Working for birds in Africa

Ascension Island

News

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 09:23 -- abc_admin

A field trip to Ascension on 7–20 February 2008 coincided with the Common Myna Acridotheres tristis breeding season. Since their introduction in 1879 mynas have adapted to the barren island and to shortages of invertebrates and fruit, and the lack of nest holes in trees and buildings. In addition to scavenging deserted eggs, they predated many hundreds of eggs of Sooty Terns Sterna fuscata. At the rubbish dump mynas were nesting communally and more than 20 nests, two containing chicks close to fledging, were discovered at the end of c.70 cm- long tunnels excavated (presumably by the mynas themselves) c.20 cm below a shallow lava crust. The ability to adapt to harsh conditions makes this aggressive species a serious threat to the island’s native avifauna.

In 2007, Masked Boobies Sula dactylatra successfully re-colonised the main island; this was facilitated by the recent successful feral cat eradication programme. On 3 May, 186 pairs were incubating eggs on ‘Letterbox’ peninsula, on the remote eastern side. On 22 May, a second expedition from the Army Ornithological Society found 151 apparently occupied nests. Twelve pairs had successfully hatched a chick, one nest contained a predated egg and in another nest the egg was missing (both predated by rats). An Ascension Frigatebird Fregata aquila was found dead at Waterside on 21 May, entangled in nylon fishing line and a fish hook through the lower mandible. A European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur was seen at Travellers on 17 May; this is a new vagrant to the island.

Ascension Island is so far off the main migration routes that vagrants are very scarce. The island is, however, very much under-watched and much is undoubtedly missed. A full list of vagrants up to 2002 is given below and see also (Bourne & Simmons 1998).

Herald Petrel

Pterodroma arminjoniana

Bulwer’s Petrel

Bulweria bulwerii

Cory’s Shearwater

Calonectris diomedea

Great Shearwater

Puffinus gravis

Sooty Shearwater

Puffinus griseus

Audubon’s Shearwater

Puffinus lherminieri

Wilson’s Storm-petrel

Oceanites oceanicus

Black-bellied Storm-petrel

Fregetta tropica

White-bellied Storm-petrel

Fregatta grallaria

Leach’s Storm-petrel

Oceanodroma leucorhoa

Squacco Heron

Ardeola ralloides

Cattle Egret

Bubulcus ibis

Purple Heron

Ardea purpurea

European White Stork

Ciconia ciconia

Allen’s Gallinule

Porphyrio alleni

American Purple Gallinule

Porphyrio martinica

Common Moorhen

Gallinula chloropus

Eurasian Oystercatcher

Haematopus ostralegus

Common Ringed Plover

Charadrius hiaticula

Greater Sand Plover

Charadrius leschenaultii

American Golden Plover

Pluvialis dominica

Grey Plover

Pluvialis squatarola

Sanderling

Calidris alba

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Calidris pusilla

Little Stint

Calidris minuta

Bar-tailed Godwit

Limosa lapponica

Upland Sandpiper

Bartramia longicauda

Whimbrel

Numenius phaeopus

Common Redshank

Tringa totanus

Common Greenshank

Tringa nebularia

Wood Sandpiper

Tringa glareola

Common Sandpiper

Actitis hypoleucos

Ruddy Turnstone

Arenaria interpres

Long-tailed Skua

Stercorarius longicaudus

Kelp Gull

Larus dominicanus

Arctic Tern

Sterna paradisaea

Common Cuckoo

Cuculus canorus

European Nightjar

Caprimulgus europaeus

Common Swift

Apus apus

European Roller

Coracius garrulus

Common Sand Martin

Riparia riparia

Barn Swallow

Hirundo rustica

Common House Martin

Delichon urbicum

Red-backed Shrike

Lanius collurio

Common Starling

Sturnus vulgaris

House Sparrow

Passer domesticus (arrived on ship)

Map

Thu, 01/10/2013 - 22:01 -- abc_admin

References

Thu, 01/10/2013 - 22:00 -- abc_admin

ASHMOLE, N.P. & ASHMOLE, M.J. (2000) St Helena and Ascension Island: a Natural History. Oswestry, U.K. Anthony Nelson. 475 pages, 32 pages of colour photographs, line drawings, diagrams and maps.

BIRDLIFE INTERNATIONAL (2000) Threatened Birds of the World. Barcelona and Cambridge, UK. Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International.

