. I was an undergraduate at Southern Connecticut State College, and had friends who worked on the island. I went out for a weekend, and like many others, I never really left. Sure, I’ve gone off and worked in Georgia, on the Farallones, in Cape May, and for Mass Audubon, but there is something about this place that never leaves you.

This year, the project celebrates its 50th year of full-season tern research. I wanted to go back and indulge in a full summer once again. I arrived on April 22 for an 8-week stint, which meant that for the first time, I saw the birds arrive fresh from their wintering grounds in South America. On a cold and grey April 29 morning, burrowed deep into my winter-weight sleeping bag I heard one tern, then a second calling. I raced outdoors, camera in hand, and got a video of them drifting through the clouds, calling as they came home.

A tern and a bander on Great Gull Island. Photo by Joan Walsh.

A quick check of eBird records showed very few had been reported south of us before they came home. Had they flown over water most of the way? Was the last place they saw South America? Did they fly directly to their island? The details of the transit were important to my science brain, but the shimmering white birds falling from the grey sky, calling for their 20,000 neighbors, was one of the most powerful natural moments I have ever witnessed.

They come back slowly – just a few at first, coming in in the morning, the numbers, and noise, building each day. At first they fly in tight flocks, looking more like a group of migrating Red Knots than terns. They leave at midday to go forage, then return at night and through the early morning. Then, one day you realize they aren’t leaving, and some are even courting, then more, then more.

Their tentative residence is no longer. They are home, and they are fierce.

The Setting

Great Gull Island seems unremarkable at first: 19 acres of sand and rock, formed as so much of our coastline was by the terminal moraine of retreating glaciers 10,000 years ago. The island is tiny— about half a mile long and a quarter mile wide.

The island sits in some of the roughest waters in Long Island Sound, between Plum Island and Fisher’s Island, NY. Each outgoing tide drains Long Island Sound of 2-3 feet of water, and about half of that water comes past Great Gull. A typical tide rushes by at 5 knots; a strong tide moves even faster. The sea is often heaped into 4 foot standing whitecaps, giving the water to the east of Great Gull the title of The Race, and to the west, Plum Gut.

The currents are so strong that sandlance and small herring can’t swim well against them, making them easy prey for lurking striped bass and bluefish. The currents also put baitfish at risk from aerial predators, which is one reason Great Gull Island hosts up 30,000+ Common and Roseate Terns during the summer breeding season.

In profile, the island shows a tall “hill” to the east, a flat meadow in the center flanked by another hill, and a long meadow towards the west. Much of the island is lined with huge granite boulders, similar to those used in jetties along the rest of the coast. In the summer the Island sprouts 20 or more small white-topped towers used as blinds for watching nesting birds. This, coupled with severe signs warning “DO NOT LAND” give it an otherworldly appearance – a mysterious place clinging to the bedrock as tide rush by, and thousands of birds swirl and scream overhead.

The Military History

The two “hills” seen in profile are anything but. They are the remains of a US Army coastal defense project. Great Gull was re-christened Fort Michie when the Army ejected the resident tern colony and began construction of a fort in 1896, which they occupied through World War 2. At one point hundreds of men lived on the island in a self-contained small town, complete with electricity, running water, and a hospital. The remains of the coastal defenses are still in evidence everywhere. Most notable are those cement “hills,” honeycombed with tunnels where armaments were stored.

These tunnels, and 6 gun emplacements, are still standing around the island. And the biggest of them all is the massive gun emplacement that held a 16 inch gun – it actually took a shell that was 16 inches in diameter. Three brick officer’s quarters also remain, and two concrete watch towers are still standing. The rest of the fort was reclaimed by the weather or demolished by 1960.

The Return of Nature

After World War 2, the Army sold the island to the American Museum of Natural History for $1, and for the most part little was done on the island for about 10 years.

In the early 1960s, the island was visited by a group of ornithologists from the American Museum of Natural History. One woman, Helen Hays, saw the island’s potential as a research site, grabbed ahold of her work, and 58 years later is still directing the research on Great Gull Island (GGI). A handful of Common and Roseate Terns had begun to colonize the retired US Army fort, and the visitors, being curious scientists, hatched a plan to return Fort Michie to its former natural glory (and name).

The Research

At GGI, Helen Hays has managed thousands of volunteers to amass one of the longest runs of known-lineage data in the world. It is not hard to trap a bird, read the band, and follow that bird’s lineage back to 1980. This is done by daily nest searches, aided now by GPS locations for all nests. A subset of the adult birds are trapped and banded, and as many Common Tern chicks are banded as possible. Roseate Terns, as federally endangered species, have stricter rules for handling. All nests are marked, but a very limited number of adults and chicks are handled.

