A frigatebird chick is being raised on Ascension Island for the first time in more than a century – and here it is, basking its downy feathers in the sun in this picture by Kenickie Simon Andrews.
Its arrival in the world came nine years after the island was declared free of feral cats, which had restricted most birds to breeding on tiny Boatswainbird Island.
A message on the Ascension Island Conservation page on Facebook says:
“At the end of last year, we observed the first two pairs of our endemic frigatebirds nesting on the mainland in over 100 years.
“Ascension was declared free from feral cats in 2004 and since then many of the masked and brown boobies have returned to the mainland to breed, but it was not until very recently that we observed the first of the returning frigatebirds.
“Unfortunately only one of the eggs hatched successfully, but as you can see the chick is doing very well.”
St Helena’s booby boomers
A thriving colony of masked boobies has changed the landscape on southern St Helena – by turning the ridges white around Lot’s Wife rock.
Annalea Beard, of the environment directorate, said: “Amazingly this species has re-established itself even though introduced predators such as feral cats and rats are also known to occupy the area.”
The colony was of global interest as a result, she said.
A few birds were observed nesting below Lot’s Wife, on the barren southern coast of the island, in 2009. A recent count showed 203 adults in the colony, which has turned the ridges white with guano.
“The reasons behind their re-colonisation and their ability to succeed remain
unclear,” said Annalea. “Monitoring is essential to make sure the colony continues to be successful.”
The penalty for allowing goats to stray on to government land on St Helena could rise to £250 – from a mere 25 pence.
That’s a thousand-fold increase.
The “more meaningful” maximum fine is being considered because of the damage goats do to the island’s fragile environment.
A committee has also advised that the penalty should be extended to cover sheep, which also roam free on St Helena.
At present, the fine can be imposed for each animal, for each day it is found roaming on Crown land.
The island’s executive council is also asked to change its law on dogs and cats so they can be included in the three-year census of animals, next due in November 2012.
The fine for failing to provide details for the census could rise from £1 per animal to £100 per animal, if the recommendations are adopted. The penalty for not declaring cats and dogs would be the same.
Including cats in the census is seen as a way to judge the success of a neutering drive. Pets and feral cats are now known to be the worst killers of the island’s unique but endangered wirebird.
Unwanted animals have become a significant problem.
On Ascension, a campaign to eradicate feral cats has seen seabird numbers rise dramatically.
Goats have been blamed for ravaging much of St Helena’s landscape ever since they were introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th Century.
The depradation over following centuries was so bad that the historian Philip Gosse described them as “these horned and four-legged locusts”.
The internet writer John Grimshaw tells the story of The Great Wood Wall, built in the 18th Century to try to keep goats and swine from grubbing up the East India Company’s trees. It failed.
He quotes Alfred Russel Wallace, who wrote in 1880 that goats were “the greatest of all foes to trees, because they eat off the young seedlings, and thus prevent the natural restoration of the forest.”
The loss of trees has been blamed for reduced rainfall and soil erosion, which have badly affected crop-growing.
The changes to the Dogs and Cats Ordinance 2012 and the Agriculture & Livestock Improvement Ordinance 2012 have been recommended by the island’s Natural Resources, Development and Environment Committee
A government statement said: “The proposed change amends the current penalties into meaningful penalties. The upgrading of penalty fees is likely to deter offences.”
When the experts from Shelco went to look round the site of their proposed eco-resort on St Helena, they were greeted by one of the locals.
It was evidence – not really needed – that it’s not only people that find Broad Bottom one of the most attractive spots on St Helena. Rattus Norvegicus and Rattus Rattus have found it increasingly congenial too.
And wirebird eggs and chicks are favoured delicacies in the rodent diet. Not one wirebird chick survived the last breeding season at Broad Bottom – one of the prime nesting sites for St Helena’s unique but critically endangered bird species.
Shelco’s plans for a hotel, lodges and “eco golf course” seek to reverse the landscape changes that have led rats to increase, and wirebird numbers to fall.
The developer’s environmental consultant, Dr Keith Duff, says rats thrive because of a lack of controls, and the spread of scrub and flax, which harbour predators:
“There is some periodic control of rats at Broad Bottom Farm by St Helena Government pest control operatives, using poison baits, but this is only done in response to requests from Solomons on public health grounds.