BOURNE, W.R.P. & SIMMONS, K.E.L. (1998) A preliminary list of the birds of Ascension Island, South Atlantic Ocean. Sea Swallow 47 pp 42-56.

HARRISON, P. (1983) Seabirds - An Identification Guide. London & Sydney: Croom Helm. 448 pages, 88 plates, and maps. ISBN: 0-7099-3787-3.

HUGHES, B.J., G. R. MARTIN and S. J. REYNOLDS (2012) Estimate of Sooty Tern Onychoprion fuscatus population size following cat eradication on Ascension Island, central Atlantic. ABC Buletin 19(2) pp 166-171.

McCULLOCH, N. (2004) A Guide to the Birds of St Helena and Ascension Island by RSPB, Sandy, UK. 92 pages, 28 plates, and maps. ISBN: 1-9019-3046-7.

OLSON, S.L. (1973) Evolution of the Rails of the South Atlantic Islands. Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology 152 pp 1-42.

ROWLANDS, B.W. pp 711-725 in FISHPOOL, L.D.C. and EVANS M.I. editors (2001) Important Bird Areas in Africa and Associated Islands: Priority sites for conservation. Newbury and Cambridge, UK. Pisces Publications and BirdLife International (BirdLife Conservation Series No.11).

Contacts

Thu, 01/10/2013 - 21:59 -- abc_admin

African Bird Club representative

John Hughes

The Old Shop

High Street

Shipton Bellinger

Hampshire

SP9 7UE

UK

rasuk@btconnect.com

John's 2008 report from Ascension can be downloaded here
John's 2012 report from Ascension can be downloaded here

Bird recorder and checklist compiler

Administrative Secretary
British Ornithologists' Union
Department of Zoology

University of Oxford

South Parks Road

Oxford

OX1 3PS

UK

bou@bou.org.uk

Clubs

The Ascension Heritage Society at http://heritage.org.ac

Conservation

Thu, 01/10/2013 - 21:58 -- abc_admin

Current conservation problems on Ascension are mainly results of the introduction of alien species since the island’s discovery. The main effect of this has been the almost total exclusion of breeding seabirds, other than Sooty Terns Sterna fuscata, from all but cliff sites on the main island due to predation by cats and rats. This is now being addressed with a feral cat eradication programme nearing completion and plans for intensive rat control measures being drawn up. Cat control has already had a positive effect, with small numbers of both Brown Sula leucogaster and Masked Boobies S. dactylatra having returned to nest at inland sites.

Rehabilitation of former seabird breeding areas is, however, further hampered by the spread of an invasive plant, Mexican thorn. This threatens to render some former colony sites unusable and is also encroaching on beach-crest nesting sites of Green Turtles. A control programme has been initiated.

The only specifically protected area established to date is Boatswainbird Island. A conservation management plan for Ascension has, however, proposed protected status for the whole of the main island and its associated stacks. Access to Boatswainbird Island is only allowed under scientific permit. This has proved difficult to enforce, however, and breeding birds have been subject to disturbance from unauthorised landings. Passing ships may also deliberately put birds up by sounding their sirens in order to provide a spectacle for passengers. This practice appears to have become less frequent in recent years, however. At the present time efforts are being made to increase tourism on Ascension and this may eventually put more pressure on sensitive areas, unless carefully managed.

There are also conservation problems associated with the wider marine environment. There is a significant risk of over-fishing in the seas around Ascension, with consequent effects on the food supply for the island’s seabirds. Increased long-line fishing also poses a potential direct threat to the birds themselves.

The outlook for conservation on Ascension is generally encouraging, however. The recent appointment of a full-time conservation officer and the establishment of Ascension Conservation have been very positive developments and have raised the profile of nature conservation on the island. Strong conservation legislation is in place and there are plans to increase environmental education in the island’s schools.

Books & Sounds

Thu, 01/10/2013 - 21:57 -- abc_admin

The islands of Ascension, Saint Helena and Tristan da Cunha are amongst the most remote in the world but they have books which will help bird watchers identify the species seen.

You can purchase these and other books from WildSounds, one of the largest specialist UK mail-order companies, via our book and media sales page. Many birdwatchers are not only interested in birds, so we have added the most useful books for other taxa on this page.

