Location: South Pacific (Pitcairn Island group)
Date: May-Sept 2015
Located approx. 3000 km from the nearest metropolitan center (Tahiti), Henderson Island is one of the most remote and least-studied islands in the world. Once thought to be home to more than a million breeding seabirds (mainly Petrels), populations have declined over the past 700 years, largely due to the introduction of rats by early Polynesian explorers. In 2011, an unsuccessful attempt was made to eradicate rats from the island. Our 2015 expedition aimed to identify factors associated with the failure, and more importantly, improve our methodology so future eradications are successful. While on the island, our team of botanists and ecologists deployed GPS tracking devices on petrels in order to better understand their foraging ecology, and used motion-sensor cameras to record rat-seabird predation events. Overwhelmed by the frightening amount of plastic pollution washed up on the beaches, I used transects and experiments to quantify the amount and impact of plastic on Henderson Island’s ecology. This project is part of the RSPB Henderson Island Restoration Program, which aims to gather data on native bird and plant populations in preparation for large-scale eradication of introduced rats. Field report available here.
Research involving sailing on a yacht in the Caribbean is often met with great skepticism. But as with much of the work I do, its far from glamorous. Many of the Caribbean’s prickly plants are determined to make life as difficult as possible, causing painful stings and jabs as one tries to scramble up steep cliffs. In collaboration with Environmental Protection in the Caribbean (EPIC), and the 5 Gyres Institute, we undertake surveys of tropical seabirds and invasive species on islands from Grenada to the Bahamas, and collect data on the amount and sources of debris (marine plastic pollution) on beaches and in the surrounding waters using a manta (or neuston) net that is towed behind the ship. Beach clean-up data from more than 20 inhabited and uninhabited islands are currently being analysed in collaboration with the University of Dundee, Scotland.
Location: Timor Sea
Date: April & November 2013
Ashmore Reef consists of four tiny, low-lying islands located 140km south of Rote, Indonesia. Aptly named Pulau Pasir (“Sandy Island”) by the Indonesians, the islands are home to one of the largest, most diverse, and poorly studied seabird colonies in Australia. To better protect and understand the ecology of this system, tracking devices were deployed on seabirds in order to identify their key foraging habitats, which may then qualify for listing as a marine Important Bird Area. On the return journey home, we also survey Cartier, Browse, and Adele Islands – counting seabirds and collecting data on the amount and source of debris in the nests of some of the seabirds, as well as on nearly all the beaches.
Location: Western Australia
I’m not sure Silke and Alice from the Two Hands Project knew quite what they were in for when they agreed to be my field assistants, but by the time we touched down in Albany it was clear they didn’t lack enthusiasm. Bring on two weeks of no power, no running water, sleeping in a tent, early mornings, late nights, and plenty of (rather unappreciative and feisty) seabirds. The aim of the trip was to capture and tag Flesh-footed Shearwaters as part of a radionuclide monitoring project. Along the way we stopped to survey a number of little-known islands along the south-west coast of W.A. in order to see if any shearwaters were present. Some days this meant kayaking across open water with our gear strapped to our backs in a dry bag, hoping for good weather. Other days local fisheries officers watched in horror as we jumped off island cliffs, swimming through shark infested waters to the safety of their vessel. All in the name of science.
Location: Lord Howe Island, Tasman Sea
April 2016 marks my 16th trip to Lord Howe Island, but landing on such a spectacular piece of far-flung rock is as exciting as ever. I did not know what awaited me on my first journey across the Tasman Sea in 2007, I certainly didn’t realise I would end up the person I am now: absolutely addicted to this place. Lord Howe Island is special beyond words and I struggle to imagine my future without at least one trip back each year. I would miss the shearwaters and local people far too much. Besides, we’ve worked too hard to get some fabulous research projects up and running, the data is just too important. And so I go back, year after year. To catch and tag Flesh-footed Shearwaters (a species of Muttonbird) as part of a long-term project that monitors the behaviour and ecology of seabirds (‘indicator species’) in order to detect changes in the marine environment. We take measurements and collect feather samples that are shipped off to labs in other parts of the world. The data that comes back tells the birds’ story: where they go, what they eat, and (most importantly) how things are changing in their marine world. Over the years we’ve learned a lot from the birds. After raising a chick on Lord Howe Island, they fly north to the Sea of Japan more than 5,000 km away. Other southern hemisphere seabirds travel here also because, as we’ve learned, these are some of the most productive waters in the world. Using shearwater samples from Lord Howe Island, my colleagues and I gather information on the levels of trace metals (e.g., mercury) and marine debris (plastic) in the birds (see Publications). These data provide insight into the condition of the ocean where the shearwaters are foraging and enable us to make recommendations for new policies to better protect our shared oceans. Our studies are ongoing and another trip is, of course, planned for April 2017.
Location: North Pacific Ocean
Date: June 2012
Midway Atoll comprises three small, sandy islands located halfway between North America and Japan at the northern end of the Hawaiian archipelago. The Atoll forms part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, one of the largest marine protected areas in the world. To say it is a privilege and journey to arrive safely on Midway is a serious understatement. But here I am, on one of the world’s most remote islands, surrounded by thousands of the most amazing birds: Laysan and Black-footed Albatross. I’m here to gather data on the impact of marine debris (plastic pollution) on albatross which have been studied intermittently for many decades. With me is a fabulous film crew from the Plastic Oceans Foundation, gathering footage for an upcoming documentary on plastic pollution, stay tuned.
Location: French Frigate Shoals, North Pacific Ocean
Tern Island is a tiny spec of land located at the south-eastern edge of French Frigate Shoals Atoll (just visible in the photo). It was here that I volunteered to spend six months working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service alongside three Americans I had never met. Our days spent capturing and counting the many seabird species that have taken over this man-made island ever since it was abandoned by the Coast Guard at the completion of WWII. Getting onto Tern Island was relatively easy, just four hours in a tiny 4-person plane from Honolulu. Getting off sounded glorious – four days sailing past remote tropical islands. The Kahana, a freight ship charged with the task of collecting rubbish from the islands in the Atoll, sailed directly into the trade winds resulting in a journey that was memorable for all the wrong reasons. No seabirds or islands were observed, but ohhh how the rough swell was felt.
Location: Labrador (Canadian sub-Arctic)
The Gannet Islands Ecological Reserve is a remote wildlife refuge in the Labrador Sea. Despite its name, the islands are not actually home to any Gannets (the name comes from a British ship that surveyed the islands many years ago). The reserve is home to the largest population of Razorbill in North America, which is why I was there. Razorbill, gorgeous as they are, were the focus of my PhD thesis and the source of many bird-related injuries over the years. The closest living relative of the (now extinct) Great Auk, they got their name from their large (ie. dangerous) beak which resembles an older-style men’s razor blade. The indigenous name for Razorbill, known as Tinkers, has an endearing history. When resting, Razorbill lean back, beak slightly agape, gazing off towards the horizon. Local people believed the birds to be thinking, but in local dialect, the letter “h” is not pronounced, becoming “tinkers”. Every few months, these same people would brave the 4hr trip across open ocean to visit us in a small metal boat, bringing fresh fish and news from the mainland. In total I spent 10 months living in a small hut on the islands, catching seabirds, collecting data, and falling in love with this magical place.