Despite the presence of the researchers the colony has flourished. Hundreds of papers have come from the work, and each year more questions are brought to the forefront. Helen has encouraged work by independent researchers, and has mentored thousands of ecologists, despite managing one of the most complex research stations on the eastern seaboard.

Four years ago I began a series of simple observations on Common Tern. We had done them in the past, but what would a repeat show? I select a set of nests, and for two hour intervals record the time of each fish delivery to the young. I identify the fish, and estimate the size. Each year I choose between 10 and 30 nests to watch. Preliminary work with the data showed really impressive changes in the feeding rates for the nestlings. For two years we recorded fairly similar feeding rates – each nest received about 1.1 per hour. But in 2018 that rate tripled to 3.3 fish per hour per nest. These data support the anecdotal observations we had on GGI this year – there were a lot of fish!

Data like these are important for understanding the variability in chick survival, and can act as a surrogate for understanding changes in fish populations. Coupled with the long-term research on annual productivity and survival rates on the island, this helps us to flesh out what is happening in Long Island Sound from year to year, and as the waters warm due to climate change.


A team of researchers from Argentina that visits Great Gull every Summer. Photo by Joan Walsh.

Wayne Petersen and Mass Audubon Tonight at the Hatch Shell

Whaat?!? That’s right folks, tonight, at 7PM,  the Boston Landmark’s Orchestra will be opening their season with Rhapsody in Green. Our own Wayne Petersen will be offering some opening thoughts on bird conservation, and the performance will feature an app for the audience that includes data and maps from our very own Breeding Bird Atlas 2. You can get more information at their website. See you there!

Peru 2016 – A Beginner’s Guide to the Wildest Place on Earth

Black-collared Hawk, by Jon Atwood

Black-collared Hawk by Polly Pattison

In January Joan Walsh, Dr Jon Atwood, and David Sibley led 24 explorers on the Mass Audubon Travel Program’s expedition to the Peruvian Amazon. The trip logged 640 miles on three different rivers, and combined bird lists of the participants and guides topped 200 species. From the pre-dawn calling Undulated Tinamous and the lumbering Horned Screamers (nicknamed The Peruvian Air Force by the guides), on through the exceptionally rare Black-and-white Hawk-eagle and hundreds of Sand-colored Nightjars, this trip did not disappoint.

We had the privilege of visiting two small villages, visits that helped us to build a more complete vision of how people sustain their communities in a place where the river can rise 50 vertical feet each year. Scarlet and Blue and Yellow Macaws, Hoatzin (on nest!), Long-billed Woodcreeper, and the dashing (and ubiquitous) Yellow-rumped Caciques kept us company while the river rolled by.

Dr Jon Atwood, with a pet sloth in Peru.

Dr Jon Atwood, with a pet sloth in Peru.

You needed to like heat and sun, humidity and uncertainty. Each day new species popped up as fast as we could identify them, sometimes faster, and even the local guides didn’t know which species would be next. It was exciting, rewarding, and challenging – all the things that drew us to birding in the first place. Change has met this wild place, and while it retains an air of mystery and wilderness, there is no mistaking the long arm of settlement. These were some of the most exciting days of birding and nature study we have ever had – and we encourage you to try to make this trip in the future.

Mass Audubon will run this tour again in March 2017 and November 2017. Find out where in the world we are going next!


Mass Audubon tour group, bird watching aboard the skiff, by Jon Atwood.

Hoatzin, by Joan Walsh.

Hoatzin, by Joan Walsh.


River scenery on the Mass Audubon Peru tour, by Jon Atwood.

Your Gift to Birds: A List Motivated by The Messenger

The_Messenger_Website-001Mass Audubon recently hosted a screening of the film The Messenger, a new documentary describing the challenges faced by migratory songbirds. The film is sweeping in scope, beautifully filmed, and touches themes resonant to all who love nature.

The film paints a vivid portrait of the struggles birds face every day while they are simply trying to stay alive and reproduce in today’s rapidly changing world. Bird populations are declining due to multiple threats (habitat loss, cat predation, collisions with buildings, hunting, and pesticides) and the film is informative in its exploration of the leading causes of bird mortality. With all of these threats, viewers may be left wondering, how can we help?

Here are recommendations, some big, some small, but all designed to help save and protect the nature of Massachusetts.

