World bird news June 2006

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Bush-quail makes unexpected reappearance


The poorly known Manipur Bush-quail Perdicula manipurensis has been seen in India, the first confirmed sighting of this small gamebird for over seventy years.

On 6 June 2006, the Embankment & Drainage Department had to undertake some engineering works in and around Manas National Park, a world heritage site in Assam. The team was accompanied by the region's Deputy Commissioner and District Magistrate, Dr Anwaruddin Choudhury, a noted ornithologist, who was present to inspect the works. As access to the park during the monsoon season is notoriously difficult, this was a rare opportunity to enter the area at this time of year.

"Driving was very slow as in places the road was invisible, being entirely overgrown with tall grass. At 2.30 pm, a quail was flushed which flew in front of our vehicle for about 15 metres and dropped into the grass in the middle of the road. I was familiar with flushing quails, buttonquails and rails in the grassland sanctuaries of Assam but the larger size of this bird and its rather slaty-grey colour surprised me," described Dr Choudhury.

"The bird took off again and flew for another 15 metres confirming that it could be only one species – the Manipur Bush-quail. This time it landed in a small clearing made by the wheels of the vehicles where it paused for about three to four seconds, giving me enough time to see its side view with contrasting grey and buff colour. I did not get a chance to study the head pattern to determine its sex," he added.

"I was very excited but slightly disappointed as I could have taken video shots when it stood still. Unfortunately however it quickly vanished into the three metre-high grass." —Dr Anwaruddin Choudhury

Depite searching further along the track later that day, no more quails were seen and further visits to the site will not be possible for the next four months due to the monsoon conditions.

The last authentic records of Manipur Bush-quail from Assam were from Mornoi, Goalpara, where birds were obtained for various collections in 1905-07. The last confirmed record of the species in its entire range was mentioned as "pre-1932" in Manipur Valley by J C Higgins, civil servant and ornithologist, although unconfirmed sightings were reported in 1998 and 2004.

A probable resident, the Manipur Bush-quail inhabits damp grassland, particularly stands of tall grass, and sometimes bogs and swamps, from the foothills up to c.1,000 m. Historical records indicate that it was generally encountered in small groups of 4-12, and was shy, reluctant to fly and extremely difficult to observe, although coveys were occasionally seen feeding in the open on recently burnt ground. The little available data indicate that it breeds between January and May.

"This sighting of Manipur Bush-quail is excellent news. Hopefully it bodes well for other 'vanished' Indian species such as the Himalayan Quail - which has not been recorded since 1876." —Ed Parnell, BirdLife International

Classified on the IUCN Red List by BirdLife as Vulnerable, the major threat facing the bush-quail is thought to be the drainage and destruction of its tall grassland habitat. Many suitable areas have been greatly reduced or fragmented to accomodate the area's rapidly expanding human population. Manas National Park and adjacent areas of Manas Reserved Forest hold the best remaining areas of suitable habitat in Assam.

Summit for Europe's rarest songbird


Nations from across Europe and Africa have come together this week in the Lower Oder Valley National Park near Berlin in Germany, under the auspices of a United Nations Memorandum of Understanding, to discuss the future of mainland Europe’s rarest songbird, the Aquatic Warbler.

The current world breeding population of the Aquatic Warbler Acrocephalus paludicola has plummeted, since the beginning of the last century, by 95 per cent to only 16,000 males in just seven countries. The species nests in the fen mires and wet meadows of eastern central Europe and migrates more than 5,000 kilometres to Africa for the winter.

Representatives from 13 countries, where the bird either nests, migrates through or winters, discussed the bird’s future at a meeting convened by the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). Robert Hepworth, Executive Secretary of CMS, said: "The Aquatic Warbler is the only songbird of mainland Europe which is facing global extinction. Bringing together scientists and government decision makers from the species’ range states in Europe and Africa, and coordinating their work is essential to ensure its survival."

Faced with the bird’s imminent extinction, BirdLife has championed the species’ cause since the mid 90s, when BirdLife expeditions to under-explored parts of Belarus discovered the three key breeding sites for the species, which together hold 60 per cent of the world population.

"Alarmingly, all three sites were acutely threatened with deterioration and destruction. But a project to restore these sites, with funding from the UK government and the German Michael Otto Foundation, has now saved these sites and ensures good breeding success for this vulnerable bird." —John O’Sullivan, BirdLife

The meeting concluded, that the main success of the joint efforts of governments, BirdLife International and CMS over the past years is the stabilisation of the core breeding population of the species in its largest breeding sites, while the loss of smaller breeding sites and especially the critical decline of the species’ distinct population in Pomerania along the German-Polish border is highly alarming.

