Tag Archives: World Heritage Site

Strict Nature Reserve

Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve (and UNESCO World Heritage Site).  Image credit: Oliver Lejade (CC-BY-SA).
Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve (and UNESCO World Heritage Site), featuring awesome karst geology as well as lemurs. Image credit: Oliver Lejade (CC-BY-SA).

A recent email from the Australian Antarctic Division about the Heard Island Expedition permit application and plans reminded me that I haven’t spent much time discussing the protections in place for the island. As you might expect for an IUCN class 1a strict nature reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are protections, and they are detailed.

The goal of IUCN strict nature reserves is to preserve a natural landscape or ecosystem which would “be degraded or destroyed when subjected to all but very light human impact,” and secondarily, “to preserve ecosystems, species and geodiversity features in a state as undisturbed by recent human activity as possible.” Heard Island definitely fits this category, because apart from whaling and sealing in the late 1800s, there has been very little human activity there. It is home to the Heard Island cormorant, and provides breeding habitat for millions of birds and many marine mammals. Unlike the other sub-antarctic islands, Heard Island has no known introduced species.

In order to protect Heard Island, and as is required by various classifications (IUCN trict nature reserve, UNESCO World Heritage Site) and laws, there is a comprehensive management plan which lays out policies, procedures, and best practices for preserving the integrity of the site.

Here are some illustrative excerpts which demonstrate that a trip to Heard Island is not undertaken lightly.

5.3.8: Visitors to the Reserve must minimise their use of packaging and wrapping material.

5.3.9: Only detergents which are fully biodegradable and low in phosphates may be used in the Reserve.

5.3.10: Polystyrene beads and similar particulate material must not be taken into the Reserve.

5.3.16: Washing water may be disposed of below the high water mark provided reasonable efforts have been made to remove food matter prior to disposal. Such food matter must be handled in accordance with prescriptions 5.3.13 or 5.3.17.

5.4.7b: Prior to departure for the Reserve, all items travelling in the vessel’s cargo spaces or on deck (such as equipment, stores, field accommodation, vehicles, personal gear shipped as cargo) to be taken ashore in the Territory must be hot-washed, disinfected, fumigated, or otherwise treated, and inspected for contaminants which if found must be removed and destroyed.

5.4.10: All outer clothing to be taken ashore in the Territory must be new or thoroughly cleaned and appropriately treated to kill all organisms (including reproductive material) (e.g. with a biocide or similar).

5.4.29b: Footwear to be taken or worn ashore must be thoroughly scrubbed to remove all organisms, soil, and other contaminants (which if found must be removed and destroyed) and must be treated with a biocide [e.g. bleach].

7.1.9: Intending visitors will be provided information that explains the Reserve’s values, the difficulties and dangers of visitation to the Reserve, and the need to apply for permits.

There is a whole lot more there, and it’s interesting to me at least to see what is prescribed to what level of detail. Maintaining a rodent-free ship is HUGE:

5.4.9: The Director [of the Reserve] must be promptly informed of the detection of any rodent on a vessel that is underway to the Territory. The Director will prohibit the entry of that vessel into the Territory unless the Director can be satisfied that the vessel’s entry into the Territory will not result in the escape of rodents into the Territory.

Reading through documents like this, although a little dry at times, helps set a tone for the expedition, reinforces the primary mission of the reserve: conservation. Not every strict nature reserve has such stringent requirements for entry. There’s a strict nature reserve in Madison, WI, (University of Wisconsin–Madison Lakeshore Nature Preserve) which is open to the public without any permitting process, and without thorough cleaning/disinfecting/bleaching being required of any items and clothing being taken into the park.

I’m continuing to get excited about the opportunity to visit Heard Island, which brings me to chapter 7.4 of the management plan:

Our Aims:

  • The enhancement of public awareness and appreciation of the Reserve’s values.
  • The effective use of off-site measures to present the Reserve to national and international audiences

7.4.1d-7.4.1e: A reserve website will be maintained to provide information about the Reserve. It will include maps of the Reserve [d, and e, ] images of the Reserve.

7.4.2: Where practicable, opportunities will be taken to present the Reserve in appropriate public forums.

I hope I’m already doing well on the aims and on 7.4.2, and you can bet that a lot of photography (and some mapping) on the island will be published with Creative Commons licensing.

Counting Birds on Heard Island

Rockhopper penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome) on Heard Island.  Image credit: K. Lawton.
Rockhopper penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome) on Heard Island. Image credit: K. Lawton.

Heard Island is a wonderful place for birds. Indeed, Heard Island and the McDonald Islands are the only sub-Antarctic islands without introduced macrofauna, and which have had very little human influence (part of why they are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site).[1] Freedom from human influence makes these islands scientifically very interesting, because it is extremely rare to have a site which is that pristine and that isolated.

The species diversity for birds on Heard Island is not very high, even though the number of birds is very large—in the millions.[1,2] Only 19 species breed on the islands, with another 28 species recorded as visitors or seen at sea within the region around the islands.[2] Among the species breeding on the island are four types of penguins (king, gentoo, macaroni, and [my personal favorite,] rockhopper), and three species of albatross (wandering[?], black-browed, and light-mantled sooty). Two species, the Heard Island sheathbill and the Heard Island cormorant, are endemic to Heard Island and the McDonald Islands.

To study the populations of these birds over time, it is necessary to take a census of the populations periodically. On the face, this seems relatively straightforward, and will be familiar to anyone who has participated in the Audubon Society‘s Christmas Bird Count or the Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s eBird program [ed.: both are excellent citizen science projects you can do in your area, and I highly encourage you to get involved with them.].

