GEORGIA – Lazy Lady Island, a tufted patch of land near the mouth of St. Albans Bay, has a problem: there are just too many double-crested cormorants.
Double-crested cormorants are, according to the National Audubon Society, long-necked diving birds common through much of the U.S. Admittedly, according to the National Audubon Society, a double-crested cormorant “rarely looks noticeably crested in the field.”
On Lazy Lady Island, though, the sheer number of cormorants has brought environmental challenges threatening everything from the island’s native birds to the vegetation distinguishing Lazy Lady Island from its neighbor, the aptly named Rock Island.
Even the waters around Lazy Lady Island are at risk, with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department reporting a declining fish population in fisheries surveys near the island and even a spread of cyanobacteria – or blue-green algae – fueled by the nutrients released by the cormorants’ guano.
“The impact on the general environment is already being seen,” Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department biologist John Gobeille wrote in an email about the bird population to the Messenger.
According to Gobeille, the overpopulation of cormorants on the island could lead to birds stripping the island of vegetation for their nests, while their guano – their excrement – acidifies the island’s soil and coats tree leaves, making plants unable to photosynthesize and survive.
The waters of Lake Champlain aren’t strangers to the effects of an overpopulation of cormorants, either. In his email to the Messenger, Gobeille said the state-owned Young Island near Grand Isle had likewise seen itself swarmed with the same inland sea birds.
Within a decade of the first cormorant nesting on Young Island, most native bird species had fled and Young Island “was completely deforested due to the cormorants and gulls,” Gobeille said.
Only after a decade of population control was the state able to remove the birds from the island completely. “The native bird species began returning to the island,” Gobeille wrote in an email. “Staff have also been re-vegetating the island with grass, tree, and shrub plantings.”
Gobeille was one of several wildlife officials who recently approached Georgia’s selectboard for help with maintaining the island’s cormorant population, joined by the local water quality advocacy organization Friends of Northern Lake Champlain.
According to minutes from that meeting, officials said they would need permission from the island’s owners to step onto Lazy Lady Island to start reducing the island’s population of cormorants – namely through destroying the birds’ nests.
The challenge, though, is that finding Lazy Lady Island’s owners has proven harder than expected.
According to Georgia’s selectboard chair, Matt Crawford, taxes on the island are paid to the town by a trust in Florida. While the town has contact information for the trust, contacting the island’s owners has proven more difficult.
“Nothing can be done right now without the landowner’s permission,” Crawford told the Messenger Monday. “The complicating factor is that it’s controlled by a trust – and the trust isn’t necessarily the landowner.”
State officials, as well as the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain, have likewise struggled with reaching the island’s owners, with letters to the owner being returned unopened, according to minutes from the selectboard’s June 8 meeting.
Meanwhile, there appear to be few options for sidestepping the required permissions to access the island.
According to minutes from the selectboard’s June 22 meeting, the possibility of citing threats to a state-identified archaeological site on the island as an excuse to allow cormorant control fell through, as the archaeological site itself wasn’t threatened by the cormorant population.
During the board’s June 8 meeting, when the issue was first brought forward by state and federal wildlife officials, town officials also said the town received legal advice saying “legal action is not viable at this time” in response to questions about condemning the island, according to the meeting’s minutes.
Crawford said he and Georgia’s town administrator, Amber Baker, were writing the trust responsible for Lazy Lady Island with the hopes of reaching the island’s owner to receive the needed permissions for accessing Lazy Lady Island.
In the meantime, Crawford said he was asking anyone in town with information about how to connect with Lazy Lady Island’s actual owner to contact the town’s offices.
As the town wrestles with accessing the island, ecological challenges are likely to continue.
The overpopulation of cormorants on Lazy Lady Island, according to Gobeille, have implications for other conservation efforts, providing nutrients for cyanobacteria blooms in a Lake Champlain inlet already heavily affected by blue-green algae.
Their overpopulation may also threaten nearby Rock Island, where Gobeille said nesting common terns, a state-endangered species of bird, were seeing population losses possibly caused in part by loafing cormorants from Lazy Lady Island taking up the space terns use for nesting.
“Many of the other islands in St. Albans Bay could be targeted next for cormorant colonization,” Gobeille wrote in his email to the Messenger.
The effect Lazy Lady Island can also be easily seen from the shore. Guano-caked trees standout in the island’s profile and, according to Crawford, it was even possible to smell the birds’ guano from passing boats “on the right day.”
It also wasn’t lost on anyone involved that the damage to Lazy Lady Island, as well as its impacts to water quality, could likely be felt by the landowners along Georgia Shore Road who’d already seen property values affected by the seasonal blooms of cyanobacteria in St. Albans Bay.
“We’ve already got all kinds of water quality issues,” Crawford said. “Add this on the top of it, it’s not helpful.”
The town, Crawford said, hoped to have access to the island in time for the birds’ nesting season in 2021.