19 Jun 2018

11 Apr 18 - Atlantic Odyssey - Day Fourteen: Arrival At Tristan Da Cunha

Today was another day of expectation as we were arriving at Tristan da Cunha. This was another island group I was really looking at visiting. Several years ago, I went to a talk given by Brad Robson, who is the brother of one of my local Birding mates. Brad & his family had the lucky opportunity to visit & stay on Tristan da Cunha for several months as part of his job with the RSPB working with the team responsible for the British Overseas Territories. The talk was a mixture of Birds, but also life on the small island. The population of Tristan da Cunha in Jan 17 was only 262 permanent residents. It was a fascinating talk. It helped to reinforce the plan in my mind that started in the 90s, that I would join one of the Atlantic Odyssey cruises from Ushuaia via South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha, St Helena & Ascension. Finally, after all these years of considering the trip, I was two weeks into it & we were due to arrive at Tristan da Cunha. By late morning we could finally see Tristan da Cunha in the distance. Over the next hour the island became bigger.
The initial view of Tristan da Cunha: The island is approximately round with a diameter of 7 miles & a size of about 38 square miles
Tristan da Cunha: Panoramic shot showing how well the volcano dominates the island. The highest point of the volcano is 2062 metres
Tristan de Cunha: There was a reasonable coverage of bushes & trees on the steep slopes
The volcano dominates the island: Leaving only a narrow low elevation plain
Edinburgh of the Seven Seas: We arrived from the the South & sailed anti-clockwise around the island until we reached the settlement of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, on the NW corner of the island
Edinburgh of the Seven Seas: The harbour lies at the right hand end of the settlement
Unfortunately, there was a 4 metre swell & a 30 knot NW wind blowing into the harbour & the harbour master had declared the harbour was closed. To be honest, I wasn't surprised. Fishing is one of the main incomes for the islanders. One of the films of life on Tristan da Cunha that we were shown while we were at sea said the islanders were only able to go to sea for around 80 days a year. I think the harbour may have been improved since that film, as it wasn't recent. However, it does indicate the impact the weather & sea have on the harbour. There had been another tourist ship waiting to land for three days & which had left that morning, without having been able to put their passengers ashore.
Yellow-nosed Albatross: There was a regular movement of Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatrosses flying to photograph when we weren't looking at the island
Yellow-nosed Albatross: Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross
Yellow-nosed Albatross: Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross
As we were circumnavigating the island, it was steady enough on the top decks & a few telescopes appeared with people scanning the hillsides. A few Albatross nests were seen on the steep hillsides & then a surprise call came from one of the European Birders: I can see a Gough Moorhen. This is one of the endemics we were keen to see, having missed it on Gough Island. Gough Moorhens used to breed on Tristan da Cunha, but are believed to have died out following the arrival of people. However, another subspecies survived on Gough Island & some of these individuals were moved to Tristan da Cunha in 1956. As always with these scenarios some authorities believe that the now extinct Tristan Moorhens & Gough Moorhens were separate species, rather than subspecies. Either way the Gough Moorhen re-introduction was successful. So the next thing was trying to see the Gough Moorhen. The Plancius was probably 3/4 mile offshore & it was a few hundred metres up the hillside, so a good stable telescope was necessary. I had to wait until one of the telescopes became free, as my lightweight travelling scope would have struggled (especially without a tripod). I could see the area that the people were looking, but it had walked back into the trees, before I finally got to look through a telescope.
The Gough Moorhen site: Underneath the right hand side of the bushes & trees was a fenced enclosure (see next photo)
The Gough Moorhen site: This individual was feeding around the top right hand corner of the enclosure every now & then, before walking back into the bushes
After some discussion between the Plancius & the harbour master, we were given permission to cruise around the island & look for a place where we might be able to attempt a zodiac cruise in the afternoon. The first planned position was on the South East of the island, but that was too rough at the gangway to allow the zodiacs to be loaded. However, it did allow another area of hillside to be checked & a second Gough Moorhen was found, which I got to see. A handful of Birders did see Tristan Thrushes in flight from the Plancius. They are even smaller in size, but are the only Passerine on the island.
The second Gough Moorhen site: This individual was feeding on the open ground in this deep gully every now & then before going back into the bushes for periods. Fortunately, I got to see this one moving around though a decent telescope at even further range. Good job is there are no confusion species on the island
As we were unable to get the zodiacs into the water, the Plancius continued to look for a sheltered position & we went past the first Gough Moorhen site again. The Gough Moorhen searching started again & this time I got to a telescope in time.
Gough Moorhen: An extreme crop with it right in the centre. I'm amazed at how good the Canon 7D Mark II & 100-400 mm Mark II lens are as a camera setup to get this record shot at over 3/4 mile away. Through the scope, it had just been possible to see the bill colouration & overall shape to ensure we hadn't misidentified a Chicken
Fortunately, the Plancius found a more sheltered location, to the East of the original Gough Moorhen site & we were called to the zodiac deck. There was still a fair bit of swell on the zodiac deck & I decided not to risk the cameras, especially as it didn't look like there would be much to photograph. All we found was a lone moulting Tristan Penguin on the beach & a single Subantarctic Fur Seal. However, it was good to be able to get close to the beach on Tristan da Cunha as we didn't know if we would get the chance to land on the island. After the zodiac cruise, we returned to the Plancius & continued to slow cruise along the shoreline. As the light started to fall, good numbers of Great-winged Petrels were milling around offshore, wailing for the darkness so they could go ashore.
Great-winged Petrel: Great-winged Petrels breed on Gough & the Tristan da Cunha Islands, as well as, Marion, Crozet & Kerguelen Islands in the Indian Ocean
Great-winged Petrel: They have a rounded tail
Great-winged Petrel: They are a large long winged Petrel, with a slightly paler face & a steep forehead, which gives the impression to my eyes that they have a droopy bill
Great-winged Petrel: Good numbers of Great-winged Petrels gathered offshore of Tristan da Cunha at dusk
Eventually, we anchored up off the settlement. We were not encouraged to go onto the decks after dark when we were at sea, in case somebody accidentally fell overboard. However, given we were anchored in the shelter of the island, a few people went to the lower rear deck. It turned out to be a real spectacle. As well as the stunning clear night sky, there was a second light show in the water from the phosphorescence of hundreds of Squid as they drifted by on the current. Squid tend to descend during the day to avoid predators & come to the surface in the relative safety of darkness. The phosphorescence is caused by bioluminescent bacteria. It was a great natural light show, but one that my cameras failed to capture.

