A Brief History of Great Duck Island

Great Duck Island, Hancock Co. Maine (44° 09' N. Lat. 68° 15' W. Long.) is a 91-hectare (237 acre) island located approximately 15 km south of Mt Desert Island, Maine. The island is elongated north-south, with a long axis of 1.9 km and a short (east-west) axis of 0.7 km at the widest extent The perimeter of the island consists of a rocky "berm" or edge that slopes gently to sea-level on the southwest end of the island, and rises in sheer cliffs approximately 10m in height at points along the eastern and northern shore. Berm areas at the southern end of the island are characterized by large boulders and unstable rock slabs often greater than 1m in diameter. In contrast, smooth cobble beaches exist on both the east and west sides of the island's "waist". The northeast end of the island consists of cliffs and ledges, but ironically contains the only "all-weather" landing spot - a crevice under the lee of Little Duck Island

Figure 1. Geophysical Aspects of Great Duck Island. Contour interval is approx. 3m.

Approximately 76% (73.7 hectares) of the island's above-tidal area is permanently vegetated at this time, leaving a total berm area of 17.3 hectares. Vegetated areas (Fig. 2) can be broken down into three general classes: forest, consisting primarily of mature spruce trees (40 hectares, of which approximately 1 hectare at the north end of the island was logged in the early 1980's and is in the process of transition into a stand of mountain ash and paper birch); brackish wetland/standing water (4.7 hectares, of which approximately 0.4 hectares consists of the brackish "Slough of Despond"); and open grassy meadow (29 hectares). It appears that this wetland (which lies in an old surge channel that must have once separated Great Duck into two smaller islands) was significantly larger within recent times, but a segment on the northern side was bulldozed and filled as part of the construction of a rough airstrip during the late 1970's/early 1980's.

Figure 2. General vegetation of Great Duck. Data derived from digital ortho-quad sheets flown in 1991 and modified using differentially corrected GPS in 2000.

There are 11 permanent structures on the island (Fig. 3): a cluster of 6 buildings at the south end, constituting the old light station, three small and one large cabins and a private house at the north end, and a boathouse/boat ramp located mid-way down the east side. In addition there is at least one old cellar hole and the remains of an old orchard on the southeast margin. A rough fire road extends from immediately north of the boathouse to the light station, with a spur extending over the central ridge to the cobble beach on the west side, and looping from there south to the light station.

Figure 3. Buildings, roads and trails on Great Duck Island

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the State of Maine hold the bulk of the island in joint tenancy. College of the Atlantic owns approximately 12 acres, consisting of the old light station and boathouse, with rights of way to "traditional boat landings." There is a 5-acre private in holding at the northeast end of the island, presently held by Dr. Richard Borofsky. Research on TNC/State portions the island is conducted under a cooperative agreement with College of the Atlantic.


We have found no evidence of Indian occupation of the island so far, and it is possible that its remoteness from shore combined with the lack of good all-weather landing places and limited macro-invertebrate fauna made it less appealing than other islands. The high level of exposure to winter storms along the southern two-thirds of the island would also remove any traces of shore occupancy quite quickly. The first true human visitors to the island are shrouded in mystery bordering on legend. Spain (pers. comm.) informs me that when her parents bought the island in 1951, her father William Bigenho had identified it as the island on a 16th or 17th century "treasure map." She further states that her parents discovered a treasure consisting of gold, silver, and various artifacts. They were lead to the site of the treasure by a combination of the map and various signs carved on rocks. If this story indeed relates to 17th century "gentlemen" the island may have witnessed some strange sights well before the establishment of any regular European settlement.

The bulk of the island's early recorded history is outlined in McLane (1989) The Island was purchased by William Gilley in 1837, and remained in his possession for 30 years. At some point during this period he was joined by Charles Harding, who bought the island in 1867, and farmed it with his family. The Hardings retained ownership until 1941. It is apparent that for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries the island was used for grazing, primarily of sheep and cattle. McLane cites an 1882 newspaper article that speaks of 200 head of sheep on the island, a flock that had declined to 140 by 1941. Spain (pers. comm.) informs me that sheep were still present on the island when her parents bought it in 1951, but that they were all slaughtered that winter. The impact of this long-term grazing on the islandís flora can only be speculated on, but it seems likely that the open meadows on the west side of the island may in part resemble a more general landscape in the 1890s.

The primary areas of human settlement seem to have been constant throughout the island's recorded history: the Gilley Homestead site at the northwestern end of the island, and the Coast Guard light station at the extreme south. We have also found evidence of construction on the southeast side, consisting of an almost completely filled in cellar hole, a possible well, and the remains of an apple orchard.

