Today we went back down to Letterbox to attach data loggers to masked boobies to find out where they go when not sitting on their eggs – we have very little idea where they forage, or how far afield they travel. (In case you are wondering, the area is called Letterbox because, well, there is a letterbox down there – these can be found all over the island in strategic locations and visitors sign the books inside.) This time almost all of the Conservation Department came so that we could learn from Liz and do some scouting to determine future population count areas.Unaware of their pending stardom, Liz would nab a booby as it sat at its scrape, and it would end up pushed unceremoniously head-first into a canvas weighing bag. We also took measurements of bill, leg and wing, Liz ringed them and then attached the small data logger underneath the tail where it is protected by the feet when the bird dives into the sea. Once freed, the boobies made a bit of a fuss and then quickly settled back down on their own eggs – females honking, and males sounding like they are wheezing at the other end of a long cardboard tube.
The loggers should record a location every 2 minutes for 3 to 4 days, so the plan is to retrieve them later in the week and download the collected co-ordinates for plotting.Back up on Louie's Ledge, we used the telescope to count frigatebirds on Boatswainbird Island. Every other week, Nathan and Dane will come to the same spot and count the same sample areas on the island. To do a full survey requires a trip onto the island, which is expensive and very time-consuming, and while a representative sample won't tell us how many birds there are in total, it does provide a consistent marker to enable us to follow the fortunes of the population as a whole – full surveys will probably be done every ten years or so. There was plenty of action today, with males puffing up their bright red neck pouches in the hope of catching a female's eye.The birds here are very curious, and even the little fairy terns come almost close enough to touch, hovering just out of reach above our heads. While we were on the ridge, frigatebirds used the thermals to rise up and check us out. I like to think this was a fitting acknowledgement of the hard work we are putting in on their behalf!Signing out,Ian
A less strenuous weekend, Saturday we met Drew, a volunteer from the American Air Base, and headed out to North West Point. In a landscape of tortured lava, yellow-billed tropicbirds make their scrapes in protected cracks near the sea, while brown boobies have turned the offshore islets white with guano. Fortunately, it was overcast and we were spared the usual blistering heat that blasts up from the rocks. It's an unforgiving landscape, and even brushing against lava scratches the skin, so we carefully picked our way along the coast.
Nathan and Dane had marked out nests with tags, so we were checking progress and looking for new breeders. The tropicbirds are remarkably sanguine about being photographed – and look at that amazing tail!Sunday we had a change of scene and went up Green Mountain, Ascension's National Park, to count fairy terns on the cliffs, passing through eucalyptus and mimosa groves in the pouring rain. With more moisture, the slopes of the mountain are covered with scrub and trees, and the very top yields a surprise – a massive impenetrable bamboo grove, surrounding a typical English pond, complete with water lilies and goldfish!The day's work done, we headed to the old Ariane rocket site for a walk along the coast, with waves crashing against the lava, and frigatebirds, boobies and noddies flying home above us to Boatswainbird Island. The power of the sea was incredible, forcing up massive plumes of spray, and I found this octopus sheltering in a rock-pool.Today we are office-based, so no more news until Tuesday...when we are back down to Letterbox to install the sound system and attach data loggers to masked boobies.Signing off,Ian
(Written yesterday, but I managed to lock up the computer by forgetting the password - not that smart!)
We're back from Letterbox and a successful deployment of the first batch of frigatebirds. What looks like a great tan is really a layer of Ascension Island dust, stuck fast with suntan lotion. The day started early with a drive across the island, passing through groves of invasive Mexican thorn, avoiding sheep (non-native), rabbits (ditto...a bit of a theme here) and land crabs...it's most disconcerting to be half-way up a mountain and find a crab happily going about its business.The walk down to Letterbox was amazing and mainly involved behaving like a mountain goat (not present on the island, rather surprisingly). Here is Nathan crossing the cliff face – that pencil-thin line is the track.
After 30 minutes or so, we rounded a corner and got the first glimpse of of our destination – not the headland in the middle, but unfortunately the one to the right, which not only involved going down on tortuous tracks and scree slopes, but also up again.
We were lucky today as it was not too hot and there was a stiff breeze – it can be an oven in the gullies otherwise. Oddly, there are cherry tomatoes growing everywhere, another invasive, presumably spread by the sheep, rats and birds. As they shouldn't be here, it was a guilty pleasure to munch on the warm fruit. As the land started to level out in places, we came across the first masked boobies on nests. This one has a tag in the background to enable the seabird team to keep track of progress.