*** Wildsounds donates 5% of each order generated via these links to the ABC Conservation Fund. Please order here, get a good price and support ABC! ***

Book image: 
Book info: 
Guide to the Birds of St Helena & Ascension Island, Neil McCulloch, RSPB, Softback.
Book description: 

The varied origins of the birds on these two Atlantic islands make this guide invaluable for visitors to these excellent birdwatching locations. Contains background on the islands' history and biogeography, and illustrated species accounts. 92 pages.

Media type: 
Book image: 
Book info: 
Birds of St Helena, Beau Rowlands et al, British Ornithologists Union, Hardback.
Book description: 

BOU Checklist 16. 1998. This title for the first time brings together all the known data on the birds, past and present, of St Helena, an intriguing Atlantic Ocean island. Contains a wealth of information on fossil remains unearthed from the island. 16 pages of colour photographs and maps. 292 pages.

Media type: 
Book image: 
Book info: 
BOU Checklist 16. 1998. This title for the first time brings together all the known data on the birds, past and present, of St Helena, an intriguing Atlantic Ocean island. Contains a wealth of information on fossil remains unearthed from the island. 16 pages of colour photographs and maps. 292 pages.
Book description: 

These remote islands in the South Atlantic Ocean lie roughly midway between the southern tip of Africa and South America. As is typical of isolated, oceanic islands, the fauna and flora are not especially rich, but they are characterised by large numbers of species found nowhere else on earth. Among these are seven species of land birds, including the smallest flightless bird in the world, and four species of seabird. The islands also are home to more than 40 endemic plants and 100 invertebrates. The shallow-water marine life around the islands exhibits high levels of endemism in at least some groups, such as bivalves and seaweeds.

The Tristan and Gough group include some of the least disturbed temperate island ecosystems in the world, but they are under threat, mainly from introduced species of both animals and plants. The small community on Tristan is committed to conserve its precious natural heritage, and has already set aside more than 40% of the islands' limited land area as nature reserves. Proceeds from the sale of this guide will go directly to fund conservation management at the islands. 162 pages.

Media type: 

Visiting

Thu, 01/10/2013 - 21:54 -- abc_admin

Birding tours

There are occasional trips which include the Antarctic Peninsula, the Weddell Sea, the South Orkneys, South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha, Nightingale Island, St. Helena and Ascension Island - a roll call of some of the most remote and romantic in the world. Add Gough Island and the legendary Inaccessible Island and you surely have the ultimate pelagic.

Most of these South Atlantic islands have enormous populations of seabirds and some endemic landbirds nesting, including the Wirebird of St Helena. The huge sea areas between them are home for much of the year to a great variety of albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters and prions, not to mention whales and dolphins. Among the many highlights should be Spectacled Petrel, Tristan Albatross, Ascension Frigatebird, egg-laying Atlantic Green Turtles, Northern Rockhopper Penguins and thousands of other penguins in Antarctica and its islands. Stand close to nesting Wandering Albatrosses, the ultimate ocean travellers. Cetacean highlights have included Humpback Whales and Orcas next to the ship in the ice, Southern Rightwhale Dolphins (2005), Spectacled Porpoise, Strap-toothed Whale, Gray’s and Arnoux’s Beaked Whales, over 40 Sperm Whales in an hour, and dolphins galore.

 

Trip reports

There are few trip reports available as such, but several papers reporting sightings on Ascension and at sea around the island have been published in Sea Swallow, the journal of the Royal Naval Birdwatching Society.

Ascension report describes a visit to Ascension as part of an army ornithological survey.

Guides

Natural history themed package trips to Ascension and St Helena from Cape Town are occasionally available on board the RMS St Helena. Contact Andrew Weir Shipping Ltd. at http://rms-st-helena.com.

Logistics

Limited air access is available to Ascension Island with the UK Royal Air Force, RAF flying from Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. Alternatively, the RMS St Helena provides a link to the island by sea. This vessel, the UK government-owned supply ship for St Helena, provides very comfortable accommodation for 120 passengers. It currently operates out of Cape Town and sails to the island approximately monthly. The voyage to Ascension, via St Helena, takes a minimum of eight days. There are currently three small hotels on St Helena but the availability of self-catering accommodation is likely to increase. Bookings for both the RMS St Helena and RAF flights to Ascension can be made through Andrew Weir Shipping Ltd. at http://rms-st-helena.com. Information on accommodation on Ascension can be found at http://www.obsidian.co.ac

Safety

Ascension is generally safe and there are no significant health risks, though bathing from some beaches can be hazardous. For the latest safety and travel information see UK FCO.

