2014 news about Gough Island, which lies 350 kms (220 miles) SSE of Tristan da Cunha.

2014 News

Mice predation causes devastating Tristan Albatross breeding failure on Gough Island
Report from RSPB Senior Conservation Officer Dr Alex Bond

In September 2014, I went to Gough on the SA Agulhas II as part of the annual takeover as the team transitions from Gough 59 to Gough 60 (yes, there have been 60 over wintering teams!). The crew of biologists, meteorologists, a medic, radio operator, and mechanic will be there until next September.
One of the most important tasks during takeover is the Tristan Albatross ( Diomedea dabbenena) chick count. These wanderer-type albatrosses breed only on Gough (with one pair on Inaccessible Island; they were extirpated from Tristan over 100 years ago) where mice – yes, mice! – are the main predator of their chicks. You might be wondering how a 25g mouse can take down a 9kg albatross chick, but I can assure you that a) it does happen, and b) it’s a big problem.

Typically, these large albatrosses raise a chick successfully in 60-70% of their breeding attempts, and it takes so long (about 10-11 months) that they only breed every other year. But because of mouse predation, the albatrosses on Gough raise a chick successfully in only 30% of their breeding attempts.

Gough Island's Giant Petrel Valley
Photo from Alex Bond taken on 15th September 2014

Worst ever year for Tristan Albatross chicks
Combined with mortality of adults in longline fishing operations in the Southern Ocean and mouse predation, Tristan Albatross are struggling. But knowing this did nothing to prepare me for the 2014 albatross chick count: 163 chicks - from just less than 1,700 nests counted in January - the lowest ever recorded for Tristan Albatross - ever.

Searching the empty hills for missing chicks

When we landed in Giant Petrel Valley on the west end of the island, we immediately knew something was wrong. Instead of seeing tens or hundreds of white dots sitting in nests on the hills from the helicopter, we saw none. Where there were 541 adults happily tending nests in January, there were now 14 chicks in Giant Petrel Valley and West Point. When the three teams met at the end of a long day of hiking (and not seeing many albatross chicks), we were all worried we had missed some chicks, or forgotten to check certain places, but we hadn't– the birds just weren't there.

The second day went much the same as the first – 16 chicks out of 192 nests on Green Hill, 23 chicks where 274 adults were found only months before on Spire Crag, and on, and on.

Alex Bond by a Tristan Albatross Chick
by its nest on Gough Island on 15th September 2015

Predation by mice
But how does this happen? The albatrosses, having evolved to breed on islands without land predators, have no behavioural experience with mice. The mice attack the chick (and sometimes the parents simply sit). After one or two nights, and attacks of three, four, five or more mice, the chick dies, and just like that, the adults’ investment in incubating and egg for months, and feeding a chick for weeks is for naught.
Conservation efforts
The RSPB Centre for Conservation Science recently published a paper on the prioritization of UK Overseas Territories for eradications of introduced species, and Gough came out on top. We’ve spent the last 15 years gathering evidence on the effects of mice, studying their biology and behaviour, conducting bait trials, and consulting with our partners on Tristan da Cunha, in South Africa, and with experts overseas.
We’re hoping for a green light soon on an eradication of mice from Gough, and should have a decision in early 2015. In the meantime, the remaining albatross chicks are preparing to depart, and in a few short months, the adults will return to try again, and I’ll be back on Gough next September, hopefully with more albatross chicks.

Find out more about our work on Tristan da Cunha and also see coverage of the Tristan Albatross breeding season on the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) website.

Our work on the Tristan Islands has been supported by many funders including OTEP, Darwin, Darwin Plus, the European Union’s EDF-9 and ACAP.

Dr Alex Bond is one of four conservation workers undertaking projects 2014-15 in the Tristan da Cunha Islands. Alex is working with Greg McClelland on land-based work whilst Charles Kilgour and Rob Mrowicki are involved with marine research. We look forward to publishing more news of their work and there will also be an article in the next Tristan da Cunha Newsletter.

Pioneering 2014
Gough Marine Survey

see - Gough Island 2014 Dives

Restoring Gough Island's Environment

An update from Tristan Administrator Alex Mitham February 2014

Gough Island is a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage Marine Site with a global significance for wildlife, ranking it alongside the Galapagos, the Great Barrier Reef and the Everglades.

