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Visiting the Museum's Great Gull Island

Research posts

On the eastern edge of Long Island Sound, a small, rocky piece of land known as Great Gull Island houses the crumbling battlements of a U.S. Army fort and some 11,000 nesting pairs of Common and Roseate Terns. The Museum purchased the island in 1949 to preserve a breeding habitat for terns displaced by increasing development on Long Island’s beaches. The acquisition has proven to be a success, as the remaining Army structures are a nesting tern’s delight.


Common Terns have colonized the interior, scraping small hollows in the broken concrete to harbor their eggs, while the endangered Roseate Terns prefer the edges of the island. There, the Roseates can hide their nests under cover of rocks the Army piled up to stabilize the shoreline.

Project Director Helen Hays has led the Museum’s research efforts on Great Gull Island since 1969. Each year from April through August, research scientists and volunteers live on the island, monitoring the tern population, banding chicks, and clearing the habitat of vegetative overgrowth. During the project’s history, Hays and the team have made several important contributions, including the early documentation of the harmful environmental effects of PCBs—chemicals widely used in coolants, paints, and other compounds. Analysis conducted in 1970 found high levels of PCBs in abnormally formed young terns.

“That was the first signal that PCBs were getting into the environment and that they could be a problem for humans, as well as terns,” says Hays.

Hays’s efforts helped bring attention to the problem, and in 1979 the U.S. banned PCB production.

The Great Gull Island project work continues today. Each summer, a small group of Museum Members has the rare opportunity to visit the colony of nesting terns and the researchers who study them. Participants will see hatching chicks, get an insider’s look at ongoing research, and explore the historical grounds.

Click here to purchase tickets and join the expedition.

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