Angry birds but a happy field assistant

One of the most important rules for fieldwork is to never enter the field alone. This is partly for safety reasons, but also for your sanity. When you conduct fieldwork in remote places, as I do, it is essential to have a buddy. But when your interview process involves explaining to potential applicants that they have a high likelihood of winding up covered in bird poop most days, it can be a challenge to find a willing person whose company you can handle being in 24/7. Part of being a field assistant is taking on the less-desirable tasks, some of which my field assistant this summer was quick to learn!

Getting to know my field assistant this summer was a bit tricky at first, given that she was from France, and I am an anglophone from Ontario. Out in the field, I would ask for help in English (incorporating some broken French), and she would respond in French (incorporating some broken English). Sometimes I wondered how we made it to the same conclusion – especially against a background of fieldwork stress!

My field assistant carrying the heavy coolers.

When we first arrived at the field site, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of travel time to the colony. I thought I was a fairly fit person until I had to climb up endless stairs and tramp uphill through the forest for 30 minutes, carrying all of our gear. When my field assistant offered to carry the heavy coolers, I couldn’t resist. Honestly, I couldn’t get enough air to refuse…but I also figured that this was why I brought extra arms with me!

At last we reached the top, turned a corner, and suddenly heard it: the unmistakable squawks and chips of a seabird colony. Then the wave of smells hit us, making it clear that we were getting close. Finally the colony came into view. At first, all we could see was a few nests clustered near the field station. But as we looked first left, then right, like a Magic Eye puzzle, more and more nests popped into view.  There were northern gannets as far as we could see.

cliff speckled with gannets on their nests

Gannet nests as far as the eye can see.

Selfie time!

After we retrieved our jaws off the ground, we took a few selfies and then got to work. Catching an adult gannet is not an easy task – and it definitely requires strong partnership skills. We first identified a nest with two birds guarding it.  This was important because it allowed us to be sure that when we (briefly) removed one of the parents for sampling, the other parent could protect the egg. Then one of us dangled a string or wire above the target bird’s head, which was meant to distract it from the other one of us creeping up behind it.

When the second person got close enough to catch the bird in their hands, they brought them over to our sampling area. However, as you might imagine, gannets aren’t thrilled about being taken off their nest.  Their responses include (but are not limited to) flailing their wings and squawking loudly. The easiest way to gain control was to allow the bird to bite us (with gloves on)! This may seem counter-intuitive (most people prefer to avoid biting animals!), but by letting them bite us, we knew exactly where their sharp beak was. Guess who got to do that job!? My field assistant!

My field assistant working hard in our limited “lab”.

After a long day of baking in the hot sun, we brought the samples back to our “lab” for processing. Our “lab” was the top floor of the cottage where we were staying with very little amount of equipment. We took a few minutes to stuff our faces with chips, as we hoped to tide over our hunger, and processed that day’s samples for a couple of hours. By the time we finished, we didn’t have a whole lot of time left for other activities –  like cooking an actual dinner – given that we had to get some sleep before the following morning, when we had to get up early to do it all again.

At this point, you are probably thinking I was a terribly mean mentor making her do the less desirable tasks. However, throughout all the hiking, sampling, and processing we did this summer, my field assistant kept smiling, making up dance moves, and maintaining a good spirit – basically, having fun and keeping me sane!

gannet startled

The expression on my field assistant’s face when I asked her to let the bird bite her. “Wait, what!?”

 

Patrolling for pufflings

The prisoner looks up at us from his metal enclosure.  Huddled in a corner, he freezes against the wall, hoping we haven’t seen him.  But as the beam of our flashlight comes to rest on him, he’s gone.  With a flip of his wings, he dives beneath the surface of the shallow pool, disappearing into the shadows of the enclosure.

“Well, crap,” says one of my companions.  “He’s not going to be easy to rescue.”

***

When my friend asked me if I wanted to join her doing Puffin Patrol, it sounded almost too fantastic to be real.  But it is: run by the Newfoundland and Labrador Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Puffin and Petrel Patrol is a program that provides an extra helping hand to newly fledged seabirds which have lost their way.

