Order of Chaeadriiformes

Gulls are from the order Chaeadriiformes and the family Laridae, as are terns. Gulls, unlike terns, comprise the subfamily Larinae.

All gulls are sturdy looking with long pointed wings and an almost square tail. Their feet are webbed and their bills are hooked. When landing in the water to grab food, they alight almost gently rather than dive.

Generally their flight is strong with deliberate wing-beats but some gulls also soar. Opportunists, gulls are mostly scavengers and are at home around human gatherings where they can expect to seize the garbage and refuse left behind by people.

Most adult gulls are some combination of white, grey and black. The markings of gulls are the same in the female and male. Immature gulls have different markings and some gulls may not have their adult plumage for several years. Gulls nest in colonies and generally produce 2 to 5 eggs each year.

The Herring Gull, Larus argentatus, is the most common species found in the United States. Early European colonists on our shores found the herring and great black backed gulls so common and people friendly that they could be easily killed for food.


Fishing Machine

This flexible-necked, goose-sized bird is a very efficient fishing machine. From the surface, it dives under water and uses its large webbed feet to paddle furiously while it uses its stiff broad tail as a rudder. It snags fish in its long slender hooked bill equipped with sharp serrated mandibles for a hold-fast grip.

Because it doesn’t have water-repellent feathers it must air dry its feathers by spreading its wings while standing upright on a perch. This activity is frequently observed at docks and piers along Long Island’s bays.

The Atlantic coast cormorants include the great cormorant and the double-crested cormorant.
Long Island is the southern-most winter range of the great cormorant. Some double-crested cormorants can be found in our area year-round as their northern-most winter range is Long Island and during the other seasons they are fairly common.

The double-crested cormorant adult, Phalacrocorax auritus, is about 30 inches in length and has a wing span almost double that length. It is black except for an orange throat pouch above its long flexible neck. Its two curly plumed crests, as per its name, are not often visible. The immature double-crested has a white breast.

All cormorants hold their bills in an upward slant while swimming on the surface of the water.
Their only voice is a guttural grunt. Cormorants are social birds and generally nest in communities. Sometimes they fish in groups using a herding technique to move a school of fish to shallow water where snagging the fish becomes simplified.

To take flight, they must paddle across the water’s surface to gain enough momentum. When migrating, cormorants utilize a V-formation like geese, but unlike geese they remain silent.

The increased presence of cormorants in our area is a good news/bad news issue. The good news is that any increase in their population generally indicates that the water quality has improved. Cormorant reproductive capabilities are severely impaired by the presence of pollutants in the water. More cormorants usually means cleaner water.

However, the down side of an increased cormorant population is that they are such voracious feeders and efficient anglers that the bait fishing and sport fishing people are concerned.

Studies do show that the cormorant diet is mostly small non-commercial fish, with sport fish representing only two percent. But, they do compete with larger sport fish for food and they definitely will take large quantities of small bait fish. Further, cormorants also damage vegetation and can cause bank erosion along the bay side.

Swallow Mosquito Eaters

Swallows are very popular summer visitors to Long Island. Aside from their beauty and grace they are natural weapons in the battle against the mosquito. From the family of passerine birds, swallows are distinguished by their long pointed wings. They have small legs and feet. And, they have round heads with short bills with wide mouths, well designed for feeding on flying insects. They are almost totally insectivorous, eating flies, mosquitoes and gnats.

Swallows are swift and graceful fliers, eating and drinking on the fly. It has been estimated that a swallow may cover 600 miles per day gathering food for its nestlings. All swallows migrate only by day and they feed on insects as they travel, thereby enabling them to make great distances each day. They are social birds, traveling in flocks and in, some cases, nesting in colonies. They gather in huge flocks, which can include more that one variety of swallow, in late summer and by the end of September they vacate their northern breeding area.

There are three varieties of swallows common in our area: the barn swallow, the tree swallow and the purple martin.

