19 Apr 2018

19 Apr 18 - Atlantic Odyssey - Day Twenty One: St Helena's Most Famous Resident (A Birder's View)

If you read the history books or search online, then they will tell you that Napoleon Bonaparte was St Helena's most favourite resident.
Napoleon Bonaparte: A man who was nearly as miserable living on St Helena, as Gordon Brown was while he waited for Tony Blair to depart from No 10, so he could become the next UK Prime Minister
But the reality as any visiting Birder will tell you, is Napoleon was only ever the second most famous resident. The most famous is of course, the Wirebird: the only endemic landbird that has survived to the current day.
Wirebird: You don't have to look far to see Wirebird images (although they don't look quite like this)
It was another early breakfast for me as I was booked on a Wirebird trip to the higher parts of St Helena & had to be on one of the first zodiacs to catch the bus. Fortunately, a few people had been to look for the Wirebirds the previous day & reported back that despite it being dry around Jamestown, it had been cooler & wetter on the top of the island. I was one of the few suitably kitted out with my rain jacket: which was a good move. The bus took about 45 minutes to wind up the hill & past Longwood House where Napoleon lived, before we turned off the road into the grassy fields of Deadwood Plain. By this time, we had left the dry sunny skies of Jamestown & it was misty with steady, light rain. We saw a couple of Wirebirds from the bus, but the windows were all misty & we didn't stop until the bus was close to a territory. After getting out, the guide suggested we walk into the grass a few metres, at which point a Wirebird stood up fairly close to where we were. We stopped & grabbed some photos. But the combination of the mist & drizzle and knowing that it had been put up off a nest, meant none of us wanted to hang around in the field. So, we quickly walked back to the track, to allow the Wirebird back onto the nest. We had heard this is what happened the previous afternoon & I thought the message had got back to the guide, that we weren't keen to see a Wirebird by a nest. But clearly, the message hadn't got through. Still, it was good to see that none of our party were intent on getting prolonged photos given the grim weather. Still had we had somebody who had insisted on taking more photos, then they would have been told by a number of us to head back to the track.
Wirebird: It felt like a wet, misty October's day in Ireland
We returned to the path, where the RSPB guide told us a bit more about the Wirebirds, while the Wirebird quickly returned to its nest: which was out of view of the track. They are an endemic Plover which is closely related to Africa's Kittlitz's Plover. The good news is the population is slowly increasing & thanks to work by the RSPB & the islanders, the population has recently been downgraded to Vulnerable from Critically Endangered. Surveys in the past have shown a steady decline which fortunately appears to have been reversed. A survey in 1988-89 recorded about 450 Wirebirds, which declined to about 350 Wirebirds in the 1990s & early 2000s. More worryingly, this had dropped to little over 200 Wirebirds in 2005-06. Thanks to work to study & protect Wirebirds, the most recent survey has confirmed there were around 560 adult Wirebirds in 2016. The main factors affecting the Wirebirds decline are still being studied, but the usual suspects are all likely to be factors: decline of suitable habitat including conversion to agricultural land & the recent creation of the airport; the increase of invasive plants; the increase in cars & of course, feral cats. The guide said that one of the positive schemes in place now is working with the islanders to have their cats microchipped. There is an agreement with the islanders to trap cats around some of the main breeding areas, along with trying to improve fencing to keep cats out. Trapped microchipped cats are returned to their owners, with feral cats being put down. This might be something that cat lovers disagree with, but feral cats are not native on St Helena & are a deadly predator. It clearly is more important to ensure Wirebirds have a long-term future, than protecting feral moggies. The weather or light hadn't improved so we were happy to jump back on the bus at this point to see if it was going to improve in the next 15 minutes. It didn't & all that happened was outer lenses of the camera's & bins all misted up on the bus. With no improvement, we headed back towards the road. A few minutes later, we reached the Wirebirds we saw as we arrived. Although, the rain hadn't stopped, the mist had cleared. So, we decided to stop and try to get some photos of these individuals, as there were no nests nearby. They weren't very approachable, but at least the light was a little bit better.
One of the other causes of mortality is Wirebirds, especially young individuals, often get onto the roads. Signs like the following one help, but sadly over ten Wirebirds were killed on the roads last year.
Wirebird sign: A big of an exaggeration as we only saw one Wirebird on the road, not thirty
The next stop was the Millennium Forest. This is an ambitious scheme to replant & re-establish native trees on the island. Clearly, it is a long-term project, however, it is getting good community support. Virtually, every resident has paid for at least one tree & many have planted their own tree within the Millennium Forest. In the first twelve years, over 10,000 native Gumwood trees had been planted over 35 acres.
The Millennium Forest
The new runway is in the background behind the Millennium Forest: It is not surprising that several of our passengers who planned to leave the Plancius at St Helena were stranded for several days as the weather did not allow planes to land
White-striped Moth (Spoladea recurvalis): This Pyralid Moth has a massive range including the Hawaii, the US, the Neotropics, Africa, Australia & South East Asia. There were a number of them in the Millennium Forest, but they were not easy to photograph
Jamestown: Looks like it had been raining across the whole island during the morning
It had just about stopped raining by the time we reached Jamestown. But a bit of morning rain didn't stop the African Monarchs flying around the park by Anne's Place.
African Monarch
African Monarch
African Monarch: I'm not used to seeing large caterpillars around whilst the adults are flying
I decided to give the planned Seabird boat trip a miss & spend the afternoon in Jamestown. After looking around a few shops, then it was time for lunch in the Anne's Place cafe.
Zebra Dove: Looks like Anne's Place have employed a local to help clean up any food dropped on the floor
I also spent some time looking around the museum, albeit a fair bit of that time was spent chatting with the island's entomologist. He turned out to be a Brit ex-pat living on the island & was studying the native insects on St Helena, although he was also involved in projects on Ascension Island & Tristan da Cunha: which was good to see. Judging by feedback from others, I think he was one of the islanders most pleased to see a group of keen naturalists descend on St Helena. I also had a quick look on the edge of the town near to the museum & Jacob's Ladder, as other Birders had seen some Waxbills in that area on the previous day.
Zebra Dove: Another one
Waxbill: This is another common introduced species on the island, this time having been brought in from Africa where is common across Sub-Saharan Africa
Waxbill: It was good to see these Waxbills, even through they are introduced. Although, I've spent about nine months Birding in Africa, I haven't had the opportunity to get back to Sub-Saharan Africa in the last twenty years
Java Sparrow: They were skulking around the edge of Jamestown close to the Waxbills
Java Sparrow
Despite the poor weather it had been another good day. I finally made it back to the Plancius in the late afternoon, made a cuppa of tea & headed up on deck. Within a few minutes, I had found a Whale Shark which surfaced a few times near the Plancius, but just as quickly disappeared. It was back to Anne's Place for another great evening ashore.