A summer colony where seabirds and science nest


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MILES O'BRIEN: Finally, we turn to a NewsHour Shares, something that caught our eye that we thought might be of interest to you, too.

Summer is peak tourist season, and on popular islands like Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, the locals roll out the welcome mat.

But there is an island off the coast of New Hampshire where the inhabitants are downright hostile to visitors.

From PBS station WGBH in Boston, Stephanie Leydon tells us why one woman keeps going back.

STEPHANIE LEYDON: Six miles of the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, White Island features stunning views, an historic lighthouse, and a cottage, where Liz Craig's spending the summer.

LIZ CRAIG, Researcher, University of New Hampshire: We're right next to the lighthouse and you will probably hear the foghorn.

STEPHANIE LEYDON: Sounds ideal, but no running water?

LIZ CRAIG: You can pour water down the sink, but nothing is coming out of the pipes.

STEPHANIE LEYDON: She hauls in water to drink, propane for the stove. This place is for the birds, seabirds. They spend the summer here, too, on the island next door. At low tide, you can cross the rocks.

LIZ CRAIG: Watch out, because it's quite slippery.

STEPHANIE LEYDON: And pay a visit. Just don't expect a warm welcome.

There's a reason we're wearing these hats.

LIZ CRAIG: When the birds are truly aggressive, you will see me out here, not just with this hat, but I will put some padding in the base of it, because they will dive bomb and hit you as hard they can in the head.

STEPHANIE LEYDON: Their message? Don't mess with mama bird or papa. They have come here to nest, an increasingly tricky proposition for this particular species called terns.

This island is the only tern colony in New Hampshire, one of a dwindling number worldwide.

LIZ CRAIG: And I'm going to measure the wings.

STEPHANIE LEYDON: Which is why Liz Craig is here.

LIZ CRAIG: And 179 millimeters.

STEPHANIE LEYDON: She's a University of New Hampshire biologist, and along with technician Taylor Ouellette, is tracking the growth of the baby terns.

It's kind of like a well-baby visit with a pediatrician.

LIZ CRAIG: That's right. That's right. They get their checkup.

STEPHANIE LEYDON: These checkups shows many of the chicks are underweight, indicating they're not getting enough of the kind of food terns favor: herring and other small bait fish.

It's a significant finding, not only about the health of the birds, but also the ocean. If the terns are in trouble, local lobstermen who rely on the same fish could be, too. Data collected from this colony is factored into local fisheries management.

JENNIFER SEAVEY, Shoals Marine Laboratory: You can see how the birds are a great indicators for what's going to happen to the lobstermen.

STEPHANIE LEYDON: Jennifer Seavey runs the Shoals Marine laboratory and says, along with studying them, researchers also are seeking ways to better protect the terns, for whom survival has long been an uphill fight.

JENNIFER SEAVEY: In the 1800s, as part of the millinery trade. In fact, they put an entire tern on a hat.

STEPHANIE LEYDON: And then there's an ever-present enemy, seagulls, which poach eggs and even adult terns. Just by being here, Liz Craig and her team keep the gulls away, safeguard another generation of terns, which will soon take flight for destinations as far as Argentina.

LIZ CRAIG: Say good luck, little baby.

STEPHANIE LEYDON: The culmination of a season's labor for both humans and birds.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Stephanie Leydon on White Island, New Hampshire.


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