This winter I am going to be based on a small islet off the Azorean archipelago in the middle of the north Atlantic, assisting a friend with some research work that focusses on the island’s breeding petrel species. After an embarrassingly long lapse in updates here on my blog, I thought I’d try to make a bit of an effort to post a few updates during the coming months. This is (I hope) the first of many to come…
I’ve survived my first few days of islet life, having arrived on Graciosa – the second smallest of the ‘main’ islands in the Azorean archipelago – on Monday. Weather conditions were just about good enough to make a dash across from Praia harbour in the small rib provided by the island’s national park service. Despite the very calm winds, though, there was a hefty Atlantic swell surging in from the east which initially made it look touch and go whether I’d be able to make it at all.
Landing on Praia Islet isn’t a straight forward affair, requiring perfect timing in between the larger waves to rush towards the concrete jetty, spin the boat around to face oncoming waves, chuck off the hefty load of fresh supplies and luggage, then jump off and let the rib surge off before the next onslaught of breaking waves smothers the harbour.
An exciting entry, that is for sure.
This small island (barely half a kilometre from tip to tip) is home to a surprising diversity of very special breeding seabird species. It’s soft sandstone substrate and cavity-puckered volcanic rock shelter away the nesting sites for no fewer than five different procellariforme seabird species: Little and Cory’s Shearwaters, Bulwer’s Petrels, Madeiran Storm-petrels and the Azores endemic Monteiro’s Storm-petrels (yet to be fully assigned its own full species status). In addition, the tussocky grassland around the isle’s perimeter holds colonies of Roseate and Common Terns, and a few Yellow-legged Gulls (most of which are kept at bay by the ferocious terns, to the symbiotic benefit of the petrels, which would otherwise provide a perfect food source for these brutes).
And so Praia has become something of a refuge for these superb seabird species, some of which nest elsewhere in the Azores and wider Atlantic, but others of which are specific only to a scattering of similarly tiny islands in the Azores archipelago. The islet has also thus become a hub for research on these inhabitants, due in part to the presence of a solid stone hut on the western flanks of the islet, which serves as a humble dwelling and shelter from the brutish Atlantic storms which rage through the area.
A host of projects have centred here for many decades now, first pioneered by Luis Monteiro in the late 1900s, who’s study of mercury levels in different seabirds species led to the realisation that the petrels breeding on the island during the summer were in fact a different species to those breeding here during the winter – Monteiro’s and Madeiran Storm-petrels being the adopted names consequently (although it is currently questioned wether the ‘Madeiran’ Storm-petrels that breed here in the winter are indeed a cryptic subspecies named ‘Grants’ Storm-petrel…#taxonomy).
Since then, and Luis Monteiro’s sad death in a plane crash over Sao Jorge, seabird study has flourished here. The situation now is perfect (well, aside the unending variability in Atlantic weather conditions permitting access to the isle) for researching their mysterious lives: the island is covered in artificial nest boxes hidden beneath volcanic rocks, which take the form of adapted plant pots with holes in. These easily-accessible nest boxes in which both petrel species now nest allows for their close study and observation throughout their nesting season – from the moment the eggs are laid, through to the rearing of their fluffy little chicks.
The purpose of my trip to this tiny islet was to join a good friend of mine to assist with her PhD research for the winter season. Hannah Hereward took on an exciting area of work for her PhD last year, looking at advancing our knowledge of the breeding behaviour and threats facing the Monteiro’s and Madeiran Storm-petrels that breed on Praia Islet. Given my affinity for small islands and seabirds, I really didn’t take too much persuading to join her winter’s research team out in the Azores.
Arriving by the small inter-island plane onto Graciosa last Tuesday, my first glimpse of Praia Islet was through the faded porthole windows of the plane – a small wedge-shaped volcanic lump ringed with white surf from the Atlantic’s unrelenting wave action. After a morning strolling around the quaint streets of one of Graciosa’s main towns – Santa Cruz – I joined Luis and Pedro from the Azores park service to the harbour in anticipation of making a crossing to the islet in the small rib. We had a big load of gear and precious food supplies to take with us, and so first piled these into the little vessel, before jumping in ourselves and leaving the very misleading calmness of Praia’s harbour.
Out across the short channel towards Praia, the islet looked no bigger as we approached slowly across the gentle swell, although I was a little surprised at the greenery covering it’s shores – tussocky grass and tamarisk trees which Pedro explained had mostly grown in the last twenty years after Rabbits were eradicated from the island in the 1990s. As we got closer to the island, I could see three figures standing on the concrete jetty, awaiting our arrival – Hannah and two assistants who had been helping for the previous weeks: Jack James Devlin and Sarah Long. I could also seen a fair bit more breaking swell than I’d hoped as we loomed closer too, and Pedro wasn’t looking all too happy about the state of the sea. We slowed the engine some 30 metres offshore, and waited. Observing first the size of the swell coming in, and secondly how often a calmer gap appeared that would allow us to rush in, spin into the wave, moor alongside the jetty and fling everything off before the next breakers surged in.
At last it looked like we had our gap. The engine revved into action and we motored in towards shore. Ropes were lung and some quick manoeuvring of the boat got us into the right direction for a quick gateway. Then we frantically passed out water bottles, food supplies and luggage before hopping ashore and throwing off the rope to allow them to head out to safety.
I’d made it! There was barely time to say hello before we needed to shuttle the precious cargo off the slippery jetty and onto the volcanic rocky shore, where it was safely out of reach of the erratic breaking waves.
That was my entry to Praia Islet, and since then it’s been a brilliant few days getting to grips with my surrounds (it doesn’t take long on an island you can walk around in 10 minutes), the daily routine of research work, and the daily chores keeping camp operational back at base. Nights have been dominated by a chirruping chorus of squeaky flight calls from the Madeiran Storm-petrels, followed later by cackling laughs of Little Shearwaters after the moon sets in the early hours of the morning.
The weather has been far too kind for my first days here, with sunny weather and calm winds every day since my arrival. I’m sure the more typical rain and gales will be on it’s way across the Atlantic soon enough, but for now it’s nice to enjoy the clear skies for dry days and moonlit, starry night skies.
Updates to follow. Until then, here are a few more images from these last few days…