Saturday, March 03, 2007

Falkland Iskands and Ascension trip: last week

Sunday 25th Feb

Up at 4:30 for cup of tea and a bit of breakfast (cereal) and then waited for the Falkland Tours bus – which eventually arrived about 5:35. Delivered to Mount Pleasant Airport about 6:20, but didn’t seem to cause any problems. After all the usual waiting around, we took off about 9:08. Arrived Ascension Island 15:30 Falkland Time, which is 18:30 Ascension Island (and UK) time – so sunset by the time I got through immigration, picked up my luggage and made it to the Obsidian Hotel minibus. Delivered to Hayes House in Georgetown OK and, thankfully, there is tea and coffee making in the room – the wonders of a cup of tea!

Eventually went down to Long Beach about 10pm to see if there were any Green Turtles about. Fully dark, but clear and with about ⅔ moon, so quite bright enough to see by. The surf was pounding in (I learned later that this is bad – turtles tend to avoid nights when it is rough). Walked less than halfway along the beach when I found two turtles on their way up the beach, so I stopped to watch. They are BIG. The info says they are the biggest Green Turtles known. This is probably associated with the long journeys they make to and from Ascension from the Brazilian coast without feeding. Only big animals with plenty of fat reserves can manage this. Females are usually 250 kg and can be over 300 – having stood next to one, I can believe it! Fresh ot of the sea and climbing up the beach, they shine in the moonlight, but once they start to dig they get covered in sand. The one I stayed with had one brief dig then moved further up the beach and began to dig in earnest. She dug a remarkably deep hole – taking maybe 45 minutes. Then everything went still – which means egg laying – so I moved up close behind her. Lots of heavy breathing – sounds like quite an effort. Then the hole needs filling in. First she used her back flippers to push sand about, then started using her front flippers. The routine was: stop for a rest, a few heavy breaths, throw sand backwards with the front flippers about 6 times then trample in the results with the back flippers and rest again. Her front flippers are powerful, but a lot of the sand is thrown some distance (e.g. all over me) but to no great effect. She spent nearly an hour doing this and was reasonably effective in flattening the hole by the end of it. Finally headed seawards around 0:15 so I headed for my bed (it still only felt like 9:15 to me of course!). Passed about 4 more heaving up the beach on my way back. While I was there, I was passed twice by a guy with radio-tracking gear – presumably studying the turtles.

Monday 26th Feb

Found my way round to the main hotel for breakfast then went to the Conservation Centre at 9am to meet the folks there. Seem a very friendly bunch. Carl and Colin were heading up Green Mountain to put up some signs on one path and to go around another clearing vegetation, so I went with them.

Mynas common in Georgetown and a nice bright male Canary Finch in a bush in front of the hotel. As we went up the very steep and windy road to Green Mountain (in a land rover), Mynas were very common and saw a couple of Fairy Terns drifting about. Clouds quite low, so we were in the cloud by the time we got up to the Governor’s residence and the old farm.

First stop was a shed in Rock Cottage garden to fix the signs on poles and then off round Bishop’s Path putting wooden signs in to replace temporary cardboard ones. It is very lush and green up here and from about 600m up (to 859mat the summit) is essentially a tropical cloud-forest. Once, the vegetation was almost all ferns, which still survive in places, but is now almost entirely of introduced plants dominated by trees and tall bushes. The final bit of the road up runs through bananas and Carl gave me one – a genuine Ascension grown banana – rather small but tasted just like any other,

Myna is the main bird calling up here, flocks of Canary Finch flying about and Waxbills zipping about in the vegetation. Also quite a lot of rabbits – several live ones and many dead ones on the path. We also passed black plastic boxes at regular intervals which are rat baiting stations. Shell Ginger is the dominant vegetation along here – strap like leaves about 3m high with clusters of pale pinkish flowers (supposedly shell-like) which are yellow veined with red inside. The root can be used as a substitute for ginger apparently. Also Ginger-lily in places, which is similar but with a loose bottle-brush like spike of yellow flowers. Would have been spectacular views in places – where the path runs round a cliff – but just fog blowing in today. This is quite a short path which comes back to the pigsties of the old farm.

