The Library Receives A Grant From The National Film Preservation Foundation main content.

The Library Receives A Grant From The National Film Preservation Foundation

by Gregory Raml on

Library News

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) Library has received a grant of $16,380 from the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) to preserve the Great Gull Island Film Collection.

The three films in this series offer a glimpse into the life work of AMNH Ornithologist, Helen Hays. Great Gull Island and Tern Watch beautifully showcase the Great Gull Island ornithological research station, located east of the North Fork of Long Island, where Helen and her team have conducted research on nesting Common Terns and endangered Roseate Terns for over forty years. Ducks, filmed by Helen as a student in the early 1960s, provides an important historic record of the behavior and mating habits of Ruddy Ducks in the West Pond at the nearby Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

Singer, Arthur, “Terns, Gull Island,” AMNH Digital Special Collections, Item#: 335342.

History of the Great Gull Island Project

Great Gull Island was the site of the U.S. Army’s Fort Michie from 1897 to 1949. Knowing that the island attracted terns, AMNH acquired the property in 1949. The Linnaean Society of New York prepared the island for tern colonization and, as the tern population grew, interest in the project spread through the birding community. In 1969, Helen Hays began recruiting volunteers and founded the Great Gull Island Project, an AMNH field station, where researchers have monitored the populations of Common and Roseate Terns nesting on the island to this day. Great Gull Island is now home to the largest colony of Common Terns in the world (9,500 pairs) and the largest colony of endangered Roseate Terns in this hemisphere (1,500 pairs).

Helen Hays is the chair of the Great Gull Island Committee at AMNH and a former president of the Linnaean Society of New York. All documents, field notes, aerial photographs, scientific papers and historical photographs pertaining to the Project are archived within the Ornithology Department at AMNH.


Great Gull Island
Unknown, “Great Gull Island, 1959,” AMNH Digital Special Collections, Item#: 326632

The Great Gull Island Film Collection

The Great Gull Island Film Collection is important to birders, naturalists, and science historians, but these films would be of interest to anyone studying the unique geography and varied life of the New York region.

Great Gull Island (1949) was filmed shortly after the U.S. Army left the island. Abandoned fortifications, gun mounts, railroad tracks, and bunkers are highlighted in somber detail as the camera passes slowly through the landscape.

Tern Watch, shot in the early 1980s, documents AMNH’s research on nesting terns and provides insight into the daily activities of a bird banding field station. Although never distributed, the film was used to recruit, educate, and inform the next generation of volunteers on the Island. Volunteers and field assistants are filmed working in teams marking nests, banding chicks, and trapping adults as they monitor the colony. The data collected during this period was significant in documenting the detrimental shell thinning effects of DDT on tern eggs and the abnormalities in young tern chicks caused by PCBs. Michael Male, the film director, is now a professional cinematographer who has worked for National Geographic, Nature, and with the BBC on several international releases by David Attenborough. This film is his earliest student effort.

Ducks documents the breeding birds once found at the West Pond in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge: Ruddy Ducks, American Coot, Pied-billed Grebe, and Least Bittern. This film has unique footage of Ruddy Duck mating behavior, as well as other freshwater birds that were found breeding in this habitat. For birdwatchers and other naturalists interested in New York history, this film provides exciting documentation of bird life before the pond, once the largest fresh-water pond in New York City, became brackish and saline conditions radically changed the habitat.

Beyond the intriguing insider’s view of scientific research on location, these films provide a visual record of Long Island habitats that have been drastically altered since these films were made. Even though the Great Gull Island Project carefully manages all vegetation and rock formations to promote the breeding success of Common and Roseate Terns, Hurricane Sandy has impacted both Great Gull Island and Jamaica Bay’s West Pond. This film collection shows life before that catastrophic event and provides an important record of birdlife that is slowly disappearing from Long Island waters.

Upon completion of this grant project, the Great Gull Island Film Collection will be stored at the AMNH Library and digital access copies will be available for viewing. Please contact [email protected] for more information. 

For more information on the Great Gull Island Project, or to see how you can help, please visit the Great Gull Island Project website:

For more information on the NFPF’s outstanding support for public and non-profit archives and their ongoing efforts to protect our cultural heritage, visit the NFPF website: