Channeling Hitchcock’s The Birds on a Lake Michigan Island

Remnants of cottage built long ago amid a gull colony on a Lake Michigan island.

Note: Gull Island is a no-access, critical area that is off limits to the public year round.

There’s an island up near Northport, Michigan, near the tip of Leelanau Peninsula, where the remains of a cottage hint at a strange tale. Still standing are two cobblestone chimneys and low cobblestone walls, but the roof caved in long ago, and the site is littered with broken and rotting boards. All around the island are gulls, gulls by the hundreds, sitting on nests, wheeling above, floating just off shore, and, of course, screeching and cawing like there’s no tomorrow. At least, that’s the scene that greeted the party of five that I landed there with on Monday, May 5. 

Researchers who spent the morning counting gull nests and collecting a baker’s dozen of gull eggs for chemical testing. From left: Dr. Bill Scharf, Jenée Rowe (Leelanau Conservancy) and Erik Olsen (Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians).

I headed to the island with Traverse Magazine photographer Todd Zawistowski and three naturalists who were there to count gull nests and to collect 13 eggs from herring gulls to test contaminants like DDT, PCB and PBE. The study has been going on for decades, tracking the trail of these long-lived contaminants through the bird population. DDT, if you recall, was the chief culprit in causing Bald Eagle population collapse back in the mid-1900s, and though it has not been sold for decades in the United States, it still shows up in bird egg yolks.

A mix of herring gulls and ring-billed gulls at the gull rookery.

The island, today named Gull Island, (named Bellow Island long ago), is now a wildlife sanctuary protected by the Leelanau Conservancy. The story that Todd and I are working on will run a year from now, May 2015, and by then we’ll have all sorts of great backstory on the study and on the fascinating tale of the people who figured they could out-battle the gulls on their longtime gull colony. The 40-second video below gives a good idea of why the birds won—not exactly prime vacation real estate.

On May 5, Ice still bordered the island to the north and south, at the tail end of the long winter of 2013-14. The ice had opened just enough over the weekend to allow researchers access to the island.

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