Hotspots

Thu, 01/10/2013 - 21:51 -- abc_admin

Georgetown and the anchorage: Georgetown, the tiny "capital" of Ascension provides opportunities to see three of the four long-established land bird species. The anchorage and adjacent Clarence Bay can provide occasional views of most of the resident seabirds but is not an outstanding seabird site. Georgetown was the only site for Ascension’s newest introduced species. The first House Sparrow Passer domesticus arrived as recently as 1986. In the absence of recent sightings, however, the species may well now be extinct on Ascension. The much longer established Common Waxbill Estrilda astrild and Yellow Canary Serinus flaviventris are both present in the Georgetown area, and the highly adaptable Common Myna Acridotheres tristis is abundant.

The most obvious seabird around the anchorage is the island’s most sought after species — the endemic Ascension Frigatebird Fregata aquila. Frigatebirds, mostly white-headed immature birds, are usually present but may congregate around a newly arrived ship. Fairy Terns Gygis alba, Brown Anous stolidus and Black Noddies A. minutus, Sooty Terns Sterna fuscata (when nesting) and, particularly, Brown Boobies Sula leucogaster occasionally pass through the bay, but views tend to be distant. Tropicbirds and Masked Boobies Sula dactylatra are usually scarce.

Boatswainbird Island: Boatswainbird Island is a large, 100 m high stack of some five hectares lying near the eastern tip of Ascension. This is the only nesting site of the Ascension Frigatebird Fregata aquila. In view of its unique importance, landing on Boatswainbird is prohibited. It is, however, possible to charter a boat and sail round the island. Alternatively, telescope owners can obtain more distant views from the heights of the main island at Weather Post, Powers Peak and Letter Box though some may find the walk to these areas arduous.

In addition to the frigatebirds, Boatswainbird Island holds the vast majority of Ascension’s Masked Sula dactylatra and Brown Boobies S. leucogaster. The Frigatebirds and Masked Boobies S. dactylatra tend to occupy the central areas of the summit plateau, with the Brown Boobies S. leucogaster concentrated along the fringes. A tiny population of Red-footed Boobies S. sula, probably no more than ten pairs, also maintains a fragile toe-hold here. Red-billed Phaethon aethereus and White-tailed Tropicbirds P. lepturus, from which the islet’s name is derived, nest in crevices in the cliffs and share ledges with Black Noddies Anous minutus and Fairy Terns Gygis alba. Small numbers of Sooty Terns Sterna fuscata occasionally nest on the summit of Boatswainbird Island, though this has become less frequent in recent years. Madeiran Storm-petrels Oceanodroma castro make their nests in small cracks in the cliffs and in hollows under rocks on the summit but are rarely to be seen during daylight.

Mars Bay area: Ascension Island’s famous Sooty Tern Sterna fuscata colonies, known locally as "fairs", are concentrated to the south and east of the airfield, between Mars Bay and Pillar Bay, especially between South Red Crater and the sea. Smaller but still substantial colonies can be found on the west side of Mars Bay, between South Gannet Hill and the sea. Please do not walk through the colonies as this causes unnecessary disturbance and may expose unguarded eggs and chicks to predators. Ascension Frigatebirds Fregata aquila are always on the lookout for such opportunities and are usually to be seen circling the fairs. The Sooty Tern Sterna fuscata population at Ascension has an unusual nesting cycle of 9.6 months so there is no particular time of year when the visitor can be absolutely assured of seeing the colonies at full strength. The breeding period can, however, last close to six months so the chances of a visit coinciding with the presence of substantial numbers of terns is fairly good.

