As we turned the corner I got the first glimpse of Boatswainbird Island. Too many times I have heard people refer to the Ascension Islands, as if this was an archipelago. In actual fact it is really only one lonely island. OK , so there are two, but Boatswainbird is really just an oversize stack, a fragment of volcanic rock which became detached from the main land and is gradually eroding back to sea level. It has been the lifesaver of the breeding birds, though, a Noah’s Ark against the flood of cats, rats and humans. The Conservation team travel over there at least once a year to check up on the breeding, particularly the frigates who rarely breed anywhere else. It has sheer cliffs on four sides good for noddies but a relatively flat top perfect for thousands of other birds to nest.
Where we were heading had a similar make up – a nice flat surface that probably once was coated in bird nests. But to get there we had to negotiate some difficult terrain. We were still clinging to the side of White Hill, but that now dropped straight down to the sea and unless we could find a way to drop elevation we would just come full circle and be back at the Devil’s Ashpit. A gash in the hillside opened up – you could hardly call it a valley. It was just where when rain fell, water scoured the soft volcanic rock and had dug out a channel. But it was enough for us and we dropped down with it for a couple of hundred metres. It continued down over a cliff edge, but here we turned right, climbed up out of it and were on a ridge. And after an hour of walking, we saw our first bird nests.
Contrasting sharply with the black lava, a bright white Masked Booby sat guarding a nest. I keep writing that word but hope you have not got the wrong idea. This nest is no picturesque collection of twigs, leaves and moss; it is not some great architectural structure that would make a stork or a weaver bird proud. It is a small scrape in the surface of the rock, enough of a depression to stop eggs from rolling too far away. Nest sites are obviously used time and again, as the rock might be ground down to a thin greyish soil – a little bit more of a cushion for an egg or chick than bedrock. But what mainly marks these places is the guano all around. I’ve always had mixed emotions about the smell of shit. There are theories that the smell of one’s own faeces is in some way comforting and maybe animals feel less disturbed when sitting in amongst their own droppings. But I would imagine its use was more to deter others to come near as it is so disgusting. Creatures which rely on the sea in particular have a certain odour to them. When I travelled through New Zealand on holiday one time, I could always tell when a seal was about by the overpowering pungency of rotten fish coming from its orifices. And here the guano smell had a similarly acidic aroma.