Eventually we arrived at the decoy site, on the cliffs above an area where the frigatebirds lounge about on the rocks. Construction started – attaching wings and tails, filling the models with rocks, and hammering iron stakes into the ground. Our one disappointment was blowing the fuse on the sound system, but we'll sort that out later. Then all of a sudden we were finished! The decoys look amazing and if they don't work, then nothing will. We were all elated with the outcome, although this was slightly tempered when we realised that we now had to do the whole trip in reverse, and the majority of it was now uphill.Anyway, here I am again at the computer so we made it back safely with aching legs and filthy clothes. Tomorrow we'll probably stay on the flat and visit the brown boobies and noddies at North West Point. More on that later.
Signing off, Ian
The pilot announced our descent into Ascension and all I could see out of either window was ocean all the way to the horizon. Were the white-caps ripples on a calm ocean, or the tips of angry rollers? There was no frame of reference, and then suddenly we were over land and down. My first thought on arrival was that I had forgotten just how volcanic the landscape here is, with only Green Mountain poking up in the middle of the island and lush with growth (at least for around here). Today it was sporting a rather raffish crown of clouds.A few spots of rain didn't diminish our excitement, and off we went with our luggage and boxes, completely forgetting the wings for the decoys! Crisis averted with a dash back to the airfield, we settled down with Stedson Stroud and the Conservation team to plan the next few days. Tomorrow is an early start to get down to Letterbox, where we will set up one group of plastic frigatebirds and attach some of the data loggers to masked boobies. All but one of the decoys arrived safely, and the snapped bill can be glued back on easily. The Conservation Office rapidly turned into a production line.At lunchtime we had a brief walk down to Dead Man's Cove, just outside Georgetown. A beautiful sandy beach and haven for breeding turtles, it's not a good place to swim because of a nasty undertow and big breakers. However, the sun had come out and the warm wind blew away the travel-induced stupor.We made the acquaintance of a local species of crab, known by Ascension Islanders as Sally Lightfoot. Not so much Stepping Up but more Scuttling Sideways for Nature.As I type, Richard is piecing together wings and bodies, Liz is charging up data loggers, and Nathan and Dane, the chaps who do most of the seabird monitoring here, are angle-grinding rebars in the carpark. I guess I should go and help!Signing off, Ian
Just below the Equator, Ascension Island is a tiny dot on the map halfway between Africa and South America. At 11pm tonight, I'm setting off with colleague Liz and volunteer Richard for a nine hour flight to one of the longest runways in the world. While the military passengers have a quick cuppa in the holding cage before their onward trip to the Falklands, we'll meet up with staff from the AI Government Conservation Department to map out our seabird work for the next two weeks.
Since cats were eradicated from Ascension in 2003, the boobies, noddies and terns have started to come back, and it's now time to adjust the monitoring regime. We're also going to track where the masked boobies go when not at the breeding sites, which will involve catching 15 or so, attaching data loggers beneath their tails, and (this is the difficult part) re-catching the same birds to take the logger off later in the week. There's an additional small inconvenience - they have extremely sharp bills and are not afraid to use them.
We're also going to try something exciting that, if successful, could at least double the global distribution of the endemic Ascension Island frigatebird. Currently they only breed on one offshore islet – Boatswainbird Island, covering a measly 3 hectares. That's it, that's the total area on the entire planet! They used to breed extensively across Ascension, and we're not really sure why they aren't spreading back –even though there are no feral cats to make a tasty meal of their chicks.
We want to tempt them back with some sexy decoys – it's a gamble, but it just might work. By setting up two areas of fake birds, with sound recordings of bill clacks (apparently they like that sort of thing – no accounting for taste), we may encourage a few pairs to select the new venue for raising their young...in turn, making the place more attractive to other birds. Liz and Richard have been the devious architects of the decoys. Not surprisingly, plastic Ascension Island frigatebirds are not readily available from Homebase or the local garden centre, so they have been mutilating model herons, spraying them black, and adding breeding pouches.
Having only seen photos so far, I can't wait to unpack the boxes when we get to Georgetown.
PS - if you were wondering, the runway was one of the emergency landing sites for the space shuttle, which is why it is so long.