On Heard Island, surveying the bird populations is very difficult. Not only do some of the species look similar (e.g. rockhopper and macaroni penguins), but there can be vast colonies of them. Heard Island is home to an estimated 1 million breeding pairs of macaroni penguins alone![2] Adding to the challenge, some species nest in burrows underground, so a photograph of the area may not help estimate the numbers like it might when the birds and nests are visible. With the exception of the penguins, birds on Heard Island can fly, and will often do so. If you have ever watched birds in your backyard, you may know it can be difficult to count the number of chickadees (or hummingbirds, or other species) visiting, because they move around a lot and look alike.

King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) colony on Heard Island.  Image credit: Eric Woehler.
King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) colony on Heard Island. Image credit: Eric Woehler.

Another challenge on Heard Island is that many places are quite inaccessible to humans. Sheer cliffs, unstable slopes, and glacial crevasses keep people away from nesting areas.

Even the act of counting birds can put some of them at risk: if a nesting pair is disturbed by a human—even 100 m away—they may fly off the nest long enough for a scavenger to fly in and eat the egg or the chick.[2]

Detailed surveys of the breeding areas can provide important information about the migrations of the birds. Antarctic terns, which had been banded at Bird Island, South Africa, were later observed nesting on Heard Island.

The strategy for counting birds is a little complicated. For small numbers of birds (in my backyard at home, or rare birds on Heard Island), they can be counted individually; this works up to around 50 birds. Beyond that, the numbers are likely to become estimates, though high-resolution photographs of nesting colonies provide a record which can be carefully scrutinized later for more exact numbers. When estimating birds in the field, you would count the number in a small area (one binocular field-of-view, or a 10×10 m region of ground. That gives an estimate of the birds-per-area. Multiplying by the larger area (as multiples of the smaller one) would give an estimated total number of birds.

King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) and elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) in front of Lambeth Bluff, Heard Island.  Image credit: Eric Woehler.
King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) and elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) in front of Lambeth Bluff, Heard Island. Image credit: Eric Woehler.

At sea, another method is used. Because birds are not standing or sitting on a nest, they are counted (species and number) for ten-minute periods, with the location, date, and time noted.

When I go to Heard Island, I will do some birding. My life list has no penguins on it, and I intend to change that. I will not have the time to do a full survey of the birds, but will probably get at least a few estimates of a colony or two. I also intend to do some at-sea counts if the weather and sea-state permit. These observations will be added to the eBird database when I return to civilization after the expedition. One additional challenge I will have is that all of the birds of Heard Island will be life birds for me, and I am not especially good with my field identification of new birds. If you know of a good field guide, please let me know; I’d love to have a good reference to bring with me.


[1] http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/577 UNESCO organization. Retrieved May 17, 2015.
[2] Woehler, E. J. “Status and conservation of the seabirds of Heard Island”, in Heard Island: Southern Ocean Sentinel (Eds K. Green and E. Woehler) Surrey Beatey & Sons, 2006, p. 128-165.

On an Island Far Away…

World map.  Image credit: NASA
World map. Image credit: NASA. Click for full size.

In order to better understand the project, and what I will be doing on Heard Island, it is important to know things about the island itself. Perhaps the easiest thing to talk about is where the island is.

Here’s the same world map as above, but now with additional annotation. Shown in partial transparency is the western hemisphere antipodes (opposite side of the world). A red arrow points to Heard Island, and a red circle in Saskatchewan marks Heard Island’s (approximate) antipode.

Red arrow marks location of Heard Island; red circle marks approximate location of Heard Island antipode.
Click for full size. Red arrow marks location of Heard Island; red circle marks approximate location of Heard Island antipode. Adapted from NASA.

As you can see, Heard Island (technically Heard Island and McDonald Islands) is far away from other land, and about as far from Minnesota as one can go without being in space.* There are no airports on the island. Only by sea (or helicopter for the final mile) can we reach the island. For our expedition, there will be no helicopter.

To reach the island, our team will board the Akademik Shokalskiy in Fremantle, Australia (southwest corner, near Perth) RV Braveheart in Cape Town, South Africa. We will then sail southwest southeast through the Roaring Forties and into the Furious Fifties, and about ten days after departure (weather permitting, and in that part of the world it is often inclement) we will arrive.

Heard Island is of a modest size, 20-30 km across (13-20 miles). In the center is a 9000-foot tall volcano, Big Ben, which I will elaborate on in a further post. Mantling Big Ben and flowing down to the sea are glaciers, which cover the majority of the island. In many places, the ice forms sheer cliffs where it enters the sea, making landing on the island difficult.

There is no permanent human settlement on Heard Island. An early research party stayed for fifteen months during 1947-1948 [2], and the most recent winter expedition was in 1992. It is an Australian territory, and home to one of Australia’s two active volcanoes—the other being the smaller, nearby McDonald Island.

Because Heard Island is so remote and has such active surface geology (volcano, glaciers, streams, high wind) and has no permanent inhabitants or introduced species, it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.[2]** These conditions make the island an excellent natural laboratory to study all sorts of phenomena from climate change to glaciology to biology.*** I’ll have lots more on all that coming up in future posts!

[1] Arthur Scholes, Fourteen Men, E. P. Dutton, 1952.
[2] http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/577 UNESCO organization. Retrieved January 8, 2015.

* Space is much closer to Minneapolis than Heard Island, or even South Dakota.
** For more on this general topic, the Wikipedia page on the Geography of Heard Island and McDonald Islands is informative.
*** While it is unlike me to paraphrase J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield (from Catcher in the Rye), if you thought it was a somewhat tricky question figuring out where ducks go in the winter, think about where these penguins go in the winter. They do migrate away from Heard Island.[1]

Update 5/14/2015: Vessel and port of departure have changed. More info here (my blog) and here (official).