BirdLife Suwarrow Rat Eradication Project

April 17, 2013 — May 30, 2013

The first of many blogs from award-winning wildlife filmmaker Nick Hayward as he joins a team from BirdLife and Te Ipukarea Society (BirdLife in the Cook Islands) who are preparing to spend a month eradicating rats from one of the remotest atolls in the South Pacific.

 BirdLife / Te Ipukarea Society Suwarrow Rat Eradication Project

On our first morning we had the opportunity of meeting with the whole Suwarrow team. At this meeting many of the faces in the room were new, their personalities unrevealed. Over time, like a sea mist gradually clearing, each member of the team will become a friend. It’s one of the great privileges of joining an expedition.

Having everyone together highlights the tye of collaboration that makes for a successful project. Some of our ground support team were present, including Kelvin Passfield from the Te Ipukarea Society (BirdLife in the Cook Islands) and Elizabeth Munroe from the Cook Islands National Environment Service, a key partner in the project.

We also met Harry and Papay Suwarrow's park rangers. They will be spending the next six months on the atoll away from their family and friends. Harry, the senior ranger, is returning to Suwarrow after taking up the role last year. His local knowledge will be a great asset to our project.

Today there was a very moving ceremony in downtown Avarua for the crews of two New Zealand vaka’s as they headed for home.

Ian Karika said a short prayer for them as president of the Cook Island Voyaging Society. The Kiwis then performed a very spirited haka before swimming out to their canoes. It is a very Pacific Island way of joining a vessel before a long ocean crossing, made more so as they dived to retrieve the anchors.

It’s over 3000 kilometres to New Zealand due to adverse winds at this time of year, they may take up to three weeks to reach their destination. I’m sure they won’t be daunted by the journey. The crews are returning after a round trip to Easter Island which means they will have travelled to the extreme east and south of Polynesian settlement. It is very inspiring to see these brave young people following in the wake of their ancestors.

The vakas are traditional Polynesian outrigger voyaging canoes. They are part of a revival of the traditional ocean-going culture. The Pacific Voyaging Community has seven vakas spread across the Pacific including Samoa, Tahiti, Fiji, and Hawaii. The Cook Island vaka will be sailing to Suwarrow to collect us for the return voyage. Seeing the New Zealand boats depart eases my reservations about heading out across the Pacific in a canoe.

Our transport to Suwarrow is the yacht Southern Cross. Including the caretakers, there’s eight of us travelling to the atoll. I visited the Southern Cross in the harbour and met Ron, who will be part of the crew delivering us to Suwarrow. Ron is a self-styled 'bilge rat' who is working on the additional bunks. He should be ready by Monday, our new departure date. We are in good hands with Ron as a lawyer-turned-carpenter, the bunks will not only be structurally solid but also legally up to scratch! 

Nick Hayward – Rarotonga, Cook Islands, 17th April 2013.

You can follow Nick’s posts by subscribing to emails at http://birdlife-pacific.wildiaries.com/ or through BirdLife’s Facebook and Twitter pages.

 

The BirdLife Invasive Alien Species Programme urgently needs your support to tackle more sites and save more species. To support our work and make a donation today, please go to www.justgiving.com/BirdLife-invasive-species where every penny counts. Thank you.

The expedition to remove rats from Suwarrow National Park is a joint project between BirdLife International, Te Ipukarea Society (BirdLife Partner in the Cook Islands) and the Cook Island National Environment Service. The project is being kindly supported by the European Community, David and Lucile Packard Foundation and Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, and forms part of the BirdLife Invasive Alien Species Programme which is tackling this greatest of threats to wildlife around the world. BirdLife wishes to thank the efforts of many who are supporting the programme including Pacific Invasive Initiative, Pacific Invasive Learning Network, New Zealand Department of Conservation the University of the South Pacific, Landcare Research New Zealand, Island Conservation, Wildiaries and Nick Hayward.

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 Rat Hunters Saving the Kakerori

Nested in the south of Rarotonga is a small gem, the Takitumu Conservation Area (TCA). Its 155 acres of forest is replete with tangling vines, towering ferns and glistening, fast flowing streams from which peer large-clawed freshwater prawns. Most of all it’s the home of the Kakerori Rarotonga Monarch, a small grey flycatcher.

For the Suwarrow team, the plight of the Kakerori is a symbol of how effective invasive species control can make a major impact. By the 1960s, the Kakerori, which can live up to 24 years, was thought to be extinct. It was rediscovered in 1973 and when surveyed in 1989, they found only 13 pairs making it one of the world’s 10 rarest birds. The main culprit in the monarch’s decline was the introduced Ship Rat (Rattus rattus), an agile climber who feeds on the eggs and chicks. The adult Kakerori are vigorous defenders of the nests and were sometimes killed by the rats.

