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Mike Fay’s Pitcairn Journal: Arrival on Henderson Island

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence   I went up to the bridge at about 2 AM. I found Dave Pearce, watchkeeper, and Neil Broughton, captain, up there.  The room was dark; the sea was even darker.  On the bright radar screen a long thin prominent band loomed on our course.  I asked the obvious: “Henderson?”...

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence


I went up to the bridge at about 2 AM. I found Dave Pearce, watchkeeper, and Neil Broughton, captain, up there.  The room was dark; the sea was even darker.  On the bright radar screen a long thin prominent band loomed on our course.  I asked the obvious: “Henderson?”  Neil said “That’s right, mate.”  Wow, I couldn’t believe it, we were only about 7 nautical miles away already after steaming since the night before.  It was also now clearly visible in the C-Map display.  We zoomed around the map and my mind started to wander.  The first time I saw the satellite imagery of this place I thought: “impenetrable”.  Neil and others had confirmed that.  It looked wider and shorter than I remembered.   We were coming in from the east.  They would hold the boat off until morning where we would drop the hook.  I went down on the lower deck to catch some Zs.

6 AM came around quickly.  The boat was already abuzz with the science team anxious to dive and start accumulating more data points from yet another totally isolated, uninhabited, and pristine island in the middle of the Pacific. I have seen a lot of data collection teams, but these guys are machines.  They obsess over quality, comparability and are normal folks to boot.  I, on the other hand… am a one man show on land.  I wouldn’t say I am an afterthought, but my presence is to give a broad-stroke view of what is happening in the terrestrial domain in these places.  It adds an essential element, but it is not meant to be specific in its objective and systematic only in that every photograph and video is located forever in time and space.  I have the added luxury to be able to just wander where my nose takes me and to concentrate on whatever I judge to be important.

The really big deal here on Henderson is that after some 700 years of habitation by the Polynesian rat the island was the object of a blitzkrieg project to eradicate the species that ended only in November 2011.  If you look at the size of the island and the number of spots where a rat could hide, it was a monumental task, like rooting out every rat in New York City.   But these teams, like our science team, are good at what they do.  They have eliminated rats from Oeno and Ducie.  On Pitcairn two tries proved unsuccessful.  The big difference here on Henderson is that we are dealing with 4 endemic land birds: the Steven’s lorikeet, the Henderson fruit pigeon, the Henderson reed warbler and to top it off the Henderson crake.  This lattermost is flightless and is called by the Pitcairners “the chicken bird.”  It is about the size of a Cornish hen.

I was dying to get on the island first to see the crakes and second to at least be able to say in four days I did not see a rat, even after running night transects.  Pirate Pawl Warren from Pitcairn, who spent several months on Henderson with the anti-rat team, told me that the rats were susceptible to the poison.  So like so many things when you are trying to restore natural places by eliminating introduced species you are dealing with chemotherapy.  The key is to insure that the medicine is better than the malady. Pawl had also told us that the team had cut a small number of transects on the north side of the island that they used to capture crakes.  He said that they caught over 80 birds.  They were able to re-release even more into the wild after the operation as they managed to breed them in captivity: a world-first.

The chase boats were craned into the water and the team was ready to transport us to the island.  I was ready.  Only Heather Bradner from Pew Environment Group would be going with me this team, Andrew Howley from NG would remain on the boat.  We went and checked out the entrance to the fringing reef; the tide was a bit low, but it looked OK.  Nigel Jolly, owner of the ship, waited for a good wave and blasted us within 10 feet of the beach.  We quickly off-loaded the baggage and made our way up to the de-ratification camp, which is in a nice coconut grove.  We were greeted by a throng of large hermit crabs that had a colorful array of shell décor: one wore the cap off a detergent container, another the broken end of a bottle, and a third with graffiti on its coconut shell cover.  We quickly set up the camp and made our way up the cliff face that leads to the upper domain of the plateau on this uplifted atoll, with a slab of incredibly sharp and porous ancient coral that reaches about 80 feet above sea level.

