April to June 2010

We knew our return to the Caribbean after the UK bit would be hectic – but we looked forward to it as you would removing a plaster, morbidly keen to see what lay underneath in the four weeks we had be errant at home. What had been happening was that several hundred thousand migrant seabirds had arrived back into our Survey area for the briefest and most necessary of visits to terra firma.

two headed booby

The object of the game: to meet a boy/girl, fix up a pad, do a little flirting perhaps, and then perform the most rapid non-immaculate conception, followed by a re-ruffling of feathers and last ditch fishing trip to fatten up for the incubation period. The courtship is truly endearing;, beak clacking, perhaps a little dance if you are a Booby, some furtive glances, coy strutting, perhaps a little fish passed to the object of ones desire. The fact that some of the species will pair bond and the likeness to our own courtship and marital allegiance, and major investment in very few young is what creates an affinity and warmth for these seabirds. I remember a meeting with Katharine back in 2005 in Leeds in which we followed a alarmingly similar routine, all the way up to the regurgitating part and no further I may add, too many strong drinks in Normans bar had unsettled the Land girls otherwise iron stomach. Oh, I didn’t eat it either so I suppose the likeness is limited.

Booby chick after a shower

We completed a mildly epic trip back from the UK to Lista Light all in a day involving all major modes of transport in a disappointingly smooth trip from the point we ruffled the Allpress household at 5-ish to chugging over to Lista in one of Grenada’s offshore islands at 8pm in a borrowed dinghy (thanks Gus). It was a culture shock that left us both uneasy. Lista was well though.

Lista sat patiently

Theme one for this log is New Life. As we sat on the bus to complete some arbitrary bureaucracy in leaving port I looked from my feet upwards. I exclaimed slightly. Unwittingly I had managed to give new life to each and every garment on my body, excluding my pants (in itself an irony as male visitors to the boat will know that leaving me a pair of pants (clean please) is a condition of passage), every item was a relic of somebody else’s wardrobe! In the NGO sector we are no strangers to proper accreditation so fittingly a role-call of donors follows:
– Shoes – David W, thankyou, they live on and are my boat and near-shore primaries.
– Socks- Carole, I believe they are yours, thank you, although I may well have stolen them, in which case replace thank you with sorry. Christmas isn’t that far away.
– Shorts – Jake, I am indebted. They are rusting around the eyelets but as you know nothing on Lista lasts for ever. I give them at least another 18months in my custody before they will become too indecent
– T-Shirt – Tom, cheers. I think you left it in Scotland at Tamsins wedding (which is quite frankly a little ambitious on your part) but in not stealing it back when you visited in Trinidad you are a gentleman
– Cap – Lucy Land, many thanks. Being donated a Jewsons cap is perhaps the crowning moment in any DIY-ers life. To the uninitiated Jewsons is a channel tunnel boring megalithic giant where B&Q /Wickes are perhaps a cappuccino swizzler.

Kath was similarly attired. Re-use is the ultimately efficient form of recycling so far from being embarrassed at our cladding we are fully proud. A smattering of finer first hand threads do prevail in my wifes wardrobe to be used sparingly as fineries but for all else we are grateful and think of the donors each time we don them. I’m sure she agrees.

We packed up and sailed on our first mid-distance trip as a twosome, 360nm from Grenada to St Maarten. Aside from tearing the head off yet another newly mended jib it was a superb trip lasting 72hours and with no sleep accomplished. As we approached St Maarten/St Martin slightly dazed from the exertion we were left with a final choice of going Dutch or French – the island is divided across the middle. Everyone will have experienced extreme tiredness and the overriding condition in which it leaves a person is indecision, especially on ultimately unimportant matters. The wind was taking us North East at 6kts and the memory of the French part being marginally more responsible environmentally than the Dutch side (i.e. they had a nice green recycling mecca) meant we added an hour or five finally getting around to Marigot Bay, Saint Martin.

total sleep required for lista and crew

We had an appointment to make with family friend Douglas who had flown in from a conference in Miami to sample a different sort of mini-break. The transaction was this – for helping us in being the important third person on a rapid trip to a remote, ill-visited bird island named Sombrero, taking him out of phone contact and into a deepwater anchorage, and creating some risk around actually returning him on time to deliver his keynote speech, we would feed and water him for a day or two and get him close to some unique nature whilst enjoy sailing and living on a boat born in 1935. To boot he would need to offer us some of his brain for a day or two – Douglas’s top trump is his ability to find the winding mountain passes over and through grey, amorphous masses of rock and soil and snow and excrement that form the problems we put in front of achieving our goals in life. It’s a good skill. It also involved a light amount of lubrication and fine food bestowed upon us in the delectable French port Marigot, (thank you very much!), which accounts for day off number one of the summer season. I think we delivered too – aside from the birds we were counting on counting we also met several large blacktip reef sharks on our daily commute which certainly raised the heart rate.

