By: Susan White, Incident Commander
The first full application of bait that began on June 12th was completed on Father’s Day Sunday, June 19th. This effort required some team members to slog through muck up to their thighs and trudge through water and underbrush to reach the overhanging palm canopy and bait it. The monitoring team continues to collect data and an initial analysis shows favorable bait application rates.
As in all environments, there is a natural and constant cycle of life and death in Palmyra’s ecosystem. In a nature preserve and national wildlife refuge with hundreds of thousands of birds and other wildlife, we expect to find wildlife mortality as the cycle of life continues. So far at Palmyra, with our crews systematically canvassing the atoll from air and land, we have conducted focused surveys for injured or dead wildlife; we also look for wildlife incidentally while we distribute bait. We are purposefully searching for effects of our actions on the environment and we are also finding evidence of the circle of life.
Thus far, we have put in hundreds of person hours in the field, covering 100% of the coastline and a large portion of the interior of the islands. During this period, team members have documented 6 aircraft-bird collision casualties; 4 animals whose death appears natural, including a sooty tern, a crab, a fish, and a green sea turtle; and 0 wildlife deaths attributable to the bait through field analyses. One live bird that ate bait was captured, has thus far been successfully treated, and is in captive care. When feasible, we are gathering whole body specimens for study to better understand the animals’ health, the health of Palmyra’s environment, and try to ascertain a cause of death.
On Friday, June 17th, the large green sea turtle mentioned above was found dead, washed ashore. Unsuitable to save as a whole specimen for off-island analyses, the team prepared a contamination-free area so the on-island veterinarian could perform a necropsy (autopsy) on the turtle with the hope of quickly identifying if exposure to bait could have affected the cause of death. Although the death of the turtle is unfortunate, there were no signs that its passing is related to the project and there were no signs of bait inside the turtle. As a precaution, and as directed by monitoring protocols, organ and tissue samples were taken for later analyses. The turtle’s remains were respectfully returned to the sea.
All the live animals being held in temporary captivity are doing well. A total of 13 shorebirds are being held in the aviary. Twelve are stable and eating on their own. One bristle-thighed curlew (BTCU) stopped eating on its own and is being hand-fed and receiving special care. More than two-thirds of the geckoes are maintaining or gaining weight and one has laid eggs in its cage.
The team had its first full day off on 20 June, accompanied by torrential rain and much-deserved down time. Many of the dedicated crew resumed work later in the day and took on tasks ranging from laundry to data review. Our day off concluded with a bonfire on North Beach, relaxing guitar music from our GIS Specialist, and an exquisitely beautiful, cloudless, starry night.
The second aerial application of bait began on June 21st.
USDA monitoring crew member tracks radio-collared rats. USFWS/S.White
Aircraft mechanic inspects helo while air supervisor records information from pilot. USFWS/S.White
Project chefs are keeping the crew well fed. USFWS/S.White
Veterinarian feeds captive bristle-thighed curlew held by shorebird protection chief. USFWS/B. Flint
Monitoring chief briefs his team prior to field data collection. Island Conservation/E. Oberg
GIS specialist enters data from an earlier flight
run. Island Conservation/D. Will
Training on helicopter safety by bait loading specialist. Island Conservation/E. Oberg
Bob Gooding, Galley Specialist, assists with ground canopy baiting. USFWS/B.Flint
Ground operations supervisor and hand baiting crew member apply bait. Island Conservation/E.Oberg
Gecko protection. USFWS/S.White
Baiting chief consults with air operations supervisor. USFWS/S.White