State ornithologist finds her nest at the coastline

She's pecking away at threats to shore birds

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The aptly named Bird Island has no inhabitants except a lighthouse and a squawking rookery of endangered roseate terns. A mile off the mainland coast of Marion in Buzzards Bay, it’s where you’ll often find coastal bird biologist Carolyn Mostello. She might look a bit odd – wearing a hat with a stick taped to the top. It’s self-defense against the dive-bombing, pecking, and defecating birds who are protecting their nests against those they see as intruders. This feistiness is part of the reason Mostello loves the agile, graceful terns, a species threatened by habitat loss, oil spills, and human interference. Mostello, a state ornithologist, hopes for a ‘tern’-around as she works to protect the birds’ major nesting islands in the area – Bird, Ram, and Pekinese. While studying inland birding data, for almost two decades, Mostello also has managed water birds in her role at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. On her list of threatened species are piping plovers and terns, as well as more common cormorants, herons, and egrets. The Globe spoke with Mostello to get a bird’s-eye view of conservation.


“People often view birds as kind of delicate and wimpy, but seabirds are pretty tough – they make your life miserable when you enter the nesting colony, cover long distances, and live a long time. The habitat of water birds ranges from mainland coastal beaches to rocky islands, salt marshes and granite outcrops. They’re a very labor-intensive group to manage, as several species are endangered or threatened and there’s a lot of overlap with recreation. We’ve made some solid gains. On the other hand, some of the more common coastal birds, like herring gulls and great black-backed gulls, have declined substantially. And while seagulls (they are actually just gulls – the name is a misnomer) are considered garbage birds, their population is actually falling.

“There’s a perception that wildlife biologists run around manhandling animals and having fun. But the interesting stuff the public sees is preceded by tedious preparations and data analysis and reporting – not very glamorous. During the seabird nesting season, I’m often up before sunrise checking the marine forecast to view boating conditions out to the islands. My field crew and I collect nest data there – checking eggs, as well as monitoring the birds.

“With all the recent hurricanes, I am very curious about how these storms affected the birds we study. But we won’t have any answers for some time. Terns are currently either migrating or in their wintering areas in South America. If there was a large effect on the adult population, it may be detectable when we census terns on the breeding islands next spring. For hurricane Bob in the early ‘90s, for example, a lot of terns got hit at the Cape and didn’t show up to breed three years later, causing a dip in population.


“I’ve been called ‘The Bird Lady’ – but I think all people who study birds are called either ‘Bird Lady’ or ‘Bird Guy’ because it’s easier than remembering our real names.

“I was raised in suburban New Jersey and didn’t have much exposure to nature. After graduate school, I was fortunate to spend several months at the remote Northwestern Hawaiian islands, and they inspired my fascination with sea birds. They nest everywhere there: in trees, buildings and runways, as well as on the ground and in underground burrows. You could never be bored watching them.

“I’m sometimes asked what’s the rarest bird I’ve seen. It’s the yellow-nosed albatross that I saw seven years ago on Penikese Island. I had worked with albatrosses in the Pacific and am very fond of them — they are incredibly charismatic — so I’m hard-pressed to think of a more exciting bird to stumble upon. It was truly an exhilarating feeling.”

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