Guest Blog by Dr Alex Bond, RSPB Senior Conservation Scientist, The Centre for Conservation Science.
Deep in the South Atlantic Ocean, on a tiny island called Gough, thousands of kilometres from land, a disaster plays out each year – introduced mice attack Tristan Albatross chicks more than 100 times their size.
Our paper Trends and tactics of mouse predation on Tristan Albatross Diomedea dabbenena chicks at Gough Island, South Atlantic Ocean with colleagues at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town, appeared online today in the open access journal Avian Conservation and Ecology, and documents how this grisly event unfolds.
A six week old Tristan Albatross chick is attacked by mice despite the parent being present at the nest. This chick died 3.3 days after the first mouse attack.
Albatross lay only one egg every other year, and on island without introduced predators, about 70% of pairs will successfully raise a chick – which takes almost an entire year! But on Gough Island last year, less than 10% of Tristan Albatross pairs were successful. We set out to see when and how these nests failed by placing remote video recorders and motion-activated cameras near 20 nests in 2014.
Tristan Albatross chicks are constantly tended by their parents for the first month, and the both parents range far over the South Atlantic in search of food for their nest-bound chick. That’s when the problems really start. After about a month of being left alone, the mice attack the albatross chicks. Between one and nine mice target the chicks’ rump, and two-five days later, in the midst of the austral winter, the chicks die.
What happens next - Expedition to Gough
The situation is grim, and the solution is to restore Gough Island by eradicating the mice, which is easier said than done.
The RSPB, Tristan Conservation Department, and Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town have been working towards the goal of mouse eradication for more than ten years, and this September will mark the 61st scientific expedition to Gough.
Bird monitoring and preparations for mouse eradication
We monitor several globally threatened and regionally important species, including Northern Rockhopper Penguin, Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, Atlantic Petrel, and Great Shearwater, and this year we are beginning a study of the health of Gough’s two endemic landbirds – Gough Bunting and Gough Moorhen. In any future eradication operation, it’s likely that these two species will need to be brought into captivity to minimize their exposure to rodent bait pellets, so understanding the normal condition of the birds, and identifying any naturally occurring parasites, diseases, or pathogens will make us better prepared for any eventuality. We’ve partnered with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, and together with the Tristan Conservation Department, we will undertake this study in September, supported financially by the RSPB and Defra.
We’ll also do the annual island-wide census of Tristan Albatross chicks, which hatched about a month ago, though the vast majority likely won’t make it that long.
Find out more about our work on Tristan da Cunha which has been supported by many funders including OTEP, Darwin, Darwin Plus, Defra, the European Union’s EDF-9 and ACAP and the work of our Albatross Task Force.
Conor Jameson, RSPB Development Manager, is visiting our project in India and Nepal, Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE). This is his latest blog.
If you like birdsong, visiting a new place like this is a little bit like going to a festival and hearing a ton of great new music. Toby and I go for an early morning walk, enjoying what for me is a whole new range of birds. It’s pretty quiet, but there are a few joggers about. One man stops when he reaches us. He doesn’t look dressed for jogging, and he seems quite happy to have an excuse not to be jogging any more. He is grinning broadly.
“Do you want to know something?” he offers, helpfully. “Or do you know everything?”
Toby and I can only aspire to such a state of being.
People in general are very helpful here. I had been looking at a peacock perched on the top of a bare tree. It’s nice to see India’s national bird in its native land. It isn’t rare here, but it still gets priority protection, because it’s a peacock. I have already enjoyed views of the red jungle fowl, ancestor of every one of the world’s trillions of chickens.
Toby has been trying to get a good view of - and identify - something much smaller and - for him - more interesting.
I can’t really speak for giggling, but Toby handles it well.
“We’re looking at birds,” he explains, pointing up at the tiny shape flitting through the nearest tree.
“You know... birds.” Our guide peers up into the tree. “It’s a sparrow,” he announces.
“I knew you were going to say that,” Toby replies.
A short while later we are on the road with Vibhu, a man who probably does know everything, about vultures in India, at least. He is going to show us the site for the proposed release of the first vultures, into what we hope is now a safe environment, free from the drug threat.
We wind along one side of a spectacular forested valley. It is spring here, but it feels vaguely autumnal. At the top of the valley we pause for a view. Looking upwards, we realise we have been joined by a group of vultures, sailing slowly overhead, hanging on the wind. It’s a group of Himalayan griffons. We count 26 birds in total, a few of them Egyptian vultures. We take it as another encouraging sign. Vibhu explains that at one time this valley would have had many vulture nests. We might even have seen some from the car. Now, there are none.
Vibhu and Toby survey the proposed release site. Photo by Conor Jameson.
Watching the vultures at the top of the valley. Photo by Conor Jameson.
The final destination is at the junction of two valleys, and a clearing close to a the site of pines on a steep slope. There is a building here to house staff, and room to build a release aviary. As we inspect, we realise that another vulture is riding on the updrafts high above the ridge. The scene is being set for the launch of the final phase of putting the vultures back into the skies here.
Find out more about our work to Save Asia's Vultures from Extinction.
Our vulture recovery programme is generously supported by Boehringer Ingelheim.
Today I have had a chance to visit the Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre at Pinjore, in Haryana state. I am struck by the serenity and tranquility of this place, in marked contrast to the frenetic activity you experience along India’s roads and urban places.
We have met Vibhu Prakash, who manages the centre. Vibhu was instrumental in first identifying the full extent of the decline of vultures in India. He had been counting the vultures from the time they were numerous, and had vital data to back up the widely observed disappearance of the birds.
There are around 200 vultures here, in safe keeping, and breeding successfully. Human contact with the vultures is kept to a minimum, to prevent the birds becoming too tame. When they are finally released, this will stand them in good stead. I was able to spend a meditative hour watching the colony aviary on the closed-circuit television screen here. It is a bit like 'Celebrity Big Vulture', except the participants seem to be rubbing along quite happily. They tend to do everything in synchrony – bathing, eating, sunning, nesting, even laying eggs – and form closely bonded pairs.
We did get to meet a batch of chicks, though, albeit from a safe distance. Nikita Prakash is in charge of the rearing of the second clutch chicks. The vultures usually lay just one egg, but a technique has been developed to encourage them to lay two. The second egg has to be hand-reared – Nikita’s job, and one she clearly relishes. Nikita puts the chicks out each day for an hour’s direct sunlight, which is important for their development.
There are three species of chick here, easy to tell apart by their colour or relative baldness.
The hand-reared vulture chicks are given an hour in the sun each day, to aid their development. Photo by Conor Jameson.
While we sat and chatted about the project, we had an unexpected and very welcome visitor. A wild vulture landed in a tree, just 30 yards or so away from us. It was obviously attracted by the vultures in the huge enclosures here, called colony aviaries. Of course it can’t have a share of the food provided.
Still, it posed quite calmly while we watched and took photos. This is one of the most threatened species, a white-backed vulture. Its presence offers further hope that we can restore these birds to the landscape, joining up the birds we release with survivors out there to re-establish viable colonies once again. Tomorrow we will be visiting the proposed location of the first releases of these lovingly nurtured captive birds. We hope to trial a release later this year, with further releases next year.
A wild white-backed vulture joined us during our meeting. Photo by Conor Jameson.