The program takes place in the communities surrounding the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve.  The reserve is home to the largest breeding colony of Atlantic puffins in North America, and the second-largest colony of Leach’s storm petrels in the world.

This is what the word ‘puffling’ conjures for me…

The puffins (and petrels) nest in burrows on islands close to shore.  They lay only one egg, and after it hatches, the puffling remains in the burrow for 6-7 weeks.  (Can we just pause here to enjoy the fact that baby puffins are called pufflings?  Whenever I hear that word, I immediately picture the tribbles from Star Trek…)

The trouble starts when it’s time for the pufflings to leave the burrow.  They fledge at night, giving them protection from predators as they first venture into the outside world.  For centuries, pufflings have emerged from their burrows in the dark and followed the light of the moon and stars out to sea.

But growing development along the coast poses a problem for the fledglings.  An increase in the number of houses and businesses also means an increase in artificial light.  More and more, pufflings are being drawn towards the streetlights, headlights, and house lights that illuminate the shoreline.  Many of these confused travellers land on dark streets, and fall victim to traffic mishaps.  Even those that avoid this fate are unlikely to make it back to sea without help.

This is where the Puffin Patrol comes in.  Every night during the fledging season (mid-August to early September), volunteers armed with butterfly nets patrol the streets of the coastal towns near the ecological reserve.  When they find a stranded puffling, it is scooped up in a net and placed into a plastic bin to await release the next morning.

Releases are sometimes done from a boat, but also frequently occur on the beach – and they gather quite a crowd.  While biologists weigh and measure the birds, and fit them with a band to allow for identification if they’re ever recaptured, CPAWS takes the opportunity to tell the watching group a bit about puffins.

Watching  a freshly released puffling make his way out to sea.

So not only does the Puffin and Petrel Patrol help two species of birds, both designated as vulnerable by the IUCN, it’s also a great outreach tool.  In addition to the public releases, locals and visitors alike can volunteer to be patrollers, providing they sign up in advance.  Since its inception in 2004, the program has attracted hundreds of volunteers, and has captured the imagination of Canadians across the country: to date, it’s been the subject of a picture book and the focus of an episode of The Nature of Things.

***

It’s a foggy, cool night in mid-August, and my first time out on patrol.  As I don a fluorescent safety vest and arm band reading “Puffin Patrol”, it feels a bit surreal that we’re going to spend the next few hours wandering around in the dark looking for stranded pufflings.  Only in Newfoundland.

At first it’s a fairly quiet night, with only a few teams reporting puffling encounters, and I start to think that maybe our services aren’t needed.  But as we make the rounds of a local fish plant, my friend shines her flashlight into the flat-bottomed barge used to take waste offshore for disposal.  There’s a shallow pool of water at the bottom – and there, pressed into a corner, is my first puffling.

As soon as the light hits him, he dives under the surface, eventually reappearing on the far side of the enclosure.  The barge is several feet below us as we stand on the dock, and we realize quickly that to get him out of his prison, we’re going to need a longer net.

As we turn to leave, we come face to face with another puffling, only a few feet away, looking for all the world like he wants to know what we’re up to.  As we stare at him, he begins sidling towards the edge of the dock and the barge – until my friend makes a sudden, heroic lunge with the net.  One puffling trapped on the barge is more than enough to deal with.

Up close and personal: a puffling being banded prior to release.

We stow our captive safely in a plastic bin and take him to Puffin Patrol headquarters, then return to the first puffling to see what we can do.  But even with a longer net, as soon as we come anywhere close, he disappears under the water and pops up at the other end of the barge.  We can only access the end closest to us, so we are forced to wait for him to come back within reach.  At one point, we actually do get him in the net – but as we lift it towards the dock, he jumps right back out.

It’s getting late and we’re all tired and frustrated…but we persevere.  We’re not leaving the puffling to die if we can help it.  It’s well after 1 a.m. when we get him in the net again.  This time we take no chances, holding the open end carefully against the side of the barge as we lift the net, giving the puffling no chance to escape.

