Fort Michie, Great Gull Island, N.Y.

In 1803, Great Gull and Little Gull islands were purchased by the U.S. Government from a private owner for the purpose of establishing a lighthouse on Little Gull. For almost all of the 19th century, Great Gull and neighboring Plum Island hosted thriving tern colonies. An 1896 study revealed 7,000 pairs of nesting terns on Great Gull.  The U.S. Army took possession of Great Gull and began building coastal fortifications in 1897. As construction and human activity escalated, the terns were forced to abandon the island. In 1949, the U.S. Government awarded Great Gull Island to the American Museum of Natural History to make it a bird sanctuary, principally in connection with the protection and propagation of terns. . .


Gull Island, N.Y.

Photographed June 1949 by John W. MacKay for The American Museum of Natural History

To learn more about the monitoring study of Common and Roseate Terns nesting on Great Gull Island, please visit:

For more information on biodiversity and conservation efforts by the American Museum of Natural History, please visit:

Annual exhibition sponsored by:

Fort Michie, Great Gull Island, N.Y.

The history of Fort Michie was in hand when this project began, but the HLFM files had almost nothing on the details of life on Great Gull Island after the military departed in the late 1940s. After Helen Hays, director of the Great Gull Island Project, provided an introduction, Dale Dancis, who is chronicling the history of the Great Gull Island Project, shared remarkable images from the Great Gull Island Project Archive at the American Museum of Natural History that dated primarily to the late 1940s and 1950s. She also sent in information on how the Project first got started. Matthew Male’s extraordinary photographs of terns taken on Great Gull were familiar to me, but I had no idea that he had been working there since the mid-1970s and had photos on a multitude of subjects. Once he agreed to help, I peppered his in-box with dozens of requests for information and images that he responded to without a hint of complaint. Because Matthew is often on Great Gull early and late in the season and not there during peak season when the volunteers occupy the Island, I turned to a second photographer that Dale recommended, Sophie Zyla. She had wonderful images of the volunteers at work and daily life at Great Gull during the tern nesting season. In summary, the mixture of fabulous photographs and extensive in-house knowledge provided by the trio of Dale, Matthew and Sophie formed the complementary “glue” that kept the Great Gull section of the exhibition stuck together.

But there were also other a number of other photographers whose work helped make the Great Gull story come alive, especially Susan Tamulevich, the director of the Custom House Maritime Museum in New London, who photographed both her visiting groups and volunteers working at Great Gull; Robert Lorenz, who, while primarily known for his documentation of Plum Island, had a very productive photo shoot on Great Gull; Sarah Nystrom, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who in a short stay on Great Gull generated a powerful set of images on a variety of subjects; Joel Stocker, UConn CLEAR Project, whose aerial of Battery Davis is breathtaking; Melinda Billings who photographed a key member of the Project, Joe DiConstanzo, at work; Staff Sgt. Jordan Werme, 130th Public Affairs Division, Connecticut Army National Guard, who chronicled the delivery of lumber and supplies to Great Gull by helicopter; and Mark Berhow, CDSG, who documented the state of gun emplacements and military structures as he visited each site with members of his organization. Finally, the Gordon family kindly allowed us to display a photo of the late Albert Gordon posing with Helen Hays on Great Gull. Mr. Gordon was a strong supporter of both the Great Gull Island Project and the HLFM, another tie between neighboring islands.

The following institutions provided images included in the exhibition: American Museum of Natural History, Coast Defense Study Group, Daily News, Great Gull Island Project Archive at the American Museum of Natural History, Heritage Charts, National Archives and Records Administration, and UConn CLEAR Project.

The short movie accessible below this exhibition, “Gull Island, N.Y.,” photographed June 1949 by John W. MacKay for The American Museum of Natural History, is courtesy of the AMNH. It reveals the world of Great Gull Island at the very start of the project to restore nesting terns to their former colony site.

We thank each and every one who helped on this section (including those I may have forgotten to mention). We couldn’t have done it without you!

Pierce Rafferty,
Henry L. Ferguson Museum