World Bird News April 2009

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Flying mouse-traps clean up fields

Flying mouse-traps clean up fields

Barn Owls Tyto alba and Common Kestrels Falco tinnunculus (above) are being encouraged by farmers in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority to control agricultural pests instead of using harmful chemicals. “The two species provide round-the-clock predation of mice, rats and voles and have been used throughout history as natural pest controllers”, said Dr Yossi Leshem - Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI; BirdLife in Israel). “A pair of Barn Owls alone can eat over 2,000 rodents in a year!”
“Israel is very important for birds of prey - raptors living here year-round are joined by migrants which soar through on thermals in the spring, and birds which stay the winter”, noted Yossi. Sadly, in 1997 large numbers of raptors were accidentally poisoned in Israel’s Bet-She’an and Hulas Valleys after eating prey which contained harmful levels of pesticides.

“We needed an alternative to using chemicals, and knew that Barn Owls and Common Kestrels - two of the most abundant raptors living in Israel - have been used as agricultural pest controllers around the world”. However, modern development has reduced the number of suitable nest sites available in barns, attics and deserted buildings. “This was easily remedied by proving next boxes which were eagerly inhabited by the birds”, said Dr Leshem.
The first boxes were erected for Barn Owls in the fields of an environmentally-friendly Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu (communal farm) in the Bet-She’an Valley. Boxes have now been peppered throughout the valley, and 70% are already occupied by owls. “We estimate that Barn Owls are removing at least 80,000 rodents from Bet-She’an’s fields each year”, said Shauli Aviel – farmer at Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu. “This has ensured a reduction in the damage pesticides cause to people, soil, water, wildlife and migrating birds”.
The successful project was soon expanded to also include Common Kestrels, with nesting boxes erected throughout Israel. “Kestrels hunt during the day and Barn Owls at night”, said Motti Charter a researcher at Tel-Aviv University. “This constant 24-hour threat of predation has caused changes in the pest’s behaviour and resulting in less crop damage”.
During 2005-2008 the project was expanded beyond the borders of Israel, and 37 nesting boxes were erected in Jordanian fields to the east of the Jordan River. In the Muslim tradition, Barn Owls symbolize bad luck and many of the Jordanian farmers were hesitant to cooperate at first. “Once a few Jordanian farmers used Barn Owls instead of chemical pesticides with tremendous success, others were quick to follow suit and were proud of the Barn Owls attracted to their fields by the nesting boxes”, said Dr Leshem.
In parallel, Imad Atrash, Director of the Palestine Wildlife Society (PWLS; BirdLife in Palestine), erected 10 nesting boxes for Barn Owls in the fields of Jericho in the Palestinian Authority.
The success of using birds of prey to control rodents now continues to go from strength to strength. In Israel the General Directors of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environmental Protection decided to promote a three-year national project (2008-2010) using Barn Owls and Common Kestrels countrywide, together with the Baracha Foundation, the SPNI (BirdLife in Israel) and Tel-Aviv University.
Furthermore, USAID-MERC (Middle East Regional Cooperation) recently provided funds for a research project to compare experimental results of using Barn Owls and Kestrels in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
“At present we have 1,480 nesting boxes located throughout Israel, with approximately 600 pairs of nesting Barn Owls”, said Dan Alon - Director of the Israel Ornithological Center and SPNI. SPNI are now seeking to develop the project further and create a regional project with the Palestinians and Jordanians. “We hope in the future to extend the project even further afield to African countries, thus developing a cross-continental environmental concept that will drastically diminish the harm to local and migrating birds”, concluded Dan Alon.
Conserving many species, especially migratory birds, requires international action to work across physical and political borders. Soaring migratory birds, including large-bodied birds of prey, glide between areas of rising hot air to aid their long-distance flights. However, soaring cannot be used over large water bodies or high mountains and concentrates birds into narrow geographic corridors. Making soaring migratory highly vulnerable to localised threats - such as pesticide use - in countries like as Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

The Red List 2009 is coming and Africa is in the spotlight.