And then he’s in our (gloved) hands, looking none too pleased with us as we place him into his plastic bin.  But that’s okay.  We’re pretty pleased with ourselves, because we know that tomorrow morning he’ll be going in the right direction, headed back out to sea.

Searching for a new home

My partner and I have been searching for a new house recently. It is considered a “seller’s” market here, and houses that are listed in the morning are off the market by the evening. It is frustrating how fast houses sell, but at least we are in a good place where we don’t need to move immediately. However, what about when your home has been destroyed or it has disappeared? With all of the wildfires across the country this year, this is unfortunately a question some people have to deal with.

Thinking about this made me wonder how do the birds do it?! Most seabirds are philopatric, meaning they tend to return to their nesting site year after year for breeding. Where do they go if they can’t return to that same nesting site? For instance, during the 2010-2011 winter, massive storms hit the islands in Haida Gwaii, BC. One island in particular, Reef Island, normally supports thousands of ancient murrelet breeding pairs (about half of the world’s population).

Reef Island field station signIn the summer of 2011, the field team and I packed our bags for our week trip on Reef Island. We knew about the storms during the winter that had destroyed the entire camp but we did not know the extent to which it would affect the ancient murrelet population. As the island came into sight through the fog, we could see that giant Sitka spruce and massive red cedars that once stood tall now lay every which way fallen on the forest floor. This was not a promising sight for nesting seabirds.

fallen trees on the island

View of the fallen forest on Reef Island

nest box

A lucky intact nest box – but an unlucky nest abandoned.

Following transects that had been followed for years for population estimates lead us to find nest boxes that once supplemented the natural nests in this colony were now either crushed under the fallen brush or scattered around the forest at random. Sadly, we were only able to find one nesting ancient murrelet.

But weirdly enough, despite the loss of suitable habitat at the most popular nesting site on Reef Island, the global population of ancient murrelets was not declining. Where were these suddenly homeless breeding pairs going?

Sarah using binoculars to look for birds in the forest

Searching for a new home.

The logical answer is to assume they searched for a new home. But previous surveys in the area suggested that most nest sites were already occupied. So did they settle for nesting sites that were less desirable? Without knowing about the storm in advance (I think being able to accurately predict the weather is every field biologist’s wish), and pre-emptively equipping the birds with tracking devices, it is difficult to know where the birds went. The stable population suggests they figured something out! Perhaps some started to nest in ferries like the pigeon guillemot pair I spotted.

A similar situation happened to me with finding a job after my master’s degree. Jobs related with fieldwork were no where to be found but I thought I would try a lab job instead. When I first started as a research assistant in a lab I thought I was choosing a working site that was less desirable (how would I ever survive working without constant fresh air!?). Now I am surrounded by the beeps and hums of machines rather than the birds chirping up above and wind whistling though the trees. It turns out that I love my job but one thing is still true – I may have acquired a lab coat but I will never give up my fieldwork uniform of a plaid shirt and hiking boots.

Checking out some cool habitat in the fieldwork uniform.

Don’t worry, be happy

Being in the field can bring up many emotions. Sure, there are the times when you are elated by a breathtaking view on a remote island that very few people get to visit. However, there are also lonely, boring, and frustrating aspects of fieldwork. If you think about it, you are away from home, usually out of your comfort zone, and more often than not doing very repetitive things.So sometimes, when you’re in the field, you need to look for ways to keep smiling!

When I shared this post with my fellow co-bloggers, Amanda pointed out she wrote a similar post about how to stay sane when you think you are going crazy. It just goes to show how important it is to stay positive when you’re out there doing all types of fieldwork.

Here are my top 10 tricks for staying positive during fieldwork:

1. Sing – Nothing like belting your heart out alongside the dawn chorus as you peer over a cliff (which actually helps the acoustics a lot!). Let’s not forget the famous field vehicles that have their share of karaoke stars.

2. Dance – Whether you’re practicing your signature move or making up a new sequence, it’s always beneficial to shake off those frustrations.

volleyball on the beach during the sunset

A little beach volleyball to pass the time.

