[As you may know it’s Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend, but you won’t see one of these in your garden! The amazing team on Ascension brings us news of the continued spread of frigatebirds back onto the mainland – an exciting conservation success.]

The discovery in December 2012 of the first two frigatebirds nesting in 180 years on the mainland of Ascension Island, a small UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic, caused a lot of excitement and also intrigue as to what would happen next. The Ascension Island Government Conservation Department has been carrying out routine searches of Letterbox Peninsula, the area where the first nest was found, and made a recent discovery of 12 new nests that truly marks the return of the frigatebirds to the mainland.

The Ascension frigatebird is found nowhere else in the world and is considered Vulnerable to Extinction by the IUCN, indeed it is one of the 32 Globally Threatened British Birds found in the UK’s Overseas Territories. Frigatebirds are large seabirds that are known to steal other bird’s food in flight and the males are well-known for their impressive red pouches that they can inflate to form a heart-shaped balloon during courtship displays.

Displaying male frigatebird (Sam Weber)

For over a century, these seabirds have been confined to breeding on the small outlying islet, Boatswainbird Island, after taking refuge there from the feral cat population on Ascension’s mainland. Cats were introduced onto the island in the early 19th Century to control introduced rats and mice, but instead made a significant dent on the seabird populations. The RSPB initiated a project in 2002, supported by funding from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to remove feral cats from the island that proved successful, with Ascension being declared feral cat free in 2006. The seabirds began to return to nesting on the mainland immediately, starting with the masked boobies, but it wasn’t until 2012 that the island’s most iconic seabird began its return.

Male frigatebird with his egg (Sam Weber)

Dr Eliza Leat, Seabird Conservation Scientist on Ascension Island, led the surveys and made the exciting discovery along with fellow fieldworker Kenickie Andrews. On finding the first nesting frigatebirds, Dr Leat commented “I was delighted to discover a frigatebird nesting on the mainland, close to the nest site that successfully fledged a chick last year. We continued walking around Letterbox checking every group of frigatebirds perched on the rocks and to our astonishment found at least one nest at each place we checked. To date we have found twelve nests and we have our first mainland frigatebird chicks of 2014. We are minimising disturbance to the frigatebirds by monitoring the nests using camera traps, which can provide us with really valuable data on how frequently each chick is being fed and how often they are left alone. Having frigatebird nests on the mainland is an excellent opportunity to find out more about these endemic birds and what challenges they face in raising their young.”

Welcome to the world!  One of this year's chicks (Sam Weber)

Dr Nicola Weber, Head of Conservation on Ascension Island commented “It is fantastic news that our frigatebirds appear to be recolonizing the mainland and the 12 nests are more than we dared to hope for after the discovery of the first nest during the last breeding season. While the current team are lucky enough to be in the position of documenting this return and studying these magnificent seabirds, we are indebted to the efforts of all of the people and organisations that have been involved in this 12 year project to return the frigatebirds to Ascension Island.”

Funding for the seabird restoration work on Ascension Island has come from the FCO, Defra’s Darwin fund, the European Union and the RSPB. Organisations involved include, RSPB, Wildlife Management International Ltd., Ascension Island Government and the Army Ornithological Society.

For more information about conservation efforts on Ascension Island, please visit the Ascension Government website.