The Cook Island Conservation Society, determined to halt the Kakerori’s decline, began a rat control program during the 1989 breeding season. Twenty-four years later, there are populations on two islands and over 500 individuals.

Our expedition leader Ian Karika, our expedition leader is also president of Te Ipukarea Society (BirdLife in the Cook Islands) and was able to show me the Kakerori and its forest haven. We climbed through vine thickets into an opening and heard the noisy chatter of the resident birds. They are curious and aggressive; calling from the treetops at the intruders, no rats just some bumbling humans.

From a lookout at the top of the reserve we had a great view down to the ocean. Standing out clearly against the bright blue sea were dazzling White-tailed Tropicbirds. Ian is an elder of the Karika family who, along with two other families, the Manavaroa and Kainuku, are traditional owners of the land. In 1996, these families took over the management of the rat control program. Ian spoke to me of the sense of pride he has that the Kakerori was rediscovered on his land and how the three families have worked together to control the introduced rats.

Tom Daniel, an elder of the Manavaroa family, works as a tour guide for the TCA. Despite being 79, he glides up the steep hills like a mountain goat. Tom says guiding here “keeps him alive” and he plans to continue for another 20 years.

Tom, Suwarrow’s first caretaker in 1978, is a font of all knowledge about the atoll. He also worked on the application to make Suwarrow a national park. A person with a valuable understanding of the atoll’s geography and biodiversity for the Suwarrow team.

In early May, a group of 10 landowners from Tahiti – alongside staff from Ornithological Society of Polynesia-Manu (SOP-Manu – BirdLife in French Polynesia) - will be visiting Rarotonga to learn about the Kakerori conservation program. Rats also threaten the Tahiti and Fatu Hiva Monarchs, two species closely related to the Kakerori. This is a wonderful example of how local conservation groups are sharing their successes and expertise throughout the BirdLife Pacific Partnership.

If you’re in Rarotonga, I highly recommend visiting the Kakerori at the TCA. To protect the reserve and contribute to the maintenance costs, including rat control, all visitors must join a guided tour. If you'd like help organising a tour, please contact Diverse Travel.

For further information about the TCA:

http://www.birdlife.org/community/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Takitumu-Conservation-Area.pdf

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You can follow Nick’s posts by subscribing to emails at http://birdlife-pacific.wildiaries.com/ or through BirdLife’s Facebook and Twitter pages.

The BirdLife Invasive Alien Species Programme urgently needs your support to tackle more sites and save more species. To support our work and make a donation today, please go to www.justgiving.com/BirdLife-invasive-species where every penny counts. Thank you.

The expedition to remove rats from Suwarrow National Park is a joint project between BirdLife International, Te Ipukarea Society (BirdLife Partner in the Cook Islands).

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 Another day in Paradise

Rarotonga turned on another beautiful Pacific Island day - it was almost perfect. The one disappointment was that our boat – the Southern Cross – still wasn’t quite ready for the planned Monday departure.

This afternoon with great excitement we loaded our supplies for a month on Suwarrow, ready to depart tomorrow morning ... so we have one extra night on a comfortable bed. I am looking forward to seeing the stars shining brightly in a sky unpolluted by lights and feeling the fresh cool Pacific Ocean wind on my face.

Nearby to the Southern Cross is our return Vaka – a traditional Pacific canoe – the Marumaru Atua. She’s currently being prepared for sea by the team from the Cook Island Voyaging Society. We are all hoping the work progresses well and she is back in the water in time to pick us up from Suwarrow. After a month away we shall all be missing our family and friends.

Despite being only 4 years old the Marumaru Atua is a veteran sailor. She’s sailed throughout the Pacific on many voyages to destinations as diverse as New Zealand, the Marquesas in French Polynesia, Fiji, Hawaii the Galapagos and North America. We can be very comfortable with her seaworthiness and the competence of the crew.

The Marumaru Atua is part of the revival of traditional Cook Island voyaging. Navigators are trained to use the stars, sea swell and other natural signs to navigate across the ocean. Modern navigation tools are kept hidden onboard purely as a safety measure.

I’m a little wary of taking my turn on the tu oe or steering oar. My experience of sailing on a dark cloudy night is with the assistance of the faint glow of a compass. When clouds block the stars how will I steer straight using only the wind and waves to guide me?


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 A motley crew and mixed cargoes

 

The latest from wildlife filmmaker Nick Hayward as he joins a team from BirdLife and Te Ipukarea Society (BirdLife in the Cook Islands) eradicating rats from Suwarrow – a seabird mecca in the South Pacific.

Today the team load rat bait onto the Southern Cross, we learn that Ian loves eggs, and that Nick feels like he’s living in a childhood adventure book…

Loading equipment into the hold of a yacht is hot and sweaty work in the tropics. From the perspiration pouring from the team it’s evident that everybody is thankful that it’s only one for Suwarrow.