Work now needs to intensify in key countries of West Africa, like Senegal, to find the elusive wintering sites of the species, as this is critical for its effective future protection. "This bird could have a bright future in Europe and Africa if the right decisions are taken to conserve it. The CMS Memorandum will provide the basis for governments, other organisations such as BirdLife International, and scientists to work together to save the Aquatic Warbler and its unique habitats," Robert Hepworth added.

Since 1998, the BirdLife International Aquatic Warbler Conservation Team has been searching for the remaining breeding populations of the bird, and devising ways to stabilise and improve them.

First comprehensive florican survey


Between 20 March and 13 May 2006, a comprehensive survey for Bengal Florican and other grassland bird species was jointly conducted by BirdLife and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in provinces surrounding the Tonle Sap lake, Cambodia. Information gained during the survey will be a foundation for locating critical habitats for the species in Cambodia.

Bengal Floricans Eupodotis bengalensis are found only in India, Nepal, Vietnam and Cambodia. They are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List and face a very high risk of extinction in the medium term future. Cambodia is suspected to hold the largest surviving population.

This first comprehensive survey for Bengal Florican and grassland habitat around the Tonle Sap has demonstrated rapid grassland loss due to agricultural expansion, particularly in Kompong Thom and Siem Reap provinces. This highlights the importance of safeguarding remaining grassland areas. New florican populations were discovered during the survey but they were all smaller than those at previously known sites in Kompong Thom province. However the presence of Bengal Florican, albeit at lower densities, in three grassland blocks in Banteay Meanchey and Battambang and an additional area in Seam Reap suggests survey, educational and habitat protection work should be initiated in these areas. A crude estimate, to be subsequently refined, puts the Cambodian Bengal Florican population at between 700 and 900 individuals.

"Given the rate of grassland loss, safeguarding the remaining grassland areas identified in this survey containing Bengal Florican must be a conservation priority. Survival of this species in Cambodia depends on safe-guarding these key areas from future development and disturbance. The WCS and the Forest Administration initiated and BirdLife supported Integrated Farming and Biodiversity Areas (IFBAs) are important steps to this end. If successful, these initiatives should be repeated across all remaining grassland areas," said University of East Anglia PhD student Tom Gray, the survey team leader.

Grimmer picture painted of recent extinctions


According to the IUCN Red List, 131 bird species have become Extinct since 1500, with an additional four species surviving only in captivity and classified as Extinct in the Wild. But a new paper by BirdLife’s Stuart Butchart and Alison Stattersfield and Conservation International’s Tom Brooks argues that the number of recent extinctions documented on the Red List is likely to be "a significant underestimate".

The paper, Going or gone: defining 'Possibly Extinct' species to give a truer picture of recent extinctions (published in The Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club), describes the method the authors have developed to identify 15 Critically Endangered species as Possibly Extinct (PE).

"A precautionary approach by IUCN to classifying extinctions is appropriate in order to encourage continuing conservation efforts until there is no reasonable doubt that the last individual of a species has died," says lead author Dr Stuart Butchart, BirdLife's Global Species Programme Coordinator. However, this approach means that analyses of recent extinctions are likely to come up with unduly optimistic figures.

"Over the last century, bird species have become extinct at a rate of one every 1.8 years." —Dr Stuart Butchart, BirdLife's Global Species Programme Coordinator

"We defined ‘Possibly Extinct’ species as those that are, on the balance of evidence, likely to be extinct, but for which there is a small chance that they may be extant and thus should not be listed as Extinct until adequate surveys have failed to find the species and local or unconfirmed reports have been discounted," Butchart explains. "Adding this tag to the Red List allows more realistic assessment of extinction rates without giving up on species prematurely."

Some Possibly Extinct species have not been recorded for more than 50 years, with the record being held by Hooded Seedeater Sporophila melanops – not seen since it was discovered in central Brazil in 1823. Others have undergone well-documented declines, such as the Oloma'o Myadestes lanaiensis, a Hawaiian thrush that was last seen in 1980 following its disappearance resulting from habitat destruction and introduced avian malaria.

"Combining data on these 15 species with data for 135 Extinct and Extinct in the Wild species shows that over the last century bird species have become extinct at a rate of one every 1.8 years," says Butchart. "Habitat loss and degradation, invasive species, and exploitation have been the main causes of extinction."

