Safeguarding Gough's land birds
Antje amongst northern rockhopper penguins on Nightingale Island, Tristan da Cunha (R. Johaadien)
As a penguinologist, RSPB’s Conservation Scientist Antje Steinfurth gets to visit some fascinating and far-flung places. Her latest project led her to Tristan da Cunha to help protect one of the island’s most charismatic species, the northern rockhopper penguin.
Tristan da Cunha has been her ‘home away from home’ since 2012, and Antje has spent considerable time on all the northern
islands in the Tristan group. But she’s never made it to Gough…until now.
As the baiting team on island is heading home, Antje is getting ready to migrate south. By happy coincidence her arrival on Gough will coincide with the return of the rockhoppers from their winter foraging sites. With spring around the (southern hemisphere) corner, many of Gough’s other seabird species will also start to return for the new breeding season – which will be, quite possibly, the first in over a century free of the threat of predation by mice. While the return of tens of thousands of penguins and millions of other seabirds is a spectacle not to be missed, Antje is going to Gough as part of our work to safeguard the island’s land birds.
There are just two species of land bird found on Gough Island – compared to 22 seabird species. Unlike the seabirds, almost all of whom forage exclusively at sea, the land birds have a terrestrial diet, which may expose them to risks from the rodent bait. Not willing to take any chances, we decided to take into care a population of Gough buntings and a population of Gough moorhens to make sure they were safe during the baiting operation. Antje will be supporting the aviculture team to determine when any residual risks from the baiting operation have gone, and hence when the land birds can be released back into the wild.
Cleaning mats is a daily chore for the aviculture team, with help from all hands on deck welcomed! (R. Daling)
However, first stop on her route will be Cape Town, where on arrival she (like everyone else who has gone to Gough in the past 18 months) will need to spend two weeks in quarantine before setting off across the South Atlantic. In South Africa she will be joined by a vet and aviculturist, who will be assisting the aviculture team to monitor the health of the birds and to ensure they are released in excellent condition.
Health screening and sexing work in the lab to ensure the safeguard populations are healthy and representative (R. Daling)
The aviculture work has been developed with and supported by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), who sent out one of their own vets earlier in the year to help when the birds were being brought into care and who have continued to provide invaluable off-island veterinary support to the team.
Food is carefully measured out for each bird (M.Risi)
With the mice (hopefully) gone, we will be releasing the Gough buntings back into a new, better world. We are hoping they will start to take advantage of their old haunts – the prime habitat along the coastal fringe. Over time the buntings had retreated to the uplands, where the mice were less numerous. We hope the removal of the mice will enable them to thrive once more across their full range. For the Gough moorhens the picture is a little different and they would sometimes take advantage of the introduced food source, but the mice have impacted Gough’s entire ecosystem, from the plants and invertebrates up. The absence of the mice will, therefore, be likely to lead to changes in plant and invertebrate abundance and community composition, providing abundant food for both land bird species to support their populations into the future.
Feeding Gough's moorhens in their specially constructed mouse-proof pens (M. Risi)
Our Overwintering team (Kim, Von and Roelf, who have decided to stay another year on the island – hurray!) will be monitoring these changes, as well as the breeding success across several of Gough’s bird species. The rockhoppers form part of the long-term monitoring on Gough – the species is Endangered and has suffered a significant decline in the recent past – and no doubt Antje will be first in line to join the team on an expedition down to the coast for the annual population count!
This year the RSPB and its partners have attempted 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.