The barn swallow is the most common swallow, world wide. It is a long-distance migrant that breeds in the northern hemisphere and winters in the southern hemisphere, sometimes as far south as Argentina. Most barn swallows nest in man-made structures, where they construct a mud and grass cup, reinforced with feathers and soft material, supported by a sheltered ledge or rafter. They average around 6 inches long and have deeply forked tails. Barn swallows are blue-black above with creamy underparts and chestnut throats and foreheads. Female barn swallows are duller in color and their tails are shorter that males.

Tree Swallows are about the same size as Barn swallows but their notched tails lack the deep forked profile. They have metallic steely blue-green upperparts and white underparts. Tree swallows lay 4 to 6 white eggs in a feather lined cup of grasses installed in a tree or a nest box. They don’t migrate as far south as barn swallows and can feed on berries in the winter if they find insects scarce.

Purple martins are our largest swallow, averaging over 7 inches. The adult male is a dark steel blue all over while the female and young have gray underparts and foreheads. They lay their 4 or 5 white eggs in a clump of plant material stuffed in a natural cavity or in an apartment-style martin house. They prefer to nest in colonies rather than singly and a martin house is a special structure designed with this in mind. The practice of erecting a group house to attract these insect eliminators was used by early new world settlers and their native American predecessors who hung clusters of hollow gourds near their precious crops.

Looking Back; Students Clean Beach

Babylon High School came out in force on Saturday, September 21 back in 2013 for International Coastal Clean-Up Day.   The Thoreau Society, Girls’ Varsity Soccer team, and many Lacrosse players all convened at the Gilgo Beach parking lot early Saturday morning.

The volunteers then walked the beaches, some heading west and some heading east, collecting garbage and refuge.

The event was organized by the local advocacy group Save the Beaches Foundation who provided bagels, donuts, and coffee for the volunteers.  The New York Rising Community Reconstruction team was also on hand to listen to and address post-Sandy concerns from local residents and beach-goers.   Lastly, Long Island Beach Access provided the volunteers with plastic bags, gloves, and clip boards to record the items that were collected on the beach.

Beer bottles, plastic bags, bottle tops, 6-pack holders, packaging material, balloons, cigarette butts and much more were all logged and weighed.  The Long Island Beach Group then sent this information on to the American Littoral Society.

Dr. Mark Malaszczyk, advisor to the school’s Thoreau Society, said, “This even was perfect for environmentally aware students like those who are members of the BHS Thoreau Society.  We Thoreauvians are not simply satisfied with enlightening people on the issues of the day.  We are prepared to be engaged in the activities that help to make this world a better place.”  Vounteer Jed Dale added, “It was gratifying to be out there picking up trash on a day with thousands of others were doing the same on beaches around the world.”

Fittingly, the event occurred on the 75th anniversary of the “Long Island Express,” the 1938 category 3 hurricane that roared across Long Island claiming nearly 800 lives and destroying over 50,000 houses.

This fall, the Army Corps of Engineers will begin dredging more than one million cubic yards of sand in the Fire Island inlet to replenish our beautiful local beaches.   Once our barrier beaches have been strengthened, it is up to us to help keep our beaches clean and healthy for ourselves and future generations.


MIT Seagrant Experience

Down on the beaches we are intimately familiar with the oceans and the increasing impact they have on our lives. The challenges of operating in the ocean have always pushed the related technologies to the forefront of their fields. This is still true today in our world and I got a front row seat for some of these developments during my two week stay at MIT’s Seagrant College as part of the OEX (Ocean Engineering Experience) program.  Sixteen students from across the United States were selected to participate in the program, and I was one of them.

The program had a two-pronged approach.  Professionals ranging from marine scientists to mechanical engineers lectured us.  This was complimented by a hands-on team project where, under a tight deadline, we conceived, constructed, and tested an ROV designed to log temperature and depth in the adjacent Charles River.  We drew our designs from historic ROV’s such as the Jason Jr., explorer of the Titanic, as well as some cutting edge vehicles, some web connected, in the Seagrant lab.

Seagrant is a partnership between NOAA and 32 universities around the country.  The goal is to support research, training and outreach programs such as OEX. The experience opened my eyes to the wealth of opportunities in the field of Ocean Engineering and reaffirmed the importance of stewardship of the oceans.

By Jed Dale, Student Editor