Gola spared from logging

Gola rainforest, one of Africa's top biodiversity sites, is to be managed to benefit local communities, rather than being logged, thanks to a ground-breaking project implemented by the Government of Sierra Leone in co-operation with two BirdLife Partners: the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone (CSSL) and the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK).
The 75,000 ha Important Bird Area (IBA) forest will be protected from legal and illegal logging. Local people from seven chiefdoms have been recruited by the project to patrol the reserve, and will have a key role in managing the project. The RSPB and CSSL are working with the Government to secure the logging rights to Gola, and are financing development projects such as the construction and repair of schools and other community buildings that will directly benefit up to 100,000 local people. A fund will be established to meet the cost of managing the forest for biodiversity for the long term, and to support continuing community development programmes.
His Excellency Alhaji Dr Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, President of Sierra Leone, commented: "This is a new approach in forest protection that will address not only the protection of the forest and its biodiversity, but will also provide sustainable benefit to the local community in perpetuity."
"This project will benefit both people and wildlife. CSSL and the RSPB are looking forward to working alongside the government to help protect this remarkable forest. Our goal is to see Gola managed by local people as a national park by 2010." Daniel Siaffa, Head of CSSL
More than 270 bird species, including 14 globally threatened are found at Gola. They include Rufous Fishing-owl Scotopelia ussheri, Gola Malimbe Malimbus ballmanni (both Endangered), and the Green-tailed Bristlebill Bleda eximius and White-necked Picathartes Picathartes gymnocephalus (both Vulnerable), the latter a charismatic species recognised as a symbol of African conservation.
Gola is also important for threatened mammals including pygmy hippopotamus, forest elephant and zebra duiker.
The Gola rainforest project was established in response to the government of Sierra Leone’s commitment both to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals of reducing poverty and promoting sustainable development, and to the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). On 23 March 2006 the government of Sierra Leone announced its backing for the scheme, at the meeting of the international Convention on Biological Diversity in Brazil.

First teal ducklings on Campbell Island


The reintroduction of the flightless Campbell Island Teal Anas nesiotis to its sub-Antarctic home in 2004, after more than a century of exile, was carried out successfully. But could they survive the harsh climate that was new to these captive and New Zealand-raised ducks, and equally importantly, would they breed?

In February 2005 a monitoring team from New Zealand's Department of Conservation (DOC) found 78% of the transferred teal alive, but no ducklings. This was disappointing as they had bred in their first year when transferred from captivity to Whenou Hou (Codfish Island), a rat-free island off Stewart Island (a large island off the southern tip of NZ's South Island).

To build up numbers, a further 55 ducks were released on Campbell Island in September 2005. The release team tracked 48 of the total 105 ducks released. "The teal may not be able to fly, but are extremely fleet of foot, and the barest glimpse is all that may be seen," explained Pete Morrin, who was part of the 2004 release team, documenting the release on video, assisting with duck husbandry and radio tracking, and acting as sea lion distractor in the dense scrub.

"With continued breeding and dispersal, the teal will once again share Campbell Island with the albatrosses, sea lions and other wildlife that call this sub-Antarctic island home." —Pete Morrin, Campbell Island Teal recovery project

The team estimates that the numbers of sightings and recaptures represented the barest minimum of the birds surviving. The 2004-released teal no longer had transmitters, as they had been designed with a weak link so they would fall off after 12 months, when the batteries became flat.

In the end, it wasn’t a teal-monitoring team that saw the first teal ducklings ever seen on Campbell Island, but an albatross research team. A brood of small ducklings and their parents were sighted swimming by the wharf at Beeman Base in January 2006. This sighting was followed up in February by a teal monitoring team who, with the assistance of Percy the dog, found one small duckling with a female teal, three juveniles and two nests containing eggs.

Beck’s is back


Beck’s Petrel Pseudobulweria becki, unrecorded since 1929, has apparently been seen and photographed in the Coral Sea, east of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The observer, birding tour guide Richard Baxter, was able to compare it directly with Tahiti Petrel Pseudobulweria rostrata, the bird with which it is most likely to be confused (and with which it may be conspecific).

Despite the 77-year gap in the record, BirdLife had categorised Beck’s Petrel as Critically Endangered rather than Extinct. "It probably remains extant, because there have been a number of recent records of up to 250 individuals of the very similar Tahiti Petrel in the Bismarck Archipelago and Solomon Islands which may refer to this species," states BirdLife’s species account. "Furthermore, petrels that are nocturnal at the nesting grounds are notoriously difficult to detect, and there are numerous possible breeding sites on isolated atolls and islands that require surveying." However, it adds: "Any remaining population may be tiny."

Baxter had been crossing the Coral Sea for two days, en route from Noumea to Australia. "Tahiti Petrels were abundant the entire time we were in suitably deep water and I had seen several hundred," he reported. "The Beck’s was the size of a Cookilaria petrel [a subgenus of small Pterodromas], significantly smaller than a Tahiti Petrel, and comparable to both Black-winged Pterodroma nigripennis and Gould’s Petrel Pterodroma leucoptera, which were also seen that morning."