A mountainous island of volcanic origin, eight miles by four, at 40°19S 9°55W, 220 miles south east of the other islands in the Tristan da Cunha Archipelago, it forms a part of the UK Overseas Territory of St Helena, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha. Gough is uninhabited, except for a team of six South African meteorologists who each spend a year monitoring weather patterns which affect Southern Africa; scientists have also been based there at times over the past seven years. Tristan da Cunha, the nearest populated island, is the most remote inhabited island in the world. Research is taking place to enable the natural environment of this remote island in the South Atlantic to be restored and to prevent the extinction of a species of albatross and other birds and creatures.

The population of the Tristan Albatross (Diomedea dabbenena), and Gough Bunting (Rowettia goughensis), some species of burrowing seabirds and invertebrates, flightless moths, may face extinction because of predation by more than a million house mice. The mice are descendants of those which came ashore (possibly with seal hunters) more than a century ago.

The mice are known to feed on berries, seeds, insects and birds’ eggs during the island's summer months and to live in vegetation which dangles from cliffs and gulleys. In winter, lack of alternative food forces them to eat the chicks of the albatrosses and other seabirds and it has become evident from recent surveys that they also threaten the Gough bunting and the island’s endemic flightless moths. Without eradicating the mice, albatrosses and other seabirds risk becoming extinct.

For more than a decade, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), The Tristan da Cunha Government, the UK Government and the University of Cape Town’s Percy Fitzpatrick Institute, have been researching the most effective way to rid Gough of mice. The island has no airport or harbour and is prone to adverse weather conditions in one of the most remote locations on the planet, some 1,700 miles from South Africa and 2,000 miles from South America.

Proposals for eliminating mice on Gough have been based on methods used elsewhere in the world to eradicate invasive species from island locations, without interfering with or affecting local indigenous species. The research on Gough has included test flights of helicopters which have the capability to drop bait with the objective of eliminating all the mice, as well as testing whether there are mice resident in the many caves on Gough, and whether or not all mice will eat the type of bait likely to be used. Adding to the complexity of any eradication attempt will be the requirement to hold captive populations of the two endemic land-birds (Gough bunting and Gough moorhen) for the duration of the operation.

Tristan Administrator, Alex Mitham, who has just spent time on Gough with Tristan Conservation workers and South African RSPB field workers, who are monitoring Gough’s seabirds, said: “The population of the Tristan albatross continues to decline and the restoration of Gough's environment is an essential starting point to reverse the Tristan albatross decline and prevent extinction.

However the challenges – and costs – are huge. We still have much more work to do before the relevant organisations can make an informed decision on when and whether we can go ahead. Calculating the costs and the time-scale, to ensure that Gough Island is returned to the birds and other indigenous creatures which populate this unique place on our planet, is of fundamental importance”.

See also RSPB Tristan da Cunha Islands projects on: www.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/tristan-da-cunha-programme

Tragic Death of Gough Island Radio Operator
Report from Tristan Administrator Alex Mitham on 17th February

I returned from Gough Island on Saturday 15th February and am sorry to report that Johan Hoffman, the Gough Island Radio Operator, passed away in the early hours of the 11th February 2014. Johan formed part of the South African Gough 59 Team who are stationed on the Island for a year.

The South African Department of Environmental Affairs are in contact with his family and are currently arranging a vessel for Johan's repatriation to South Africa.

Governor Capes and myself wish to express our deepest condolences to his family at this time. I know that Johan was well known and liked by all the Islanders on Tristan. This is a tragic event, and the whole community have been deeply shocked. He was a young man in the prime of his life, with everything to look forward to. I know all our thoughts are with his family.

Alex Mitham, together with members of the Tristan Conservation Department and three Marine Biologists, returned from a three week visit to Gough Island aboard MV Edinburgh on Saturday 15th February.

Administrator visits Gough Island and experiences the 'Roaring Forties'
Administrator Alex Mitham, a team from the Tristan Conservation Department led by Trevor Glass,(and including Kirsty Repetto and George Swain), and Marine Biologists Sue Scott, Holly Latham & Rohan Holt left Tristan aboard MV Edinburgh on 24th January arriving at Gough Island the following day.
The trip was planned to be about eight days but extended to three weeks as Gough is experiencing the 'Roaring Forties' that are expected at this latitude.

A team including Alex and the three Tristan Conservation Department colleagues camped on the Gough highlands during the first week to carry out the annual Tristan Albatross count (see photos of last year's Gough trip by Administrator Sean Burns below) and were caught in a storm with winds of over 160 mph. Alex reports having to brace the tent with his feet to prevent it ripping apart and experiencing ' a very, very long night' in these circumstances.