Over the years, I went on several of the bird monitoring walks that the conservation group had to do. The RSPB programme was intense; because apart from the wideawakes,the number of birds was so low, almost every nest was being counted regularly. They not only looked for evidence of nesting, but needed somehow to monitor the progress and success rate of the laying. Over a period of 6-12 weeks, dependent on the species, they would have to visit the same nest 3 to 5 times. Where a new pair had set up a nest, they looked first for evidence of eggs, then the chicks at various stages of development, up to the point where they get their flight feathers and fledge (i.e. fly away). This sounds like a simple progression to monitor, but the reality was much more complicated. The species monitored might have up to three chicks at different stages of development, some eggs may never hatch and the nests were still susceptible to predation by rats and frigate birds, or the chicks would die because of some clumsy accident or neglect from the parents. Evidence of seeing a fledgling one time and an empty nest the next was generally seen as a success, but almost any other combination of results – empty nests too early in the cycle, or evidence that a second egg laying has happened (by the same pair or another pair of parents) were all counted as failures.
Almost all the nests were on secluded coastlines a tough walk away from any vehicular access. So the effort to monitor the birds was immense, and the conservation staff were few and pressed into many other activities. Fortunately, there were a merry band of volunteers who also helped out at the Conservation Office. Two of my favourites from all the trips were the Cripps family. Graham was the Legal Secretary for the Government and had an office just along the corridor from the Conservation Office. His wife, Margaret, was a keen volunteer for Conservation and helped out on tours, at the little display room and shop, and on the bird monitoring side. On my way back from St Helena on the first trip, I was delayed several days. On arrival on the RMS, I had already been expecting three days wait for the next plane home. The schedules were not synchronized in any way and you had to build that in. But worse was to come. I was totally phlegmatic about the air bridge having been delayed nearly two days on the way down. My fellow passengers from the RMS were not so relaxed. They were mostly billeted in the Obsidian Hotel with me, and even if I did not eat at the restaurant every night, I would usually end up there for a sundowner at the Anchor Inn there. Most had rushed round the island trying to pack in all the sights while they had the three days, and were pretty much ready to board the flight and head to the UK. The rumours came in on the second day we were there that the southbound flight to the Falklands had not come in that morning. More rumours started circulating that the jumbo jet had been involved in an accident on the apron at Brize Norton. Someone driving the air stairs up to the door had missed and driven into the fuselage, making a hole right through it. The jumbo would be out of action for over a week while it was repaired.
Calculations started going on in my head – I had been away already for over six weeks, one of my longer work trips. The Obsidian Hotel was the best place to get the most up to date picture, although you realised mostly they were getting it from the same rumour mill as everyone else, just more efficiently. They told us that an RAF Tri-Star was being laid on to do the route, but it still had to go all the way to the Falklands and back before picking us up for the UK leg. That added another four days to our stay in Georgetown.