3. Do something active – Although you are probably exhausted from climbing over and squeezing under fallen trees all day, sometimes it is good to do something different. If you’re looking to stretch and relax, yoga can be a good way to boost your mood. Check out the new hashtag #ScientistsWhoYoga on Twitter for some pretty amazing shots.

4. Make up stories for organisms, sites, and/or co-workers (nice things only of course) – Creating your own narrative for your surroundings can make the time tick by a little bit faster by introducing suspense and excitement.

5. Make it a competition – Similar to how people often keep kids busy, you can ask “Who can find the most bird nests this morning?”. In my opinion, the best approach to win at this competition is to divide and conquer the area and to pick the expert as your teammate. This is especially true when you are following transects as part of a long-term study and the expert knows all the “hot spots” for nests!

sunset on the ocean

My happy place by the water.

6. Think about your happy place – Although you may be on a beautiful beach looking for glimpses of marine mammals, sometimes it helps to think of something more familiar.

7. Take a shower – Yes, even this simple task can make you feel refreshed and ready to take on the next day!

8. Eat well – Ingesting the right nutrients can give you energy and instantly lift your spirits. The sheer absurdity of baking a cake on a small remote island is also bound to cheer you up. Alternatively, it can help to fantasize what you would make for dinner if you could have anything you wanted. (Warning: this will likely make you extremely hungry so make sure to have some snacks on hand.)

9. Chocolate – Need I say more?

holding up a team member

My supportive field team

10. Have a supportive field team – When you’re feeling under the weather, there is nothing worse than being away from home. Being surrounded by people who have your back in any situation will always go a long way.

Even when the effort  of fieldwork seems to outweigh the reward by several orders of magnitude (for example, imagine walking around for countless hours searching for signs of your study organism only to find out they don’t nest where you’ve been looking at all), remember that is worth it! Don’t worry because being a field biologist may just be the coolest job out there and there are lots of reasons to be happy!

How do you stay positive in the field?

Playing for the other team

Among field biologists, like in any other group of people, there are divisions that may not be apparent from the outside.  There are the animal people and the plant people.  The bird people, the frog people, the snake people, the fish people.  No matter how far down you get, there always seems to be another division: groups within groups within groups, like a stack of Russian nesting dolls.

Ever since my first job, I’ve been a bird person – more specifically, I’ve been a songbird person.  With the exception of one summer spent chasing shorebirds in Alaska, all my work has focused on these small, colourful, perching birds.  And I’ve been quite satisfied with this – I saw no reason to go explore the world of, say, waterfowl, or birds of prey.

But I must admit, I’ve always been somewhat intrigued by seabirds, mostly because seabird people often do field work in the most remote, beautiful, and dramatic places imaginable – from the steep cliffs of Ascension Island to the isolated beaches of the Aleutian Islands.  However, despite a certain jealousy about seabird field sites, I’ve never been that interested in the birds themselves, for one simple reason: the majority of seabirds nest in huge colonies.  These loud, smelly groups of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of birds have never really appealed to me.

One of the things I like best about songbird research is that it usually involves marking birds to allow for individual identification.  As the field season progresses, you get to know the birds within your study population pretty well.  For example, when you check nests, you know ahead of time which birds will launch themselves at your head in a kamikaze attempt at defence, and which birds will only sit and watch, chirping mournfully.  Part of the joy of research, for me, is being able to distinguish those characteristics that make one bird distinct from another.  And I’ve always assumed that this would be much harder, if not impossible, to do in the middle of a chaotic mass of thousands of birds.

But last summer, I got an opportunity I couldn’t refuse.  As I was trudging through long days of data analysis in the office, a former labmate offered me the chance to help her out in the field for a few weeks.  We would be catching and banding Common Terns in a large colony on Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba.  Colony-nesters or not, there was no way I was turning down an opportunity to get back into the field – so I accepted the job.

