World bird news May 2006

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Mystery shrouds loss of migrant birds

Mystery is surrounding the huge declines of birds that migrate thousands of miles from Africa to Europe each spring.
Scientists fear that their dwindling numbers may be a warning of widespread environmental damage. Climate change, drought and desertification in Africa, and massive pesticide use on African farmland may all be to blame for the declines of once common UK birds such as the Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata, Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe, Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix and European Turtle-dove Streptopelia turtur, a BirdLife Europe-wide study led by the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) concludes.

At the same time, birds such as the European Roller Coracias garrulus, Pallid Harrier Circus macrourus and Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni have also vanished from regular breeding sites on the continent. All three are now classified as near- or globally threatened.

Dr Fiona Sanderson, a Research Biologist at the RSPB and lead author of the study said, "This is incredibly worrying. We knew that some of these long-distance migrants were declining but we were shocked at the extent of their losses."

"There is something about the migrants’ lifestyle that is making them vulnerable and their declines are reminiscent of those we began to see in farmland birds 30 years ago. Migrants have been slipping away for more than three decades but the scale of their disappearance is only now becoming apparent." —Dr Fiona Sanderson, RSPB

The research, to be published in the journal Biological Conservation, shows that 54 per cent of the 121 long-distance migrants studied have declined or become extinct in many parts of Europe since 1970. The study also compared migrants and resident birds with similar characteristics, and in almost every case, the migrant fared worse.

The RSPB’s Dr Paul Donald, a co-author of the study, said: "These migrants are highly evolved and some range over a quarter of the planet’s land surface. For species like this to be affected so severely suggests that something pretty serious is going wrong somewhere, which cannot be good news for us. These birds used to be common in Europe but many now are rare or extinct in some regions."

Researchers will now investigate four theories for the loss of migrant birds:

Climate change: air temperatures are changing and warmer springs are causing insects to breed earlier. Resident birds may be surviving winters better and, alongside insects, are adapting more quickly to climate change. Long-distance migrants flying from Africa cannot detect the temperature increase that heralds an early spring in Europe and may arrive too late to use the best nest sites and catch the insect food glut on which their young depend.

Drought and agriculture in the Sahel: the Sahel borders the southern Sahara, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Horn of Africa in the east. It covers 1.6 billion hectares and includes regions of 12 countries. Long term drought and agricultural intensification, including the widespread use of pesticides and fertilisers, has turned much of the Sahel into desert. The area is the first feeding opportunity for migrants crossing the Sahara.

Desertification: the Sahara is now much bigger than it used to be, also because of drought. Migrating birds must fly over this desert in one flight, to reach their winter homes. The birds may be unable to fly further in one go and if so, many will not cope with the longer journey.

Pest control: huge amounts of pesticides are now used to kill locusts and protect crops in Africa, and may be killing birds as well.

Chris Gomersall
Collaboration between the RSPB and Ghana Wildlife Society has helped to stabilise numbers of Roseate Terns breeding in the UK
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However, there is proof that conservation work for threatened migrants can be effective. The RSPB is working with the Ghana Wildlife Society (BirdLife in Ghana) to help reduce trapping of the Roseate Tern Sterna dougallii. The species's population has now stabilised after a 90 per cent decline in the UK between 1969 and 1992. And White Stork Ciconia ciconia populations have risen across western Europe after successful reintroduction schemes.

BirdLife and its European Partners have launched an environmental education campaign to raise awareness of migrants among children throughout Europe and collect more data about the timing of migration. The initiative, Spring Alive, allows people to record their first sightings of migrants online, and then combine them with thousands of others to produce maps showing the advance of spring.

Belum Temengor Forest Complex

Belum Temengor Forest Complex

Save the Belum Temengor Forest Complex

In April 2006, MNS (BirdLife in Malaysia) launched a campaign to save the Belum Temengor Forest Complex. The campaign aims to educate the public about the issues involved and to encourage the State and Federal governments to protect this critical area. Ideally, this would entail an end to all logging, as well as permanent protection of both forest reserves. It is hoped that with increased public awareness and proactive action from the government, Malaysian signature species, including majestic hornbills, elephants, tigers and tapirs, can remain alive in the wild rather than as stuffed museum specimens.
Taman Negara is Malaysia's prime National Park spanning Terengganu, Kelantan and Pahang. The Park covers 4,343 square kilometres, but doesn't cover all vegetation types or species. With global climate change and the realisation that tropical rainforests can indeed be destroyed by fire, such an event is not as unlikely as it might have seemed a decade ago.