Then went round Elliot’s Path – much longer and quite muddy in places – runs fairly level at about 700m altitude. Carl and Colin had machetes and the idea was to clear encroaching vegetation – which needs doing several times a season. This again skirts the top of some cliffs and gives good views on a clear day. It also has a number of tunnels cut through bands of volcanic ash. It was built in 1840s by the Marines to provide a look-out according to the signs. Again, Shell ginger forms a hedge along much of it. Also passes through an area of Norfolk Island Pines, an Australian trees supposedly planted in 1860 to provide replacement masts for ships. It grows tall and straight (up to 70m) and the needles are very small – quite a grove of big trees and plenty of young specimens. The volcanic ash forms vertical rock faces in many places which are covered in ferns – mostly a type of Maidenhair Fern whose name and affinities is much disputed!

On the way down saw numerous rabbits and a Red-necked Francolin crossing the road infront of us. Fracolins are apparently frequently seen along the road.

Down again about 1pm. There was a tour of the island going out, but I decided not to go o this as it mainly went to places I had already been, historic buildings in Georgetown, etc. So I spent some time catching up on emails (they have a computer with internet connection available!), and looking at some of their books on flora and invertebrates. Also met Sam, the PhD student from Exeter University, who I saw on the beach last night. He has about 20 radio tagged turtles and is following when and where they come into nest, sampling the eggs they lay, and has some of the nests caged so that he can get blood samples from the hatchlings. So far, they have come in about every 11 days and show remarkable consistency to the same part of the beach and even dig each nest within about 10m of each other (seems like putting all your eggs in one basket to me). He says it will not be good tonight – the big swells coming in are making it too rough so not many if any turtles will come. But when it calms down again, there will be a bumper night. Also, the first nests he marked are now 60 days old, so hatchlings should start appearing any night now.

I went for a walk along Long Beach. Very spectacular surf – huge rollers coming in sending water right up the beach. This is not good for the turtles – nests are getting eroded out of the beach and there was a scatter of smashed up eggs. I suppose it is a trade-off as always – nest further up the beach and you are safer from the sea but hatchlings are more susceptible to predators or not finding their way into the water (which apparently happens quite often).

At the far end of the bay, the sand forms a more-or-less vertical wall at the limit of the waves, and the surf was crashing into this. Batches of eggs could be seen eroding out of this wall and getting washed down the beach. Still I suppose this is natural enough and has been going on for a long time – given the density of nests there must be immense numbers of eggs in this beach!

Almost immediately saw my first Frigate Bird – an adult female I think, and saw two more later on (young birds with white bellies). They are big, the forked tail is spectacular and they look improbably long and thin in all directions – neck, wings, tail.

Walked round to the far side of the bay where there are some big blow holes where the sea has penetrated larva tubes, making tunnels and arches. These were working very spectacularly and some of the water comes out remarkably far in with no obvious cave entrance. Then back along the beach to the turtle ponds – which have filled up with waves breaking over the walls.

Headed back about 5:30 and of course it is dark about 7pm.

Tuesday 27th Feb

Sunny and hot all day. Cloud not so low on Green Mountain, The edge of the cloud jus skirting the top from time to time. Very ho in Georgetown by mid-afternoon. The surf is dying down a bit.

Around for breakfast about 7:30 and then over to the Conservation Centre just after 8am to find that they had problems with one of the land rovers (turned out to be a stone in the gear box), so there was going to be some delay before we could go out. Eventually left for Green Mountain about 9:45. So I checked some emails and tried to get an internet connection via their intranet. Doesn’t work – some connection process to the Cable&Wireless system intervenes. It also means that, even on their machine, if the browser spawns another window then that won’t work – e.g. blogger opens another instance of the browser to preview your current entry – but it won’t connect! Very strange set up!

