Ascension : ASCENSION ISLAND CONSERVATION DEPARTMENT
Submitted by The Islander (Conservation Office) 30.01.2014 (Article Archived on 13.02.2014)
The rich biodiversity of the UK’s far-flung overseas territories was highlighted recently by a Parliamentary report (see last week’s Islander).
ASCENSION ISLAND CONSERVATION DEPARTMENT
Return of the Frigatebird Continues
The rich biodiversity of the UK’s far-flung overseas territories was highlighted recently by a Parliamentary report (see last week’s Islander). Scattered throughout five oceans, these 14 islands account for much of the species biodiversity for which the UK is responsible: more than 500 threatened species, many of them unique to the islands, and undisturbed habitats of global importance. While the report revealed the mother country’s lack of support needed to safeguard their natural treasures, it also highlighted examples of conservation successes. One of which was the Seabird Restoration Project on Ascension Island.
At the time of its discovery in the 16th century, Ascension hosted huge seabird colonies and among them, the unique Ascension frigate (Fregataaquila). But when cats were introduced to the island in the early 19th century to control the accidentally introduced rats and mice, they also decimated the birds. For over a century seabirds, in particular the frigatebird, have been largely confined to breeding on Ascension’s tiny outlying islet, Boatswainbird Island, after taking refuge there. However, in 2006, Ascension was declared feral cat-free and the seabirds began to return to the mainland starting with the masked boobies and then followed by brown boobies, brown noddies and both red-billed and yellow-billed tropicbirds. But it wasn’t until 2012 that the island’s most iconic seabird, the Ascension frigatebird returned to the mainland, after 180 years away.
The Ascension frigatebird, found nowhere else in the world, is considered Vulnerable on the IUCN’s threatened species' Red List. In fact it is one of 32 globally threatened birds found in the UK’s Overseas Territories. The large black seabirds, known as frigatebirds or pirate birds from their habit of stealing other bird’s food in flight, are also known for the males' impressive red neck pouches, which during courtship are inflated to form a heart-shaped balloon.The discovery of the first two frigatebirds nesting on the mainland in 2012 caused a lot of excitement. This season, the Ascension Island Government Conservation Department has carried out routine searches of Letterbox Peninsula, where the first nest was found, and are extremely pleased to report that a further 12 new nests have been discovered. Frigatebirds have truly made a return to Ascension.
A male frigatebird displaying; a frigate chick on the mainland (White Horse Hill in the background) and an incubating male frigate on a mainland nest.
The islands' seabird conservation scientist, Dr Eliza Leat, and fieldworker Kenickie Andrews led the surveys and made the first discovery close to the site of the nest in 2012. To minimise disturbing the birds, the nests are monitored by movement-triggered camera traps, which can provide valuable data on such aspects as how frequently each chick is fed, and how often they are left alone. These data will also help inform our current project to devise and implement the first nationalBiodiversity Action Plan for Ascension Island (BAP).
It’s marvellous that our frigatebirds appear to be recolonising the mainland, and 12 nests are more than we dared hope for. Funded by the British Foreign Office, Defra’s Darwin Initiative, the European Union and the RSPB, with help from New Zealand ecologistsWildlife Management International and the Army Ornithological Society, successes like this and others, such as a similar project to exterminate rats from South Georgia, demonstrate what is possible with sufficient resources and expertise. Hopefully this will raise the profile of the rare and wonderful species found within the overseas territories, the plight of some of their most fascinating species, and highlight the need for the money and manpower that will ensure they’re still there into the future.
If you are walking around Letterbox then we urge you to take extreme care around any nesting frigatebirds – they are extremely sensitive to disturbance and may abandon their nests if you approach too closely.
Name the Turtles
Congratulations to Alex Blunt for providing the 3 winning names of the satellite-tagged turtles: Thornton, Bedford and Hayes (after Georgetown’s forts). He will receive an Ascension National Park t-shirt and everybody will be able to follow the movements of these turtles as soon as they go live on www.seaturtle.org
The Conservation Office in Georgetown is open from 7:30am – 10am on week days but due to fieldwork commitments, staff will only sporadically be in the office throughout the rest of the day. We also open on Saturdays 10am -12noon. Please come in and see us if you are interested in finding out more about conservation work on Ascension or if you would like to purchase something from our shop!
Volunteers welcome. Please contact Natasha Williams. Ascension Island Conservation. Georgetown. Tel: 6359. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org