GREAT GULL ISLAND, Long Island Sound – The island is a living monument to generations past. Massive concrete bunkers, overgrown gun emplacements, dark tunnels that echo with every drop of water that finds a crack through which to fall. From some parts of the island, peeking through the windows of a long-abandoned watch tower or peering over the edge of a 30-foot drop that used to house a canon, the military history of this tiny island is impressive.
But from within the Great Gull Island Headquarters, where Helen Hays and a group of volunteers do the work of the day, canons and defensive positioning seem as alien here as in your local coffee shop.
Great Gull Island was once the home of Fort Michie (MY-key), a key harbor defense position from 1896-1948, playing important roles during the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. In “Guardian of the Sound: A Pictorial History of Fort H.G. Wright, Fishers Island, N.Y.” by Pierce Rafferty and John Wilton-Ely, is a description of the seven Connecticut National Guard units that were re-designated in 1917 as part of the Coast Defense Command during World War I; those Connecticut Soldiers were often manning the guns at Michie.
At just 17-acres end-to-end, Great Gull Island sits between Plum and Fishers Islands just seven miles from the Connecticut shore in the Long Island Sound. The island, once a prized military outpost, is now prized for another reason: it is among the last nesting grounds in the Western Hemisphere for common and roseate terns, pigeon-size sea birds that come north during the summer and spend their winters in South America. While common terns are, well, common, the roseate species has been on the federally recognized endangered species list since 1987.
“We have the largest population of common terns in the world, probably,” said Helen Hays, director of the Great Gull Island project, “and the largest population of roseates in the [western] hemisphere.” Hays has worked as a volunteer on Great Gull Island since 1969, managing the resources and personnel needed to observe and tag both species of tern. In the intervening 46 years, Hays has seen a lot on the island, including the damage that a major storm can cause to such an isolated and exposed area.
When Superstorm Sandy struck the region in 2012, Great Gull Island was among the places that experienced the storm’s devastating effects. Nearly all of the bird blinds, observations posts and tern nesting terraces were destroyed along with the island’s only access point: a dock built in 2009.
“The damage was horrendous,” said John Einhellig, a carpenter with Local 24 Carpenter’s Union, New London, Connecticut. Einhellig and his son, Mark, also a carpenter, were among more than a dozen individuals who volunteered to rebuild the damaged blinds and terraces before the birds returned to island later in May to begin their nesting. “The dock they had was fairly new, built out of pretty modern stuff. It was pretty twisted up and mangled. It’s going to take some work to get it back together.”
The damaged dock, the amount of supplies needed to reconstruct the facilities, and the difficult coastal terrain of the island created a serious problem for Hays; how to get the needed lumber and supplies to the interior areas in time for the birds’ arrival?
“It is the Connecticut National Guard policy to try to support other federal agencies to some sort of mutual benefit,” said Lt. Col. Mark Strout, logistics manager, 1109th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group, Connecticut National Guard. When the United States Fish and Wildlife Service reached out to the Guard for help getting supplies to Great Gull Island, it was a great opportunity for the aviation community to get some valuable training while helping to ensure the continuation of a nearly 50-year environmental project.
“We supported the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in conducting a mission they had in furthering a natural resources project,” said Strout. “What we got out of it was training for non-standard sling-loads; something similar to what we do in combat.”
On April 25, a CH-47 Chinook helicopter, with pilots and crew from Detachment 1, Company B, 2/104th Aviation, carried pallets of lumber and supplies to the island, making three round trips from the TASMG facility in Groton to Great Gull Island. More than 13 thousand pounds of lumber, along with additional supplies, went in each load; the total required for the rebuilding project exceeded 40 thousand pounds, said Strout.
“The critical thing we could do with the helicopter that aided them in their mission,” said Strout, “was to put supplies in a specific location. With the rugged terrain that’s out there, we could do specific point deliveries for equipment.”
“Being a military Veteran,” said Bud Bray, a Navy Veteran and volunteer for the project, “as soon as I heard the National Guard was going to do this I was very excited and more interested in doing whatever I could, as well. It was an impressive air lift.”
“The National Guard flew the lumber,” said Hays, “for the blinds and for the terraces for the roseate terns. We want to expand the area where roseates can nest. Having unloaded a lot of lumber here I knew that this amount of lumber would not be easy … even if we had a dock. The National Guard accepted this mission, and that was wonderful news for all of us.”
The birds return to Great Gull Island each spring, to nest and breed among what remains of the military outposts from generations past. Fort Michie began as a 30-man post, but according to the Southold Historical Society, a New York organization that maintains the history of the coastal barrier islands, approximately 135 Soldiers were stationed on the island when World War I began. Among the most prominent defensive positions on the island were 16-inch gun emplacements on either end of the island. The massive guns are long gone, but the placements remain, and it is along the sloping terrain where these structures stand that the roseate terns come each year to produce their new generations.
“The primary project,” said Bray, “is to reconstruct twenty blinds for the scientists and experts who will come here this year to do their annual observations, data collection and other crucial work to keep these two species going. Weather with us, we’re going to do it. It’s looking pretty good.”
“We’re trying to be good stewards of the environment,” said Strout. “The majority of the volunteers were happy to have the inter-agency support – maybe a little surprised by the military’s involvement. The U.S. military is very focused on conserving natural resources.”
“This is a significant bird sanctuary,” said Bray. “Roseates are on the brink of what scientists call a ‘blink out’, which is their final extinction. I’m enormously please to be a part of this project with Ms. Hays, and proud as a Veteran that the National Guard was able to pitch in and help this year.”
The pending “blink-out” of the roseate tern can be seen in comparative numbers with the commons. On Great Gull Island alone, said Hays, there are more than 19 thousand nesting pairs of common terns; barely 1,300 pairs of roseates. The next largest colonies are in Massachusetts and Nova Scotia, Canada. Great Gull Island is the southern-most point where roseates have been observed to nest, said Hays.
“Any time you’re helping wildlife on the fringes of going extinct, it should be something the whole community should be involved in and be aware of,” said Einhellig. “It’s nice to see the Guard involved. Makes me proud of my military.”
The barrier islands and coastal forts of the Long Island Sound (Great and Little Gull Islands, Fishers Island, Plum Island, along with Watch Hill, Rhode Island, and Gardiner’s Point, New York) are rich in military history, including activity within the Connecticut National Guard. The structures that once housed and protected Soldiers during three major campaigns are largely still standing on Great Gull Island, and while Soldiers no longer occupy these spaces the years-long battle for survival of the roseate tern species is underway.