Food for eight men for a month, the eradication equipment and my photographic equipment is now safely stowed in the aft cabin. All that’s left is for Ian to pick up the 20 dozen eggs. We can say with certainty that Ian Karika is a lover of eggs. Let’s hope there’s no cracked egg at sea and that the rats don’t stick their teeth into them once ashore. I have six eggs set aside outside of Ian’s reach just for the rats. I’m hoping to film the rats of Suwarrow at work cracking open eggs to illustrate what they do to the nesting seabirds.

Rangers Harry and Papay are still waiting patiently to load their equipment and supplies. Despite a week’s worth of hard work, Ron, the ‘bilge rat’, still hasn’t finished the forward part of the ship. Luckily bio security won’t let any rats ashore on Suwarrow so we won’t be waiting on Ron after our arrival. Our time on Suwarrow is precious and we need all of it for a successful operation. The team are anxious for a speedy departure.

As a child I read stories of old South Seas trading vessels with a motley crew and mixed cargoes. Never in my wildest imagination did I think that I would end up sailing on one to a remote atoll. The Southern Cross and her crew is that ship sprung to life from the pages of my childhood books.

What adventures are install for us next?”

 

Nick Hayward – Rarotonga, Cook Islands

 

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 Setting Sail

 

The latest blog from wildlife filmmaker Nick Hayward as he joins a team from BirdLife and Te Ipukarea Society (BirdLife in the Cook Islands) eradicating rats from Suwarrow – a seabird mecca in the South Pacific.

Today the team have finally left Rarotonga’s main harbour and are heading north hoping to spy Sperm whales.

We are at sea. Finally, on late Wednesday afternoon the Southern Cross left Rarotonga. The rotund Captain Keith piloted us out of the harbour. His too-small life jacket (not quite able to be zipped at the front) didn’t hamper his very nimble leap into the pitching dingy. Graham Wragg will skipper us onwards to Suwarrow.

There is a small detour on route; we’re towing Martin’s runabout the Apii to Aitutaki, an island north of Rarotonga. There are 2000 residents on the island and it’s the second most visited place in the Cook Islands. Boat builder Martin has been helping with the renovations on the Southern Cross.

Due to family commitments Ina (Grumpy) couldn’t join the expedition. So there is a new addition to our crew: Iremia Samuel (Mia). He’s only 17 but his father was a ranger on Suwarrow for five years where he spent time as a child, so his local knowledge will be useful.

The strong winds meant we were greeted by a lumpy sea which no doubt played a large part in the number of passengers willing to steer the Southern Cross through the night. Either way it was a beautiful night illuminated by a full moon.

Between Aitutaki and Suwarrow we will be passing through Sperm Whale territory so we’ll be keeping an eye out for those majestic mammals.

 

 

Image:

From Left to Right

Ron Borstel (kneeling Crew member)

Graeme Wragg (Captain)

Ieremia Samuel (Ex-caretaker’s son, kneeling front)

Sialisi Rasalato (BirdLife International Pacific Secretariat)

Steve Cranwell (BirdLife International Pacific Secretariat)

NgatiPuna (National Environment Service, Suwarrow Caretaker)

Harry Papai (National Environment Service, Suwarrow Caretaker)

Ian Karika (Te Ipukarea Society)

Ben Tautu (National Environment Service)

 

 

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 Celestial wonders & swimming with cookie cutter sharks  The arrival: hot, heavy work, scurrying crabs and freshly cooked curry

The latest blog from wildlife filmmaker Nick Hayward as he joins a team from BirdLife and Te Ipukarea Society (BirdLife in the Cook Islands) eradicating rats from Suwarrow – a seabird mecca in the South Pacific. Today they land on Suwarrow and are welcomed by swarms of seabirds, sharks and crabs…

As we counted down the distance to our destination, everybody was on deck searching for the first sight of Suwarrow. First peering above the horizon was the treeline of Motu Oneone, one of the eastern-most islands in the reef system.

As we approached we spied Lesser Frigatebirds swarming like bees. The colony of these thieving raptor-like seabirds is of global importance. A flock of Black Noddies steamed in low over the water and the frigatebirds pounced, pirating their food.

A huge tropical downpour briefly obscured the view, a good omen for a successful expedition.

As we lined up with “the entrance”, a deep passage through unforgiving fringing reef, the rain cleared revealing a magnificent sky over our new home - Anchorage Island.

Our vessel the Southern Cross doesn’t have a dinghy so the bravest team members swam ashore to retrieve the island caretaker’s boat. Shortly afterwards a patrol of Black-tipped Reef-sharks circled the yacht. Luckily they are not man eaters!

Early next morning everybody helped to unload the stores, fuel and bait. It was hot and heavy work loading the dinghy, then carefully stowing all the equipment ashore.

The hard work didn’t finish there. After lunch we began preparing the tracks for rat bait. The vegetation on Anchorage is thicker than expected so it’s hard work, slowly cutting through dense coconut and scrub thickets.