"When looking at the Beck’s it was very obviously not a Tahiti Petrel on size alone." —Richard Baxter

Baxter’s description continues: "When looking at the Beck’s it was very obviously not a Tahiti Petrel on size alone. I also think the wings are shorter and broader than Tahiti and it does not have the same large billed appearance. The underwings also appear lighter. Photos of underwing plumage taken of Tahiti the same morning shows very dark at that time of year. The chin/throat is pale and the specimen also has a pale chin/throat! No one I know has ever seen a Tahiti with a pale throat!''

Rollo Beck, an ornoithologist and collector of museum specimens, took part in the Whitney expedition to Oceania in the 1920s. The petrel which bears his name is known only from two specimens: a female taken at sea east of New Ireland and north of Buka, Papua New Guinea, on 6 January 1928; and a male taken north-east of Rendova, Solomon Islands, on 18 May 1929.

BirdLife’s proposed conservation measures for the species include scrutinising and photographing all P. rostrata-type petrels seen within the region; and surveying far-flung atolls and reefs north of New Ireland and the Solomons, and high-altitude forest on Bougainville, where Beck’s Petrel may be breeding. Also recommended is biochemical analysis, to determine whether it is a species in its own right, or a subspecies of Tahiti Petrel.

"Conservationists are reluctant to designate species as Extinct if there is any reasonable possibility that they may still be extant, in order to avoid the 'Romeo error', where we might give up on a species prematurely." —Dr Stuart Butchart, BirdLife's Global Species Programme Coordinator

Dr Stuart Butchart, BirdLife's Global Species Programme Coordinator, is lead author of a forthcoming paper which explains the framework used to tag 15 Critically Endangered species Possibly Extinct. Beck's Petrel was not one of those 15 species, as the possible recent sightings in the Bismarck Archipelago and Solomon Islands weighed in its favour. However, another seabird, the Guadalupe Storm-petrel Oceanodroma macrodactyla was reclassified as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct).

"Guadalupe Storm-petrel has not been recorded since 1912 despite several searches, following a severe decline owing to predation by introduced cats and habitat degradation by introduced goats," Butchart explained. "Only the difficulty of detecting storm-petrels at their breeding colonies at night (when the birds are active), and the continued survival of other storm-petrels on the island, point to the possibility that some individuals survive, and hence that classification as Extinct would be premature."

He says that listing a species as Extinct has significant conservation implications. "Conservation funding is, justifiably, not targeted at species believed extinct. Therefore conservationists are reluctant to designate species as Extinct if there is any reasonable possibility that they may still be extant, in order to avoid the 'Romeo error', where we might give up on a species prematurely."

Fiji IBA book launched

BirdLife's Pacific Programme yesterday launched its latest publication, Important Bird Areas of Fiji: Conserving Fiji's Natural Heritage, at the residence of the British High Commissioner for Fiji.

Compiled and edited by Vilikesa T. Masibalavu and Guy Dutson, the book describes 14 sites in Fiji which are of global importance for bird conservation. These Important Bird Areas (IBAs) are priorities for conserving the natural heritage of Fiji for future generations.

Fiji’s rich natural heritage includes 11 globally threatened bird species and 27 endemic birds which occur in no other countries. The book updates the status and conservation needs of all these special birds and is aimed at land-use planners, policy-makers, conservationists, forestry managers, researchers, birdwatchers, local land-owners and the general public.

BirdLife's Pacific Programme has established a regional secretariat in Suva, Fiji, which oversees implementation of similar projects in French Polynesia, New Caledonia and Palau. The Fiji book is the first in a series that will soon also cover these countries.

Unsustainable biofuels threaten the environment

On the eve of a key meeting of European energy ministers to discuss the EU’s biofuels strategy, BirdLife yesterday warned that EU policies promoting biofuels may cause more environmental damage than the conventional fuels they are designed to replace, particularly if important environmental safeguards are not put in place.

At the conference, A Sustainable Path for Biofuels in the EU, organised by BirdLife International, European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and Transport and Environment (T&E), the three organisations called on the European Commission to introduce sustainability safeguards as part of the ongoing revision of the Biofuels Directive. Participants, including Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, heard that without safeguards, greenhouse gas (GHG) savings will be negligible, biodiversity will be harmed, and ultimately the public could reject biofuels if they are not seen to be a credible environmental alternative to fossil fuels.

