Welcome Kim, Von and Roelf, our new Field Assistant team on Gough Island!
Our journey from being appointed as the new RSPB field team to our first day on Gough Island has felt like a long one – perhaps due to our eagerness to start the job! Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, preparations for our year away were more difficult than usual, but thankfully we all knew each other already and were happily reunited in person on our first day of training. We started with rope access but also covered wilderness first aid, firefighting and cooking. Once all our training was complete, we had to make sure that everything we needed - for a year! - was packed, and then we were set to go.
Vonica, Roelf and Kim (left to right) getting
to know the island (K.Stevens)
But, before boarding the South African ice-breaking polar supply and research vessel S.A. Agulhas II, we had to go through a two-week long quarantine. We spent the time learning the ins and outs of databases we will be working with throughout the year and becoming familiar with biosecurity requirements that are needed to keep Gough’s unique wildlife safe. Only then were we on our way to the island, but it was most certainly worth the wait! Our first view of Gough Island was of the north and east side. Much to our excitement we could see the valleys and cliffs rising from the sea as we sailed closer towards the place that we would soon call our home.
Kim Stevens, Senior Field Assistant
Having lived the Gough experience vicariously through friends, I was eager to come to the island and experience it for myself. The incredible diversity of seabirds on Gough Island as well as the beautiful landscapes were what attracted me to the idea of overwintering here initially. However, since experiencing the impact that invasive non-native house mice were having on helpless seabird chicks at Marion Island, I could not miss the opportunity to be a part of the Gough Island Restoration Programme.
Marion Island is much larger than Gough and plans are underway to remove the mice from there too – once the operation is complete on Gough. As both operations will launch from South Africa, there is great scope for skills and knowledge transfer between the projects.
Before this opportunity arose, I was studying towards a Ph.D. on the foraging ecology and population dynamics of the grey-headed albatrosses of Marion Island. I also spent two overwintering years on Marion collecting data on seabirds for the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, as well as towards my Ph.D.
Since arriving on Gough I have been blown away by the amount of life that flourishes on the island – from the huge array of plants that fit into the dense mosaic of vegetation; to the number of birds soaring past, nestled in burrows and caves, or under the shade of the Phylica trees; to the beaches full of northern rockhopper penguins and Sub-antarctic fur seals. There is always something new and exciting waiting around the corner when we are out in the field.
I have no doubt that the year ahead is going to be a successful and exciting one – we have plenty to keep us busy between now and when the restoration team arrives in a few months’ time. Hopefully, we will also be able to keep you posted with updates from this year’s seabird breeding cycle, such as when chicks hatch and fledge.
Vonica Perold, Field Assistant
I’ve always had a passion for wildlife and conservation, which steered my education and career choices, and it has allowed me to visit some very remote and interesting places. One such place was Marion Island, where I spent a year as a seabird researcher. Before coming to Gough Island, I was busy with a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences looking at how marine plastic ingestion in seabirds has changed over time. I plan to complete my PhD when I return home next year.
My journey to Gough Island started in 2019, rather serendipitously on board the S.A. Agulhas II while collecting data for my Ph.D. I was completely mesmerized by the wildlife, beauty, sheer cliffs and erratic terrain of Gough Island. My visit was brief, but I vowed to return. That day came earlier than expected when in June 2020 applications opened for field assistants to be a part of the postponed mice eradication for 2021. I jumped at the opportunity, sent in my application and here I am. Having now witnessed first-hand the impact of mice on seabirds on both Marion and Gough, I am determined to play my part in restoring these unique ecosystems.
It is a great privilege to be a part of the Restoration Programme and I am very excited and positive about the year ahead. Whenever I see a seabird with mice wounds, I find solace in the fact that help is on its way and that we are working towards a goal of a mouse-free Gough Island. I want to make the most of this opportunity by giving my all in my work and getting out into the field as much as possible. I’m also very fortunate to have an excellent team at the South African Meteorological station who already feel like family. Together, we look forward to next year and will hold the fort until the restoration team arrives.
Kim, Vonica and Roelf sailing up to Gough Island on the SA Agulhas II (K.Stevens)
Roelf Daling,Technician and Field Assistant
A dream became reality for me when my partner and I got accepted to spend a year on Gough Island working for the RSPB. In August, we packed our whole life into a few boxes and managed to store it at Von’s parent’s house. We threw some chocolates, socks and waterproof jackets into rodent-proof tote bins, and labelled them, Roelf Daling / Vonica Perold – G66 – Tote 1, 2, 3 and so forth. And off we went.
As an artist my work usually finds form as sculpture or installation at the intersection between Science and Art; however, on Gough Island, my role is both a field assistant and technician, responsible for the maintenance of the temporary infrastructure required by the restoration project. I will use any down time to focus on video and photography as a medium while here.
After five long days at sea, I quickly realised the remoteness of this island. But like most scientists know, the more remote, the more unique. Gough Island is teeming with life and biological richness. In the first few weeks we trekked through most of the island (in order to carry out a census to determine this year’s Tristan albatross breeding success) and came to know the sites and colonies we’d be working in for the next year. No training could prepare me for this wild, wet and unpredictable environment. Getting to ‘know’ a landscape found new meaning with me.
I feel so lucky and grateful to be working with these endangered birds, and to fully comprehend it all will take me the whole year. Being able to play a part in such a large conservation project, which will turn the page for Gough and enable the island to find its new ‘post-mouse’ natural state, links my soul to something deeper. It’s a massive undertaking and I hope every grain of me can be put to full use, helping towards the success of this project.
We wish Kim, Vonica and Roelf all the best as they start their year on Gough Island and look forward to sharing their progress with you!
The Gough Island Restoration Programme is being carried out by the RSPB in partnership with Tristan da Cunha, BirdLife South Africa, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries in South Africa, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, and Island Conservation . The programme is part-funded by the RSPB, the UK Government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other generous individuals and organisations.