The original Gilley/Harding homestead was destroyed by fire in 1882, and the Hardings re-settled on Great Gott, retaining Great Duck as a pasture. According to the Congressional Record a lighthouse was first proposed in 1823, but construction was delayed until 1890. The original compound consisted of a 12m. brick tower, a square brick "generator building", a stone "oil shed", three houses for the keepers and a large boathouse with a double boat-ramp half way up the eastern side. A second, smaller boathouse was later constructed on the western side of the island to allow landings regardless of prevailing winds. This boathouse appears to have had a boat ramp at some point, but the ramp has long since been torn away by the sea. Photographs taken by William Bigenho (Spain, private collection) show that all three keepers houses were standing at least in 1953, but only the head keeper's house and the station utility buildings remained ten years later.

Van Dyke (1907) reports a visit to Great Duck during which he lands "below a fisherman's shanty at the lower end of the island". Further description makes it clear that this is the north end, close to the former Gilley/Harding homestead, which Van Dyke describes as being little more than a ruin. He further states that there were 14 children on the island, and that Great Duck had the smallest school district in the country. McLane (1989) reports that immediately prior to World War I the islandís population had grown sufficiently that the Lighthouse Service authorized the construction of a schoolhouse to accommodate the 30 children then resident on Great Duck. The bulk of these children were associated with the keepers' families, but some belonged to a mysterious fisherman named Van Horne, whom McLane refers to as "squatting" on the island during the pre-war years. I assume that the "shanty" mentioned by Van Dyke (above) is that of the Van Hornes, although Van Dyke makes no mention of the shanty being occupied by a family in 1907, and specifically refers to the children as belonging to the three light keepers' families.

It is not clear when the Van Hornes departed from the island, but I note that the three heirs of Dennis Driscoll (who had obtained a half-interest in the island from the Hardings in 1871) included a "Horne", who, along with Caspen and Phillips and Mary Harding (who held the other half share in the island) conveyed it in its entirety to William Clark Mason in 1941. Mason held the island for 9 years, although the Harding family seems to have continued to use it for pasturage. Mason sold the island to Maurice Rich in 1950, which in turn sold it to William Bigenho in 1951.

The Bigenho family constructed a house on the site of the Gilley homestead, and were two-to-three-season residents of the island until they sold the bulk of the island to George Cloutier in 1963. Ellen Spain (the Bigenho's daughter) retained ownership of approximately 5 acres at the northeast end of the island until 1981, when she sold it to Richard Borofsky, who holds the property through the present. Borofsky constructed a 2-story summerhouse overlooking the northeast shore of the island, and visits for parts of each summer.

Cloutier seems to have originally intended the island as a "summer retreat" from his Boston psychotherapy practice. He constructed a gravel runway immediately north of the Slough of Despond, and commuted to the island in a seaplane. Unfortunately this runway appears to have cut through the island's cemetery, leaving no trace of any burial sites. Benson (1975) gives the impression that Cloutier may have lived on the island year-round, but other accounts suggest that he may have simply visited for the bulk of each summer.

By the early 1970's Cloutier had established a psychiatric clinic and "intentional community" on the island, in which some residents wintered over for one or more years (Borofsky, pers. comm.). Besides the former Bigenho house (which seems to have burned down early in the clinic's history, and was replaced with a log cabin) the clinic consisted of three additional small cabins, a geodesic dome, and various other temporary outbuildings. Of these, the main cabin and the three smaller cabins remain. Much of the lumber used for cabin construction seems to have come from a small clear-cut in the woods at the north end of the island (The "Stood"). Cloutier also imported two deer, a pig, a pony, a few sheep, two cats, two dogs (a beagle and a "200 pound Newfoundland dog named Melissa" (Fuller 1975)), and several pieces of heavy construction machinery. Remains of the latter can be seen scattered along the north shore below the cabin.

The introduction of dogs and cats (both also mentioned in Benson 1975) are of particular import to the island's bird population. Folger (pers. comm.) informs me that the lighthouse keepers also kept at least one dog in the 1980's, and the presence of these animals on the island cannot but have had a negative effect on gulls and petrels.

The clinic closed in 1979, although the presence of newspapers and other remains make it seem likely that Cloutier or his patients occupied some of the cabins sporadically for some time afterwards. In 1984 The Nature Conservancy (TNC) launched a campaign (Albright 1984) to acquire Cloutier's portion of the island. This was achieved in collaboration with the State of Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in 1985. TNC personnel razed the geodesic dome and the "yurts" that had been constructed at the north end of the island, and formally closed the airstrip. The remaining buildings with the exception of one small cabin have been left to "benign neglect" although the main log house still contains many artifacts from the Cloutier era.

The light station was automated in 1986, and with the departure of the Coast Guard the era of year round island living seems to have come to an end. The College of the Atlantic acquired the Coast Guard property and all traditional rights of way in the summer of 1997. At present the College is rehabilitating the station buildings as a research center and island campus.