The last extensive area that would make a huge difference to conservation is in northern Perak: two forest reserves known as Belum-Temengor. Covering about 3,000 square kilometres, more than three times the size of Singapore, they are a huge swathe of natural forest landscape that is a significant part of Malaysia's national heritage. To protect this last frontier has become the objective of the Malaysian Nature Society and a coalition of NGOs that believe there is now a unique chance to secure a major legacy for the nation.

Royal Belum was declared a protected area in 2000. The legislation to create a park was enacted and a State corporation established for its management. Although it is yet to be gazetted as a permanent protected area, MNS is optimistic that this will happen soon. Unfortunately the same does not apply to Temengor where logging is on-going and the extent of future logging unknown. Some of this is being done with conservation in mind, particularly within the Perak Integrated Timber Complex (PITC), that has been recognised by the international Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for its sustainable logging practices. Other concessionaires are less concerned about sustainability; logging roads on steep slopes and adjacent to the lake shore or salt licks are extremely damaging, in addition to the impact of actual timber removal.

However, perhaps the most harmful project planned for the Belum Temengor Forest Complex is a proposed plantation of acacia species along the corridor adjacent to the East West Highway. From an ecological point of view such land clearance would effectively fragment the Complex into North and South - a case of arrested succession which would lead to the genetic isolation of most species. The clearance and subsequent plantation would also lead to more human wildlife conflict as the existing migratory patterns of large mammals (such as elephants) would be disrupted.

Acacia is a particularly undesirable introduced genera as it readily colonises open spaces and prevents indigenous forest species from naturally reclaiming land that has been opened up by logging. Few animals or birds can live in an acacia plantation, making it a prohibitive barrier for the wildlife that has traversed the area for millennia. This corridor may be up to six kilometres deep, a visual blight on the landscape, and a death knell for local biodiversity.

Belum-Temengor is home to large flocks of the globally threatened Plain-pouched Hornbill
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The State government has announced it will phase out logging in Temengor once other economic activities such as eco-tourism start to generate revenue and alternative employment for the State. MNS points out that sustainable tourism needs undisturbed habitat to be successful, particularly in protecting the huge flocks of hornbills that are seen flying between both Belum and Temengor. MNS undertook a study to track the birds and learn more of their habits, but there is still much to determine. The hypothesis that they nest in Belum and feed in Temengor for a significant part of the year means that without protecting both areas, the birds will not survive in the numbers that have caused great excitement amongst birders. The hornbills are the greatest eco-tourism asset of Belum Temengor, and logging seems already to have had an impact on their numbers.

The second asset for eco-tourism in Belum Temengor is the potential of the East West Highway corridor. Elephants can be seen almost any day, browsing amongst the vegetation along the highway. Since the verges have been opened up to light, elephants have been attracted to the herbaceous growth that has flourished there. Instead of planting acacias, this corridor could be 'farmed' for elephants and tourists: the former coming for food, the latter for the wildlife experience of a lifetime - seeing large wild animals in their natural habitat.

The MNS Campaign to save Belum Temengor is aimed at educating the public about the issues involved and to encourage the State and Federal governments to protect this critical area. MNS is calling for an end to all logging in Belum Temengor and that both forest reserves are permanently protected. The Federal Government must support the states financially if they are to protect their remaining forests as called for in the National Physical Plan, a project that the Prime Minister personally chaired. As the NPP inherently recognises, intact forests are worth far more than the relatively small amounts that logging generates for government, the timber industry and employment.

India bans production and sale of vulture death drug

The Indian government has taken the crucial first step in reversing the plunge to extinction of three vulture species, by ordering a halt to the production and sale of the veterinary drug diclofenac within three months.
Slender-billed Gyps tenuirostris, Indian G. indicus and White-rumped Vultures G. bengalensis die from kidney failure after eating the flesh of cattle and water buffalo treated with diclofenac.
Pharmaceutical firms have been told instead to promote meloxicam, an alternative to diclofenac, which has been proved by scientists from BirdLife and elsewhere to be safe for vultures.
The three vulture species have declined by up to 97 percent in the past 15 years. All three are categorised as Critically Endangered. The White-rumped Vulture was probably the most common large bird of prey in the world prior to the diclofenac crisis.

The RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) and Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS, BirdLife in India) have set up two vulture breeding centres in northern India and West Bengal. These currently house 127 vultures, and two pairs attempted to breed for the first time this year.
But reversing the decline will be a slow business: vultures do not breed until five years old, and produce only one egg each year.
Studies have found that to cause vultures to decline at their current rate, less than one per cent of livestock carcasses need to contain lethal levels of diclofenac. Yet samples from across India indicate that 10 per cent of carcasses are contaminated with the drug.
"The decline of these Asian vultures has been quicker than any other wild birds, including the dodo.Chris Bowden, RSPB

Chris Bowden, Head of the RSPB’s Asian Vulture Programme, said: "This ban is exceptionally good news and the crucial step we have all been looking for. The decline of these Asian vultures has been quicker than any other wild birds, including the dodo."

"Making diclofenac illegal and removing it from shop shelves are the next steps - and we don’t yet know how big a job the latter will be," Bowden added. "But this ban may well be the turning point in saving the vultures from outright extinction."

The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) has been at the forefront of the campaign for a diclofenac ban. Director Dr Asad Rahmani said: "This is some of the best news of my life and shows that good scientific evidence has been accepted by the Indian Government."

BP Conservation Programme rewards future conservationists


The BP Conservation Programme (BPCP) yesterday awarded 27 winning teams from 21 different countries with a total of $475,000. The Awards will support teams carrying out practical research projects on a wide range of globally threatened species and habitats around the world - from surveying chameleons in Madagascar and conserving sharks in Brazil, to studying rare frogs in Tobago and working with local communities to protect birds in the Philippines.

This year, 19 teams were awarded Future Conservationist Awards, and 8 awards were granted to teams continuing projects seeded by the BP Conservation Programme – 3 teams received “Conservation Leadership Awards” and 5 teams received “Conservation Follow-up Awards”. The annual awards aim to develop leadership potential in a new generation of conservation professionals and address global conservation priorities at a local level by assisting and encouraging teams of young people who are undertaking important conservation projects globally.

From the 26 May until 7 June, representatives from the 19 Future Conservationist Award winning teams will come together to attend two weeks of practical training workshops in Snowdonia, Wales. Winners will learn a variety of skills, including conservation education, communications, people-oriented research, project planning and management skills. This training will assist them in carrying out their projects, and allow them the opportunity to meet and share ideas with one another and a wide range of world-class global conservation experts. These young, talented individuals hold the potential to become environmental leaders of the future.

"We aim to create a young global network of biodiversity conservation expertise, and the training and long-term mentoring support provided by this programme builds the immediate capabilities of projects, but perhaps more significantly, builds the skills, enthusiasm and potential of individual team members." Marianne Carter, Manager, BP Conservation Programme

Conservation Leadership awards, totalling $133,000, have been awarded this year to some outstanding advancing projects and developing organisations that the programme has helped to seed. The first of these builds on several years’ work conserving biological diversity in one of the few remaining remnants of Atlantic Forest of Argentina. The team aims to consolidate the corridor, threatened by deforestation and agricultural development, between Urugua-í and Foerster parks by implementing a new co-managed reserve and supporting community initiatives, such as education, agroecology and restoration, as well as conducting biodiversity surveys and monitoring.

A project conserving the critically endangered Blue-billed Curassow Crax alberti in Colombia also received a Conservation Leadership Award. In 2004, local conservation organisation ProAves launched a conservation initiative to identify possibly the last viable population of Blue-billed Curassow in Serranía de las Quinchas. They produced a 5-year Action Plan and purchased 1,200 hectares to establish the El Paujil Nature Reserve. Now, with BP support, the group plans to create a buffer zone around the reserve to protect the forest. This will be accomplished with community reserves, sustainable community development and awareness initiatives.

The third and final award is supporting sustainable bat conservation across four countries in the Caucasus Mountains, including Romania, Georgia, Poland and Armenia. The extremely various landscapes in the Caucasus provide myriad habitats for bats. Working together across the region, the project team aims to maintain population levels of cave dwelling bats throughout the Caucasus Mountains.

The BP Conservation Programme is a partnership between BP, BirdLife International, Fauna & Flora International, Conservation International and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Boreal forest migrants mark special day


International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD) celebrates the incredible journeys of migratory birds between their breeding grounds in North America and their wintering grounds in Mexico, Central, and South America. It is held each year on the second saturday in May. The focus of the 2006 IMBD was the North American Boreal Forest.