18 Jun 2018

10 Apr 18 - Atlantic Odyssey - Day Thirteen: Gough Island

There was an early morning wake up call for those who weren't already up to confirm we were sailing back in close to Gough Island to take another close look at the island.
The weather was also misty due to the impact of some overnight rain
However, there was also disappointment for most of passengers as it also confirmed that although the wind had dropped a little, the swell was still too rough to allow us to safely get into the zodiacs. As as result, we were going to get another Plancius cruise around Gough Island: but no zodiac cruise.
Early morning gloom: This didn't just apply to the light, as we all upset to miss out on a zodiac cruise
Another waterfall: There were a number of active waterfalls indicating Gough Island must get a fair bit of rain
The weather took some time to start improving
There were a number of these isolated rock stacks
Tristan Penguins were one of the species I was really keen to see. They only breed on Gough & the Tristan da Cunha Islands in the Atlantic, as well as, St Pauls & Amsterdam Islands in the Indian Ocean. We had seen really distant scope dots on the previous afternoon of one of their colonies: which hadn't been very satisfactory. So it was good to see some Tristan Penguins in the water this morning.
Tristan Penguin: They are also known as Northern Rockhopper Penguin or Moseley's Rockhopper Penguin. This was my third Penguin Tick for the Odyssey. I've got just three left to see now: Galapagos Penguin, Adelie Penguin & the difficult Emperor Penguin
Tristan Penguin: A close up to show how extensive the yellow feathering is
Tristan Penguin colony: This is a fairly reasonable sized colony
Tristan Penguin colony: It looked more of a long hop up to this colony
The Edinburgh: A Belize registered & based fishing boat was also taking shelter around Gough Island & showing how rough the seas were for this 12 metre boat
At some points the sea became really rough when the seas were exposed to the wind
The water was being lifted from the tops of the waves
Finally we found a more sheltered bay & the conditions had improved. To our surprise we were called to the observation lounge & told the Expedition staff & the crew, reckoned they had a sheltered enough position to put a couple of zodicas in the water. This worked out OK & we were going to get a zodiac cruise after all. It still looked quite choppy & I decided to skip taking the cameras. In hind sight, it would have been alright, but I had already managed to get a Tristan Penguin photo from the ship & I was happy. So there are none of the better photos of the Tristan Penguins that some of the other photographers took & none of the Subantarctic Fur Seals on the beaches that we saw. However, not focusing on the photography gave me chance to keep scanning the rocks & I was pleased to be the first to see a Gough Bunting. There are only a few hundred pairs of this olive coloured Finch that is restricted to Gough Island. It seems likely that it originated from one of the South American species, as they superficially resemble Yellow-bridled Finches of Tierra Del Fuego. The others in the zodiac weren't so happy, as it flew & dropped out of sight as I called it. However, we went on to find two or three others feeding on the rocks just above the beach & all who wanted got to see them. Not the behaviour I had been expecting. However, I guess there is more food here & like the South Georgia Pipit, Gough Buntings are happy to exploit any food source. They are found on the island up to 800 metres elevation.
Another rock stack
The weather & light were finally improving
By late morning, we were back on the Plancius & the zodiacs were reloaded. It was time to complete the journey around the coast, before turning North West toward to Tristan da Cunha: a day's sailing away. Given it was now late morning, we wouldn't arrive at Tristan da Cunha till late morning the following day. But the zodiac cruise was a real bonus & a couple of my mates on our trip, Richard & Mike, had rebooked on this trip as they had been unable to do a zodiac trip on their trip in 2016. That wasn't their only reasons, but was a major factor for both of them. In Richard's case, his wife Bridget had been unable to do the full trip, so they had rebooked to do the cruise together. Opportunities to experience Gough Island aren't guaranteed, so we were all elated, especially after seeing the Gough Buntings. The weather & sea conditions are such a crucial factor & not having long in the schedule to wait for the weather to improve, it is just lucky if trips get the chance of a zodiac. The 2014 Odyssey missed Gough Island completely due to a medical emergency, as the Plancius had to visit the Falklands after South Georgia & they bypassed Gough Island completely. I think we were all feeling very lucky given all our landings & zodiacs in South Georgia & Gough Island had been successful. However, I was also aware that at some point this luck was likely to run out before we reached the calmer tropical waters. But as we were sailing away, there were still plenty of Birds to look at as we were leaving Gough Island, while I quietly contemplated when our luck would change.