The earliest study that I can locate is by Redfield (1883, 1893) who did brief floras of the island. Unfortunately Redfield makes no comment on the islandís overall flora or fauna, apart from a brief mention of a "sheep grazed area".

Early accounts of the island's avifauna are somewhat sparse, but it is clear that Great Duck was regarded as an important nesting site for the then seemingly endangered Herring gull (Larus argentatus) in the late 19th century. I have endeavored to summarize known estimates of gull numbers in Figure 4. It is important to note that many published estimates seem to be based on quick approximations rather than systematic counts, and it is not always clear (even within an article) whether an author is referring to birds or nesting pairs. The early estimates prior to Gross' 1922 survey are particularly suspect. Counts from 1985 on have been adjusted upwards by a 15% "correction factor" for missed nests (Drury 1973).

Dutcher (1901, 1905) seems to have visited the island several times as part of early work in bird protection. At some point between 1898 and 1900 Dutcher seems to have arranged for the lighthouse keeper to assume the role of warden, protecting first the gulls on Great Duck, and subsequently also those on Little Duck. The island was visited by Bent (1921) in 1904 as part of his overall studies of North American Birds, but he also cites a later visit by a Maj. G. Ralph Mayer (or Meyer) who visited the island on June 20, 1913 to study the Herring gulls. The bulk of several sections of Bent's Life History for the Herring gull is in fact taken from Mayerís apparently otherwise unpublished notes. It should be noted that whereas Mayer has a number of detailed comments about nesting behavior, his estimate of 4000 pairs does not seem to be the result of a systematic search, and later in the piece he talks of seeing 4000 gulls.

Mayer also mentions large numbers of dead trees on the island and the gulls nesting in amongst the broken stumps. The implication is that the gulls killed the trees, and Mayer mentions that 3 trees were in fact being used as "nesting trees". Several authors have suggested that the gulls took to nesting on tree-limbs in order to escape human predation. I find this somewhat hard to accept as an explanation given the obvious nature of a tree-nest. It seems more likely that if the gulls were in fact nesting in trees it was to escape domestic animals brought by the light-keepers or the livestock men. It should also be noted that our earliest accounts to date begin just after the keepers are appointed to protect the gulls, so it is likely that the birds moved around the island as the effects of protection took hold.

It is perhaps significant that Dutcher and Baily (1903) say specifically "On the southern end of the island nearly all the trees have been cut and the dead tops and branches, together with many large trunks, have been left among the stumps!" (emphasis added). The "dead trees" in later accounts may in fact be referring to this human-created tangle. Photographs in Dutcher and Baily's article show both dead and living standing spruce immediately above the berm line at the southeast end of the island. At the risk of raising an unsupportable hypothesis, I note that the devastated area described by Mayer and also later by Gross (below) is strikingly similar to that common in double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) colonies, although none were supposedly nesting in Maine in the late 1800's/early 1900's (Knight 1908).

Drury (1973) gives a figure of 5000 pairs for the island in 1920, but I have as yet been unable to obtain the source of this number, Drury includes it in a table dealing with a number of Maine islands, and the data appear to have been derived from multiple sources (probably Norton and Allenís field notes). Gross (1922) visited the island in the summer of 1922 and conducted a systematic count of the entire island over the course of July 1-2, which should correspond to peak nesting. Like Mayer nine years earlier, Gross reported that the bulk of the gulls were nesting at the south end of the island in or near the light station grounds, and that the spruce trees at that end of the island were mostly dead - presumably killed by the large quantities of guano. If Drury's figure is to be believed, the colony declined by nearly two thirds in just two years - in spite of what Gross describes as the continuing protective role of the Light keeper.

Pettingill (1984) visited the island in 1929 as an undergraduate student of Gross. Unfortunately Pettingill's report was not written until more than 50 years after the fact, was published in a popular magazine, and in fact bears a striking resemblance to some parts of Gross' earlier paper. Pettingill does not seem to have performed an island-wide count, but instead mentions "5000 birds". If we take this figure at face value and correct it according to Drury's (1973) 1/1.5 correction factor for nesting pairs, we arrive at 3333 pairs - a dramatic comeback over Gross' estimate of 1246 pairs in 1926.

The importance of these numbers lies particularly in Drury's next estimates (again apparently from un-published sources) of 300 pairs in 1930 and 600 in 1940. Clearly SOMETHING happened on the island (it is worth noting that according to Drury, Little Duck's population went from 750 pairs in 1920 to 4000 in 1930, raising the possibility that birds on Great Duck moved to Little Duck as the result of some sort of disturbance. Further analysis of these numbers may be found in the Discussion section (below). From 1930 on, Little Duck continues to have a larger population of Herring Gulls than Great Duck.