From the moment we scrambled out of the boat onto the beach of the island colony, I realized I was in a whole new world.  The first thing I saw was three tern eggs, snuggled into a twig-lined depression in the sand.

My first tern nest!

My first tern nest!

“Ooh!  Nest!  I found a nest!” I cried in excitement.

To put my excitement in context, finding songbird nests usually involves hours or even days of careful detective work.  It requires a lot of patience – a lot of watching, waiting, and hoping for the bird’s behaviour to reveal the slightest clue about the nest’s location.  There are also usually a fair number of wild goose chases, and endless amounts of frustration.  Managing to successfully track a songbird to its nest is always cause for a happy dance.

So after years of working with songbirds, I’m pretty conditioned to be excited when I see a nest.  But no sooner had I gleefully announced my first tern nest sighting when my gaze shifted a few metres up the beach…and there was another one.  And another…and another…and another…

All of a sudden, I started to see the appeal of working with colony-nesting birds.

My second...and third...and fourth...tern nests.

My second…and third…and fourth…and fifth…and sixth…tern nests.

As we picked our way carefully up the beach into the main part of the colony, masses of hysterical terns rose into the air, their grating two-note screams (which, oddly, sounded a lot like the introductory notes of Britney Spears’ “Toxic”) making my ears ring.  The smell of the colony – a mix of fish and decaying organic matter – matched the musical theme.  So far, I decided, being in a seabird colony was pretty much what I’d expected: overwhelmingly loud and smelly.

However, once we’d set up our blind and hidden ourselves from sight, things calmed down a bit.  A few minutes after we disappeared from view, the circling crowd of terns above us began to descend, and the cacophony began to quiet.  I watched as nearby birds returned to their nests, dropping out of the air with their feet stretched towards the ground, then wiggling themselves into position over the eggs.  They all finished with their wings crossed and tails pointing out at a 45 degree angle – fitting onto the nest like the lid on a jar of cookies.

Time to sit on those eggs again...

Time to come on down…

...and wiggle into the right position.

…and sit on those eggs again.

As more and more terns returned to their nests, quiet descended over the colony. I could hear the waves out on the lake and the wind rustling the island’s sparse vegetation.  I was just starting to relax…when suddenly, the colony rose into the air again, hundreds of birds moving as one.  To me, sitting in the blind, the sudden rush of wings felt a bit like being inside a snow globe, or maybe an Escher painting: terns rising up all around me, the sound of endless beating wings almost like the sail of a boat flapping in the wind.

A blizzard of terns.

A blizzard of terns.

For the next two weeks, we spent a lot of time watching the colony, and every day, the pattern was the same: short periods of calm, punctuated with frequent episodes of mass panic.  And the longer I watched, the more I realized that the individual quirks I love so much in songbirds were also evident in the terns.  For example, each time the colony flushed, there would be one or two individuals reluctant to follow the trend.  They’d stay sitting on their nests until long after everyone else was up in the air.  And it always seemed to be the same birds that stuck around while everyone else circled above.  I started to wonder: were those birds braver than the others?  Smarter?  Or maybe just lazier?  I came to the conclusion that, while the sheer number of birds in a colony may make it difficult to observe behaviour on an individual level, it is possible – and those distinctive personality traits are certainly there if you look for them.

I’m not saying I’m giving up on the songbirds: I doubt that will ever happen.  But my brief sojourn in the world of seabirds convinced me that it’s a place I’d like to visit more often.

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My first “field” work

What is the meaning of “field” work? Does it have to be outside? Do you have to be running around chasing after your study species? Does it have to include getting wet or dirty or sun burnt? According to Wikipedia, fieldwork is the “collection of information outside a laboratory, library or workplace setting”. Maybe the “field” part is a lot more versatile than what you (or I) originally thought.

My first “field” work experience was collecting samples for my undergraduate thesis project. In such a short time frame to complete a research project, I was excited to actually be collecting my own samples! However, collecting samples for my project didn’t end up meaning what I thought it meant when I read the project description. We did not have to snoop around in the mud looking for seabird burrows. Instead, we were snooping around behind the scenes at the Royal Ontario Museum looking for seabird specimens. It may not be the tropical island that many seabird biologists get to visit to collect samples, but I was still excited to get out of the lab for a day.