On the way up, stopped to look at a fairy tern whivh is nesting in a fork in one o the Eucalyptus trees beside the road. It is just sitting there where a small side branch comes off the main trunk – presumably on an egg lodged in the fork. Francolin was calling nearby and we saw one with three chicks briefly as it crossed the road.

Went up with Stedson, Carl and Colin. Stedson showed me around the stuff he is doing with endemic plants. He is raising the fern Pteris adsensionis, the tiny grass Sporobolus caespitosus and the endemic spurge Euphorbia origanoides for restocking campaigns. He also has a collection of indigenous plants and common introductions which he uses fro school parties. He explained that he does pretty much all this by himself and hasn’t had much time for it since Tara left because he has had to take over a lot of the running of the Conservation Department. However, Tara’s replacement is arriving next week and he hopes to be able to hand over to her in a few weeks and have more time for the endemics work.

We then went up to the Dew Pond path where he showed me the areas he is restocking with the fern Pteris adsensionis. He has cleared a number of areas up towards the summit under the shade of trees and planted out ferns he has reared. He explained that he has had to do all the clearing (which is a big job!) and had to keep it weeded – which is ongoing because in this warm and moist environment everything grows very fast. The ferns certainly looked healthy and seemed to be doing well. Before the habitat was so profoundly modified by introduced species the top of the mountain was reportedly carpeted in ferns and P. adsensionis was probably the major element. Before this project started, the population was down to about 40 known plants.

We went on up to Dew Pond. The track has a wall in places built of larva blocks and the crevices are favoured by land-crabs. We saw several small to medium sized, yellow ones. Difficult to get a good view though since they retreat into their holes when approached. This was built in the mid 19thC as an emergency water supply and is now surrounded by a thick forest of bamboo. It is a very wet, muddy and drippy place. You go up via a board-walk which Stedson again built and installed himself!

The bamboo has balls of moss growing all over the stems and hanging from the ends of the leaves and, in this moss, the tiny endemic fern Xiphopteris ascenionesis grows. Once he had pointed it out to me, it was easy to spot it all over the place. Apparently, it originally grew on clumps of moss on vertical ash faces (and still does in a few spots), but as thebamboo grew up it has moved up the stems quite happily. Also amongst the bamboo is a third endemic fern, Marattia purpurascens. This is quite big, very dark coloured and a bit like hard fern in shape (but much bigger) and seemed to be reasonably frequent in deep, wet shade amongst the bamboo.

The pond supports blue water lilies and is supposed to have goldfish (“to keep the water clean”) but they weren’t in evidence. African clawed toads (Xenopus) were apparently also introduced but haven’t been reliably reported for some time.

I had a wander round Bishop’s Path again whilst folks were having lunch. This time the cloud was higher so I could see the view. It skirts across the top of a cliff which is a favourite nesting site for Fairy Terns, so plenty of the wheeling about below me. They seem to very often fly in pairs, closely following each others manoeuvres – perhaps courtship? Also had a good (brief) view of a Red-necked Francolin perched on a post which flew off almost immediately.

A security policeman from the airfield, Steve, was due to meet us at 1:30 with a party of volunteers to do some clearance work on Scout Path. He turned up, but the volunteers didn’t, so it was just Steve, Stedson and me to attempt to do something. We collected some tools, drove down to the Residency – middle level of the mountain – and headed off along Scout Path. This heads NE along the dry side of the mountain about halfway up. The vegetation is markedly different here with many areas dominated by Guava, a shrub whose fruits are scattered all over the place. This apparently in a major food of land-crabs which are very abundant here – though mainly nocturnal. Apparently if you come here at sunset, they are all over the place. Never the less we saw quite a few and several of impressive size. Nearly all are yellow, but you do get occasional much darker ones of a purplish-red hue and we found one big deep-purple one. Mynas were also abundant – they scavenge anything so will also take the Guava fruits.

