Mike Fay’s Pitcairn Journal: Rat Patrol

Note: Due to the unfortunate discovery made by Mike Fay on 27 March, extra time was taken to communicate with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds before publishing his findings. We now recommence with the posting of the remaining entries from Mike’s Pitcairn Islands Expedition Journal in the proper sequence. You can follow the whole series here.


By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence

28 March 2012

Since the rat sighting of yesterday, I decided to walk night transects to see a second one, to get some gauge on the numbers that might be out there.  I was up at 5:00 AM and headed up the hill after my now traditional cup of cold Nescafe and powdered milk.  I scaled the plateau face and was soon cruising on the de-ratification team transect.  I got to 500 meters: no rats, went straight to where I saw the rat yesterday evening: nothing, then went on the cross transect at 500 meters: no rats.

On my track back I was still on rat patrol, but the crakes would be awake and feeding now.  It seems that they are crepuscular.  They seem to feed for only a few hours in the morning and maybe 3 to 4 hours in the evening and that’s it.  I saw two crakes on the trail back, but both flitted away into the deep underbrush so I didn’t get any good observations.   I headed back to camp around 9 and had a proper breakfast of Chinese peanut butter and jelly mixed with the distinct aroma of the garlic and coriander spread whose jar it was in.

I decided to go back up the hill and stay for the rest of the day until night to be able to see lorikeets and fruit pigeons and then continue on into the evening and night for crakes and rats.  I pitched up at 700 meters and sat down just where I had seen the rat last night.  I put my eyes on the spot in the rubble where the rat had fled to and put a small piece of peanut butter and jelly there to entice him.  I was soon fast asleep.  I needed a snooze for sure, because that coral rubble is not soft.

When I awoke, I saw that nobody had been by to eat the PB&J.  I headed south on the trail and had a couple of nice encounters with fruit pigeons.  No lorikeets up here today.   I re-ran the circuit to the east and took the first right.  It got to be around 4:00 PM and just as I was thinking I might see a crake, there a beauty appeared in front of me.

I startled him a bit and he jumped and fled into the underbrush, but soon he was back.  I still didn’t have any good video of them because they jump around so much, but I was intent.  He settled down and I started getting some great views of him feeding.  Unlike chickens these crakes don’t scratch the earth with their feet but flick leaves with their beaks and quickly eat every little invertebrate that is revealed.

Judging by the number of things this bird picked up at every turn of a leaf it was pretty obvious that they don’t suffer for food here, at least at this season.

Soon there was a burst in the branches above and the crake popped off and was gone.  I looked up and there was a fruit pigeon who decided to join the action.  Of course, now instead of being happy to see another fruit pigeon I was scolding him for making too much noise.  The crake was now looking up as if a raptor was after him, even though there are no raptors here.  Every time the pigeon clapped his wings I would loose the crake.  After an hour I lost this bird and moved on down the trail.  Soon thereafter I saw another but he ran into the underbrush not to be seen again.

The sun started to go down.  I slapped on my headlamp and redid the circuit on rat patrol: nothing.   I started back down to camp and right on the trail was a Henderson petrel just kind of sitting there.  She was all alone.  I reached the edge of the cliff and there was our ship, the Claymore II, parked right out front yet so far from us.  Being isolated on Henderson gives you a huge sense of being quite alone on the planet.


Addendum: The Pitcairn Islands Government and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the two partners in the island restoration project, are mobilizing a trip to Henderson in response to this sighting. Their aim is to try to confirm rat presence and species, obtain genetic samples, determine whether a small number of rats survived the eradication operation or have since been introduced to the island, and to learn as much as they can about any extant rat population. They will also assess the feasibility of carrying out a hand-baiting around the area of the rat sighting and do this if possible. In the longer term, the operation will have bought precious time for Henderson’s wildlife. Millions of pairs of seabirds have been lost from Henderson since rats were introduced to the island, and the team are determined to continue their work to restore this remarkable World Heritage Site and save the Henderson petrel from its slide towards extinction.


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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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