Suwarrow, apart from being a bird paradise, is also a land of crabs. Everywhere you look these creatures are scurrying. All sorts of crabs from small hermit crabs carrying shell on their back, to enormous, bright blue coconut crabs, with their massive crushing claws. One coconut crab quietly watched over Ben as he started to cut the tracks.

Thanks to the skills of the native fishermen (and Ian) all the hard work was worthwhile when we were treated to the most magnificent fresh fish and coconut curry after our first full day ashore.

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 Paradise has a sting in its tail

The latest blog from wildlife filmmaker Nick Hayward as he joins a team from BirdLife and Te Ipukarea Society (BirdLife in the Cook Islands) eradicating rats from Suwarrow – a seabird mecca in the South Pacific.

With the team safely on Suwarrow they get to work preparing for the operation in the midst of an army of wasps…

Anchorage Island, our home for now, is only 600 meters long and 200 wide. Big enough though when you have to cut through thick tropical vegetation to make tracks for the baiting stations.

Pacific Rat is the target of this expedition. It's an invasive species threatening all the seabirds on Suwarrow. Our mission is to eradicate them all in one go because they are killing extraordinary numbers of birds. This affects not just Suwarrow but the transfer and recruitment of birds from this globally important site to other parts of the Pacific.  

The tracks and baiting points are 20m apart which is within the home range of every Pacific Rat. However, there’s another invasive species making the track cutters life a misery - wasps.

Sia is the lead cutter and has the dubious honour of being “lead wasp victim” with eight stings in one day. Mia comes second with a tally of four.

To avoid the wasps' stings, the team wrap their heads and faces with cloth. They look like Bedouin nomads preparing for a sandstorm. All their hard work though, means they've cut over six kilometres of track, with only a small area of the northern part of the island left to finish tomorrow.

Pressures from the rats mean that Anchorage Island has few birds left, though the track cutters did spy a Greater Frigatebird nest.

What the Island lacks in birds it makes up in marine life. Everywhere you look there’s the patrolling fin of a Black-tipped Reef-shark. Schools of parrotfish wave their smaller fins from the shallows.

Our cool sea breeze has eased off. Now we are sweating through the night as well as the day.

Some of us have taken to sleeping on the beach to keep cool.

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 The enemy emerges and coconut-crushing ‘robber crabs’ entertain

 

Today the crew take a well-earned break and spy their furry quarry.

We have all now seen our protagonist: the Pacific Rat. We travelled across the lagoon to begin the track cutting on Motu Tou and there they were scurrying about in broad daylight.

By nightfall they were out in full force, but they are not alone on Motu Tou. They share the little landform with a large number of coconut crabs. These crabs use their powerful pincers to rip open coconuts and can grow up to be lobster-sized. There come in two colours, blue and red; the reds are in the minority.

The crabs are messy eaters; dropping flakes of coconut meat the rats dash in to pick up. It's like a scene from 'War of the Worlds'; small little mammals rushing around the large mechanical-like crabs. The crabs move at a slow pace, too slow to threaten the rats. Among themselves they fight with vigour over the coconuts. The outcome is always the same - the largest crab gets the prize and drags the coconut away to feast in peace.

We camped a night on Motu Tou among the coconut crushers. I placed my trailcam out to film the rats but discovered it had disappeared in the morning. Searching frantically, we found it had been abandoned under a tree. The footage revealed no rats - only the camera being dragged away by an errant coconut crab. They certainly live up to their moniker of “robber crabs”.

Very close to Motu Tou are small motu. Above these two reef islets we could see some Red-tailed Tropicbirds and frigatebirds. We only spied a couple of Red-footed Boobies breeding on Motu Tou. The expectation is that once the rats are removed the number of breeding seabirds will increase.

Our first trip across the lagoon we saw large flocks of feeding boobies, with Frigate birds soaring above. As we approached Motu Tou, large coral outcrops threatened our navigation. Thankfully, Suwarrow’s lagoon is luckily crystal clear, so it’s easy to see and avoid them.

Our transport over the lagoon is on the caretakers’ dinghy with the 25 horse power motor straining under the weight of the team and our equipment.

Today, it’s Sunday on Anchorage and we began the day with a church service. Ian presented the sermon and everybody contributed with a reading from the bible, prayers and a hymn accompanied by the guitar. After the service we all proceeded to the beach to raise the Cook Island flag to the words of the Cook Island national anthem. The flag will stay flying till the national park closes in November.

Sunday’s rest has been invaluable; half the team were falling asleep on the boat ride home following Saturday’s massive efforts. It’s hard work cutting tracks - we are only half way through Motu Tou. There’s plenty of tough chopping left as we are behind schedule due to the late departure of the Southern Cross.

Steve has trapped his first rat on Anchorage today, a big Pacific Rat. Seeing them up close, strikes home the importance of completing our mission successfully.