Sooty Albatross: Adult
Sooty Albatross: Adult
Tristan Wandering Albatross: Subadult
Tristan Wandering Albatross: Another photo of the same subadult individual
Tristan Wandering Albatross: Another photo of the same subadult individual
Southern Giant Petrel: Gough Island is the most northerly breed population of Southern Giant Petrel
Southern Giant Petrel
Great Shearwater: We saw several large rafts of Great Shearwaters on the water as we were leaving Gough Island
'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: One of the white-bellied melanoleuca subspecies of Black-bellied Storm-petrel that breeds on Gough & the Tristan da Cunha Islands
'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: Another individual
'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: Another photo of the previous individual
'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: We sailed past a feeding flock of at least 25 'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrels, along with a few South giant Petrels 
Southern Giant Petrel & 'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: Note, the Southern Giant Petrel from the previous photo has a yellow ring on it, but the photo is not good enough to read the ring number
'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: Three of the flock
'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: Another two
'White-bellied' Black-bellied Storm-petrel: Five more
Brown Skua: This Tristan Brown Skua briefly circled the Plancius
Antarctic Tern: They breed on all the major Subantarctic Islands in the Southern Oceans. This is the tristanensis subspecies which occurs on Gough & the Tristan da Cunha Islands, as well as, St Pauls & Amsterdam Islands in the Indian Ocean
Antarctic Tern: I had seen them in South Georgia, but they were never close to the Planicus
Since I've got back I found this really interesting RSPB website about their work on Gough Island. As it is a British Overseas Territory, the RSPB are an important conservation body working on the British Overseas Territories. There is a good blog on the website as well, although it doesn't get too many updates given they probably have a very slow satellite connection to the outside world. But it does allow the small RSPB team to write about life on Gough Island & the pressures on the Seabirds. You would think that life for a Seabird on a remote outer island of the remotest inhabited island group in the world (Tristan da Cunha) should be great. However, Gough Island, like many of these remote islands is suffering badly from introduced Mice, which have grown to three times the size of their European cousins. They are currently causing havoc & are a major threat to both the Tristan Wandering Albatross which are declining at three percent a year due to the impacts of the Mice predating chicks & the Gough Buntings which have declined to 400-500 pairs (compared to around 1500 pairs in 1991). Again the Mice are the main threat to this Critically Endangered single island endemic passerine. Additionally, Gough is the only breeding island for Atlantic Petrels & it is an important island for the newly discovered MacGillvray's Petrel: although time will tell if this is related to the MacGillvray's Petrels in the Indian Ocean or a separate species. Additionally, the island is home to the Gough Moorhen, although a population has now been successfully re-introduced on Tristan da Cunha, after the original Tristan population were wiped out following the arrival of humans there.
Tristan Wandering Albatross: Subadult. One of the species that would benefit from clearing Mice from Gough Island
To help safeguard the Seabirds & Gough Bunting, there is a plan to eradicate the Mice in June - Aug 19 during the Southern Winter. There is an appeal to raise the final two million pounds to fund this eradication plan. This is something that specialist teams are getting well practiced at successfully clearing these large islands of introduced Rats & Mice. Earlier in the trip we saw the increase in South Georgia Pipits on the mainland following their successful Rat eradication project. So the plans are now being put in place for Gough Island. Anybody, who would like to contribute can find more information about the plans & how to contribute on the RSPB Gough Island website. I will be making a donation once I'm back in a contract again.