Field Journal: The Last Stop, on Vanua Lava Island

From the Field posts

Brian Smith, assistant curator in the Department of Ornithology, has been blogging from southern Melanesia, where his team has been conducting an inventory of birds on a month-long Constantine S. Niarchos expedition. Read the first post in the series here

[Filed December 21, written December 11]

We left Gaua Island without Mike, who chose to stay behind so we wouldn’t exceed the plane’s weight limit, and morale was low. Instead of directly flying to Vanua Lava, the final destination on our route, we first stopped at two other islands. As luck would have it, when we landed on Vanua Lava the first person we saw was Mike. Somehow he was able to catch a ride with a medical doctor who owned a plane and was heading to Vanua Lava to drop someone else off.

With the crew back together, we focused on mustering our remaining energy to complete our last survey. Our logistical meeting with a local government official went smoothly, and we were set up with guides and a campsite. We were even more pleased when we were told that the hike was a short walk along a flat trail. After the endless hiking on Gaua, we were ready to take it easy.

B. Smith Train

This view is of the trail heading to our camp on Vanua Lava.

W. Mauck III


We headed out early the next morning and soon realized that the “short” and “flat” trail was steep, and the campsite was far away. By the time we set up camp, organized all of our field gear, and were ready to start putting up mist nets, we only had two and half days to work.

B. Smith Vanua-lava-camp

Dripping in sweat, the team made it to the campsite on Vanua Lava.

W. Mauck III


Fortunately, with four weeks of fieldwork behind us, our team had become a fine-tuned machine. Net lanes through the forest understory were cut in minutes, and nets were up soon after. We finally worked out all the kinks in recording data, and specimen preparation times were the lowest of any point in the trip. Everything was working the way it should.

B. Smith Village-view-of-campsite

The team’s campsite on Vanua Lava was located in the hills seen in this photo. 

W. Mauck III


To maintain motivation on an expedition, it is helpful to establish benchmarks of trip success. By the last day of our work, it appeared that our numbers would be just short of our goal, so Bill and Mike decided to move considerably farther upslope. Late in the afternoon, we were able to easily surpass our trip goal. We worked late into the last night and, after the final specimens were processed, we celebrated with a round of beers.

B. Smith Vanau-lava-crew.

From left, Bill, Lilly, Brian, and Mike pose for one last photo before embarking on the trip home. 

W. Mauck III


The end of an expedition can be an odd transition.  At the beginning of a trip, you often think about the comforts you left behind at home, but by the end, going back to your old life seems strange, in part because you realize that many of those comforts are unnecessary. Right now, it seems really excessive to shower every day(I averaged one shower per week in Vanuatu.) I also cannot imagine why someone would want to wear clean clothes every day.

You even start to think about the possibility of extending the trip a little bit longer, maybe going to a new island. But in the end you know that you will have to wait for next time to have new adventures and see new birds.

This Constantine S. Niarchos Expedition is generously supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.