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Life or Death – Surviving The First 63 Days

Wirebird guarding a nest.

Wirebird guarding a nest.

ST HELENA’S ENDEMIC WIREBIRD | Darrin Henry

Despite its excellence in the art of camouflage, St Helena’s endemic wirebirds’ conservation status is listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ by the IUCN. From barely two feet away I have difficulty spotting the two speckled eggs, even the nest for that matter.

St Helena National Trust Officers

Wirebird Monitoring Officer, Dennis (Denny) Leo and Wirebird Manager, Kevin George, from the St Helena National Trust are on their weekly visit to Deadwood Plain, one of the three core nesting sites on the island. They’ve allowed me to tag along and are showing admirable patience at my cumbersome movement with the bulky camera kit.

We retreat to the Land Rover after just 30 seconds, to the relief of the anxious adult bird hopping nearby which promptly returns to the nest and resumes incubation duties.

The sighting and GPS coordinates are recorded before we continue our methodical survey across the Plain. The Land Rover is carefully navigating shallow tracks from paddock to paddock, all butt and bound on an area just shy of a square mile. Deadwood Plain undulates gently with small herds of cattle grazing in random spots.

Kevin scans the field for tell tale activity.

Kevin scans the field for tell tale activity.

Kevin (left) and Denny recording findings of a thriving nest.

Kevin (left) and Denny recording findings of a thriving nest.

Spot the eggs! The wirebird nests are very difficult to find without some experience.

Spot the eggs! The wirebird nests are very difficult to find without some experience.

The wirebird's 'broken wing' performance is designed to draw predators away from the nest.

The wirebird’s ‘broken wing’ performance is designed to draw predators away from the nest.

The Wirebird is a member of the plover family and has evolved from being a wader bird. It is the last remaining endemic bird on St Helena, others have become extinct.

In 2006 a count revealed the St Helena Wirebird (Charadrius sanctaehelenae) population had dropped 40% in five years, with just 235 individuals remaining. Predation from cats and rats was identified as a major factor, triggering conservation efforts to halt the decline. Breeding sites were mapped out, extensive monitoring and data collection began and a three year ‘Predator Control Programme’ were key elements of the work. Wirebirds are monitored six months of the year, September to March, which covers the nesting season.

Number of Wirebirds on St Helena

Today, Kevin tells me, the population numbers have improved as a result of ongoing conservation efforts. An annual census just completed recorded 437 individual wirebirds. Feral cat numbers are now regulated by four months of trapping each year. Kevin is against eradicating the cats, explaining they help keep the rats in check. “It’s about getting that balance,” he tells me.

There is disappointment at the next stop. The GPS ensures we are at the right spot where a nest was logged last week, but the absence of adult wirebirds is sadly significant. The nest is gone. Predation is the likely cause, either cats, rats or even mynah birds.

Checking GPS readings for the next nest location.

Checking GPS readings for the next nest location.

Deadwood Plain is one of the three core nesting sites on the island.

Deadwood Plain is one of the three core nesting sites on the island.

This nest is concealed within a dried cow pat.

This nest is concealed within a dried cow pat. There are two eggs visible – can you spot them?

A nest with a single egg.

A nest with a single egg.

Nests are at greatest risk for the first 63 days. Eggs take 28 days to hatch, then chicks require another 35 days before they can fly and are then able to evade predators. Survival chances are good thereafter with the wirebirds’ lifespan believed to be at least 10 years.

Happily we locate more thriving nests and the team spot quite a few juvenile birds, which are greyer in appearance than the adult. The juvenile phase lasts 10 months.

Photographing St Helena’s Wirebird Chick

In between nest checks I ask Denny if he enjoys the work. “I love it, best job I’ve ever had,” he replies, “I really miss it when the six months are up and I have to do other work.”

Completing all checks on Deadwood Plain we head off to nearby Horse Point, about two miles away, where Denny has been monitoring a nest for the last four weeks. The terrain is in complete contrast to the grassy paddocks; this is barren and dusty, all the more desolate as the midday summer heat approaches.

Checking the barren Horse Point nesting sites.

Checking the barren Horse Point nesting sites.

We locate the nest easily and Denny goes to check the condition first. Immediately an adult bird moves off the nest and Denny signals excitedly for me to approach. I’m surprised to find one unhatched egg as well as a tiny chick, hardly moving. I’m awestruck when Kevin estimates it is just two hours old. Under instruction from Denny I move quickly to set up my tripod five metres away. Immediately the adult bird returns to the nest. It’s an exhilarating moment. I’ve seen plenty of wirebirds before, but being this close with a camera to a stationary bird is a first. I shoot quickly, conscious I’m intruding on a special moment. Twice the adult bird stands and turns before settling, which has given me plenty of shots.

A new born chick, estimated at two hours old, plus an unhatched egg.

A new born chick, estimated at two hours old, plus an unhatched egg.

The adult wirebird protects the egg and chick from the fierce midday sun.

The adult wirebird protects the egg and chick from the fierce midday sun.

The wirebird soon settles on both the chick and unhatched egg.

The wirebird soon settles on both the chick and unhatched egg.

I climb back into the Land Rover, a huge grin on my face. I’ve enjoyed many privileged moments with the camera, and this ranks right up there. The wirebird is the national bird of St Helena and today I witnessed a tiny part of its desperate fight for survival.

Sadly, I later learned that this chick did not survive; a sobering reminder of the fragile existence of St Helena’s wirebird.

 

 

Note: For just £10 you can take part in the SHNT’s ‘Adopt A Wirebirdscheme and support this vital conservation work. Click for details.

Acknowledgments: St Helena National Trust, UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum.

 

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