And then there were 47!
Upon our arrival on Gough Island at the end of September 2020, the three of us in the overwintering field team had to dive headfirst into monitoring the main (summer) breeding season. We were new to the island, just like the emerging buds of the bog ferns and bracken, and the recently-laid Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross eggs. In summertime the island was lush with vegetation and completely alive - with bird calls heard night and day, and new-born seal pups wailing away. We had no choice but to quickly learn to navigate the island if we were to get all our monitoring work completed.
There were many highs of the summer season – we watched with excitement as the Tristan albatross chicks from the previous season (they take almost a year to go from egg stage to fledging) left the island and the next season’s parents returned, and we embraced a good weather gap to count the incubators around the island; we saw the Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross chicks hatch and grow into beautiful fledglings as their parents took turns to feed them; and we were elated when we’d check a burrow on a transect and find a tiny great shearwater chick staring back at us through the burrow camera.
But there were also some lows – we documented, for the first time, an adult Tristan albatross succumb to a severe injury caused by mice; and we were shocked when mice completely decimated our monitoring colony of MacGillivray’s prions, with none of the 50 chicks surviving even to fledge. And so, the longer we were on the island, the more evident the need became for the Gough Island Restoration Programme.
In a normal year as a field assistant on Gough things would head into a quieter period after the summer season – with chicks from the summer breeding species having almost all fledged, and only a handful of winter-breeding species to monitor as the days get shorter. However, things have been slightly different this year!
The on-island community has been growing and changing since February as we welcomed each cohort of the Restoration Team to the island. The arrival, first of three yachts (well, actually two yachts, but one made two trips!) and then of the much larger S.A. Agulhas II – each bringing with them new people, cargo, and finally four helicopters and the bait – has certainly made the island feel much less remote than it is. We have gone from being only ten people on the island to a total population of 47, and so the base has become a remarkably busy place.
Though this influx is slightly overwhelming at times, it is more exciting than anything else. It feels as though the impossible has already been made possible by the fact that the entire Restoration Team has made it to Gough, Covid-free, from across the globe. With such a dedicated team, both on the island and dispersed across home offices, I have high hopes that the project will go ahead unhindered to completion. We are in the final phase of a project that could mean millions more seabirds being able to survive on an island free of invasive house mice, and what could be more motivating than that?!
This year the RSPB and its partners will try to eradicate the house mice on Gough and make it a seabird paradise once again. The project was originally scheduled to go ahead in 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic meant the RSPB and the Tristan da Cunha government had to abandon these plans and airlift the team home. With the delays the project now has a significant funding deficit.
If you would like to help close this funding gap, you can donate directly to the restoration project at https://www.rspb.org.uk/join-and-donate/donate/appeals/gough-island/
Acknowledgement The Gough Island Restoration Programme is being carried out by the RSPB in partnership with Tristan da Cunha, BirdLife South Africa, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (South Africa), the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Island Conservation, Conservación de Islas, Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research and BirdLife International. The programme is part-funded by the RSPB, the UK Government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other generous individuals and organisations.