Adventure Time on Great Gull Island

Particularly diligent readers of this blog may have noticed a couple of changes last week to its About and Research pages, for the first time since I finished my master’s in Seattle and moved to Long Island. In that time, I haven’t just been adjusting my GI tract from its former steady diet of pho, teriyaki, and coffee to a new, equally steady one of bagels, pizza, and “coffee.” I’ve been developing some new scientific interests as well, such as easing into the field of “movement ecology,” and adding “amateur radar engineering” to the list of skills I never thought I would posses.

This is all involved in my current research project, a study of seabird foraging behavior. There are a boatload of interesting theoretical questions related to the foraging behavior of marine predators, including seabirds. How do you search for small patches of food in a large, constantly moving ocean? Are others of your species collaborators or competitors in the search? Are there perhaps simple mathematical descriptions for the best search strategies? Is Lévy flight the one ring to rule them all, or is it a load of phenomenological crap?

To answer these questions, I went to Great Gull Island.


GGI (so called by the hip kids) is a 17-acre flyspeck several miles off the North Fork of Long Island. It is located in the middle of the Race, the place where the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound fight over several billion cubic meters of tidewater, twice a day, every day. In the first half of the 20th century, Great Gull Island was home to the US Army’s Fort Michie. Since the late 1940s, it has been owned by the American Museum of Natural History, which operates it as a field research station and preserve for the common terns and roseate terns that breed there during the summer. The research station is isolated–the only access is by a weekly charter boat, which brings food and drinking water. Electricity comes from portable generators, and researchers and volunteers sleep in the old officers’ quarters.

These days, the terns are the main attraction. There are 20,000 or more at the height of the breeding season, in June and July. They arrive from South America in April and May, lay eggs in shallow scrapes on the bare ground, and raise their chicks from hatching to fledging in seven short weeks. This is an impressive feat of growth and development on the chicks’ part, and an equally impressive feat of feeding on their parents’. The chicks don’t really get full; they relentlessly transform the fish their parents deliver into bodymass. They start begging for more with the tail of the last fish still hanging out of their mouth.

Radar Time!

I spent roughly half of last summer on Great Gull Island, observing the terns. It was an adventure. My undergrad assistant Maria and I decided that it was, in fact, Adventure Time (she was Finn, I was Jake, natch). My observations were partly visual, with good old binoculars, but mostly electronic, using a modified boat radar that I bought on eBay. They were also acoustical, using a scientific echosounder on an outboard skiff to map the distribution of fish schools around the island. After a very busy fall, I’m just now starting to dig into the analysis of all the data (more than 2 terabytes!) I collected. I also plan to be writing more here about various aspects of this project:

  • What life is like on GGI
  • Which 1963 Hitchcock film life on GGI most resembles
  • Why I found myself bartering away beer and fishing lures to some guy in Texas
  • What the hell to to with 2 TB of radar and acoustic data
  • Cute bird pictures
  • Cute quantitative movement models
  • And lots more…

Stay tuned—it’ll be mathematical!

Adventure Time Science

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