Jun 12

“When I first landed on what was Rat Island in 2007, it was an eerily silent place. A typical Aleutian island is teeming with wildlife, swirling with noisy, pungent birds. Not this place. It was crisscrossed with rat trails, littered with rat scat, scavenged bird bones, it even smelled…wrong,” reports Stacey Buckelew, an Island Conservation biologist. Buckelew first visited the island to help document centuries of damage to native birds and plant species from introduced invasive Norway rats.

Hawadax Island (formerly Rat Island), located in the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska, is a 6,861 acre island uninhabited by humans. This treeless island has steep costal cliffs, a small central mountain range and broad rolling plateaus of maritime tundra. In the early 1780’s a shipwreck left the island with invasive Norway rats. Since their arrival the rats had decimated the islands native bird species by eating eggs, chicks, adult birds and plants.

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Hawadax Island (formerly Rat Island), Alaska © Island Conservation

In September 2008, Island Conservation, The US Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy successfully removed invasive rats from Hawadax Island. Following the removal of the rats all direct impacts, such as predation and competition for resources, immediately ceased.

Today the island is thriving. Since the removal of the rats, breeding tufted puffins (Fratercula cirrhata) have been documented on the island for the first time and species thought to have been extirpated due to the rats, such as Leach’s storm-petrels (Oceanodroma leucorhoa) and fork-tailed storm-petrels (Oceanodroma furcate), have been recorded.

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Tufted Puffins in waters around Hawadax Island, Alaska © Rory Stansbury / Island Conservation

Ground-nesting and shorebird numbers are increasing as well. A 2008 survey documented nine glaucous-winged gull nests whereas an identical survey carried out in the summer of 2013 discovered twenty eight nests, a three-fold increase. Black oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) and rock sandpiper (Calidris ptilocnemis) nests have also increased significantly. Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia), thought to be nearly extirpated by rats, and snow buntings, also decimated by rats, are rebounding as well.

Snow bunting in autumn

In 2012, Rat Island formally had its original Aleut name, Hawadax, restored in acknowledgement of the absence of rats.

To find out more about the great work that Island Conservation carry out, visit their website or facebook page.

Jemma Pealing, Arkive Content and Outreach Officer

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