The behind-the-scenes archives in museums are quite astonishing. In the bird archives of the ROM, there were rows upon rows of shelves stacked up to the ceiling with drawers full of bird specimens.

hallway of drawers filled with bird specimens

The extensive drawers on drawers of bird specimens at the behind-the-scenes at the ROM.

Besides being awestruck by the number of bird specimens squeezed into these drawers, I was interested in finding specimens from the tube-nosed seabird subfamily Hydrobatinae, the northern hemisphere storm-petrels.

In my biology classes, professors always stressed that museum specimens are very valuable. I never truly understood just how valuable until I used them in my own project. For one, museum specimens offer a glimpse into a timeline where you can see changes in traits over time. These traits can also be compared among species very easily when they are laid out side by side. You may recognize differences that you otherwise would not have noticed if you were catching species in the wild at different times. In addition, museum specimens also offer an opportunity to see species that you might otherwise not be able to see in the wild (i.e. if they are hard to catch). This was the important point for my project!

Sarah poses with the drawers of hydrobatin storm-petrels

Excitement from being so close to my study species!

There are 14 species in the Hydrobatinae subfamily.  They are distributed across the globe, making it difficult to collect samples from every species. Therefore, we relied on a lot of museum samples for our study. In addition, besides some minor plumage differences, they look very similar (as you can see above). Because of this, I used genetics as a conservation tool to investigate how the different species arose.  I was able to collect a toepad (carefully of course so that we did not damage the specimen) to extract DNA from once I was back in the lab.

Oceanodroma macrodactyla, the extinct Guadalupe storm-petrel.

Oceanodroma macrodactyla, the extinct Guadalupe storm-petrel. Check out the characteristic tube-nose!

Not only do museums allow you to study birds that may be hard to catch in the wild, they also let you study species that you can no longer catch in the wild. The ROM had specimens of extinct birds, including a passenger pigeon, a labrador duck, and a great auk. I also got to collect a toepad from Oceanodroma macrodactyla, an extinct storm-petrel species from Guadalupe Island. I felt like I was on CSI extracting DNA from a species that longer exists in the wild!

Next time you are at a museum, remember to think about all of the value you can get out of observing these specimens and thank a museum curator!

Like nowhere else on earth

This week, we’re pleased to welcome Becky Taylor as our guest blogger.  Becky has just returned from doing fieldwork on Ascension Island, and is excited to share her experience with us!  For more information about Becky, check out her bio below.

“Like nowhere else on earth.”  That’s what all the leaflets say about Ascension Island – and they are definitely correct.  Ascension Island is one of the most remote places I have ever had the pleasure of visiting: a small volcanic island quite literally in the middle of the ocean.  Most people have never even heard of it, let alone know where it is.  Formed by the volcanoes along the mid-Atlantic ridge, it is situated midway between Africa and South America in the south Atlantic Ocean, just below the equator.

The peaks of Ascension Island rising from the south Atlantic.

The peaks of Ascension Island rise from the south Atlantic ocean.

Despite its remote location, Ascension Island has a fascinating history.  Discovered in 1501 by the Portugese, it went unclaimed for hundreds of years – it was just too barren to be of interest to colonial powers.  Occasionally, sailors would stop by on their way across the Atlantic and nab a sea turtle to snack on, but with little fresh water available at the time, no one bothered to settle there.  However, things changed in 1815, when Napoleon was defeated in the Battle of Waterloo.  After his defeat, he was exiled by the British to a remote island called St. Helena – which just happens to be a neighbour of Ascension Island.  The British were worried that Napoleonic sympathizers might try and stage a rescue from Ascension.  To prevent this, they claimed and garrisoned Ascension – and it remains a UK territory to this day.