Green Mountain: A road, known as "The Ramps" leads to Green Mountain Farm, from which a footpath continues to the summit. Although the upper parts of the mountain provide pleasant walks through an amazing variety of introduced vegetation, including bamboo, banana and ginger, and fascinating views over the volcanic landscape of the plains below, there are relatively few birds. A small proportion of the island’s Fairy Tern Gygis alba population does nest in the larger trees, however. This species also breeds on the cliffs to the right (ascending) of the Ramps road. These can be viewed, albeit distantly, from Middleton’s Path. The terns are present in greatest numbers between October and March. Most ornithological interest is focused on the scrubby lower slopes. This area probably holds the highest density of Yellow Canaries Serinus flaviventris on the island, as reflected by Canary Ravine on the northern flank. Common Waxbills Estrilda astrild and Common Mynas Acridotheres tristis are also present in good numbers. The special bird of the Green Mountain area is, however, the Red-necked Spurfowl Francolinus afer. This small gamebird has probably become more numerous in recent years. It can be very elusive, spending much of its time skulking in thick cover, but is now being seen regularly. Spurfowl occur throughout the lower slopes of Green Mountain. Searches of the Ramps and the NASA road in early morning probably provide the best chance of sightings. The Grazing Valley area on the NASA road is particularly recommended. Areas of prickly pear and acacia scrub around Palmer’s, on the south-east side of the mountain have regularly produced sightings, but the site is less readily accessible. This area of abandoned small-holdings can be reached from the Devil’s Ashpit road. If you intend to explore this area and other parts of Green Mountain away from the roads, you may benefit from the assistance of a local guide.

Species

Thu, 01/10/2013 - 21:50 -- abc_admin

Country checklist and status

You can download and print a checklist for Ascension Island.

Endemic species

Ascension Frigatebird

Fregata aquila

Indigenous species

Madeiran Storm-petrel

Oceanodroma castro

 

Red-billed Tropicbird

Phaethon aethereus

 

Masked Booby

Sula dactylatra

 

Red-footed Booby

Sula sula

 

Brown Booby

Sula leucogaster

 

Pomarine Skua

Stercorarius pomarinus

passage migrant

Arctic Skua

Stercorarius parasiticus

passage migrant

Sooty Tern

Sterna fuscata

 

Black Noddy

Anous minutus

 

Brown Noddy

Anous stolidus

 

Fairy Tern

Gygis alba

 

Introduced species

Red-necked Spurfowl

Francolinus afer

 

Common Myna

Acridotheres tristis

 

House Sparrow

Passer domesticus

probably extinct

Common Waxbill

Estrilda astrild

 

Yellow Canary

Serinus flaviventris

 

Threatened species

Ascension Frigatebird

Fregata aquila

Vulnerable

The lists of endemic, indigenous, introduced and threatened species have been compiled from a number of sources including references (Ashmole & Ashmole 2000) and (Bourne & Simmons 1998).

Important Bird Areas

Thu, 01/10/2013 - 21:49 -- abc_admin

The Ascension Frigatebird Fregata aquila is the only extant endemic bird on Ascension. Its population currently numbers some 6,000 individuals and the species is classed as "vulnerable" (BirdLife International 2000). Breeding is restricted to the summit of predator-free Boatswainbird Island, but it is hoped that, with the removal of feral cats, frigatebirds will recolonise their old nesting areas on the main island. The majority of the population appears to remain within Ascension waters outside the breeding season but some have been known to wander to the West African coast and there is even a record from the British Isles!

Ascension contains two Important Bird Areas (IBAs) Ascension island: mainland and stacks and Boatswainbird Island - see reference (Rowlands 2001). The mainland and minor stacks include the major Sooty Tern Sterna fuscata colonies south of the airfield and cliff sites for nesting seabirds, particularly Red-billed Phaethon aethereus and White-tailed Tropicbirds P. lepturus, Black Noddies Anous minutus and Fairy Terns Gygis alba. The most important cliff colonies are located along the south-eastern coast and around Letterbox and Cocoanut Bay. Offshore stacks support a population of around 500 pairs of Brown Noddies Anous stolidus. The mainland IBA also covers several former seabird nesting sites on the lava plains, which may be re-occupied in the absence of cats.

The current major seabird colony is Boatswainbird Island. In addition to being the only breeding site for the Ascension Frigatebird Fregata aquila, the island supports a small (around ten pairs in recent times) population of Red-footed Boobies Sula sula. Eight of Ascension’s other nine seabird species also nest on Boatswainbird Island, the exception being Brown Noddy Anous stolidus. Boatswainbird holds the majority of Ascension’s Madeiran Storm-petrel Oceanodroma castro population.

Ascension Island is listed as a secondary Endemic Bird Area as it falls short of the minimum criterion of two endemic species for full citation.

For further details, download the country IBAs from BirdLife International.

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