The following extracts are taken from Southern African Birdfinder: where to find 1,500 birds in the southern third of Africa and Madagascar by Callan Cohen, Claire Spottiswoode and Jonathan Rossouw, released by Struik Publishers in 2006.
Tristan is the only inhabited island in the group with a population of some 300 people. As a result, it is the easiest island to visit, but many birds have disappeared from the island following almost two centuries of exploitation by humans and predation by introduced rats. Of the endemic landbirds, only theTristan Thrush Nesocichla eremita or Starchy remains, although the island also supports a growing population of flightless Gough Moorhen Gallinula nesiotis that were introduced from Gough Island in the 1950s. Tristan’s flightless moorhen apparently became extinct in the 19th century, as did its population of Tristan Bunting Nesospiza acunhae.
Visitors landing at the village of Edinburgh will see few birds; the entire settlement plain has been almost entirely transformed by grazing and other forms of agriculture. For birders with limited time ashore (most ships only put passengers ashore for a few hours), the best thing to do is to find a guide who can take you to the ‘Christmas Trees’, a group of pines in a gulch at the base of the cliffs en route to the island’s famous potato patches. Birding around these trees you should find a pair of Tristan Thrush Nesocichla eremita. The best birding is on the Base, the plateau above the 800 m cliffs that rise behind the village. Birders with sufficient time can arrange for a guide and climb these cliffs either above the village (via Hottentot Gulch or Green Hill) or walk out beyond the potato patches and take the route up Burntwood, where the cliffs are lower. On the Base there are extensive tracts of bogfern, the cycad-like endemic treefern Blechnum palmiforme. Gough Moorhen Gallinula nesiotis skulk among these ferns, and are best located by their loud ‘chuck-ick-uck’ call. Yellow-nosed Albatross Diomedea chlororhynchos chlororhynchos breed in sheltered sites, and small numbers of Dark-mantled Sooty Albatrosses Phoebetria fusca breed on the cliff faces. Tristan Thrush Nesocichla eremita are uncommon, but are quite inquisitive and will often come to inspect you. They are best located by their high-pitched, whispy calls. Pairs generally live along the large gulches that dissect the Base, and become increasingly common as you climb above the bogfern level towards the Peak. Remote areas of the Base still support small numbers of burrowing petrels, including a few pairs of Atlantic Petrel Pterodroma incerta, but these are unlikely to be encountered by the casual birder, and are easily seen at sea off the islands.
The closest Rockhopper Penguin Eudyptes chrysocome moseleyi colony to the village is at Jew’s Point, about three hours walk along the rugged coast south-east towards Sandy Point. For most people, it will be easier to visit the colonies by boat, landing at Sandy Point, where there are colonies both north and south of the beach. Tristan Thrush Nesocichla eremita also occur above the hut at Sandy Point. Penguins are in their colonies from September to February.
Nightingale is the smallest island in the Tristan archipelago, and has remained remarkably untouched by humans. There are no introduced mammals, and only a few introduced plants. It offers a remarkable wildlife experience, with huge numbers of very tame seabirds and landbirds. Since the mid-1990s it has been visited by tour ships, and can also be visited from Tristan using the island’s fishery patrol vessel. Landing is by permit only.
There are two landing sites, both on the more sheltered north-east side of the island. Both are rocky, and require extreme caution and relatively flat seas. Many tour groups fail to land because sea conditions are unsuitable. The main landing site is used by a large colony of Rockhopper Penguin Eudyptes chrysocome moseleyi, which breed in the dense tussock grass above the landing site. Almost immediately on stepping ashore you will be inspected by Tristan Thrush Nesocichla eremita which are abundant.Tristan Bunting Nesospiza acunhae are common above the landing site and throughout the island. The cave above the landing site also supports breeding Brown Noddies Anous stolidus and Antarctic Terns Sterna vittata.