 

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 Coral moonscapes and cool tropical trade winds

The latest blog from wildlife filmmaker Nick Hayward as he joins a team from BirdLife and Te Ipukarea Society (BirdLife in the Cook Islands) eradicating rats from Suwarrow – a seabird mecca in the South Pacific. Today the team reclaim their machete from a robber crab and enjoy the ‘modern’ comforts of Anchorage while contemplating a new departure date.

Motu Tou and neighbouring Motu Kena have been successfully treated with their first application of rat bait. There will be a second in seven day’s time. If we miss a single rat the whole operation and two years of careful planning could be wasted.

The application of bait is the culmination of all the hard work cutting the tracks and preparing the bait stations. This very thorough preparation is the key to a successful operation as previous successful invasive species eradications across the Pacific by BirdLife have indicated.

By now Motu Tou has become almost a second home with the team camping there overnight during the track cutting.

I can report that coconut crabs continue to be a nuisance. One morning Sia’s machete had disappeared. It eventually turned up deep inside a bush where it had been hidden and snacked on by the crabs.

Camping on the beach on Tou, I felt cold for the first time on Suwarrow with the southeasterly trade winds blowing in from the sea. The bright clear night was lit by streaks of shooting stars. They shone momentarily as straight lines pencilled across the deep black of a dark night. High in the sky, the Southern Cross pointed the way home to Rarotonga. It made us all think of home and the loved ones we have left behind.

With these thoughts in mind, we heard the Vaka (boat) was scheduled for a 14th of May departure. A bit of a surprise as we thought it was leaving on May 11. Let’s hope they can make a speedy voyage so we return on time.

Our main home on Suwarrow is Anchorage. Harry and Ngatupuna, the rangers, have been working hard cleaning up the site and it’s looking very smart for the opening of the park on the first of June. Here we have a flush toilet, electric lights (courtesy of the generator) and enough water for a bucket shower. True luxury.

Suwarrow is a beautiful Pacific atoll but it does have a hard edge. When the tide recedes it reveals a large expanse of jagged coral reef. As the midday sun beats down it becomes a scorching barren moonscape. Dazzling bright on the eyes and hard on the feet.

Tomorrow the plan is to bait Anchorage, we then require three rain free days so the bait isn’t spoiled. The forecast is looking good

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 Rainy days & frigatebird dance-offs

 

The latest blog from wildlife filmmaker Nick Hayward as he joins a team from BirdLife and Te Ipukarea Society (BirdLife in the Cook Islands) eradicating rats from Suwarrow – a seabird mecca in the South Pacific.

Wet weather has brought with it some bad news for the operation.

The heavens have opened, bringing rain to Motu Tou. After only one evening on the ground, the rain has almost certainly spoiled the rat bait.

After all the preparation and hard work track cutting, there have been some very long faces around the camp. It's hoped the second application will still be enough to eradicate the rats from Motu Tou.

Forecasting the weather is very difficult in Suwarrow. Heavy showers are still passing through and, from what we gather, may continue until Wednesday. There is no point baiting in the rain so the first application on Anchorage has been delayed. As there needs to be a seven-day gap between this and the second application, it puts our schedule in doubt. So it's now lucky the Vaka's departure is delayed until the 14th.

All the trials and tribulations of the weather are put into perspective when we think of the seabirds of Suwarrow.

The bird colonies are truly an amazing sight. On one Motu, in the Gull group of islands and just a short boat ride from Anchorage Island, there's a large colony of both Lesser and Greater Frigatebirds. They circle overhead, soaring on thermals like a congregation of vultures. On closer inspection with their long necks and beady eyes the similarity is even greater. Their personalities match; they’re constantly pecking nastily at their neighbours and, at any unguarded moment, pinching twigs from their fellows' nests.

The young males appear to gather into leks (a patch of ground used for communal display) at the edges of the colony. They compete vigorously to attract a mate: inflating the large red pouch under their necks, flapping their wings frantically and calling loudly. While above the females circle nonchalantly perusing the show. Sometimes they land briefly, more often than not taking off again soon after.

Some very brave small Brown Noddies nests in among the frigatebirds while perched in the low vegetation are nervous Red-footed Boobies. There's also a couple of Masked Boobies nesting on the sand. Their bright white colour and size make them individuals among the crowd. Deep in the vegetation are Red-tailed Tropicbirds, sitting tightly on their nests while their partners screech loudly from above.

Let's hope for some luck with the weather so that Suwarrow can become totally rat-free for the benefit of all the seabirds and other native wildlife.

 

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 Larcenous saboteurs & creative crab-chefs

 

Today the team search for more islets with rat inhabitants and find the inquisitive coconut crabs have a culinary bent.

