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A Report from birdtours.co.uk

Ascension Island, 9th - 20th February 2004,

Mark Easterbrook

Coordinates: 7 55 south, 14 19 west
Location Description: Approximately 1,800 miles northwest of Luanda, Angola, Africa - about 1,450 miles east of Brazil, South America
Land Area: 145 sq km (55.9 sq miles)
Climate: Tropical conditions with constant trade winds
Terrain: Volcanic island

Introduction

As part of an Army Ornithological Society survey of the Sooty "Wideawake" Tern fairs on Ascension Island, I managed to visit between the above dates. The Island is fascinating not just for its vast colonies of sea birds but also for its geology, endemic plant life, Green-backed Turtles and Land Crabs. The aim was to survey the Sooty Tern colonies and ring 2000 birds, whilst also surveying White Terns and Land birds.

A Sooty Tern comes to investigate

Day by Day Itineraries

Day 1

The "red-eye" flight from RAF Brize Norton had us arriving at Wideawake Airfield, Ascension Island at about 8 am on Monday 9th February 2004. After being given our transport (2 land rovers), we headed for our accommodation taking in the first of many Ascension Island Frigatebirds on route. After finding our accommodation on Travellers Hill we got settled in. Prior to lunch we had views of Canary, Waxbill and the ubiquitous Common Mynah (three of the four land birds present on the Island). After lunch we headed for Mars Bay, one of the Sooty Tern fairs. We spent the remainder of the afternoon re-trapping birds that had been ringed on previous expeditions amongst the 30000 or so birds present. A trip to Georgetown, for an ice cream gave us good views of Masked Booby, Brown Booby and several more Frigatebirds sailing by Pierhead.

Day 2

An early breakfast and off to Waterside, the larger of the Sooty Tern fairs. We could hear the birds by now familiar "Wideawake" calls above us. On the way to the main concentrations of birds we stopped to admire a small colony of Common Noddy that appeared to have re-colonised the mainland after the feral cat eradication project - a very positive sign indeed. As we began to survey the colonies White-tailed Tropicbirds and White (Fairy) Terns could be seen over the sea near to the nearby Pillar Rock.

Day 3

We visited Mars Bay once more, beginning to survey the size of the colonies and work out how many breeding pairs were present from the egg densities. We also placed out egg predation pegs in order to monitor how much damage was being done by the Common Mynahs. In the afternoon we surveyed Green Mountain for land birds and White Terns and of course had to make the gruelling assent to the top in order to secure the "Letterbox Stamp".

Day 4

A trip to Waterside fairs once more for further survey work and a very tiring walk to Pillar Rock in order to survey it. The distance was just over a kilometre, however in 45-degree heat and over rough lava flow and volcanic rock terrain the distance seemed a lot greater. In any event we reached the rock and found White-tailed Tropicbirds a single Red-billed Tropicbird, several White Terns, Brown Booby, Brown Noddy, 4 Frigatebirds and a single Red-footed Booby.

Later that evening we visited the Eucalyptus trees on Green Mountain once more in order to photograph the White Terns. On our descent we saw our first Red-necked Francolins the fourth and final land bird on the Island.

In the late evening we visited one of the several beaches to see Green-backed Turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs.

Day 5

A Landrover ride to the end of the NASA road and then a tricky descent to the Boatswain (named after the White-tailed Tropicbird's call) Bird Island viewpoint before making our final descent to Letterbox to survey the area were quite taxing. However it was nothing to compare to the inevitable and arduous ascent, several hours later in the searing heat. However another "Letterbox" stamp was secured at Whale Point.

The view of the famous Boatswain Bird Island with its thousands of nesting seabirds was absolutely fantastic. Masked Booby crowded the top of the Island, whilst the slopes to the vertical cliffs were crammed with Frigatebirds. The vertical cliffs were jammed with White Terns, Black Noddy, and a few Brown Booby. A Madeiran Storm-petrel was seen circling before bolting into its nest hole and thousands of Lesser (Black) Noddy was also noted. Great swirls of Ascension Island Frigatebirds above us was breathtaking and the inquisitive White Terns came very close above our heads to inspect us and give us good photo opportunities. From Letterbox and later Whale Point, Green-backed Turtles drifted by in the sea and Red-billed and White-tailed Tropicbirds sailed past which all added together made this a very memorable day.