Go Outside and Play! Take the time to go outside every day, even for just a few minutes. Listen for birds, identify their calls, make notes, watch a bird feeding, flying, building a nest, take your children or grandchildren on a nature walk and make a bird list. Visit the open space in your town, in your neighborhood, or by your office, and share your love of birds. Take a birding program at a Mass Audubon Nature Center – we’d love to have you. The closer your daily connection is to nature, the happier you will be and the stronger advocate you will become for protecting open space right here in Massachusetts.

logoBuy Bird-Friendly Coffee and Paper. Shade-grown and reserve-grown coffee each have real benefits for resident tropical birds as well as “our” North American species that winter in the tropics. Two great options are Birds and Beans and Café Solar. Smithsonian also certifies bird-friendly coffee, and a list of their vendors  can make ordering easy. Look for paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), for your home and office. This is from well-managed forests, and your purchase can help to drive better forest management as demand for FSC certified products increases.

Keep Your Cat Indoors. We love our pets, and we love your pets too. Indoor cats live longer and healthier lives. Cat predation in the US and Canada alone annually causes the death of at least 2 billion wild birds – adults and nestlings. Cats are not native to North America, and our wild birds did not evolve with them as predators. If your current cat is an outdoor cat, shift them to an indoor life style, or at least take the pledge for your next pet to be indoors-only. We recognize that this concept may take years to catch on, but please do your part by keeping your cat indoors.

Green Your Electricity. Range changes due to climate change could imperil nearly half of U.S. make-the-switch-logo_medium_landscapebirds within this century. Switching to green energy is one of the most effective ways to reduce your impact on the environment. Mass Audubon’s Make the Switch campaign can help you take meaningful action against climate change. Share this with your neighbors and friends. Investing in green power will pay dividends to the next generation, think of it as your gift to them.

Reduce Your Consumption of Meat. Meat, particularly red meat, is one of the most energy intensive, and land consuming foods we buy – about 270 pounds per person, per year. Production of meat is fuel-intensive, water intensive, and can cause long-term damage to the landscape. Much of this “hoof print” occurs as hay and corn are grown and harvested to feed or “finish” cattle. It takes about 6.7 pounds of grain or forage to make ¼ pound of beef. You can reduce your carbon, water, and land-use footprint today by choosing a meat-free meal a few times a week – boost the value of this by buying vegetables locally. No, your doctor did not tell us to include this, but we think he or she will approve.

Reduce Bird Window Collisions. Over 600 million birds are estimated to be killed by window strikes each year. The majority of these become fatally disoriented by artificial light from skyscrapers during migration. Mass Audubon works with The City of Boston to run Lights Out Boston which reduces energy and helps save migratory birds. Learn more and sign up. You can also help at home by installing decals or other treatments to ensure your windows do not reflect foliage or sky.

Support Bird Conservation Programs. Supporting local conservation, through local land trusts, will help to keep your great outdoors an open playground for the animals that thrive there, and give you and your family and friends a place to recharge and build memories. On a larger scale, projects like Boreal Birds Need Half are leading the way in conserving the “lungs of the planet”. Help them save the boreal bird nursery, and the important CO2 sink that has the added benefit of fueling our songbird migrations.

Mass Audubon is here to help protect the birds of Massachusetts, forever. Since 1896 we have worked to identify and measure challenges to birds, and to build innovative solutions while we educate the next generation of conservation leaders. With your support, we will continue to address the challenges to birds and to all of the Nature of Massachusetts.

Please Donate to Bird Conservation!

23rd Annual Birders Meeting A Resounding Success

by Kristin Foresto

by Kristin Foresto

On March 7, three hundred birders and conservation-minded folks of varying ages assembled at Bentley University to engage in a full day of special programming on “Managing for Birds”. Predicated on results derived from Mass Audubon’s State of the Birds 2013 report, a talented lineup of expert speakers addressed avian habitat management topics ranging from grasslands and early successional habitats, to backyard garden landscapes and heavily managed sites the size of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

The program underscored the reality that a number of once common bird species are in serious decline as a result of a host of land use and cultural factors. Happily, the various speakers offered positive and realistic management steps and examples that are, or can be, undertaken to thwart many of these declines.

In addition to the outstanding presentations, meeting attendees were treated to a host of vendor exhibits, quality raffle opportunities, and tempting silent auction options. Many of the participants also left the meeting sporting specially designed stylish T-shirts highlighting the theme of the meeting. Not only was the Birders Meeting a highly successful educational event, it also generated significant funds to support Mass Audubon’s various bird conservation projects.