On May 14 BirdLife International will release the 2009 Red List update for birds. BirdLife is the official IUCN Red List Authority for birds and this year will see a number of species being uplisted – meaning their situation is getting worse.
The 2009 update highlights the plight of Sidamo Lark Heteromirafra sidamoensis. Found only in south-central Ethiopia, its global range was previously estimated at 760 km2 with a population size of almost 2,000 individuals. But studies in 2007-2008 by researchers from BirdLife, the University of Cambridge, Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (BirdLife in Ethiopia) and University of East Anglia discovered that available habitat covered just 35 km2, and density estimates provided a global population estimate of only 90-256 adults, all found on the Liben plain. This new information – recently published as a paper in the journal Animal Conservation – means that Sidamo Lark is being uplisted to Critically Endangered – the highest level of threat – in the 2009 Red List update. If it were to go to extinct, it would have the dubious honour of being the first known bird extinction for mainland Africa.
The lark is adapted to Ethiopia's "rangeland" – the savanna of native grasses that traditionally covered large parts of east Africa, but is now rapidly disappearing. In areas where the Liben plain has been overgrown by bush, converted into farmland or destroyed by overgrazing, the team rarely found Sidamo Larks. If the rangeland goes, so will the lark.
Rangeland degradation is often overlooked by conservationists, but it is not just the birds that suffer from the change in land use. The native people, the Borana pastoralists, also rely on intact rangeland to support their nomadic lifestyle. The degradation of the Liben Plain results directly from the Borana losing the use of their traditional rangelands. This has disrupted the subtle and sustainable seasonal movements of livestock which previously allowed grassland to be maintained in good condition.
"If the situation doesn't improve soon, this species could disappear in as little as four years", says Kiragu Mwangi, one of BirdLife's team members.

Sidamo Lark seems to be dependent on grassland 5 to 15 centimetres tall. Away from the Liben plain, there is no similar vegetation for over 200 km, meaning the lark has nowhere else to go.

"It's effectively like living on an island, and that's where most extinctions happen", says Dr Claire Spottiswoode, from the University of Cambridge and lead author of the paper.
Africa may have been spared bird extinctions so far because there are still relatively few such severely fragmented habitats. However, rangelands are now being lost far beyond the Liben plain.
This May, the researchers are planning to revisit the Liben plain to discuss conservation plans with the local communities. The team is hopeful that support will be forthcoming, because many of the local pastoralists would prefer to revive their traditional lifestyle. This work will be funded by the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme.

Paraguayan Chaco up for review

At a recent event, Guyra Paraguay (BirdLife in Paraguay), the Paraguay Secretary of the Environment (SEAM), the UN Development Program (UNDP), and the municipality of Bahía Negra launched the review of the Management Plan for the Chaco National Park.
The Chaco National Park was the first national park created in Paraguay and consists of 700,000 hectares of Dry Chaco eco-region. The Chaco ecosysytem is shared between Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina and is made up of mostly dry open forest, but is being degraded by conversion to arable farming and ranching. However, the risk to the Chaco is increasing. The latest satellite monitoring conducted by Guyra Paraguay in coordination with the SEAM shows that deforestation in the Chaco region of Paraguay, has increased from 500 to 728 hectares per day.
Oscar Rodas, Landscape Programme Coordinator at Guyra Parguay believes that to address this ongoing loss a simple zero deforestation law (which has been implemented in east Paraguay) is not the answer. "At this rate of destruction, the entire Paraguayan Chaco will be lost in 22 years. There needs be a more complex package of laws, which include both zero deforestation and environmental incentives to landowners."
The event was organized by the SEAM and Guyra Paraguay, with the support of World Land Trust, and invited guests heard speeches from Dr Alberto Yanosky, Guyra Paraguay’s Executive Director, Dr Julio Acevedo, from the mayor’s office of Bahía Negra, Veronique Gerard from UNDP, Roberto Amarilla from SEAM, and Dr José Luís Casaccia, the Minister of the Environment.
A website for the management plan was unveiled and Dr Yanosky and Mr Amarilla emphasised the role of the indigenous Ayoreo people in the management plan. The Ayoreo community will retain all pre-existing rights and will have an active role in monitoring the implementation of the plan, providing feedback when possible, and will continue to utilise renewable natural resources.
Bird species found in the Chaco include, Crowned Eagle Harpyhaliaetus coronatus, Black-legged Seriema Chunga burmeisteri, Greater Rhea Rhea Americana, Many-coloured Chaco-finch Saltatricula multicolor, and Quebracho Crested-tinamou Eudromia formosa. With the support of World Land Trust, Guyra Paraguay and SEAM are working to preserve this wonderful national park in the heart of the Paraguayan Chaco, protecting those who rely upon its rich natural resources for survival and protecting the plants and animals that inhabit the area. Guyra Paraguay, in addition to biological and ecological monitoring, also offers sustainable nature tours to the area for those interested in contributing to conserving the park.

