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Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Governor's Island Terns

On Sunday Robin and I took a bike ride along Brooklyn's coast and ultimately ended up on the ferry to Governor's Island. I've posted in the past about our trips to this historic island that lies in the water between Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, but on this latest trip we made an unexpected discovery.

The Governor's Island Trust now operates a free ferry service that runs from Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is located at the foot of Atlantic Avenue just off the corner of Columbia Street. We actually hadn't planned on taking the ferry, but when we saw the short line for the trip across Buttermilk Channel we figured, what the heck. The channel is so narrow at that point that I'm pretty sure it took longer to load the ship and prepare to depart than it actually took to cross the water. With near 100 degree temperatures in the city, the tree covered island in the middle of the water felt 20 degrees cooler, especially on the Brooklyn facing side. We decided to pedal clockwise around the perimeter and check out the annual tern colony on "Yankee Pier".

The "Y" shaped pier overlooks the Brooklyn Cruise Ship Terminal and, on this particular day, the docked Queen Mary 2. Two-thirds of the concrete pier is active and open to the public, although most visitors to the island just stroll or pedal passed the entrance. The third spoke of the pier is fenced off and slightly dilapidated. I'm always curious about this section's residents and walk out to take a look. A telephone booth circa 1970 stands just inside the chainlink fence. A Common Tern stood guard atop the booth. Three well-fed, fuzzy offspring waddled out of it when we approached. There is probably some profound lesson about the transitory nature of technology when the only likely visitor to a payphone is a bird, I'm just not sure what it is. A second adult tern perched on the fence squawked at us and took a few close dives at our heads. I learned from my childhood summers on the North-fork of Long Island that adult terns protecting their nests will rarely come in contact with human intruders. They are more about intimidation and less about drawing blood. We quickly realized that the adult from the fence had three hatchlings on the ground quite close to the fence, so we backed off a bit. That seemed to calm the nervous parent and he or she flew off to catch some fish in the channel.

I scanned the area behind the fence and realized that it has been a very successful season for this New York State threatened species. Each time an adult tern would arrive at the pier with a fish a couple of dozen fat, down-covered youngsters would run to the center of the pier hoping to be fed. I recounted several times in case I missed any chicks hiding within coils of rotting rope or broken chunks of cement, so am pretty certain that there were at least 30 young Common Terns on the pier. Not far from the fence I spotted two unhatched eggs resting in a scrape. I don't know if they were abandoned or if it was just warm enough that they didn't need to be incubated fulltime.

I could have spent hours watching this noisy, amusing community of birds and wondered if any other birders or biologists were aware of this unusual breeding colony at the fringes of bustling New York Harbor. If you've never been to Governor's Island I highly recommend a day trip, if not for the history and incredible views, for the adorable little tern chicks.


Ania said...

I just spent a week out at the tern colony of Great Gull Island, so it was very timely to see this post. I already greatly miss the "obese noisy spoiled teenager" chicks that are bigger than their parents and painfully cute. I am thrilled to hear that I can now get my fill of them on Gov's Island! Thank you for sharing!


PS: Here are my posts about GGI:

Annie Barry said...

Just saw your posting and wanted to let you know I've been birding on Governors Island since 2008 and have monitored the common tern colony since then. NYC Audubon, with assistance from several Governors Island groups (myself included), conducted tern banding on Yankee, Tango and Lima Piers for the first time this summer. We plan to continue monitoring the terns over the years, especially in light of the contruction that is occuring on the island.

Annie Barry, NPS volunteer, GI

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