[Seconded to the RSPB International Department for a month to assist with the seabird monitoring programme on Ascension Island, Vivienne Booth has promised a few blog posts to update us on progress. As one of the RSPB's Reserves Ecologists, she is well placed to fit neatly into the Ascension Conservation Team, and we look forwards to hearing the latest from an amazing island surrounded by thousands of miles of sea.]
Monday 30th July 2012
Just a few minutes after the plane had dipped beneath the cloud, I saw the island up ahead, tangible at last. I was still trying to fit the names from the map onto the three-dimensional reality of it as we banked and the runway came into view.
I was prepared for the dryness of the bare rock landscape, but what surpassed my expectations were the colours - the intensity of the reds, purple browns and the deep near-black. There was also a surprising amount of green, some on the aptly named highest peak, Green Mountain, but mostly from the invasive Mexican thorn.
Some of the colours of Ascension (Jolene Sim)
Only a handful of the several hundred passengers on the plane to Ascension actually seemed to be stopping here as most are in transit to the Falklands, but those that passed through the gates included several young families and staff from the few organisations present on the island. I had met Charlie Dooley back in the Brize Norton departure lounge as she was also coming to work with the Conservation team, managing some of the invasive plants introduced to the island (like the Mexican thorn). We were welcomed warmly by Stedson Stroud, who runs the Conservation Department on Ascension and Jolene Sim, Assistant Conservation Officer who then took us to Georgetown, the village-sized capital of the Island where we will be staying and where the Conservation Office can be found.
I will be working primarily with Nathan Fowler, who has been monitoring the seabirds of Ascension for the last five years. The seabirds are recolonising the main island after over a century of predation by introduced feral cats was finally brought to an end by an Ascension Island Government/RSPB programme of eradication beginning in 2001.
Nathan shows off one of the frigatebird decoys (Liz Mackley)
Talking to Nathan I am disappointed to learn that I have missed the end of the sooty tern breeding season by a matter of days. Together we flick through a series of photos taken in the last week by remote cameras placed out in the main tern colony. We’re looking for signs of predators and happily we don’t find any untoward activity. There are some nice images of tern behaviour though, especially the young which are beginning to fly but still begging food from their parents. Hopefully I’ll see some of these birds foraging around the coast in the next few weeks.
In the afternoon Stedson and Jolene take me and Charlie on a tour of the local area. As well as some of the key Georgetown locations (food shop, Post Office) we head up to the village of Two Boats. We stop at the side of the road, looking out across a landscape of volcanic rubble, and Stedson points out that one side of every miniature pinnacle is white with guano. At one time seabirds occupied this whole lava field. It’s like looking at a seabird ghost town. A ghost city. The numbers of birds that once bred here must have been staggering, and the noise (and the smell) overwhelming.
So that’s why we’re here - trying to repair some of the damage done. Hopefully one day the seabird cities of Ascension Island will live again. The signs are promising, but it will take a long time and a lot of work. I can’t think of a more worthwhile project.
The miniscule eastern population of northern bald ibis in Syria is on the move, from breeding grounds to wintering areas.
Follow their amazing journey on the bald ibis tracking pages here.
On this blog we've been telling you about spoon-billed sandpipers at their breeding grounds in Russia and how they winter on the mudflats in Myanmar. However, as they don't teleport between the two, obviously a piece of the puzzle is missing.
This week my colleague Nicola Crockford is in Bucharest at the Ramsar Conference of Contracting Parties doing what she does best – trying to ensure that important wetlands are given statutory protection across flyways, so that migrating birds, including the spoon-billed sandpiper, don't get half-way along their journey and find there is nowhere to stop-over. She is hosting a 'side-event' tomorrow entitled "The disappearing tidal mudflats of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway", with the little spoonie firmly fixed as a flagship species for intertidal habitats that are rapidly being converted to industry, agriculture, airports and other uses. National and local governments alike see mud as a good place to develop – after all, it's just mud!
Spoonie wintering at the Min Jiang Estuary, China (Zheng Jianping)
Oh yes? Well Nicola, Queen of the Mudflats, will give you a pretty hard time if you believe this. For example, this flyway supports more migratory waterbird species and a higher proportion that are globally threatened than any other in the world, with 24 threatened waterbird species dependent on the mud. As much as 50% of the intertidal wetlands have disappeared around the Yellow and Bohai Seas over the last 30 years.
Overall, East Asian intertidal habitats (including beaches, marshes, mudflats, mangroves and seagrass beds) are being lost at a rate unprecedented for the coastal zone elsewhere in the world. Some countries have lost more than half of their coastal wetland area to land reclamation since 1980. These rates of habitat loss are comparable to those of tropical rainforests and mangroves!
The East Asian-Australasian Flyway, showing the importance of the Yellow Sea
In this most densely populated part of the world, the effects of reclamation act cumulatively with other threats to the ecology of the Asian intertidal zone system. These threats include pollution, non-native species, silt flow reduction resulting from damming of major rivers, over-fishing, unsustainable hunting of waterbirds, and conversion of mudflats for aquaculture or other uses, plus the added challenges of climate change, such as increased risk of floods.
Shorebirds and development in Bohai Bay (Jan van de Kam)
So not good for spoonies and their ilk, and not good for people in the longer term. I for one am relieved that we have the Queen of the Mudflats working to influence policy and apply pressure with a smile when we need it.
To find out more about Asian wetlands, critical to the survival of the spoonie, visit the IUCN site where you can download the latest report on the situation on the ground.