The Other Mauritius – Riot of colour

There were several trees around hosting colonies of weaver birds; their straw nests hanging down from the branches.  They would come and visit us in ones or twos only, and were the most shy.  While most of the others would be guzzling away at our feet, the weaver birds would watch from a nearby bush, then swoop down to catch a small piece as far from us as possible and take it off into the trees to consume.  Once in a while they would hang around in closer proximity to us, which gave me a great opportunity to observe their bodies and habits.  They had the shape similar to a British starling, matched by the intensity of the look they gave you from their sharp glistening eyes.  They are one of those birds that convince you that dinosaurs are alive and well and flying around the skies.

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One of our weavers

The mynahs were similar; but much more bold, than the weavers.  They would storm in to the centre of a squabbling bunch of birds and from their greater height launch in with their beak and steal the larger chunks of bread.  Few bothered to try and steal from them and they tended not to interfere with others of their own species.

The most colourful bird that came in to our garden was a small bright red sparrow like bird called a fody.  At first we thought it might be the endemically endangered Mauritian Fody, but on closer inspection its body was rounder, the beak shorter.  But it was still a wonderful creature; the Mascarene or Cardinal Fody.  Although its wings were sparrow marked and coloured, the body was an almost complete covering of orangey red, save for a black bandits mask on its face.  It was remarkably dextrous; it would regularly cling from a high look out post on the cord for one of the blinds in the car port area.  It would often be the first there in the morning and would whistle a high pitched alert call when I unlocked the security grill and stepped out.  Like a call to arms, the other birds would come flocking in at this sound.  The fody was a nervous creature however; he would often wait until the furore from the sparrows and pigeons had died down before hopping round the quieter corners to pick up the remaining bread. But he was quite ingenious.  We normally broke up the bread into small chunks before scattering it on the ground, but sometimes we would just chuck out a sizeable cylinder of baguette.  Many of the birds attacked it from the top and found slim pickings from the crust.  It was the fody that worked out it could make more progress from the white ends of the bread, and it may take a day or two but he and a couple of the cleverer sparrows would hollow out a tunnel inside the crust.

Capturing the Diversity -Capturing the cats

Much more problematic for the sooty terns were the predation by the introduced mammals.  One of the key drivers for the bird conservation programme on Ascension had been the massive increase in feral cats on the island.  Generations of cats had been introduced on to the island since the first sailing ships arrived, some escaped and bred, and somehow managed to survive in the inhospitable environment.  The main reason for their success was the prolific abundance of bird eggs and chicks.  At one time most of the key bird species on Ascension had all bred on the main land, but, apart from the Wideawakes, the cats in particular had pushed them back to a couple of isolated cliff locations on the south east tip of the island, or the stacks and small islands around.  Boatswainbird Island, the largest of these, was where the most flourishing colonies were and now the only safe place for the Ascension Frigate Birds to breed.

There was only one way to deal with this problem and that was to eradicate the feral cats.  At first hunters were brought in to shoot or capture the cats.  Controversially, cats were often disposed of by throwing them out to sea, where a piranha-like fish called the blackfish would hunt in packs and devour them in seconds.  While at first the cats were easy to spot; they were literally everywhere, after the cull had been underway several months,  finding out where the remaining cats were hiding out became more of a problem.  They were still predating on any birds that tried to nest on land, especially the fruitful pickings at the Wideawake Fairs.  But small populations were still to be found around the rest of the island too.  Poisoning was used for a while, attracting the cats to bait laced with sodium monofluoroacetate.

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Birds and eggs under threat from the cats

Cat eradication programmes are usually conducted on island uninhabited by humans.  Here on Ascension they had to be extremely careful not to kill domestic cats. For this reason exclusion zones were set up around the bases and settlements where no bait trapping were conducted.  Domestic cats were all registered and tagged with a microchip.  In the areas around the villages traps were often used to find the feral cats, and when a cat was caught, it could be checked for a microchip and if a positive reading given could be returned to their owners; if no tag were found the cat would be put down.

As the population of feral cats continued to decline, finding the last few pockets became more and more difficult.  If any evidence of cat activity (particularly cat scat or faeces) was found, then an intensive effort to find and eradicate the cats was focused in that neighbourhood.  When this evidence dribbled out to nothing, a set of cat tracking stations were set up to make absolutely sure that every cat had indeed gone.