Capturing the Diversity – Counting Birds -while waiting for a plane

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.

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Graham and Margaret – Third and fourth from right – with the other Conservation team members – 2005

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.

Capturing the Diversity – Fairy Terns and recolonising the island

Here round the eastern flanks of Green Mountain is one of my most favourite parts of the island, and that is saying a lot for an island which I love intensely.  The terrain is a little softer than Green Mountain itself, it is a regularly sloping plain (save for a few very steep drop offs).  It is a mixture of pine trees (casuarinas) and guava bushes, with a few other species thrown in and both the composition of the immediate landscape and the rolling views out to the coast make it especially charming.  But we had more to do, we headed back along the upper path to the car park, and headed out once more, this time up above  the Red Lion and the Bishop’s Path.  We drove the pickup through the small tunnel and parked up at the start of the path.  Its route was wooded for the first part, but openings gave us fantastic glimpses this time to the west coast -the populated part of the island.  All four settlements could be seen, as well as the airbase and the power station up at English Bay and dotted about the multitudes of antenna, seismographs, dishes and radar, as well as the wind turbines, that littered the western part of Ascension Island.  As the walk almost circles an old volcanic ridge, we moved on to the south side of the island.  With their shrill slightly haunting call, and the ghostly white of their plumage, a small colony of fairy terns that live here were soaring through the valley below.  The fairy terns, one of the most beautiful of Ascension’s creatures, are the only sea birds to nest so high up and away from the sea.  Although their numbers are small, they are protected somewhat from the rats and the cats by nesting on a cliffside in small pockets that each year are worn further and further away by their activity.

As to the other seabirds themselves, once the main predators  of eggs and chicks had been suppressed, they seemed to regain confidence in nesting on the mainland once more.  At this time they are restricted to just a few areas; some locations down near where the Wideawakes nested, little patches along the north west and north east coasts close to the huge BBC masts.  The biggest concentration are down in the south east corner  – the most distant from the human habitation and close to the largest set of stacks and islands from which recolonisation could take place.

Capturing the Diversity – Cat, Scat and a Pat on the back

I joined Ray, Damian and Greggy one time on one of their walks to check and maintain these stations.  The route took us between One Boat and Traveller’s Hill, passing nearby the refuse dump.  It was fairly easy walking through a flat plain of gravelly rock coated in Mexican thorn bushes.  They knew the route, but I had helped to digitise the walks they did around the island and thought it a useful idea to log the locations of the stations.  It was a good practical exercise for the guys to learn how to use GPS and record and download waypoints.

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Greggy, Damien and Ray at a cat station

Ray was carrying a sizeable rucksack.   He was a bull of a man, not particularly tall and at first sight, his round shape might make you think he was unfit.  But every walk I did with him he was at the front, and putting the lads half his age to shame.  We found the first station; they were relatively easy to spot as they had red and white tape flapping from a piece of rebar fixed in the ground and was surrounded by a circle of beach sand.  They used beach sand as the yellow always contrasted against the reds, greys and blacks of the inland soils.  Attached to the piece of rebar would be the attracting bait, usually a small piece of fish that Ray and Stedson would fish off the rocks for the day before.  The guys took a GPS waypoint over the rebar, then checked to see if the bait had been touched.  Even if part of the bait or the whole bait were gone, this would not necessarily be evidence of a cat.  The height of the bait on the rebar was critical, too low and crabs and rats could access it, too high and the birds might swoop in and capture it.  The sand was there to detect any footprints.  Crabs were easily distinguished by the lines in the sand as they dragged their shells.  Cat footprints were different from rats in size and shape.  With all this precision on a rather rudimentary piece of kit, no cat attempting to get the bait would get away undetected.

I asked Ray how many cat footprints he had seen.  He said none in the last year.  But they wanted to continue doing this for at least another six months to make absolutely sure.  The last thing would be to miss a small pocket of breeding cats that once monitoring had stopped could reproduce unchecked and damage the restoration of seabirds on the mainland.

So they reset the bait, throwing away the old fish and tying on the new from the supply in a plastic bucket.  Ray then unbuckled the rucksack and slipped it off his back, sprinkled new sand on the circle and raked it across, having removed bits of vegetative and mineral debris first.  And on we went to the next one.  A few months later, a large party was held at the Klinka Klub beach hut to celebrate the successful eradication of the feral cats.