The baiting is still on hold while we wait for a gap in the weather. The vagaries of recent forecasts testing the patience of the team as predicted rain fails to eventuate. But telling how much rain is going to fall on a pinhead in the middle of the Pacific Ocean would be a challenge to any forecaster.

Nevertheless, this has given us a chance to attend to other tasks.

While planning the eradication, anecdotal reports suggested Motu Oneone may also have rats in addition to the known populations on Anchorage and Motu Kena. To verify this two nights of searching and trapping were conducted on the island.

Oneone is ten hectares of lush native tropical forest, a large booby colony and many frigatebirds. But most numerous are the coconut crabs whose inquisitive and destructive habits added to the challenge of trapping and life on the island. In an effort to put the rat-traps out of crab reach they were positioned in trees, but clearly a coconut morsel was irresistible to these lumbering calciferous crushers.

Returning to check the traps the following morning a piece of string to which a trap was once attached was all that remained. Searching the vegetation below generally revealed a spring, a treadle, and other dismembered parts.

Traps were by no means their sole attention.

The many new and shiny objects to be found at the camp provided a source of ‘entertainment and discovery’ like no other. Despite hanging anything that could be out of harm’s way, an extended search finally revealed the water bottle had received a pounding beneath a bush and the food bucket toppled mixing the plums and baked beans. A combination to test even the ravenous.

In spite of the local sabotage enough information was collected to confirm there are no rats on Oneone. Good news in progressing the aim of a rat-free Suwarrow.

Hopefully the weather will do its part in the next day or two and we can complete the baiting operations for Anchorage, Motu Tou and Motu Kena.

 

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 Breeding season peaks as a moonlit feline stowaway appears

 

Today the crew are gathering seabird survey results, watching out for ominous rainclouds and wondering at the provenance of the newest resident to emerge from the shadows.

Anchorage has been baited. We have been waiting for a forecast of clear weather but it seems that a pattern of isolated showers has settled in. The perfect forecast is just not going to come.

With the Vaka (traditional boat) on its way we now have to take a gamble that the big showers will miss us as they have been doing since Saturday. The Vaka’s return is to be delayed to fit in the second application for Anchorage, leaving only a tiny weather window. This will also mean 10 extra people on the island.

With our clean fresh drinking water all gone we are starting to use up the available resources. Luckily there are large amounts of stored water which needs to be boiled before drinking.

Motu Tou is also still awaiting its second bait application. The weather has certainly been the biggest obstacle to this project. We are watching each batch of storm clouds with trepidation hoping they will miss us. Fingers crossed that our luck holds.

While we have been waiting for the clear weather the seabird survey has been in full swing.

Virtually the whole eastern seaboard has been surveyed as this contains most of the Motu. Greater and Lesser Frigatebirds are at the peak of their breeding and virtually all are on eggs. Red-tailed Tropicbirds are also breeding in abundance, a few with large chicks.

The Tropicbirds have a very engaging mating display. Forming into small gaggles they take turn to hover above the crowd, flapping their wings frantically then diving downwards. The gaggle has a little circuit starting at one end of the Motu and finishing at the other as they call enthusiastically.

It was a bit disappointing to not see any breeding Sooty Tern. With reports of over 100,000 breeding on Suwarrow, it would have been a magnificent wildlife spectacle. It may be too early in the season. The White Tern are in the mood for breeding, however, and are laying their eggs in the wooded Motu on bare branches with no nest.

Our first two yachts to arrive are now anchored out in the lagoon. Last night we had another visitor with the appearance of the infamous Suwarrow cat lurking in the shadows.

The cat first appeared in the roof of former resident and author Tom Neale’s old house. There is a cryptic sign with an arrow pointing to the roof that reads: “Do not disturb moon”. We now think this might refer to the cat whose name would then be Moon. Harry first saw the cat last year on a Wednesday so he calls it Wednesday. Moon is more apt as it lurks in the moonlight. The cat, whatever it’s name, is probably the reason for the low density of rats on Anchorage.

 

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 A flotilla on the lagoon and Moon’s future decided

 

Today the team hope the weather won’t be against them again as they eye their impending departure date with a new crew member.

Since Saturday there’s only been one significant shower. With unexpected bad luck it came early on Thursday morning after our baiting of Anchorage on Wednesday. Although brief there was 18mm of rain in the gauge - enough to damage the bait.

The hope is that the bait wasn’t completely destroyed and that it’s still doing its job. The Marumaru Atua, the Vaka (traditional boat) on which we will return to Rarotonga, has made good speed in the strong South Easterly trade winds and arrived at 6:30PM this evening. Her departure will need to be delayed to fit in the second baiting of Anchorage.

Our late return has eaten into the preparation time for the BirdLife World Congress in Canada, completing the Suwarrow film in time for the Congress on the 17th will be a big challenge now.

Today the team applied the second baiting on Motu Tou and Motu Kena. The forecast is for clear settled weather but the showers are still passing through. Again, we’re crossing our fingers for the weather we desperately need.