Uncovering Iraq’s unique wildlife

Nature Iraq (BirdLife in Iraq) has completed their fifth winter survey of Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) across the country. “From Kurdistan in the north, to the Mesopotamian Marshlands in the south, our surveys have highlighted the global importance of Iraq for birds, biodiversity and people”, said Dr Azzam Alwash – CEO of Nature Iraq.
Along with sightings of several Globally Threatened and endemic birds, the survey teams discovered an endemic sub-species of otter, and observed a worrying drought.
Nature Iraq have been working in coordination with Iraq’s Ministry of the Environment to conduct survey and monitoring work at KBAs since 2005. “Nature Iraq’s KBA project has sought to locate and assess potential areas of biological diversity, and to install a programme of monitoring”, said Dr Alwash.
This winter’s KBA surveys covered 65 sites, of which 12 in Kurdistan, and 53 in the middle and south of Iraq - including 14 new locations. “Two teams have been working hard to record the unique ecology of Iraq”, commented Ibrahim Al-khader - BirdLife’s Director for the Middle East. “The BirdLife Partnership will continue to support Nature Iraq’s work to identify and conserve sites globally important for biodiversity”.
“This winter we observed a flock of 410 Lesser White-fronted Goose Anser erythropus and considerable numbers of Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca – both Vulnerable - in Kurdistan”, said Korsh Ararat – leader of Nature Iraq’s KBA surveys in northern Iraq.
The Mesopotamian Marshes in the south of Iraq are especially important for wintering waterbirds. “As one of the most important wetland complexes in the Middle East, if not the world, these marshes are essential for the conservation of many species of birds as well as other wildlife”, remarked Mudhafar Salim - leader of Nature Iraq’s KBA surveys in the marshes and birding section leader.
“We observed African Sacred Ibis Threskiornis aethiopicus and African Darter Anhinga rufa making the Mesopotamian Marshes one of the only known sites in the Middle East for these birds. In addition, we recorded over 5,000 Marbled Teal Marmaronetta angustirostris, 2,340 Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa and seven Greater Spotted Eagle Aquila clanga - all Globally Threatened or Near-Threatened species”, added Mudhafar Salim.
For centuries, the marsh region between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers was vital for food – mainly fish and rice - production until 90% of it was drained by Saddam Hussein’s regime; forcing the local Marsh Arabs to flee the area. “During this time average temperatures in the area rose five degrees Celsius”, noted Dr Alwash.
Since the collapse of the regime, rehabilitation of the marshes has begun. Water has started to return to the internationally important wetland, restoring a vital habitat that is critical for the survival of biodiversity in the region.
Recently the wetlands covered more than 9,000 km2 – equivalent to over 13 million tennis courts - making surveys a very challenging task. “We were very excited recently when we discovered an endemic sub-species of otter – the Vulnerable Smooth-coated Otter Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli”, noted Mudhafar Salim. “This indicates that there’s plenty more still to find!”
However, the marshes are now shrinking again as a result of drought and intensive dam construction and irrigation schemes upstream. "Flooding has been disrupted by the dams built in Turkey, Syria and Iraq itself", noted Dr Azzam Alwash. "The natural flow system is not going to return until and unless the dams outside Iraq are actively managed as part of a basin-wide coordinated management of the Tigris and Euphrates. In response, Nature Iraq is currently producing a drought management plan”.
Nature Iraq is also running an awareness programme aimed at hunters in the Basra region. “Our hunting campaign will help to conserve Globally Threatened species such as Marbled Teal”, said Dr Alwash.
Nature Iraq is part of BirdLife’s Born to Travel campaign which is aiming to improve the conservation status of migratory birds and their habitats along the African-Eurasian Flyway. Through the Born to Travel campaign Nature Iraq is seeking support in order to really make the difference for migratory birds.

The Birder's Market | Resource | Bird news for Britain / Rest of the World | World Bird News | World Bird News 2009 |  World Bird News April 2009

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