Capturing the Diversity – How to monitor the bird nests

It took quite a while before we reached the first birds and they were situated on the first of a series of small stacks along the coast.  Again it was impossible to count every egg and chick, but they monitor using binoculars and count the adult birds.  But nearby, we started coming in to contact with the first birds who were nesting on the mainland.  The species here are black and brown noddies, some boobies and a few tropic birds.  Counting the noddy nests was a bit precarious as they do prefer cliffside perches, but the others tended to nest on the flatter ground.  To be accurate that the right nests are being properly monitored, numbered metal pegs were left at the nest site.  A database had been created by RSPB  that allowed the team to print out the records for the walk they were doing.  This would tell them where there were existing nests (with the numbers of the pegs they left there) that needed to be monitored again.  The job was to find these nests again; usually the team could remember roughly where they were but they also had the GPS coordinates in case they needed guidance.  The tags  meant that you could keep track of which nest you were looking at and work out the sequence.  Then they just had to update the sheet with the new status (number of eggs, chicks, fledglings or abandoned nests).  If the nest is empty the peg is removed, cleaned and used again somewhere else.  This did sometimes cause some problems for the database as peg numbers could get confused and give the wrong data on the printed out monitoring sheets.  One of my jobs was to clean up the mess in the database and help make the system more foolproof.  If a new nest was spotted on the walk then more details had to be captured; the location and the species of bird as well as the nesting status.  And the new peg number.

It was all rather complicated but did help to calculate the nesting success of different species.  It took some time for Edsel and myself to get our heads around how this could be used in GIS.  Yes, we could show the current status of nesting on the islands, but what was more important was that we needed to help them show where some species were getting more successes than failures, and any progression of nesting further and further on to the mainland or in new locations around the coast. Fortunately, the way the database was set up, you could slice and dice it whichever way you wanted, an Edsel had written a canny programme to automatically draw the results of these filters and label them uniquely.  In this way, monthly maps of nest status could be shown, different coloured dots for different species and the labels showing the status, and another map could show in a period how many nesting successes and failures there had been in each area.  Tara, when she did her studies quite successfully showed how the birds were gaining in their nesting confidence and moving further and further away from those refuge stacks they had once relied on to maintain the populations in the islands.

Capturing the Diversity – Starting round the cliff tops

The other bird monitoring walks were nowhere near as easy as that one with the Cripps.  On my first trip, after Edsel had already left with his frozen fish for Nashville, and I was waiting for the RMS to arrive, I set off with a large number of the Conservation officers.  Tara and Anselmo were leaving the island while Tara took up some studies, and a local househusband called Simon was going to temporarily look after the shop.  Tara wanted to give him as much awareness raising and training as she could.  Although a volunteer already, he had to learn the walks and get to know the staff. I liked Simon enormously, a hell of a nice bloke and very conscientious that taking over from Tara, even just to caretake, would be a big job.  So he joined us on this walk, along with Ray and even Ian,  another househusband (his wife was the midwife on the island)  who generally enjoyed a few days working just looking after the office side, had been persuaded to come along.

Tara dropped us off at the golf balls on Pyramid Point not far from Comfortless Cove.  These are secret listening devices.  So secret that they are painted bright white, stand out on a promontory on the west coast and most people navigate by them if they are walking in the area.  So it was hardly hidden away.

As I stared out along the coast we were to traverse, I could see our destination – the cluster of aerials that were the BBC transmitters dominated this part of the island, and we were to be picked up in a car park just beyond them.  But our route had no set footpath, only the conservationists regularly tromped through this area.  I soon saw why.  There are no mountains here, this is another outlet of the lava flow, but the lava is very recent and the sea has managed only to cut into the rock where the tide currently reaches.  So the cliffs are severe, but like all these coastlines, where there was soft rock, the waves had cut away deeper.  The resulting coast was very incised, and birds, still fearful of predators, would prefer their nests to be at the end of spiky promontories and cliff edges rather than next to a nice footpath.  We had to weave in and out between these peninsulas and around the deeply incised coves.  As I later discovered, the gradual erosion of the lava was not always from top down, the waves were niggling away at weaknesses as sea level, below the cliffs, wearing away the rock to form deep caves, or just rushing in to all the gaps in the existing fissures.  From a distance the shoreline looked low and benign, but as you got into the twists and turns of our route, your realised just how dramatic the coastline was.  We turned one corner to be confronted by a beautiful curved arch of lava, like a totally black rainbow.  More rubbly lava overlaid this arched entrance to a watery cave.  Only when I saw one of my colleagues walking over the top, I saw how dwarfed he was by this structure.

In another place we were weaving our way inland. I followed Ray and Anselmo who knew the route well, but wondered why we were coming in so far.  Then I saw the land to my left dropped steeply down and at the bottom, there was the sea crashing in and out.  In another place I spotted an almost perfectly square swimming baths in amongst the bedrock.  I would never have swum in it – with each rock of the waves it would almost empty then refill in a matter of seconds.  In another location, I saw again that Ray and Anselmo were heading inland.  I followed on, with another deep jagged valley of rock below me to the left, and then a high cliff of lava that appeared a hundred feet higher than where I was.  I looked up and saw Ray and Anselmo above me heading back towards the coast.

We moved at different paces.  I was so in awe of the landscape I went quite slowly, Anselmo and Ray were leaping ahead as they knew they had so many nests to find in the next three hours.  Simon attempted to keep up with them, behind me Ian was wheezing away.  Ian was a slim built Geordie who loved his fags.