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DEC surveys waterbird populations on Little Galloo Island

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Every 10 years or so, the Department of Environmental Conservation goes out to Little Galloo Island, which is 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. It has nests of Caspian terns, herring gulls and tens of thousands of ring-billed gulls, the standard seagull seen throughout the north country.

It's a wildlife management area owned by the DEC. Reporter Joanna Richards accompanied the state biologists out to the island this spring to get a look at this special nesting ground and see how the DEC does its work.

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Reported by

Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

More photos from Little Galloo Island. (Text continues below photos)

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. The lake water is still frigid, so we're all wearing survival suits, head-to-toe insulated life vests, for the 45-minute ride out to the island.

"Right now we're approaching Little Galloo Island and you can see the double-crested cormorants nesting in the trees. There are some on the ground. 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," said Mazzocchi. She explained that the birds flying overhead were mostly ring-billed gulls, but also included double-crested cormorants and Caspian terns.

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. We're all wearing big boots, and have to tread carefully. 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.

Mazzocchi said, "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."

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.

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 that despite that particular hazard and the incessant squawking of the birds, she loves visiting the island, and said, "I don't think there's another island quite as unique as this island is, not that many species. 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. This is a good thing, since that species has been hurt by disease. There are no greater black-backed gulls nesting here at all this year.

The Little Galloo 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.

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