by the Leelanau Conservancy
In the waters of Northport Bay sits a local landmark, treasured for its colorful history and importance as a bird sanctuary. Now we have a chance to preserve Gull Island forever (done of course). Clearly visible from any point along the shoreline, Gull Island is the southernmost Herring Gull colony in Lake Michigan and the third largest in the entire U.S. Great Lakes. Gull Island is also one of the most important sites for avian research in the Great Lakes.
The first occupants of Gull island were the birds who nest there to this day. Dr. William C. Scharf, Professor of Biology and researcher on Gull Island believes that the gull, cormorant, and formerly the terns have nested at this site since the beginning of recorded history (the island is younger than 10,000 years old so this seems a little too biblical an explanation of time).
Also known as Trout Island, its first registered owner was Elizabeth A. Boyer Bell in 1853. In that year her husband, an attorney, was Register of the U.S. Land Office in Ionia. It was not uncommon for those in such offices to speculate on properties and procure them for family members. Leelanau families by the name of John, Miller and Dame later held interests in Bellow Island (its official name). The island has also been called Bell Island, Fish Island and Fisher Island. Harvard Professor Lee Ustick bought it in 1910 and soon had Northporter Byron Woolsey build the cottage of tumbled silhouette fame. According to The History of Leelanau Township, the last time the house was occupies was before the Depression. Many colorful local tales speak of the Ustick’s family struggles with the nesting bords and suggest that they finally gave up competing with the birds and abandoned their cottage. After that, it was broken into and vandalized, and over the years the gulls made it part of their island home. All that remains are the two chimneys, still visible from offshore, and the building’s foundations.
Great Lake Captain Herbert Yost purchased Gull Island in 1960. He planned to use it as a family retreat. Those plans never came to fruition and ownership eventually passed to his daughters who put the property up for sale in 1989.
Fearing new attempts to build a getaway retreat and disturbance of the nesting colony, the Leelanau Conservancy began negotiations to purchase the island. In the fall of 1994, after years of on-again, off-again negotiations, the Conservancy reached an agreement with the owners. The purchase was completed in 1995 and this significant resource and important piece of local history will permanently be protected.
Conservancy Plans for Preservation of the Island
(a management plan is currently in the works)
First and foremost, the Conservancy is committed to preservation of Gull Island as an active nesting colony. At last count, there were nearly 2000 active Herring Gull nests and 100 active cormorant nest on the island. Nesting common and red breasted mergansers also use the island annually. The site has been an active nesting colony since prehistoric times, and, under Conservancy ownership, will be preserved as a public trust.
For over 20 years, the island has been one of the most important sites for avian research in the Great Lakes. Over 20,000 birds were banded through 1990. Important researche into the defects of hatchlings (such as cross-bill syndrome) and egg shell thinning have been used to document the link between toxic substances and harmful effects in wildlife. The Conservancy plans to allow continued access to the island for scientific research.
According to Dr. William C. Scharf who has conducted scientific studies on Gull Island for over 20 years, more people learn of the nesting habits of gulls and cormorants at this site than any other location in northern Michigan. We plan to allow limited access to the island for various groups after a careful management plan has been implemented.
Are these measures really necessary to protect Gull Island? Don't wildlife protection laws and the requirement of a health permit prevent building on the island?
We believe that the only permanent protection is to set the island aside as a bird sanctuary. Several private individuals have sought to buy the island for home construction in the past few years. Permits for septic facilities were not obtained, but there is reason to believe that eventually construction would be allowed. While actual birds and nests are protected by federal law, home construction is not prohibited and would definitely threaten nesting birds.
Do we really need to protect gulls? They seem to be abundant and can be a nuisance to humans.
Colonial nesting birds need an area free of predators to nest successfully. Nesting islands like Gull Island, free from predators and human interference are becoming more rare give the pressure to develop waterfront in the Great Lakes. It is important to preserve those sites that remain. "The Herring Gulls are no a 'dump bird' like the kind you will find hanging around McDonalds", says Dr. Scharf. Herring Gulls are scavengers which eat dead alewives and other dead or dying fish, keeping our beaches clean and odor-free.
The Leelanau Conservancy is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the character of Leelanau County. Conservancy projects such as this are solely funded by donations.