Catch up here, here and here.
With showers on Tinian, the worst fears set in that we would not get to move the rufous fantails today. Luckily the helicopter pilot was wise to nature’s tricks – It’s Just Rain. No squalls, no lightning, nothing to threaten a tiny aircraft over a large ocean.
I found out the day before that I would be accompanying the birds in the copter to their new island!!! Paul Radley from the CNMI Division of Fish and Wildlife and I would ride out to Sarigan, hike the birds a short distance into the primeval forest patch where other releases have taken place, and let the birds go. Then we would do a short bird survey for all translocated species – bridled white-eyes, golden white-eyes, Mariana fruit doves, and rufous fantails. I had my binoculars ready and my expectations beyond Cloud 9!
The night before, Peter Luscomb, co-director of MAC and Pacific Bird Conservation, weighed the fantails one last time to check that all were in good standing. His weighing method is to minimize handling – he developed a perch within his hand-made holding boxes that can be lifted, and a scale placed beneath, so the bird can simply hop on the perch. All 51 were deemed ready for takeoff! This is quite a feat for wild-caught flycatchers – his system of fly-feeding with supplemental mini-mealworms is the culmination of years of trial and error to keep weight on these challenging birds. Hooray! Then we moved into Team Tinian mode, with all members having a specific task to catch, color-band, and crate the birds for tomorrow morning’s flight. All were safely in their transport boxes within 1.5 hours, our assembly line a well-oiled machine. Then it was settling in for a fitful night’s sleep for the humans.
Image 1. Peter Luscomb (Pacific Bird Conservation) weighs the rufous fantails one last time before release. (Photo J. Smith)
Image 2. The Tinian MAC team works seamlessly to color-band and crate the birds for transport the next morning. Clockwise from the left: Ellen Gorrell (Toledo Zoo) waits to crate the bird after banding, Kim Kessler (Honolulu Zoo) preps the crate, Shirley Taitano (MAC Intern/Northern Marianas College) catches the bird in the net with Dr. Joe Smith (Ft. Wayne Children’s Zoo), Fields Falcone (Memphis Zoo) color-bands each bird, and Dr. Sandy Wilson (Sedgwick Co. Zoo) records data. (Photo J. Smith)
Image 3. Each rufous fantail receives a unique combination of 3 tiny color-bands along with the aluminum numbered band. CNMI biologists will be able to identify individuals in the field on future surveys of Sarigan. (Photo E. Gorrell)
We loaded the birds in the rain and took off from a casino parking lot on Tinian, the only available heli-pad on the island. Within moments my first awe-inspiring sight was a full rainbow, a calming scene with my pulse racing as the island dropped away and all that was left was blue. After a quick stop on Saipan for a fuel topoff, the world as I have never seen it flowed by for the 50 min ride, 1500 ft up, at 130 mph. The skies cleared, and we passed other islands in the Mariana volcanic arc, saw tiny white dots of pelagic birds making their living in an environment that would swallow us, and eventually Sarigan came into view.
Image 4. Complete rainbow over Tinian shortly after helicopter liftoff.
Image 5. First view of our destination: Sarigan.
We landed in a clearing of ferns rimmed with coconut trees – the island was in the past a coconut plantation, though the people, goats, and pigs were cleared off decades prior. Large patches of native forest remain and recover from past inhabitants. After a brief spell to let the birds acclimate in their new forest, we began freeing the birds. How to describe the feelings as all 51 birds shot out of transport and into prime habitat! Afterwards, Paul and I surveyed for previous releasees, hearing bridleds, goldens, doves, and a few fantails, though they might have been the birds we just released. It was late morning and quite windy, so seeing was difficult – songbirds are typically on siesta at that hour, and wind further hampers their movements. I also saw and heard my first Micronesian megapodes! And possibly my last, as they are endangered and only found on a few islands in the Pacific.
Image 6. The fantails have landed!
Image 7. The primeval forest of Sarigan.
Images 8 and 9. Fantails departing their transport boxes into their new habitat.
Image 10. Endangered Micronesian megapode sighting.
Image 11. Mission accomplished! The ride back to Saipan was serene and overwhelming at the same time – knowing all the birds made it to their new home gave me mental space to completely surrender to the scenery. Riding shotgun, the pilot took us over Anatahan, which most recently erupted in 2007 and continued to brew into 2008. Thrill Of A Lifetime.
Image 12 and 13. Approaching Anatahan, the most active island in the Mariana volcanic arc.
Image 14. The east side the Anatahan caldera. We could smell sulfur as we flew over. Approaching Saipan, with Tinian off in the distance where my adventures began, the pilot pointed out a WWII Japanese shipwreck slowly returning to the elements within the island reef. As looked back on the aerial view of the island one last time, my heart beat with love for this far away land that has begun to feel like a second home.
Image 15. Approaching landing on our return to Saipan, with Tinian visible in the distance.
Image 16. Japanese warship wrecked during WWII.
Image 17. The beautiful land and sea of Saipan.Saipan mission wrap-up, tearful goodbyes, and homeward bound soon…