Moon, the cat, is making its presence felt. No longer lurking in the shadows he’s taken to joining us for dinner by prowling under the benches and table while meowing loudly for titbits. With the rats gone (hopefully) there is concern as to what Moon will eat. So it’s been decided we’ll take Moon to an animal shelter in Rarotonga, either with us on the Vaka or with Harry on his return later in November.

We now have three yachts (and the Vaka) anchored in the lagoon. Apart from being head ranger Harry also looks after immigration, customs health and biosecurity - a big responsibility.

Biosecurity is crucial to prevent introduced pests and predators such as rats establishing on Suwarrow.

Harry checks all visiting vessels - an important role in ensuring the islands remain rat-free - but he’s only here between June and November. Harry’s concern is for the half of the year there’s no ranger on Suwarrow. As the Cook Islands only National Park he believes it warrants a ranger’s presence year round”.

 

 

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 A day of rest

 

Today the team feast with the very welcome visitors to Suwarrow and celebrate some luck with the weather.

The curse of bait application bringing on rain is finally broken. Since baiting Motu Tou there’s been only one heavy shower of 3mm - 10mm is considered the danger point for rain damaging the bait so it’s well within the margin of error.

Anchorage is also looking promising. Steve has been trapping rats and they have all been consuming the bait, so it’s likely the bait remained in good condition despite the rain.

The Vaka’s (traditional boat) arrival has slowed our other work. Saturday was spent arranging a welcoming feast, with the Vaka’s crew eagerly joining in catching the fish. Today is Sunday so we have had our morning service and now enjoying a day of rest. Though BirdLife’s Steve and Sia are busy collating the bird survey results.

It’s back to work tomorrow. First we will be surveying Motu Manu, which is Maori for Bird Island. It has a large colony of frigatebirds and some noddies; the survey will reveal all the species using the Motu.

Weather permitting, we hope to lay the second bait application for Anchorage on Tuesday, and depart on Wednesday.

The Vaka has an electric motor only used for moving into or out of ports, so it’s wind dependant. Being traditionally rigged she can’t sail towards the wind because she needs the wind on her side or behind. The current wind direction is South Easterly which means if the wind direction doesn’t change we can’t sail directly to Rarotonga. So it’s unsure how long the voyage may take, possibly somewhere between five and seven days.

The Vaka crew are a hardy and cheerful crowd with some very experienced sailors among them. With their arrival our little family of Suwarrow expeditioners has doubled. It’s quite a shock for an isolated team. We shall be getting to know the crew very well over the coming week as we voyage across the Pacific Ocean together.

After church, Ian led a short service for his nephew Haron Teremoana who passed away in a swimming accident on Suwarrow in 1994. Over the past couple of days he’s been restoring the grave. It was a very moving ceremony.

 

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 Returning to the worlds they left behind

Today the team reflect on the potential success of their expedition to save Suwarrow’s seabirds, and ready themselves for their return trip to the real world.

The final baiting of Anchorage took place today. With the crew from the Vaka enthusiastically joining in and taking instructions from the now very experienced Suwarrow rat eradication team. The weather is looking fine and clear so the omens are good for a successful eradication of the rats.

Motu Tou is still a bit of a question mark. Effected by the rain during the first baiting when checked yesterday there wasn’t as much bait on the ground as expected.

We are all hopeful that the eradication on Motu Tou will be a success. However, only time will tell as the rats are very difficult to detect if they are present in low numbers. It will be necessary to monitor the island over the coming months and years.

Yesterday’s survey of Motu Manu showed a large colony of frigatebirds the majority being Lesser Frigates. This is very encouraging as Lessers have a lower global population than the larger Greater Frigates.

There was quite a strong south-easterly wind blowing yesterday which caused some waves across the lagoon. Harry the head ranger was driving so we were in safe hands as the dingy pitched over the waves in a frightening manor. The spray had soaked us all by our return to Anchorage.

With the South-easterly forecasted to swing to the east the Vaka (traditional boat) is due to leave in the outgoing tide tomorrow at 8 am. We are hoping for good winds and a following sea for Rarotonga.

It’s a sad thought to be leaving Suwarrow and our friends the rangers. Tonight we will have our farewell feast of fresh fish - then it’s back to the worlds we left behind ...

 

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 Farewell Suwarrow

The team have finished their final operation to remove rats from Suwarrow and are halfway home to Rarotonga on their Vaka.

The eradication team were assisted in the final application of bait to Anchorage by the Vaka (traditional boat) crew who had recently arrived to take us back to Rarotonga. We completed the baiting in good time and under favourable conditions. However, the result of the past four weeks work won’t be known for several months yet although the early signs appear promising. 

On Anchorage, very few rats were trapped in the days preceding the application and all showed evidence of having eaten the bait. With this we prepared ourselves for departure from Suwarrow. 