 

Boatswain Bird Island, viewed from the watch point on route to Letterbox

Day 6

Surprisingly a pair of Red-necked Francolin stood outside our accommodation on Travellers Hill, which induced a flurry of camera activity and expletives started the day well. Georgetown gave us more close views of Masked and Brown Booby. We then visited the shops for some manic T-Shirt buying before retiring to the beach for the afternoon and a break from the surveying work. Some excellent snorkelling was done and a soggy sandwich provided the gregarious Black Fish with a good meal.

Day 7

Sunday saw us head for Georgetown to take the boat trip to Boatswain Bird Island. The trip was a little lumpy due to a bit of a swell but fortunately only induced one of our number to start some "natural chumming". The trip was very productive, its main aim to count the White Tern pairs on the Island and on the sea cliffs adjacent to it. It also produced excellent views of all of the sea birds as well as fantastic views of Red-footed Booby and their chicks - an estimated 12 pairs, which could not be seen from the viewpoint on the mainland. We encountered four Bottle-nosed Dolphins, two of which decided to "bow ride" for a little while as we returned to port.

Day 8

A visit to Waterside Fairs in order to survey more Sooty Tern colonies that had recently arrived and monitor the extent of the predation of eggs by Common Mynahs and the predation of chicks by Frigatebirds.

In the evening we did a night watch on the Sooty Tern colony in Mars Bay to determine behaviour patterns.

Day 9

An early morning watch on the Sooty Tern colony at Mars Bay, followed by surveying land birds along the NASA road, which produced the usual and expected species.

Day 10

The penultimate day saw us completing the Land birds survey on the West side of Green Mountain, which produced hundreds of Canary and Waxbill and several Francolins.

Day 11

A final trip to Mars Bay for a last photo opportunity and the re-trap of a Sooty Tern before heading for the beach and lunch provided by the Ascension Island Conservation Team in the form of Grouper and Moray Eel. We then packed and awaited the departure of the return "red-eye" to Brize Norton.

Systematic Species List

Madeiran Storm-petrel (Oceanodroma castro) - Boatswain Bird Island only.
Red-billed Tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus) - may be seen anywhere near the coast.
White-tailed Tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus) - as above.
Red-footed Booby (Sula Sula) - mainly on Boatswain Bird Island.
Masked Booby (Sula dactylatra) - widespread, large breeding colony on Boatswain Bird Island.
Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster) - widespread near the coast.
Ascension Island Frigatebird (Fregata aquila) - widespread.
Red-necked Francolin (Francolinus afer) - Mainly around Green Mountain.
Sooty Tern (Sterna fuscata)- coastal and at breeding fairs.
Black Noddy (Anous minutus) - mainly around Boatswain Bird Island.
Brown Noddy (Anous stolidus) - more evenly distributed than Black Noddy but not as numerous.
White Tern (Gygis alba) - widespread and on inland cliffs
Common Mynah (Acridotheres tristis) - widespread
CommonWaxbill (Estrilda astrild) - widespread near vegetation
Canary (Serinus mozambicus) - widespread near vegetation

Summary

Ascension Island is now opening up to Eco Tourism, making it more accessible. The Hotel Obsidian is able to provide car hire if you don't fancy the walking and the easiest way to see the sea birds is to hire a boat to take you around Boatswain Bird Island if you don't fancy the sometimes gruelling exercise.

If you are looking for a seabird spectacle and interesting place to visit, then look no further. The Island and its inhabitants are friendly and helpful and the fishing excellent.

Many thanks to Royal Air Force - Brize Norton and Ascension Island for providing our transport, accommodation and dietary requirements and a special thank you to the Ascension Island Conservation team for all of their hard work and making us feel so welcome.

For more information on Eco Tourism contact:

Tara George - Ascension Island Government Conservation Officer

Email: Conservation@atlantis.co.uk

Tel: +247 6359

 

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