Covering an area equivalent to 75% of the contiguous United States, the North American Boreal Forest is of immense global importance to landbirds, especially during the spring and summer when millions of individual birds rely on boreal nesting grounds. Of the 325 species that regularly occur in this region, an estimated 94% of all individuals migrate out of the Boreal Forest region after breeding. Many of these individuals migrate as far as the Tropical Andes of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela.

A total of 96 Boreal Forest breeding migrants have been documented to regularly occur in the Tropical Andes. These include 37 species for which 50% or more of their breeding distribution lies within the Boreal Forest. Nine of these species have breeding distributions primarily restricted to the Boreal Forest and wintering ranges restricted to the Tropical Andes. These are: Olive-sided Flycatcher Contopus cooperi, Alder Flycatcher Empidonax alnorum, Gray-cheeked Thrush Catharus minimus, Swainson's Thrush Catharus ustulatus, Canada Warbler Wilsonia canadensis, Blackburnian Warbler Dendroica fusca, Bay-breasted Warbler Dendroica castanea, Blackpoll Warbler Dendroica striata and Mourning Warbler Oporornis philadelphia.

The Tropical Andes region is one of the biologically richest yet most threatened areas in the planet. Covering just 3% of the world it nevertheless holds 28% of the world’s bird species, many of them endemic, and 130 in imminent danger of extinction. To expedite the conservation of the unique biodiversity of the Tropical Andes, BirdLife International and Conservation International together with partner organizations in each country have identified a network of 455 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) – sites of global significance for the conservation of birds. However, it is not just the endemic species which are threatened with extinction. The populations of many migratory species are also undergoing marked population declines. At least 40 species of landbirds are experiencing population declines in the boreal forest and range-wide, according to long-term Breeding Bird Survey trends, and 30 species of migrants that occur in the Tropical Andes are considered as “Birds of Conservation Concern” (17 species of landbirds and 13 waterbirds). Among the species of conservation concern that depend on both the Boreal Forest and forests in the Tropical Andes are Canada Warbler and the globally near-threatened Olive-sided Flycatcher. With support from USFWS, BirdLife has recently completed an analysis of the importance of these IBAs for the conservation of Neotropical migrants.

The information compiled shows that 39 IBAs in the Tropical Andes regularly maintain wintering populations of Olive-sided Flycatcher and Canada Warbler. These IBAs are located primarily on the east slope of the Andes in Colombia and Ecuador.

While the breeding habitat of many Boreal Forest migrants is still relatively intact, the same is not true for their wintering range in the Tropical Andes. The altitudinal range which is the center of abundance for many migratory species, from 500 to 2000 m, is also one of the most threatened by habitat destruction. Of the IBAs found in this area, 51% are threatened by agricultural expansion and intensification, 37% by too frequent burning, and 32% by selective logging. Four of the thirty-nine key IBAs are totally unprotected, and a further ten are only partially protected.

Therefore, the long-term conservation of many Boreal Forest breeding migrants will depend on site-based conservation actions within the Tropical Andes, where many species depend on the forests of the eastern and western flanks of the Andes, habitats which are under massive threat from unsustainable logging and clearing for cattle- ranching. A focus on actions at key IBAs will bring benefits for both migratory and endemic species.

More detailed information on Neotropical migrants can be found in:

Fiji joins rat race


A team of specialist consultants from New Zealand has given the green light to a BirdLife Fiji Programme project to eradicate rats on Vatuira Island, which holds internationally important seabird colonies and has been identified as an Important Bird Area.

This means that two rat eradication programmes will be carried in Fiji this year: the other is the removal of rats on Viwa Island, Tailevu, led by Joape Kuruyawa and Dr Craig Morley from the University of the South Pacific (USP).

Rats are a serious threat to the native birds and wildlife of Fiji and other Pacific islands. Three species of rat have been introduced to Fiji: Pacific rats arrived thousands of years ago when the first Fijians arrived, with European black and brown rats more recently. All have devastating impacts on biodiversity and have led to the extinction of innumerable species in the Pacific, along with economic and health problems caused by damage to crops and the spread of diseases.

"The island was infested with Pacific rats and these were clearly having an impact on the birds, eating eggs and chicks." Vilikesa Masibalavu, BirdLife - Fiji Co-ordinator

We visited the huge seabird colonies on Vatuira about two years ago, explains Vilikesa Masibalavu, BirdLife International's Fiji Programme Co-ordinator. However the island was infested with Pacific rats and these were clearly having an impact on the birds: eating eggs and chicks. The land owners were aware of the problem and we all really wanted to work together to do something about this.