The island is clothed in a dense blanket of tussock grass, which reaches over 2 m high. From the landing site, a broad path (cut by the islanders) leads up to the picturesque Ponds, a series of depressions with boggy vegetation and pools. The Ponds support about 1,000 pairs of Yellow-nosed Albatross Diomedea chlororhynchos chlororhynchos as well as numerous pairs of Subantarctic Skuas Catharacta Antarctica. Surrounding these ponds are patches of Phylica arboreawoodland, which are home to the scarce Grosbeak or Wilkins’ Bunting Nesospiza wilkinsi. It’s roughly 1.5 km from the landing site to The Ponds, and the last section before the plateau is quite steep and can be slippery. However, all the species found at The Ponds also occur in smaller numbers lower down along the path.
The island also supports large numbers of other birds, including an estimated 2 million pairs of Great Shearwaters Puffinus gravis. They occur in such great density that many pairs breed on the surface under the dense tussock. Once they have chicks (December-April), they come and go during the day, and can be seen crashing into the tussock or clambering up boulders to take off. Over the years, generations of shearwater claws have dug deep grooves in these rocks. Several other species of burrowing petrels, storm petrels and diving petrels breed on the island, but they are more strictly nocturnal and are better seen at sea around the islands. Dark-mantled Sooty Albatrosses Phoebetria fusca breed on the cliffs, but there are no nests close to the path.
Inaccessible is the third main island in the Tristan archipelago, and is intermediate in size and age between Nightingale and Tristan. It is a Nature Reserve, and access is strictly controlled. To date there have been no tourist landings, but long-term visitors to Tristan might be able to arrange a visit on the island’s fishery patrol vessel. Landing is usually made at the Waterfall on the sheltered east coast of the island. However, the only access to the island’s plateau is from Blenden Hall on the island’s west coast, where landing is more difficult.
Inaccessible Island is most famous for being home to the Inaccessible Island Rail Atlantisia rogersi, the smallest flightless bird. Like Nightingale, Inaccessible is free of introduced mammals, which explains why this diminutive (30 g) rail has managed to persist when so many other flightless island rails have gone extinct. It is extremely abundant throughout the island, but can be hard to see, especially if you’re frantically looking for it! The easiest way to see it is to call it up, or to wait patiently at a likely spot, as they are often quite inquisitive, although they tend to remain in dense cover to avoid the threat of skuas.
Inaccessible also is the sole breeding site for White-chinned (Spectacled) Petrel Procellaria aequinoctialis conspicillata, which dig their large burrows on the island plateau. Gony Ridge, near the highest point of the island, supports the last few pairs of Wandering Albatross Diomedea exulans dabbenena that breed away from Gough Island. However, access to the plateau is quite arduous, and is not permitted for casual visitors to the island. Fortunately both these species can be observed readily at sea around the islands. Tristan Thrush Nesocichla eremita and Tristan Bunting Nesospiza acunhae are common at both landing sites, but Grosbeak Bunting Nesospiza wilkinsi are scarce. The populations of both bunting species are quite different from those on Nightingale, and hybridise extensively on the island plateau.
Gough Island is a spectacular volcanic island that lies 350 km south-south-east of Tristan on the edge of the roaring forties. It is a Nature Reserve and World Heritage Site, and at present no tourist visits are allowed. However, cruise ships visit the island’s waters, and some take tourists close inshore in inflatable boats. This is the only chance of seeing the two endemic land birds: Gough Moorhen Gallinula nesiotis and Gough Buntings Rowettia goughensis. Both feed along the beaches of the east coast, although the moorhen tends to remain in amongst vegetation. The island also supports vast numbers of breeding seabirds, including virtually the entire population of Wandering (Tristan) Albatross Diomedea exulans dabbenena and Atlantic Petrel Pterodroma incerta, and is the single most important site for Dark-mantled Sooty Albatrosses Phoebetria fusca. Most of the 20 breeding seabirds are easily observed at sea off the island.
OTHER ATTRACTIONS Subantarctic Fur Seals breed on all the islands, with Gough Island home to the largest population in the world. Small numbers of Southern Elephant Seals also haul out on the islands’ sheltered beaches, with most breeding on the east coast of Gough Island. Offshore, there is a variety of cetaceans, including regular sightings of the extremely rare Tasman’s Beaked Whale.