By Fields Falcone, China Keeper
It is a long journey to my destination this year, the island of Tinian. MAC (Mariana Avifauna Conservation) Program participants from a dozen zoos have gathered once again for our annual efforts to spare the birds of Northern Mariana Islands the fate of those on Guam in decades past – vast extinction from the non-native, predatory brown tree snake. Memphis to Chicago to Honolulu to Guam to Saipan to Tinian over two days, most within a 24 hour period… A quick stop in a familiar hotel in Saipan reminds us we are both home and far from home.
Image 1: Taking off from Memphis at 6am.
Image 2: Flight #5 – a 6-seater from Saipan to Tinian, CNMI (Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands).
Image 3: Tinian, with Saipan in the background. At the end of the road are the WWII airstrips where the US bomber the Enola Gay took off for Hiroshima with an atomic bomb.
Image 4: Motel courtyard, Saipan.
Fueled on adrenaline, we of the 2nd crew arrive on Tinian ready to work. The 1st crew arrived 10 days earlier and commenced the monumental tasks of barging over all the supplies in storage at a local Saipan government office, organizing the bird holding room, and scouting, clearing, and setting up the field camp and first wave of nets to catch Tinian monarchs (a flycatcher endemic to this one island and nowhere else in the world) and bridled white-eyes (found only on three islands in the Marianas). When we have in holding our target number of 50 birds each we will take them by boat to the island of Guguan, where no people reside, and therefore no snakes are found. The mission of the Program, in partnership with CNMI and US Fish and Wildlife offices, is to offer the threatened, endemic bird communities of the populated islands in the Northern Marianas sanctuary from the snake on uninhabited islands, so we do not lose these birds like the majority of the birds lost on neighboring Guam. Sadly, the snake has been observed on all three inhabited islands – Saipan, Tinian, and Rota.
Image 5: Sydney Oliveira, St. Louis Zoo, helps cut paper to line the bird holding boxes.
Image 6: Ellen Gorrell, Toledo Zoo, holds a Tinian monarch, one of our target birds for this year.
Image 7: Author, Memphis Zoo, with a Micronesian honeyeater.
While this bird is endemic only to Micronesia, it is found in abundance on many islands and is not a part of the MAC plan. “Incidental captures” such as this jewel are immediately released at the nets back into the habitat. Everywhere you turn on these islands are the reminders of the relatively recent shocks of war, the long history of native and occupying cultures, and the timeless beauty of nature. Every day we are here is a natural and cultural history lesson – from the pamphlets we carry explaining unexploded ordnance safety, to the birds we carry back to the feeding station, every moment gives us pause at how lucky we are to play a small role in this conservation partnership.
Image 8: WWII is not forgotten on these islands.
Image 9: Ancient native Chamorro lattes – mysteriously large stones erected for housing foundations.
Image 10: Flame tree in partial bloom, Tinian. While not native, the tree is revered in the Northern Marianas. I can see why.