Saint Helena, named after St Helena of Constantinople, is an island of volcanic origin and a British overseas territory in the South Atlantic Ocean. The territory consists of the island of Saint Helena, and the dependencies of Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha.
Saint Helena island has a total area of 122 km2 (47 mi2), and is composed largely of rugged, volcanic terrain. There are several rocks and islets off the coast, including: Castle Rock, Speery Island, The Needle, Lower Black Rock, Upper Black Rock (South), Bird Island (Southwest), Black Rock, Thompson's Valley Island, Peaked Island, Egg Island, Lady's Chair, Lighter Rock (West), Long Ledge (Northwest), Shore Island, George Island, Rough Rock Island, Flat Rock (East), The Buoys, Sandy Bay Island, The Chimney, White Bird Island and Frightus Rock (Southeast), all of which are within one kilometre of the shore. The centre of Saint Helena is covered by forest, of which some has been planted, including the new Millennium Forest Project. The temperature is also two to three degrees cooler in the highlands, and it has heavier and more reliable rainfall than the rest of the island. It contains most of the island's endemic flora, fauna, insects and birds. The coastal areas are barren, covered in volcanic rock and are warmer and drier than the centre of the island.
When the island was discovered, it was covered with unique (indigenous) vegetation, including the remarkable cabbage tree species of St Helena. The flora of St Helena contains a high proportion of endemic species, i.e., those found nowhere else. The island's hinterland must have been a dense tropical forest but the coastal areas were probably quite green as well. The modern landscape is very different, with widespread bare rock in the lower areas, although inland it is green, mainly due to introduced vegetation. The dramatic change in landscape must be attributed to the introduction of goats and the introduction of new vegetation. As a result, the string tree (Acalypha rubrinervis) and the St Helena olive (Nesiota elliptica) are now extinct, and many of the other endemic plants are threatened with extinction.
The island is associated with two other isolated landmasses in southern Atlantic, also British territories - Ascension Island to the north in an equatorial position and Tristan da Cunha, which is outside the tropics to the south.
Saint Helena is one of the most isolated places in the world, located more than 2000 km (1200 mi) from the nearest major landmass. As there is currently no airport on Saint Helena, travel to the island is by ship only. The RMS Saint Helena berths in James Bay approximately thirty times per year. The ship calls on such other ports as Cape Town, Ascension Island, Tenerife, Vigo, Walvis Bay and Isle of Portland, UK.
Saint Helena is not now a major breeding site for seabirds as Ascension is, but it used to have more endemic birds, all but one of which are now extinct. The Wirebird Charadrius sanctaehelenae is a type of plover which lives in burrows around the island, and is the national bird. It is called the Wirebird due to its thin legs that look like wire. Extinct birds on the island include the Large Saint Helena Petrel, Small Saint Helena Petrel, Saint Helena Crake, Saint Helena Swamphen, Saint Helena Dove, Saint Helena Cuckoo and, most famously, the Giant Hoopoe.
Ascension Island used to be home to many breeding seabirds; most are now all but extinct on the main island, and the main breeding site is on nearby rat-free Boatswain Bird Island. Over 10,000 birds breed on this tiny island, which is home to Ascension Frigatebirds, Red-footed, Brown and Masked Boobies, Red-billed and White-tailed Tropicbirds (known as Boatswain Birds), and petrels. The Sooty Tern, known locally as the Wideawake Tern because of its distinctive call, is the most common breeding seabird on the main island, and the airport is named after it. The Ascension Rail is extinct.
Tristan da Cunha has the number of birds on a par with Ascension. Inaccessible Island and Gough Island are together a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a wildlife reserve due to the large number of breeding seabirds found there, including endemics. The birds include the Wandering Albatross, Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, Rockhopper Penguin, Great Shearwater, Antarctic Tern and Tristan Thrush. The Inaccessible Island Rail, the world's smallest living flightless bird, is endemic to Inaccessible Island. The Tristan Albatross is also native to the islands of Tristan da Cunha, as well as the Atlantic Petrel.
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Number of Species
National Bird: St Helena Plover (Wirebird) Charadius sanctaehelenae
Number of bird species: 183
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St Helena and Ascension Island: a natural history
by Philip & Myrtle Ashmole 2000 Anthony Nelson
ISBN: 0904614611Buy this book from NHBS.com
The Birds of St Helena
by B. Rowlands et al. £25 BOU
African Bird Club
The UK Overseas Territory of St Helena is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world and consequently has been relatively little visited by ornithologists. Prior to the colonial period, the island supported a surprising diversity of endemic bird species paralleled by large-scale endemism amongst invertebrates and plants…
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2011 [05 May] - Derek Scott - Atlantic Cruise
…Our journey of 7,111 nautical miles (13,170 km) from Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego to Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands, via the Antarctic Sound, South Georgia, Gough, Tristan da Cunha, St Helena and Ascension, gave us an unparalleled opportunity to observe the multitude of sea-birds and cetaceans in the Southern Ocean and Atlantic, and took us to some of the remotest islands on the planet….
St Helena and Ascension Island Natural History
The islands of St Helena and Ascension are two of the most isolated islands in the world - the tips of enormous volcanoes rising from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. St Helena was formed some 14 million years ago, but Ascension is only a tenth as old. On St Helena, plants and animals have evolved and diversified in isolation for millions of years and the landscape has been transformed.. In contrast, the ecological youth of Ascension leaves it strange and forbidding, but with its own biological surprises and its own austere beauty…