Lesser (1977) conducted a limited survey of the island's flora and fauna as part of a more intensive study of Little Duck Island. Folger and Wayne (1986) undertook a more detailed study in 1985 as a report to The Nature Conservancy upon the Conservancy's acquisition of portions of the island. Since that time Greene (pers. comm.) has conducted sporadic additional studies of the island's vegetation, and an amended flora is forthcoming. In 1991-3 Ron Butler of the University of Maine Farmington and his students conducted studies of the island's guillemot population and also censused gulls. More recently Butler has conducted surveys of lichens at the island's north end.

In spite of its name, Great Duck Island seems never to have been recorded as a significant breeding or roosting site for Common eider duck (Somateria molissima). The name appears to refer to Black Duck (Anas rubripes) - who frequented the Slough of Despond during Autumn migration - to the joy of local gunners.

A survey of the literature (Fig. 4, above) makes it clear that Great Duck Island has been a major nesting site for the Herring gull (Larus argentatus) for over a century. In addition, the island supports one of the largest - if not the largest - populations of nesting Leach's storm petrels (Oceanodroma leucorhoa) in the eastern United States. Finally, boat counts and research by Butler (pers. comm.) suggested that the island supported a significant proportion of the total black guillemot (Cepphus grylle) population in Maine waters.

A Brief Bibliography of Great Duck Island

Albright, J. 1984. The Island Maine Chapter News. The Nature Conservancy. Dec. 1984.
Allen, R.P. and A.H. Norton. 1931. An inspection of the colonies of seabirds on the coast of Maine by the National Association of Audubon Societies, June 23 to July 14, 1931. and a comparison of habitat conditions with those existing in 1900 and subsequent years of the Associationís protection. Unpub. Report to National Audubon.
Benson, W. 1975. The flying doctor. Downeast: July 1975:48-49, 83-84.
Bent, A.C. 1921 Life Histories of North American Gulls and Terns. U.S. National Museum Bulletin 113. 345pp.
Brown, R.G.B. 1967. Breeding success and population growth in a colony of Herring and Lesser black backed gulls Larus argentatus and L. fuscus. Ibis 109:502-515.
Drury, W.H. Jr. 1973. Population Changes in New England Seabirds . Bird Banding 44: 267-313.
Dutcher, W. 1901. Results of special protection to gulls and terns obtained through the Thayer Fund. Auk 18:76-103, 183-190.
Dutcher, W. 1905. State Reports-Maine. Bird Lore 7:322-326.
Dutcher, W. and W. Baily. 1903. A contribution to the life history of the Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) in the United States. Auk 20: 417-431.
Erwin, R.M. and C.E. Korschgen. 1979. Coastal waterbird colonies: Maine to Virginia, 1977. An atlas showing colony locations and species composition. U.S. Dept. of the Interior Fish and Wildlife Service FWS/OBS-79/08
Folger, D. and P. Wayne. 1986. A Biological Inventory of Great Duck Island, Hancock Co. Me. Unpub. Report to The Nature Conservancy. College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Me.92pp.
Fuller, A. 1975. Gestalt on the rocks. Newsweek, July 21, 1975. p. 40.
Gross, A. 1922. A visit to Great Duck Island. Maine Naturalist 2: 109-115.
Gross, A. 1946. The present status of the Great Black-Backed Gull on the coast of Maine. Auk 62:241-256.
Knight, O.W. 1908. The Birds of Maine. Charles Glass & Co. Bangor Maine.
Lesser, E. 1977. A Study of Marine Birds on Little Duck Island, Maine. A thesis submitted in partial requirement for the B.A. degree in Human Ecology, College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Me. 60pp.
McLane, C. 1989. Islands of the mid-Maine coast. Vol II: Mount Desert to Machias Bay. Kennebec River Press. Falmouth ME.
Mitra, C. 2001. Effects of spatial and temporal factors on nesting and pre-fledging success of the Herring Gull Larus argentatus. A thesis submitted in partial requirement for the B.A. degree in Human Ecology, College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Me.
Myers, A.M. 1999. Black guillemot (Cepphus grylle) productivity and habitat preference on two islands in the Gulf of Maine. A thesis submitted in partial requirement for the B.A. degree in Human Ecology, College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Me. 22pp,
Pettingill, O.S. 1984. Fog, Gulls, and a revolver. Audubon. Nov:119-131.
Rand, E.L. 1900. Plants from the Duck islands, Maine. Rhodora, Oct. 207-209.
Redfield, J. 1885. Insular Vegetation. Bull. Torrey Bot. Club 12: 103
Redfield J. 1893. Insular Vegetation. Bull. Torrey Bot. Club 20: 52-53.
Van Dyke, H. 1907. Days Off and other digressions. Charles Scribnerís Sons. New York.