According to an EU-sponsored study, meeting the EU’s target of replacing 5.75% of fossil fuels with biofuels would consume 14-27% of EU agricultural land. For example to meet this target for biodiesel, EU oilseed production would have to be doubled. It is clear that this target cannot be met by domestically-produced biofuels alone, and the reliance on imports of palm oil and sugar-cane-derived fuels only raises the stakes of what is at risk.

"Europe must act now or biofuels could spell disaster for biodiversity worldwide." —Ariel Brunner, BirdLife

Ariel Brunner, BirdLife's EU Policy Officer, said, "Europe must act now or biofuels could spell disaster for biodiversity worldwide. Already we are seeing European wildlife affected by biofuel production. The Little Bustard in France and the Red Kite in Germany are both examples of species being put in danger by the unmanaged conversion of land into biofuels production. The problems get even more serious when we consider the prospect of imports that are produced at the expense of tropical rainforests."

"Climate change and biodiversity loss are among our most pressing challenges," added John Hontelez, EEB Secretary General. "We must urgently reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. But we must tackle climate change and biodiversity loss in tandem. Biofuels are only part of the solution. Unless we produce biofuels sustainably, we’ll end up with more energy-intensive and environmentally damaging farming practices and hasten the degradation of our ecosystems."

Albatross Task Force gets to work


BirdLife have appointed their first Albatross Task Force (ATF) members. Meidad Goren and Maria Honig are based with BirdLife South Africa and are working directly with fishermen.

They are soon to be followed by another two ATF members in Brazil and by the end of this year, it’s hoped to have an ATF team working in Chile.

Meidad Goren has been onboard tuna longliners doing bycatch observations and conducting at-sea trials of streamer lines, which scare albatrosses away from the baited line. He commented, "A recent trip I made was very interesting, though sad as we came back with 16 dead birds [12 shy albatrosses and four white-chinned petrels]. One of the hardest things is feeling sad when a dead bird is hauled up. Every time it happens it breaks my heart, but I know I have to be strong and not let my feelings show."

He added, "The crews are very helpful and on my last trip I even appointed the Chief Engineer as a Bird Officer!" It is with this spirit of cooperation, collaboration and understanding on both parts, that the Albatross Task Force will be at its most successful.

"I was thrilled at the idea of becoming an Albatross Task Force member. I particularly like the way that the programme does not limit itself to making management decisions behind a desk, but instead works directly with fishermen." —Maria Honig, Albatross Task Force

Maria Honig has so far been onshore, training observers and hosting a successful bycatch workshop for 75 hake longline fishermen. The workshop presented results of at-sea trials of weighted lines (which sink faster out of the reach of seabirds).

Site projects completed in Russia, Ukraine and Turkey


BirdLife International and its Partners in Russia, Ukraine and Turkey have completed their national Important Bird Area (IBA) projects. These identify each country's most important sites for birds and other wildlife and were funded by the Dutch government’s PIN-MATRA fund.

The projects have contributed substantially to the expansion and strengthening of BirdLife's network of IBAs in Eastern Europe. In Russia, the Russian Bird Conservation Union (RBCU) has managed to fill a major gap in the global IBA network by identifying 127 new sites in West Siberia.

The RBCU has also managed to double its IBA caretaker network, which now covers 120 sites. This amounts to 28% of the 400 IBAs and key ornithological sites of national and regional importance in European Russia. The project has provided small grants to local caretaker groups to carry out dozens of site actions. This will contribute enormously to the long-term viability of the IBA programme in Russia by helping these groups gain experience of project development and implementation.

Dmitry Voronov
The RBCU has also managed to double its IBA caretaker network including the 'Homeland of the Crane' (Dubna marshes IBA) north of Moscow
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In Ukraine, the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Bird (USPB) carried out a parallel project with Russia. However, the main priority here was to promote the suitable management of IBAs. As a result, USPB has conducted a series of site conservation projects, published a booklet about the threats faced by sites and birds, as well as two management guides – one focussing on the management of wet grasslands and the other on farming and wildlife

In Turkey, a separate project has contributed to the identification and description of Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs), which is an expansion of the criteria-based IBA site selection approach to include other taxa. Doga Dernegi is producing the first ever national KBA book. Another important component of the project was organising training for local IBA caretakers.

All of these projects have significantly contributed to strengthening local involvement in the protection of key sites for biodiversity conservation. Vogelbescherming Netherlands (BirdLife in the Netherlands) played a major role, not only in securing funding, but also through sharing its expertise with BirdLife's Russian, Ukrainian and Turkish Partners.

The projects were formally completed on 31 May 2006.

The Birder's Market | Resource | Bird news for Britain / Rest of the World | World Bird News | World Bird News 2006 |  World bird news June 2006

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