Some photos attached of Summer Survey season days 1 – 31 (St Maarten/StMartin, Anguilla, Saba, Statia, St Kitts and Nevis).

Douglas and some birds

Talking about birds making love with lisaliscious

Scarlet Tanager looking incongruent

Moonscape of Sombrero, bird heaven

the new survey boat is online

An organic approach to baggywrinkles

Teaching Seabird Monitoring on Anguilla

Going through monitoring with legendary Saba-Sue

Mangos roll freely down steep Saba streets

2 year anniversary involved 8mile yomp

The dishwasher complaining to me about mess prhaps

rolling back the development in St Kitts

Some pelican feeding action

Adult Breeding Brown Pelican in St Kitts

Theme number two arrived in Nevis, fresh off the trot from a major migration he arrived to settle in the most unlikely of places. He is incorrectly dubbed the “Least Tern” and I am indignant about this. He is small in size (21cm long and as little as 30grams) and thus in the original name I can concede the logic but looks are surely deceptive. He is a hero.

Least Tern magnified somewhat

On Nevis, a small habituated island he survives shoulder to shoulder with man. Bearing in mind just about 99% of seabirds in this region have been marginalised to live solely on offshore un-inhabited islands he has chosen to fight out a living amongst the invasive species that now grace these islands – humans, cats, dogs, rats, mongoose, manicou, goats, cattle, etc etc. And as if in defiance he has not only chosen to assert himself as a marginal player in the new domain, he is putting up home right next door to his foes.

on bikes in search of predators and seabirds

As often is the case from a literature review, prior to arriving into Nevis we had a historical record of these birds nesting on a windwardside beach, but often our surveys conclude these populations were just that, historical. We unloaded the bikes instead of a more rapid circumnavigation in our super efficient dinghy (15mpg over a 7hr trial test for a 14’ RIB is truly exceptional) – we do many more miles per gallon on them. We trawled all the likely spots without much hope, popping down tracks off the main road to the beaches and coves and vantage points with sight lines. On foot we photographed the vacant beaches as proof and moved on. By 1700hrs, hungry and hot and a little bothered we were becoming resigned to a day of null data (which whatever scientists say about being just as valuable is simply not as rewarding!!) we were yelled at from the sky. We had left the bikes at the end of a trail where it terminated at the 2 mile long beach alongside a van, a load of pirogues (open fishing boats), a clear sand-mining area and next to the horse racecourse. He Swooped – Ki-dik, ki-dik he said – he meant to ward us away.

David and goliath?

This meant he was breeding here. We scoured the beach for evidence in the shape of an egg 2cm long, sand-coloured, and merely laid in an indent in the sand. A needle in a haystack. But just like an old metal-detector, the closer we moved to the nest, the more frequent the calls, and aggressive the swoops. He led us to our nest. Perhaps, in the off-season when loafing in Canada/US, he may like to re-think his defence strategy.


Our next meeting with this species was in Montserrat, chuffing Montserrat. We looked forward to a return here as a British overseas territory with a curious blend of Caribbean culture but with a Union Jack, and indelible Irish heritage, and as home to our discovery last year of a previously undetected population of breeding Audubons Shearwater. We had high hopes that the explosive volcano that has divided the island and curtailed mans presence in the South may lend an area for seabirds to breed undisturbed. With the independence of a dinghy, and a small amount of last minute unplanned diplomacy with the police boat at the perimeter of the exclusion zone we planed across to the former capital, metres deep in ash and lava. Above this grey and throat clogging, eye watering, sulphurous landscape were some white dots about to disclose their breeding locations to us.

turtles could test then could Least Terns?

standing still wasn’t a good plan

Three months prior the lid was blown off the Soufriere hills once more and the sea boiled for weeks as the land regained 500m to the East. Without chart data of the new shoals and with the wind blowing steadily it was a pretty miserable journey around a turbulent sea in a small dinghy but it was fantastic to prove their presence here – in the middle of the capital of Montserrat! Not even an inch below the new pyroclastic flow, a finger thrust to just the first joint would reveal a frighteningly hot substrate, to our side lay fully hardboiled iguana eggs and yet our friend, the indomitable Least Tern had made a new home.

the Least Tern in a defensive mood again

Photo diary from days 32-61.