It wasn’t very clear what they were trying to do. Steve is trying to trace the original route of Scout Path which comes to a rather shaky end at the moment and jpins up with another path. We eventually cleared some Bermuda Cedar branches that wer blocking a short stretch that was obviously part of the original route – but were already quite conveniently bypassed by the current path.

Because of the land-rover shortage, we had to be back for a pickup at 3:15pm, so back down to the Conservation Centre.

I had a cup of tea and then headed down for a walk along the back of Long Beach. The surf has died down somewhat from yesterday, but it was clear that quite a few turtles did come up last night despite the heavy surf. The areas of the beach which had been wiped by the waves was well covered in tracks. A Frigate bird was patrolling the beach – apparently they pick up eggs, but are mainly after hatchlings which should be starting to appear any time now. The step in the sand at the far end of the beach has eroded well into the beach and quite a few clutches were busy falling out of the sand cliff. Plenty of turtles about just beyond where the waves were breaking. I could see backs and heads appearing. Should be a good night tonight now it is a bit calmer.

Went down to Long Beach about 9pm – and there were turtles everywhere – and more coming up all along the beach! I skirted along the edge of the breaking waves, detouring to avoid going close to any coming up, but soon found two on their way down and took some photos – but not very successful because it was too dark to use the viewfinder at all – just point and hope. Then found one which seemed to be in the final stages of digging her pit just over the crest of the beach. Settled down to watch – she was excavating the egg laying pit with her back flippers. At least three more came out of the sea and headed for me. One eventually stopped right on the edge of the pit I was watching and began to dig, throwing spoil into the pit I was watching, but she soon gave up and moved a few feet more up the beach before starting again. The second one veered off a bit, but started excavating next to where I had dumped my sandals. The third one came straight for me and ended up passing so close its flippers brushed over my legs. Meanwhile the one I was watching had quietened down and was presumably egg laying, so I moved up close behind her and took a couple of flash photos – but again very hit and miss. At one point I felt something go over my foot and it was a tiny turtle hatchling scurrying down the beach. At least I saw that one make it into the water. I decided to walk straight up the beach on to the road at the back to avoid disturbance, Turtles digging all over the place! I got to the rack and started back and there was one turtle almost on the rack, which turned of and started back onto the sand as I watched, but further on there was one that had actually crossed the road.

Wednesday 28th Feb

Up at 6:30 to be ready for pickup at 7am. We were driven round by Raymond to the south, behind Green Mountain. No sign of the Brize Norton plane which should be arriving about now!

Walked down to Coconut Bay – which is a steep descent of about 2km over larva flows – very rough going. The sun was just coming up and still behind clouds, so still quite cool (the idea of the early start!). Eventually got down to the single Coconut tree growing in a gully, which gives the area its name. Rocks here are very strange. Whitish, fine grained, rather soft ash which erodes to leave thin plates – like corrugates asbestos sheets – which easily break under you feet and form sort of shells and hollows around the rocks in weird shapes. Very popular with land crabs and lots about. Very little growing here – occasional Guava in the lowest point of the hollows were there is presumably some moisture in the soil.

Worked our way out along the west side of the bay to a coastal stack called “White Rocks”. This is a traditional (i.e. pre-feral cat eradication) for Brown Booby and Noddy nesting, but the interest is that they have also moved onto the main island side of the cliff on the adjacent point. Lots of Common Noddy about and a few Masked Boobies resting, but mainly Brown Booby and Black Noddy. The Black Noddy had nest sites all over the vertical cliff faces, cup shaped and made mostly of guano – bit like Kittiwake nests – but there were no signs of eggs or young.

As we turned back, a Frigate Bird came over. Apparently there is one pair on a low stack near the middle of the bay.

