Work, Life and Birds on Gough Island
Updated: Nov 9, 2018
Kate approaching Gough Island for the first time (J. Cleeland)
For many, Gough Island will be unheard of, and even fewer will ever get the opportunity to travel to this distant island. Kate is one of the few.
Kate is one of three field workers based on Gough this year, who are working towards the eradication of invasive mice that predate on millions of seabird chicks every year. In this interview Kate gives us an insight into work, life, and birds on Gough Island.
You’ve been on Gough Island for six months now, but what were your first impressions of the island?
We arrived on a particularly wet, windy, low visibility day, so the island literally seemed like this mysterious presence slowly emerging from the clouds. We anchored at The Glen on the east side of the island that evening and the view was spectacular, it’s just so rugged and there were waterfalls everywhere because of the rain; I just thought ‘wow, this is home for the year’. Then as we started to get to know the island it really seemed like Jurassic Park mixed with Middle Earth, and birds everywhere of course!
We’ve seen some amazing photos from the team this year – particularly those of newly hatched seabird chicks! How does it feel to see those hatchlings, knowing the threats they are facing?
It’s really special seeing the full life cycle of the birds we monitor here, and most recently it’s been wonderful observing the hatching and newly hatched Tristan albatross chicks. But in the back of my mind I’m asking, how many will survive the mice? Will their parents survive to rear them to fledging? If they fledge how long will they live before getting hooked on commercial fishing-line? We’ve already seen the impacts of mice on other species here like our monitored McGillivray’s prions and Atlantic yellow-nosed albatrosses, so I feel like we’re just waiting to see what the damage is for each species.
A hatching Tristan albatross egg (K. Lawrence)
It’s difficult for us at home to understand what it is like living on Gough Island for a year – can you give us some insight into a normal day for you and the team?
There’s a lot of variety in our work so there isn’t really a normal day. Depending on where each species is in their breeding cycle, we might be working relatively close to base: checking the status of sooty albatross nests along the cliff edges; or Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross nests in amongst the Phylica trees; or finding great shearwater burrows underneath dense ferns along transects; counting rockhopper penguin nests, or weighing seal pups - which requires first climbing down a 50m near vertical slope with the aid of a rope and then picking our way carefully through a penguin colony.
We might go to our Gonydale camp for a night or two to check the Tristan albatross nests and deploy GPS trackers, or check for active grey petrel burrows, or, earlier in the season, we would go from there to our monitored southern giant petrel colonies. Gonydale is over two hours walk uphill along a narrow, muddy track that is quite hidden by ferns a lot of the way, so it takes a fair bit of effort to stay on the track and not fall over! We do counts of buntings and moorhens along transects along the way, and also counts of skua clubs.
Other days we might be stuck inside catching up on data entry and other desk-based work, which we try and save for rainy days or if we’re back early from the field. Generally we get going at 8.30 in the morning and return for lunch if we’re working close to base, and our finish time in the afternoon is pretty variable, depending on what we’re doing, the weather, and the work load – there’s definitely been some long days but occasionally we knock off early!
Jaimie recording data during the weekly Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross surveys (T.McSherry)
Kate and Fabrice taking a break for lunch at their field home in Gonydale (J.Cleeland)
We all know the environment there is tough and the work is very physical, so how do you relax after a day of trekking and bird surveys?
There are ten of us living here* and we all eat dinner together and take turns cooking, so nine times out of ten we can come back to base and enjoy a meal cooked by someone else, and have a chat and a laugh with the others. Sometimes we play pool, table tennis, darts or cards, or watch a TV series episode, and we have regular movie nights too.
When we have a day off I can tell you I am unashamedly lazy and the day often disappears snoozing and reading. I have also been attempting to learn to draw, although I’ve only managed to do four drawings in six months, and Jaimie and I like to do some yoga which is relaxing and has the added benefit of helping keep our bodies intact!
*The three Gough field assistants share the island with a team from SANAP, who work at the islands weather stations.
Conditions on Gough can be pretty harsh. How do you keep yourself motivated on challenging days?
There’s actually been a lot more fairly warm days than I expected, but there’s also been some cold, wet and windy moments. We’ve all done plenty of field work before so we knew that would happen even when you try and plan around the weather, and you’ve just got to get on with it really, or change plans if the conditions aren’t appropriate for the task.
Sometimes it makes sense to walk in bad weather and get to camp so that we can take advantage of the good weather the next day, so it’s the promise of the nice day to come that is motivating. Sometimes I just think of the hot shower or bath I’m going to have when I get back to base. And actually I quite enjoy seeing the island in different conditions; I might be in the same place, but it will be different light, or a different mood, or some plants will look more striking in sunlight while something like the lichen on the Phylica branches stands out more when the trees are darker because they’re wet. But we probably haven’t seen the worst of the weather yet so maybe I should answer this after winter*!
*On Gough Island this is the Southern winter, from June to September.
After six-months I’m sure you have a lot of great stories to tell – can you pick out one particularly special memory to share with us?
We’ve recently been deploying GPS tracking devices on adult Tristan albatrosses to see where they go to feed during the early stages of their chick’s life, and that requires someone to hold the chick out of harm’s way while someone else restrains the adult and someone else attaches the device. Holding those vulnerable little balls of fluff that will one day, hopefully, be soaring over the ocean for thousands of kilometres with a wing-span up to 3m was quite special. But of course I was also thinking the whole time, ‘are you going to make it?’
Kate contemplates the vulnerability of this 1-2 day old Tristan albatross chick (top) whilst Fabrice and Jaimie attach a GPS tracking device to the parent (above) (Z.Mogale)
As your work leads up to the mouse eradication operation in 2019, what do you see as the main challenges coming up in the next six months?
Part of my job here is to set up a trial holding some Gough buntings in captivity, to inform the captive work during the baiting phase of the mouse eradication. I think that project will present some challenges for sure, especially catching the buntings and getting them settled in the cages and eating. Once we’re through that stage I’ll be happy!
And also just making sure we’re providing good information back to the team planning the eradication. We’re on the ground, sending back info when requested that will inform decisions, so we need to make sure we’re communicating that info well.
This juvenile Gough bunting could be part of the captive trial later this month (K.Lawrence)
And finally, it sounds like you’ve build up quite an attachment to Gough and the characters you share the island with, but what is the one thing you love most about Gough?
I love that I just never know exactly what I’m going to see and experience each day, and there are so many special moments to treasure because I might not experience them ever again once I’m off this island, or even while I’m still here. Like seeing a hatching albatross egg, or having a Kerguelen petrel fly into someone’s lap while camping at Gonydale, or seeing a Southern right whale while eating lunch at the top of a waterfall, or holding a Tristan albatross chick that’s only a few days old, or having a curious non-breeding Tristan nibbling at my headband while I try to read its ring, or seeing a rainbow at night. This island really is a wonderland!
(top) An adult Tristan albatross looks over their sleepy chicks! (K.Lawrence); (centre) a happy Fabrice with a very calm great shearwater! (J.Cleeland); (above) and Jaimie, Fabrice and Kate at Low Hump.
It's an exciting time on the Gough Island project as we lead up to the 2019 eradication operation - to keep up to date with all the latest news follow our Gough Island Facebook and Twitter pages, or contact us on the email address below to sign up for our newsletter.
The Gough Island Restoration Programme is being carried out by the RSPB in partnership with Tristan da Cunha, BirdLife South Africa and the Department of Environmental Affairs in South Africa.
The programme is part-funded by the RSPB, the UK government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other generous individuals and organisations.