[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.
[Alice concludes her observations from the Taita Hills in Kenya]
While in the Taita we meet many fantastic people from the local communities who care deeply about their special home and the forests. There is some great work being undertaken to restore the forest habitat through tree planting and the removal of exotic plantations. Local community groups are trying to establish tree nurseries in order to restore important parts of the forest and to grow on their own lands so they no longer need to use the wild areas.
A community group in Vuria welcome us by performing an impromptu song and dance
We are taken to visit a local school where Pamellah has been doing lots of work raising awareness about the importance of the Taita biodiversity and the role local people play in it’s conservation. The school is doing some excellent work to reduce the impacts of the institution on the environment. The school is building a Biogas plant which uses human waste to produce a gas that can be used as an alternative energy source for cooking and heating. The school uses around 3.5 km2 of wood for fuel every week to cook food for the 400 hungry students. This costs a lot. The new system will not only save the school money and recycle waste, but also reduce pressure on the forests! Sounds too good to be true.
A shy group of students who have formed a conservation social group
We are also shown examples of the different alternative livelihoods that local groups are developing, including fish farming, bee keeping and the tree nurseries. These initiatives show brilliant levels of enthusiasm and motivation, but there is a real lack of resources and investment in order to set them up. My mission is clear - we must save the Taita forests and their unique species through helping the local communities develop livelihoods and alternatives to using the native forests in order to secure a long-term future for the Hills and the people that live there!
Flying back to the UK I think about the serene Taita Hills and the people – an amazing place. Already want to go back. Can’t wait to make progress with a project proposal. What a first week! I am sure you will be hearing more on this magical place soon enough.
[Alice continues her observations from the Taita Hills in Kenya]
The first morning after meeting up with Pamellah, the local Nature Kenya officer, we are introduced to key people from a local community group. This has been established to develop alternative sustainable livelihoods for local people in order to reduce the pressure on the remaining forest and increase awareness about the importance of forest biodiversity. The two people we meet are young guys from the local area who have been carrying out bird surveys and monitoring, as well as inputting to the community group. It is really inspiring talking to them and learning more about what they do, why they do it and the challenges they face. They take us out round one of the most important forest fragments called Ngangao, where both the thrush and apalis are to be found. The forest is fairly small at only 100 hectares so we think we will be fairly lucky on sighting both the species – however, we have not bargained on the density of the vegetation!
We creep along quietly listening for the slightest rustle in the undergrowth, which would tell us that the thrush is nearby. The Taita thrush has distinctive orange flanks, eye-ring and bill and mostly utilises the forest floor in the thick interior. After a short while the guides suddenly stop, turn round looking very excited and point to our right. Sure enough we hear a rustling noise, but the vegetation cover is extremely dense and we do not see anything. We continue with our creeping walk and from over our heads there is a very loud call. Again the guides stop and look at us with wide eyes nodding, ‘the Apalis!’ they whisper. We stand still looking upwards straining for a sighting but this small warbler eludes us in the dense branches of the canopy. The apalis, differently to the thrush, utilises the forest canopy and higher levels of the trees preferring forest edges. Both birds tease and tantilise us with their presence, identified only by sounds, but still we do not see them.
An area of open canopy with dense understory where both species are often seen
After a couple of hours of a circular walk we are now in the dense interior of Ngangao. Suddenly the thrush’s distinctive rustle comes from very nearby and we all stop and stay still. I get tangled in a mess of binoculars and camera trying to keep very quiet. Then, sure enough, only a few metres away, the thrush lands on a low branch in clear view. I can see the lovely colour of it’s beak and the ring around it’s eye. It seems to show off, shaking itself and cocking it’s head. Almost as soon as I come back to reality and attempt to extricate my camera - it’s gone. Still, a lovely sighting of a very rare bird that is extremely shy. We continue with our walk and the apalis’ boisterous calls follow us throughout almost mocking us, sounding so near but remaining completely invisible. Of course this means I will just need to come back again another time…