Living with terns / by Ivan Kuraev

During the second week of June, a group of biologists and volunteers conducted a census of the common terns that nest on Monomoy. This means that a line of ten or so people zig-zagged through the area where terns make their nests, and counted every one. 10,505 was the number they came up with after three days of counting, which means that over 21,000 terns live on the island.

I also live with the terns, along with several other biologists. These birds are terrible neighbors. 

Terns peck our heads, shoulders, arms and ears whenever we walk through the colony - which is anytime we leave our tents. We need to wear helmets to protect ourselves. 

Terns poop on us - in our ears, down our necks, in our eyes, across our lips. Our clothes become saturated with tern poop.

It takes a while for me to fully rouse my survival instincts in the morning. As I drag myself out of my tent, stretch my arms and reach down for my helmet, I’m hit by several tern beaks, like rapid-fire bullets, in my head and neck. 

Terns are never silent. I’m used to it now, almost two months into camp life, but for the first several weeks of sleeping on Monomoy I had to use earplugs and bury my head in my sleeping bag, then cinch the opening tight and leave room only for my nose to stick out. I could still hear the birds - all night.

We live in the tern colony because our presence discourages predators like gulls and coyotes, who are generally afraid of people, from preying on the colony. Coyotes swim to the island in search of food, and one coyote can eat seventy chicks in one sitting and flush thousands of birds from their nests for more than a half hour. This can decimate a colony, as chicks die of exposure and eggs left to cool never hatch. Large gulls like Herring and Black-backed gulls nest earlier than terns do, and their presence can cause a tern colony to abandon their usual nesting area. If the Common terns arrive on Monomoy in May and see a hundred Herring Gull nests, they may turn around and leave, which means that over 20,000 terns would fail to reproduce. So far this year, our strategy seems to be working, and the tern colony has grown since last season.

I'm glad the terns are doing well. The Monomoy colony is the second largest on the Atlantic seaboard, and it has grown over the last two years. Still, on some mornings I think: I can't wait until my neighbors move out.