So the British found themselves in possession of a barren, arid island in the southern Atlantic.  But far from being discouraged by its inhospitable nature, they took it as a challenge, and immediately set about changing it.  In 1836, the HMS Beagle landed on the island, carrying, of course, naturalist Charles Darwin, who noticed how dry and barren the island was.  Seven years later, in 1843, a friend of his also visited the island: Joseph Hooker, a botanist who also happened to be the son of the director of Kew Gardens.  After hearing about the island from Darwin, he hatched a plan.  He began to ship trees from England to Ascension, with the help of the British Royal Navy and Kew Gardens.  Thousands of trees and plants from all over the globe were sent to Ascension, and planted onto what was then known as “the peak”, the highest point on the island.

Today, “the peak” is known as Green Mountain, and has undergone a complete transformation from its original arid state.  Green Mountain is now home to an entirely man-made and now self-sustaining  cloud forest environment.  It was the first experiment in terraforming: the deliberate alteration of an environment to make it more hospitable to humans.

 

Before: when it was first discovered, all of Ascension Island looked like this - arid and barren.

Before: when it was first discovered, all of Ascension Island looked like this – arid and barren.

After: the results of Hooker's terraforming experiment - the lush vegetation of Green Mountain today.

After: the results of Hooker’s terraforming experiment – the lush vegetation of Green Mountain today.

Many people consider Green Mountain to be an inspiring success story, and there is no doubt that it is scientifically fascinating.  However, there are always costs associated with massive changes like this.  Ascension Island’s endemic plant species did not cope well with the changing environment.  There are now only 7 of these endemic species left on the island – all of which are listed between Vulnerable and Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.  Conservation efforts are currently under way to attempt to save these unique species.

But while the changes were detrimental to some of Ascension’s endemic species, one of the island’s inhabitants was all for the transformation of Green Mountain: the land crab, Johngarthia lagostoma.  Today, these crabs live at the top of the peak – a strange place to find crabs, particularly because their larvae are marine.  So once a year, between January and March, these crabs undertake an epic journey down the mountain to the sea to mate – and then they trek back up the mountain again.  They travel up to 1,400 ft. per day, an impressive feat for such small creatures.  They come out at night, and have a tendency to wander onto the island’s roads in the dark.  Luckily for them, the island’s inhabitants love them and will go out of their way to prevent running them over – whether that involves simply swerving around them, or getting out of the car to chase them out of the way.

Ascension's land crabs come in two different morphs: purple and orange.

Ascension’s land crabs come in two different morphs: purple and orange.

Beyond the land crab, Ascension Island is home to a fascinating cast of characters.  It hosts a variety of seabird species, which breed on Boatswain Bird Island, just off the main island.  And of course, you can hardly write about Ascension without mentioning the sea turtles.  The island is an important green turtle nesting site.  The green turtles found on Ascension are apparently the largest of their species, and they migrate more than 2000 km to get there – all the way from the coast of Brazil.  Between December and June, the females heave up onto the island’s beaches to lay their eggs, which hatch 50-60 days later.

Seabirds soaring over Boatswain Bird Island.

Seabirds soaring over Boatswain Bird Island.

Newly hatched green turtles make their run down the beach to the ocean.

Newly hatched green turtles make their run down the beach to the ocean.

Wandering along the beach one night at sunset, I was lucky enough to see a green turtle nest hatching, and watch the hatchling turtles run down the beach to the ocean.  I was so excited by the encounter that I ran straight to the conservation team to tell them what I had seen – only to find out that my exciting sighting was common on Ascension.  The conservation team was pleased for me, but nowhere near as excited as I had been.  More than anything, it was their attitude that made me realise: Ascension really is like no place on earth.

Becky faces off with a black capped chickadee.

Becky faces off with a black capped chickadee.

Becky completed her BSc in Biology at the University of Bristol, UK in 2010, and then worked for the conservation charity Wildscreen on their ARKive website for two years before deciding to undertake her MSc at the University of Exeter, UK. She started her PhD at Queen’s University in September 2013. She is currently researching the genomics of the evolution of seasonal populations of the band-rumped storm-petrel (Oceanodroma castro), and aims to create a comprehensive phylogeny of this cryptic species complex.