1000th person reached in our PR campaign

Schoolboys branded with our Tropicbird tattoos

Redonda un-expectantly swathed in green herbs

for a brief time the goats cant keep it down

all these suds from just 6 soapy plant buds!

my first solo taxidermy on a dead common tern

sadly the flies had got to his head before I did

Baking day reinvigorated, condense the pain

The perfect survey vessel drawing only 8cm

Least Tern chick, as cryptic as its egg stage

I would like to see 8 and 5 reversed

Beautiful Brown Noddy with chick

Good advice!

Bridled Terns departing on a fishing trip

Juvenile Least Terns taking a break

Finally, escapism – we (Kath and I) need it sometimes, from the briefest of moments when we are content and balanced, or more likely when our lives are chaotic and at worst without direction at all. Its best to get it before the threads start to unravel but I’m not totally sure we have mastered that art just yet.

Kath is voracious in her ability to fire up contacts and sessions and the next “outreach” opportunity to be spun in between actual surveys. The emails fly at all hours (of my 160 odd unread emails I’m ashamed to say perhaps 50% are emails on which I am in cc, all from Katharine!). As a caring husband my duty should be to watch out for signs off over-exertion but I’m guilty as I can’t resist adding more people to our tally, turning the cells in our spreadsheets from red to green. I spend my time instead working out how we can squeeze in one more survey, leave one less unanswered question. Our work and home merge together and whilst it’s a wonderful time, it can be a little disorientating for us; perhaps I get dour, Kath stressed.

Another little media opportunity booked in

On account of surveying 8 countries since returning, and delivering seabird conservation chat to nearly 1300 people for 2010 in countless govt meetings, public awareness presentations and school visits and with 2 days off in those 61 days we did recognise a need was bubbling.

What we needed was a quick fix, and in the newly opened Caribbean Cinemas in Antigua, and amongst DVDs we had collected in Vigo, Spain, but never opened, we found it in buckets!!

So there are two films to note. This is perhaps misleading in suggesting I have seen more two films and have selected the best two out of a gamut of runners, broad in genre and budget, meandering through world cinema and Hollywood, and expansive in the annals of time. No. I have only seen two but in their own ways they were superb!

1. Knight and Day – Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Has the boy finally cracked thee may ask (but of course I do like MI:2 more than is reasonable for a grown man)? But no – its pure escapism – right rollicking adventure, total nonsense and admirable for that. It has a cow scene in it too which is commendable – Our bovine friends never feature highly enough I feel except for that scene in the tornado film in which the rather unfortunate daisy is plucked from her mid-west pasture by a marauding twister and hurled into outer space. Shame really given their global significance as land managers, religious icons, biomass accumulators ready to deliver a protein source across in each and every continent (perhaps dried and vacuum packed in the very bottom one). In fact, any shortcoming of these doe-eyed, long-lashed, high heeled, highly tinkered with descendents of the days when large mammals appeared and thought that leaves and grass may be tasty, if hard work to eat, is more our own if we cram too many of them into the wrong places. I digress: Baddies, goodies, smug heros, sassy heroines…. aaah, exactly the way cinema should be, no?

2. Les Educacions de las Hadas. Some Spanish actors of ridiculously procrastinated maternal and paternal names strung together like a dna helax mapping the families history. Foreign language so we can appear high brow and flit it into conversation as if we are world cinema aficionados. Soft (but an altogether odd shape, with some rather crunchy bits in it – bit like a Toblerone i suppose), mildly bumbling but I suppose a little gritty, warm, gooey, frustrating but ultimately a hyper-charming tale set in the Spanish woodlands, amid a back drop of slightly odd protagonists. One other notable success is that it includes a child actor who isn’t totally irritating ALL of the time. Bravo.

Right-oh, Its blowing hard outside as we nestle alone amongst the Bird Islands of Antigua. Hurricane has been season quiet up to now. Off to check the anchor snubber and work out where that drip on my head is really coming from….

Laughing Gulls loafing