“Government action to control rats does not extend to doing this to protect wirebirds.
“Stands of flax, and scrub, provide nesting areas for rats, so a successful predator control programme needs to be done in parallel with a scrub clearance and management programme.”
The other big problem for the ground-nesting wirebirds, he says, is loss of suitable habitat.
Wirebirds like to nest on ground that’s not too steep, where the grass is short – apparently so they can keep an eye out for predators. Shelco has suggested digging “shelves” into the hillside at Broad Bottom to make the land more conducive to nesting.
In the past, there were plenty of sheep and cattle to graze the pastures, but not any more. Solomon and Company keeps a small herd of cattle at Broad Bottom, but no sheep.
Cattle only trim the grass to 75 millimetres, which Dr Duff says is not enough for the wirebirds to keep their lookout. So Shelco proposes grazing by sheep as well, to bring the grass down to a favourable height.
It should be said that Dr Fiona Burns of the RSPB, who has researched wirebirds on the island, does not share his view about the need for grazing by sheep.
The Shelco adviser goes on to say that because cattle are moved around the site, “only a small part of the Broad Bottom wirebird census area is ever in ideal condition for wirebirds at any one time.” He says:
“Large areas of the Sebastopol grazing unit have been over-run by extensive and thick stands of scrub, primarily gorse, white weed and pine. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of parts of Ding Dong Gut.
“This seems to haveresulted from reduced grazing levels in recent years, and has led to loss of both pasture and wirebird habitat. If remedial action is not taken soon it is likely that these areas will be permanently lost to wirebirds, and to grazing.
“Scrub also shows signs of expanding within many of the other grazing compartments.
“The only way to overcome this major problem is through a major scrub clearance exercise.”
Dr Duff told St Helena Online: “The key point which we are trying to address at Broad Bottom is to reverse the bad situation which has developed.
“I am not implying, or seeking to imply, any criticism of anyone in my report. The reality is that the current situation at Broad Bottom is not good for wirebirds.”
Dr Burns takes a sympathetic view of the circumstances behind the habitat loss.
“Across the whole island, grazing animals has not been profitable, so farms have declined in recent years and in several areas that has led to habitat becoming less suitable, not just at this location. Land has become overgrown, but that is part of a whole-island issue.
“There is no obligation at present for a landowner to maintain land in a way that is beneficial to wirebirds. In the future, new protection might have some implications.”
St Helena Government is establishing Important Wirebird Areas, including Broad Bottom. Legal protection could come into effect by 2013.
The RSPB is also doing more research on cats and rats, and the way their populations impact on each other (if you reduce the number of cats because they attack wirebirds, will rats become more of a problem?).
“Hopefully that will be able to inform more sensible management,” says Fiona Burns. “At the moment the government of St Helena mostly targets rodent control around places where people live, but we would hope in the future they might be able to take on some level of control for the sake of wirebirds.”
On most parts of St Helena, cats are the main threat to wirebirds. Dr Fiona Burns set up cameras to monitor attacks on nests. Sixty five per cent of raids caught on film were by cats. Bizarrely, a sheep was also filmed taking an egg, and one chick on the point of hatching was killed by ants.
Cats aren’t renowned for their political activity. Or any activity, in fact. And yet the evidence of a recent constituency meeting seems to suggest that in Blue Hill at least, they take an informed interest in public affairs.
At the back of the hall, nine members of the public were stretching themselves out… and in the row in front, facing the councillors, there was a cat.
The debate evidently wasn’t enthralling. The cat was having a good old lick.
Maybe it was there because of the current concerns about growing numbers of rats on the island. From the feline point of view, there probably aren’t enough.
We wait to see the furry one nominated to take Michael Benjamin’s seat on the legislative council. It’s not that silly an idea: in the UK town of Hartlepool, a man dressed as a monkey stood for election as mayor.
Her name is Tiger, she’s very friendly to anyone who wants to stroke her and she likes to visit the Blue Hill Community Centre and take an active interest in local events. I have no idea of her political ambitions but she was born and bred on St Helena so I guess she has the necessary status, though she isn’t yet 18 so I don’t know if she can stand for council. Which is a shame because I’m sure she would be purr-fect.