The cliff negotiated, we hit the main de-rat transect that was used to establish a monitoring program for the project.  I walked for about 400 meters or so on it.  The forest was fabulous.  As soon as you got beyond the wind effects of the beach, not only did the sound of the surf go away, but the forest took on the form of a classic dry forest with a dense canopy of about 5-7 meters, with lots of epiphytes and impenetrable understory vegetation.  I was already seeing many of the endemic shrubs and trees that populate this island, along with the healthy and gnarly Pisonia domination.  I just kept thinking about the millions of little habitats here.  With the thickness of the vegetation, the intact nature of the forest, its relative richness, the complexity of substrate, difficulty of travel, and lack of frequentation in this place you would be finding new and amazing species of plants for decades to come.  I was ready to devour every detail I could of Henderson.

Back at camp I told Heather that we would first explore the transect line to see where it ended, then we would go find the trail that leads to the east beach, then come back and do a proper count of crakes and other birds we might see on the science transect line.  Off we went up the hill. There was some Mimosa with cat-claw spines that really liked my calves, I realized.  If you try to go forward, once you are hooked, that is your problem.  The only way out is to back up and unhook every spine, kind of like taking six cats off your legs.  Henderson reed warblers, one of the four endemic land birds here, were quickly in evidence.  Their vocalizations were heard here and there; they seemed common.  I bit further out we could hear the cooing of the Henderson fruit pigeon.  I was hoping to get some good looks at this animal.  They also seemed to be common.

I heard a strong wing beat hitting vegetation.  I saw slate petrels flying overhead: the Henderson petrel, also endemic here.  As the petrel flew out of view with an electric whirring, there right in front of me was the apparition.  Pigeons never just fly up to people and start starring, especially not ones that are dressed up in a bright green coat with a vivid grey breast that bursts with bristly feathers, yellow rumps and a bright red patch on the forehead.  Yet there he was. He hopped like a plantain eater in Africa, agile yet gentile.  He came closer until only 4 feet away. I reached out and my hand was only a couple of feet from him.  He looked down at the extended limb.  This animal was fascinated by what it was seeing; the feeling was completely mutual.

We booked back down to camp and started down the north beach to find the trail that Pirate Pawl had drawn a map to before we left Pitcairn.  His instructions were as follows: “wade in the surf past the three first headlands, at low tide, then about ½ way to the next cliff look for a grey floater perched on a piece of coral and there you will find the trail.”

New birds greeted us with every step along the beach: masked and red-footed boobies, great frigates, fairy terns, curlews, petrels, red tailed tropicbirds and the wandering tattler.  All were checking us out from above, the boobies craning their heads as the flew over. We cleared the headlands no problem, and after a few false starts finding the trail we were on our way up the cliff face and on to the plateau.  The forest here was also exquisite. It was shorter, but similar in structure and seemingly as rich.  I wanted so badly to spend months here.  There is no way I could absorb all of the species in a few days. We made fairly slow progress, as there was a lot of Mimosa clawing at us and sharp coral rubble underfoot; both are real ankle biters.  According to Pawl’s map, right on cue, after about 30 minutes we could see we were coming to the east beach.  The vegetation got shorter, then became a monotypic Pisonia forest, then a plain of ferns.

I was in that adrenalin mode where you walk fast in anticipation of what you are going to see when you have completed your next step.  The beach was vast and the sun was reflecting off the spray giving the place an eerie silver glow.  We could have been on the coast of Ireland or a lost island in the Pacific…  We came to the edge of the cliff to go down.  It was straight down for a bit.  We decided to go down another day—we needed to census the science trails for the jet black flightless Henderson rail and time was short.

By 5:15 PM we were back up on the other trail doing our first kind-of official transect on the science transect.  Henderson petrels were whirring like giant swifts in the sky.  Then there was one on the ground.  I am still not great at identifying these birds by any stretch, but these certainly fit the bill for Henderson’s petrels.  We could hear three different pigeons vocalizing.  Reed warblers were chirping in the dense mid-story.  We got close to the crossroads of 500 meters on the trail. Behind us we heard a bit of movement, and then appeared this little black bird.   It was the vision I have had ever since I was a kid of the flightless birds on New Zealand.  He acted like a chicken transformed into the Jack Russell version of a Labrador retriever, moving rapidly and deliberately through the forest, agile, sleek, fit.  What a bird.  Before we were done we had racked up 5 Henderson crakes in about 800 meters of transect that probably had an effective width of maybe 10 meters.

So that gave us a very rough ball-park figure of 6 crakes per hectare.  But that was on the transect, where crakes had been captured and re-released after the rat poisoning. Question is, what was happening out off-transect where no capture and release had been done?

(Updated 4/28/2012)

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Meet the Author

J. Michael Fay
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.