Having enjoyed the islands beauty, a plentiful supply of food and the friendship and support of – Suwarrow’s rangers Harry and Ngatipuna it was not without mixed feelings as we loaded the Vaka for the return journey. 

The south-easterly trade winds had begun to blow in the last few days; a pattern set to continue until October. With Rarotonga directly to the south-east of Suwarrow this presents a considerable sailing challenge in navigating the 500 nautical miles.

With our final farewells and blessings shared, the Vaka and our crew slipped out of Suwarrow’s shelter. 

As there was no change in wind direction and a strong wind warning in force for the Northern Cook Island group, all 16 people were immediately busy sheeting sails and adjusting the Vaka’s course as she began a series of tacks. 

By midday we’d passed the Southern end of the atoll and set our course as close to Rarotonga as possible but still to the south, hoping the easterly conditions forecast in two day’s time would prevail and help us to get all the way over. 

As I write we are 250 miles from Suwarrow and 350 miles to the West of Rarotonga following two days of good speed but constant winds from the south-east.

Everyone is now well in the ‘watch routine’ with three teams of four each running watch for three hours followed by a six-hour rest. 

A massive oar (Tuoe), at the stern provides the Vaka’s steering. Mastering the art of this is the main activity for the watch crew while experienced watch leaders and navigators Sergio, Jamal and Jason ensure the Vaka’s course. 

Learning how to use the position of stars and sun, wind and sea direction to find our course across the vast expanse of ocean is an amazing experience and one we’re set to continue with for a few days yet. 

Having changed our course we’re now tacking to the east of Rarotonga to enable one final tack in about two day’s time to get down to Rarotonga. A prospect everyone will be looking forward to but for now everyone is in good spirits and enjoying the journey.

Nick Hayward – Pacific Ocean, 350 miles to the West of Rarotonga, Cook Islands.

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 Tacking towards home

The team is edging their way towards Rarotonga in their traditional canoe which is at the mercy of the wind.

Day five on the Vaka (traditional boat) and we are still at sea.

The prevailing south-easterlies have prevented us from steering directly to Rarotonga so we have been sailing south then tacking to the east.

On the last tack we came within 40 nautical miles to Rarotonga – our destination. Serg, the Tahitian crew leader, claimed to have seen land in the distance, much to everybody else’s disbelief.

Our current tack is taking us away from Rarotonga to the north so we are hoping for an easterly wind change that will allow us to sail straight in by tomorrow morning. Right now it appears we are destined to sail backwards and forwards across the sea never quite reaching our destination.

Life on the Vaka is 16 brave souls floating across the Pacific on a wooden platform. Luckily the crew are very cheerful, experienced and many have been Vaka-sailing since the early 1990s having logged months at sea.

On the wooden platform there is a hut containing the captain’s bed and a galley (kitchen). Lorna, the cook, produces amazing meals from the tiny galley.

On the other side is the convenience, which is open to the weather but with a fantastic view! It’s flushed by a seawater bucket.

We sleep in the canoe’s hulls which we enter through a hatch. Crew can often be found down their hatch having a kip. The sleeping quarters remind me of a World War II submarine.

The blue Pacific hasn’t produced many bird sightings but Red-Tailed Tropicbird, Tahiti Petrel, Sooty Shearwater and a White Bellied Storm Petrel have been spotted.

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BirdLife International is a global Partnership of conservation organisations that strives to conserve birds, their habitats and global biodiversity, working with people towards sustainability in the use of natural resources. They're the World's largest partnership of conservation organisations.

The BirdLife Pacific Partnership comprises a network of six national conservation organisations as follows: BirdLife Australia – Australia; Te Ipukerea Society – Cook Islands; Société d’Ornithologie de Polynésie Manu – French Polynesia; Société Calédonienne d'Ornithologie – New Caledonia; Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society Inc – New Zealand, and; Palau Conservation Society – Palau. Together they are tackling the biggest threats to the region's threatened wildlife such as invasive species, habitat loss and climate change.


Acknowledgements: The expedition to remove rats from Suwarrow National Park is a joint project between BirdLife International, Te Ipukarea Society (BirdLife Partner in the Cook Islands) and the Cook Island National Environment Service. The project is being kindly supported by the European Community, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, SPREP, GEF and Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, and forms part of the BirdLife Invasive Alien Species Programme which is tackling this greatest of threats to wildlife around the world. BirdLife wishes to thank the efforts of many who are supporting the programme including Pacific Invasive Initiative, Pacific Invasive Learning Network, New Zealand Department of Conservation the University of the South Pacific, Landcare Research New Zealand, Island Conservation, Wildiaries and Nick Hayward. The BirdLife Invasive Alien Species Programme urgently needs your support to tackle more sites and save more species. To support our work and make a donation today, please go to www.justgiving.com/BirdLife-invasive-species. Thank you.