Mike Fay’s Pitcairn Journal: Giant Fern Discovery and More

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence

A rare event is happening today: a cruise ship from Germany is arriving, and Brenda Christian, while being the wild woman of the island, has an alter ego, the immigration officer of the island.  Most adults on the island are employed part time in one or several government functions: post, public works, boatman, conservation, or the person who stamps the passports.

It rained just before we ended our day yesterday and I slept pretty wet so ended up getting out of my tent around 8 after a leisurely breakfast of several island passion fruits and a hot cup of Nescafe and bread with Chinese peanut butter.  I was determined to find some plots on my own based on Noleen’s GPS points, even if I still couldn’t remember the names of the natives she planted.

The first plot I found had great survival.  Several of the trees were already well over 4 meters high.  One more whack of the lantana and you could probably call it a success.  There were at least 8 reed warblers chirping happily in the plot.  Seems that they eat lots of honey bees, another introduction to the island, who love the nectar of the rose apple—so the new ecology can get pretty complex.  Bottom line is that the reed warbler seems to be doing exceptionally well after 200 years of intensive use of the island by humans.  The next two plots also looked great.  Noleen would be proud, despite the cost of doing reforestation on a large scale estimated at several thousand pounds a hectare.  Most of that is the labor provided by the locals.

Next stop was Brown’s Water, site of one of the rarest and most beautiful endemic plants on the island: Angiopteris chauliodonta.  The islanders call it nehe and it is only found in a handful of locations and is hanging on for dear life.  Brown’s Water was just that today.  There is a large road track just on the east side of this deep valley and it is leaking a large amount of sediment into the creek.  There are a couple of bridges and I was able to get down into the ravine there and started upstream to where I was supposed to find this gem.  About the first thing I came across was an old internal combustion engine with a compressor on it, maybe to pump water out of here.  Then I saw an old car frame.  The valley was in fact an arroyo cut into about 20 feet of fill from some previous blow out of the valley from above and the slopes were covered mostly in a dense cover of rose apple.  There were also bananas and a species of zinger along with canna and several other introduced species.

I reached a fall in the debris mass and to my right, there it was—this beautiful, giant fern that only grows right here.  The leaf stipes were over an inch in diameter and the fiddleheads as big as just that.  Immediately I started imagining how you would sort this valley out.  First I would decommission that road, then I would start taking piece by piece the rose apple out and putting the fern in.  Then I thought, yeah how much would that cost?  Would it provoke another debris slide that would take out the whole valley and wipe out the existing stands?  This thing is just one big unstable time bomb I thought.  That fall plug could come loose and the whole place would go.  But no doubt that road should go.

I took more pictures of the ferns, many had fine lines of brown sori lining the leaftlet edges visible through the translucent leaves.  There were two stands with a total of maybe 100 plants.  A survey in 1997 expanded the number of known sites of the fern from 2 to 6.  The total population on the island was estimated to be about 147 fertile individuals.  For being the home of such a beautiful plant that has been around for tens of millions of years, Brown’s Water needs attention.

My next stop was another plot, this one was planted with citrus rather than natives.  Amazingly, but not surprisingly, this plot was doing superbly.  There were not only at least 50 different oranges, mandarins, lemons, and limes but avocado, passion fruit and a few of what looked like apricot trees.  It just shows: you provide a tangible benefit to humans, like tons of fruit, the work begins.  This seems to be extremely true of Pitcairn.  Even though people can get all of the food they need from boats, there is something about living on this island that says: “better grow your own”.  People here are still very connected to the Earth.

Next I set off over the slope to see if I could just walk directly to the next plot.  I dove into the rose apple forest for the first time and sure enough it was clear in the understory.  In fact it was so clear that you could see that sheet erosion was hard at work here with shallow roots exposed.  I soon learned that roots and slick Pitcairn clay make for a 45-degree slope skating rink, without the rink.  I have been nursing a sprained ankle and this was just what the doctor ordered to see if it was solid again.  I swore and cussed, and then I saw it: a new stand of Angiopteris in one of the deep gullies.  As far as I know nobody else has found it since its planting.  Like the 1997 study all of the individuals were immature, young, and totally in the understory of rose apple.  Now seven sites.   It would be great to clear them all of rose apple slowly.

On my way out of the forest I ran into two palms.  Immediately I thought, “coconuts: negative, oil palms: negative, ahh, date palms”.  Last place I saw this plant was in Tucson Arizona and before that was Timbuktu.

The rain started again in the evening. I slept in a mango grove.

Mike Fay has spent his life as a naturalist—from the Sierra Nevadas and the Maine woods as a boy, to Alaska and Central America in college, to North Africa and the depths of the central African forest and savannas for the last 25 years. He has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx since 1991. In 1996, Fay flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997, he walked the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles, surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. Called Megatransect, this work led to a historic initiative by the Gabonese government to create a system of 13 national parks, making up some 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers). In 2004, he completed the Megaflyover, an eight-month aerial survey of the entire African continent. He logged 800 hours and took 116,000 vertical images of human impact and associated ecosystems, many of which are now visible on Google Earth. In 2008 Fay completed the Redwood Transect, a new project to learn more about the redwood forest. He walked the entire range of the redwood tree, over 700 miles. Since then he has participated in the 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro National Park, and is a regular team member of fellow NG Explorer Enric Sala's Pristine Seas Expeditions, recording the life and land above the waves.

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