This tiny island off the north coast of Viti Levu has at least eight species of nesting seabird including Red-footed Boobies Sula sula, Great Crested-terns Sterna bergii, Black-naped Terns Sterna sumatrana and up to 30,000 pairs of Black Noddies Anous minutus.

Rat eradication, may sound a bit grizzly, but it is simple and safe operation and the rats die quietly within a few days, explained Rob Chappell, specialist consultant who visited both Viwa and Vatuira islands last week. If all goes to plan, Fiji will remove rats off the two islands in one month. Hopefully these will be the first of many to be de-ratted.

The rat eradication programme on Viwa will be considerably more complex than the operation undertaken on Vatuira due to the size of the island (60 ha), the presence of people, and because an endangered ground frog is present. However, the people of Viwa are right behind the project because it will help conserve the natural biodiversity of their island, as well as hopefully leading to an improvement in their own health and economic status.

Craig Morley, lecturer at USP and Project Manger for Viwa commented, Eradication hasn’t been done before in Fiji so there is a bit of friendly rivalry between the teams to do the first one. The joke is it's a rat race! He went on to explain, The University and BirdLife are working closely together, sharing consultants and materials and also exchanging staff so that everyone gets the best learning experience.

Rob Chappell added, The idea behind these projects is to use them as demonstration projects to prove that rats can be eradicated off tropical Pacific islands and to train local people in the techniques of removing rats so we can achieve similar results on other suitable islands.

Record bird numbers slip towards extinction


BirdLife's annual evaluation of how the world's bird species are faring shows that the total number considered threatened with extinction is now 1,210. When combined with the number of Near Threatened species this gives a record total of 2,005 species in trouble more than a fifth of the planet’s 9,799 total species.

Not all species that are faring badly are found in the tropics. The Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa, a migratory wading bird whose breeding population is concentrated in Europe, has declined in number by around 25% over the last 15 years. As a result, the species is now classified as globally Near Threatened. Loss of nesting habitat owing to wetland drainage and agricultural intensification are its biggest threats.

Of the species most at risk 181 are now categorised as Critically Endangered, the highest level of threat. New additions include the Purple-backed Sunbeam Aglaeactis aliciae, a hummingbird found only in a tiny 1km2 area of alder woodland in western Peru.

Martin Harvey
The Seychelles Fody is no longer considered globally threatened
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"Recently much of the Purple-backed Sunbeam's crucial remaining habitat has been replaced with eucalyptus. This will have a devastating effect on a species already numbering fewer than a thousand individuals." Dr Stuart Butchart, BirdLife's Global Species Programme Coordinator

Another species now regarded as Critically Endangered is the Uluguru Bush-shrike Malaconotus alius, from the Uluguru Mountains of Tanzania. Repeated surveys in the 1990s found that the species is restricted to the small Uluguru North Forest Reserve, which is suffering from ongoing habitat degradation. Loveridge's Sunbird Nectarinia loveridgei, also only found in the Ulugurus, has also been uplisted (to Endangered) to reflect its continuing decline.

However, it is not all bad news: the Seychelles Fody Foudia sechellarum, a small yellowish songbird has been downlisted to Near Threatened. Habitat management and conservation measures have encouraged the regeneration of natural woodland on its island homes and are thought to have been key factors in the recent substantial population increase. Nature Seychelles (BirdLife in the Seychelles) has also recently translocated birds to Denis and Aride Islands where self-sustaining populations are now established.

János Oláh
Peru's Purple-backed Sunbeam has been uplisted to Critically Endangered
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"This is a credit to the efforts of Nature Seychelles and others who can now add this species to a significant list of native Seychelles birds that have been brought back from the brink of extinction." —Dr Stuart Butchart

Several new species are also recognised in the 2006 update including the Serendib Scops-owl Otus thilohoffmanni (Endangered) from Sri Lanka. The Long-legged Thicketbird Trichocichla rufa is also evaluated for the first time as Endangered, following its rediscovery in 2002 on Fiji.

However, a warning as to the ultimate fate that could await some of these species is offered by a number of extinct species that appear on the list for the first time. These include three species of monarchs (small songbirds) from French Polynesia that had already disappeared before taxonomic studies recognised them as full species – in one case (Ua Pou Monarch) as recently as 1985.

"We face a huge challenge in improving the status of the 1,210 threatened and 795 Near Threatened species. But the success stories show that concerted conservation action can save these birds from extinction: we just need the political will and resources," added Dr Stuart Butchart, BirdLife's Global Species Programme Coordinator.

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

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