Helping Young Birders Fledge

Massachusetts Young Birders Blub at the Birders Meeting

This year we were very pleased to have the Massachusetts Young Birders Club (MYBC) in attendance at the 23rd Birders Meeting. In order to encourage younger attendees, we were able to offer a subsided rate to the MYBC. On the day, the group had a table in the vendor area to help promote the club amongst the wider birding community. Whilst other birders were busy socializing over lunch indoors, the MYBC popped out to go and see the Bohemian Waxwing that was in Waltham city center – true birders!  If you have ideas about how to encourage more young birders, or are interested in supporting this initiative, please get in touch with Bird Conservation Associate Lindall Kidd at [email protected]


Bohemian Waxwing, Waltham MA, Lindall Kidd


Cape Ann Winter Birding Weekend- Alcid Avalanche

The sixth annual Cape Winter Birding Weekend was possibly the best ever! Despite having to postpone the event for three weeks due to blizzards and bitter cold and the remaining alpine-scale snow piles preventing access to some traditional birding stops, we racked up the second highest species total for the event (64 vs. 65).

A major highlight was a spectacular alcid show on the Sunday boat trip to Stellwagen Bank with five species of alcids in flocks of 80 or more, four puffins making up for the absence of Dovekies. Most of the winter avian stars including Barrow’s Goldeneye, Harlequin Duck, King Eider, Rough-legged Hawk, both white winged gulls, including a record number of Iceland Gulls and Purple Sandpipers, as well as the alcids performed on cue, often in ideal viewing conditions.

We added two species to the cumulative total of 91: Sharp-shinned Hawk and Lesser Black-backed Gull. Also notable was the absence of two species never missed before, Peregrine Falcon and Carolina Wren. The dearth of wrens was undoubtedly related to the deep and prolonged snow cover, which makes foraging especially challenging for this “southern” species. The absent Peregrine, which is usually easily spotted on its accustomed perch on Gloucester’s City Hall, is harder to explain, since the population of its favorite urban menu item, the Rock Pig, seems unaffected by the winter weather.

In addition to outdoor activities, the Weekend is crammed with excellent lectures, live raptor programs, optics demonstrations, and art exhibits geared to all ages and levels of expertise. Plans are already underway for next year’s Weekend in February 2017. By Chris Leahy

Black-legged Kittiwake, Martha Goetschkes

Black-legged Kittiwake, Martha Goetschkes



Common Murre, Martha Goetschkes

Common Murre, Martha Goetschkes

Focus on Feeders Migrates to The Great Backyard Bird Count

By John Sill.

By John Sill.

Mass Audubon invites you to join Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s (CLO) Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) this winter.

For many years we ran a winter feeder watch program, Focus on Feeders (FoF), which attracted many observers. But, over time, it became clear that joining forces with the larger, nationwide effort by CLO would make the data more useful – and that is the point of citizen science.

This year we are asking FoF Folks to join CLO’s GBBC (I really wanted to write that sentence!), and to do it for the birds.

Where in the World is the Mass Audubon Bird Conservation Staff?

Hannah Lyons-Galante in New Mexico

Hannah Lyons-Galante in New Mexico

Hannah Lyons-Galante just returned from attending a field trip to central New Mexico with a group of 12 undergraduate students from Harvard University, Professor Richard Forman, and another teaching assistant. The students are all studying Environmental Science and Public Policy, which was Hannah’s major at Harvard, and the focus of the field trip was Ecology and Land-use Planning.

Staying at the field station at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, the first three days of the trip were spent outside absorbing the ecology of the Great Plains grassland, Chihuahuan desert, and flood plain of the Rio Grande. This included a visit to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to see thousands of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese, as well as Northern Pintails, roadrunners, kestrels, Northern Harriers, American Coots, and more! The next three days were spent learning about the people living in central New Mexico and their needs.

These activities culminated in the students working together in small groups to create a land-use plan for the region. Presenting their plans to a panel of local experts, the students gained first-hand experience of the challenges faced by communities to create effective land-use plans; plans that take into account every citizen’s needs, and those of the plants and animals they share the landscape with. This is especially difficult in a desert climate where water is so scarce. Hannah certainly enjoyed this wonderful opportunity to mentor undergraduates, many of whom are interested in conservation. She highly recommends taking a trip down to New Mexico in the winter time: a land of sun, wide-open vistas, and excellent birding.