We worked our way round the bay, having to go back inland and up, There is another stack at the E side of the mouth of the bay which was used when cats were about, and again the adjacent cliff face has now been colonised. Quite a lot of Brown Booby and Black Noddy nests on the cliffs – the boobies had young, a few quite small downy chicks, but mostly well grown and near fledging, but again the Noddy nests appeared empty. On the stack itself there were at least 3 pairs of Yellow-billed Tropicbird nesting. Watched some flying about for some time. They are very exotic with the long central tail streamers. The black bars across the inner part of the wind are quite obvious and the yellow bill is also easily seen on the perched birds (its quite big and stout). Got to a position where I could see two of the sitting birds and got some photos. Again, Masked Booby and Common Noddy were about.

Then it was time to climb up again. By now (c 11am) the sun was fully out and it was HOT! I found it a pretty tough walk out, especially climbing up the loose, blocky piles of clinker. We were eventually picked up and taken back to Georgetown.

This was the last day for the two guys who have been working on the Green Mountain path clearance project, so there was going to be a celebration on Green Mountain with a curry (cooked by Raymond) and cold beers – and I was invited along. The cold beers were extremely welcome after the morning walk and the St Helena Beef Curry was extremely good.

The 747 was still there, on the airstrip when we went up, and we heard it leave about 3-ish – i.e. 5 or 6 hours late. This was apparently due to heavy rain in the Falklands. It may well mean the return flight won’t be until Friday morning (instead of late Thursday night) – hopefully, I should be able to find out more tonight.

Apparently, there were a few turtles still digging, and even one coming ashore, as late as 9am this morning on Pan Am Beach (further S near the American Base). Also 6 clutches hatched there last night – so clearly hatching is now thoroughly underway. Since tomorrow is my last chance, I must try and get down to the beach at dawn – it would be much easier to take some photos if there are still turtles about in daylight.

Back down about 3:30 and, after stopping for a cup of tea and check my emails and then went for a walk along the beach – this time, S from Georgetown towards Dead Man’s Beach and Catherine Point. Clearly, quite a lot of turtles were up on these beaches last night as well. This is much rockier than Long Beach and the rocks are swarming with Sally Lightfoot Crabs. Lots of broken up sea urchins along the tideline – presumably resulting from the heavy surf of the last couple of days.

The Letterbox walk was scheduled for tomorrow. This is a very long one and apparently much worse than Coconut Bay. Colin says it takes him 7 hours and he does it about once a fortnight. I decided this was a bit too much for me! So we decided to go to some of the stacks in the NW instead. This is only about 2 hours walk and they found a pair of Red-footed Booby there recently (only 2-3 pairs currently on the island). Should also be Red-billed Tropicbird nesting on the offshore stacks – so I will need the telescope.

Thursday 1st March

Went down to Long Beach at about 6:30am just as it was getting light. The beach was incredibly churned up and there were still several turtles in view as it got light (the sun comes up just after 7am). The last couple of turtles were still trundling down towards the sea at 7:30, by which time it was full daylight, so got some pictures. Quite a few turtles were evident in the sea, just beyond where the waves started breaking. Presumably they are exhausted by their trip up the beach and take a while to head out to sea. Met Sam – he said that it had been an incredibly busy night with at least 300 turtles coming up, including 4 of his radio-tagged ones. Also quite a few clutches hatching – certainly looked it by the state of the beach.

About 20-30 Frigate Birds patrolling the beach (presumably looking for hatchlings) but didn’t see any get anything. Also 2 Masked Booby circling round the bay and diving.

Went round to the Conservation Centre after breakfast and then headed off for the stacks around the NW cost to English Bay. This area is the seaward end of the most recent larva flow and a real moonscape. Extremely slow and difficult walking over loose blocks of cinder. We started by the “golf ball” radar installation around the coast north and west of Georgetown and were soon into one of the “ghost colonies” – areas where guano remains from the areas that were used by nesting seabirds before cats were introduced in the 19thC. It is a vast area and there must have been an awful lot of them!

Visited a series of small stacks, only two of which are big enough to support breeding colonies – mainly Common Noddy and Brown Booby. These suffer from being washed out by really big swells occasionally. There were also Yellow-billed Tropicbird nesting in small cavities in the larva at several places (on the main island) and a small Brown Noddy colony on one of the headlands. The “nest” is just a slight hollow in he rock where the egg is laid – no nesting material or guano like the Black Noddy uses. Several small chicks and one nearly fledged individual were hiding amongst the cinder blocks.

