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A nearby island where the birds are in charge

This past weekend I was lucky enough to get in on an overnight junket to the island of Penikese, at the far end of the Elizabeths chain, courtesy of Dr. Andrew Gillis of the Marine Biological Lab and our hosts, the Penikese School. I was invited to be a “guest lecturer,” though I’m not sure in what field – perhaps pseudo-ornithology. And so I joined a merry band of undergraduate and graduate students on a weekend-long exploration of the natural history of this remarkable Island, subjecting these students of primarily molecular, cellular, and marine biology to a constant barrage of bird identifications and factoids.

Penikese holds an improbable amount of history in its 75 acres. Gosnold was here in 1602. A natural history school was founded there in 1873, its alums went on to found the MBL. It was famously a leper colony, then various programs for “troubled boys,” and now the Penikese School, hosting science education camps and day trips for school kids. On paper, the island is owned by the state. But as soon as I set foot on the island, it was clear that the real owners are the birds.

Something changed as we reached the far end of the Elizabeth Islands – I was seeing feeding flocks of Common and Roseate terns at a time of year when you don’t yet expect to see terns. These were almost certainly just back from South American waters, maybe even that morning. Then, when we landed, there were the gulls. Hundreds and hundreds of Herring Gulls and hulking, brutish Great-black Backed Gulls were evenly distributed across the island, covering every surface. Gulls flew, waddled, called, mated, incubated, and ate things in all directions and on all surfaces. The Hitchcock film came to mind as we left the boat and nervously approached the island’s one house.

About 30 seconds into our first hike, the group saw a Herring Gull grab a big garter snake and carry it about 100 feet back to its chosen nest site near the fenced garden bed. I was able to photograph it as it swallowed the snake head first – it was like we had been sucked inside our televisions while watching an episode of Wild America. And the gulls weren’t done – the next morning, several of us noted some fuzzy, week-old goslings belonging to one of the many Canada Goose pairs that, for some reason, chose to nest in these seagull killing fields. The next thing we knew, a Great Black-backed Gull had, predictably, snatched one and was swallowing the gosling whole. I photographed that too. I thought of the many other birds nesting here and wondered how many of their young the gull mafia would allow to live.

On our hikes we easily found nests of American Oystercatchers, Common Eiders, Mallards, Canada Geese, and both Great and Snowy Egrets, all with eggs. About 500 Common Terns and a couple dozen federally Endangered Roseate Terns were just back and preparing to nest on a relatively gull-free part of the island. Over 150 Double-crested Cormorants were sitting on nests on yet another part. About 10 Glossy Ibis flew restlessly about the island, seeming noncommittal about joining the mixed egret breeding colony as they normally do here. The egrets had a head start – many of their surprisingly blue eggs could be seen in nests on the ground and in rose bushes in the small colony.

Penikese is where the Arctic Tern made its last stand in Massachusetts, blinking out as a breeding bird in just the last ten years. One last Arctic Tern remained at the end, mating with a Common Tern each year and producing hybrid offspring, before Arctic Terns shut off the lights here in Massachusetts and retreated north for good, another climate change refugee. Along with the even more remote Noman’s Land Island, Penikese is also the only nesting site in Southern New England for the mysterious Leach’s Storm-Petrels – the true star of the islands avian cast, they nest in holes in an old rock wall by the house, entering the nests by night and keeping the overnight campers awake with their odd cackling calls.

Sadly for me it was a bit early for the petrels to have returned, giving me a reason to try to weasel myself another junket to the remarkable island of Penikese. If any academics out there are looking for a distinguished lecturer in pseudo-ornithology for your next visit to the island, please have your people call my people.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.