At one point, two dolphin went past some way out. Didn’t see much apart from an occasional dorsal fin. Probably Bottle-nosed Dolphin which is by far the commonest small cetacean around the island. But no sign of any turtles here. The water is very clear so, looking down from the low cliffs into the various small bays, you can see right down into the water when the breaking waves allow.

One of these stacks has one or two pairs of Red-footed Booby and we eventually found two juvenile birds amongst the many Brown Boobies. They are a lighter brown, do not have the white (or murky grey in the case of young birds) on the chest and have a bluish-coloured beak with a pink patch at the base and quite bright pinkish-red feet. We saw one flying around and it was quite noticeable then because of the white tail and whit V-shaped rump patch which contrasts strongly with the dark-brown back and wings. Brown Boobies have a completely dark back and tail.

We moved down onto a low platform with a knob of rock at the end. The waves were occasionally breaking onto the seaward side of the platform, so it was a bit of a dodgy spot and there in no way we would have got there a couple of days ago. From the end, we could look back at the stack with the sun behind us and I took photos through the telescope of Common Noddy, Brown and Red-footed Booby.

Several large, very nice clear rock pools here with plenty of small fish. There was quite a large group of one of the angel fish and several tiny cleaner fish which were bright blue at the front and had yellow tails.

Finally got round to the pickup at English Bay about 12am. The beach here was also thoroughly churned up and had obviously seen a lot of turtle-nesting activity last night.

Back in Georgetown I went round to the Hotel to pay up and find out what was happening. They thought the flight was likely to be on time, but we wouldn’t know for certain until after 2pm when the plane should have taken off from Stanley. If all went well, the pickup would be about 7pm.

So I went for a walk along Long Beach and into the ash-desert beyond. Although there are plenty of Mexican Thorn bushes at first, it quickly becomes totally unvegetated. The fringes of the larva are mostly covered in sheets of fairly find ash so it is not too bad to walk over, but soon becomes increasingly populated with piles of blocky cinder. There were big locust-type grasshoppers flying about and perching on the ash. Very flightly and I didn’t manage to get a close look or a photo, but both Migratory Locust and Desert Locust regularly occur. Back along Long Beach which was still being patrolled by a couple of Frigate Birds.

Got back about 5:30 and checked the flight information. The plane left MPA on time and is on its way. Check-in time 20:00 so time to pack. The hotel charged half-price for the continued use of the room for the rest of today. This seems quite fair and civilised! This gave me the chance to make full use of the day and then come back to a shower and then to pack up at leisure.

We were picked up around 7:30 by the minibus and taken to the air-head. Bit of a shock then – I am not on the list for the flight! Getting at all the paperwork meant undoing the suitcase, but I produced my receipts and flight confirmation showing I was indeed booked and confirmed for this flight. I was sent to the back of the queue for my misdeeds whilst there was much scratching of heads and sending for the supervisor and the lady-who-knows-how-to-work-the-computer, but I was eventually issued with a boarding card.

The plane came in on time about 9pm and we took off about 11pm.

Friday 2nd March

Arrived Brize Norton about 7:15am. The Ascension Island baggage was last off, so I eventually got out about 8:15 and joined the large group milling about in front of the terminal building waiting for the bus to Oxford and Heathrow – which turned up about half an hour later. Could really have done with two buses since it was absolutely packed and didn’t have enough room for all the luggage (some of which had to be pilled in the front couple of seats) – still I only had to go as far as Oxford Station. This bit was not well organised! Nobody seemed to know what was happening (was the bus due or had it already gone?) and was it the same bus to both Oxford and Heathrow? When the bus did turn up, the driver immediately disappeared leaving MUCH CONFUSION. Full marks to a guy in a yellow vest who did his best to sort us out!

Arrived back at home in Peterborough about 1pm.