World Bird News September 2016

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Sanctuary declared for elusive oriole once believed extinct

Sanctuary declared for elusive oriole once believed extinct

With its yellow and olive-green plumage perfectly camouflaging it against the tree canopies, the Isabela Oriole Oriolus isabellae, a lowland forest specialist endemic to the island of Luzon in the Philippines, doesn't intend for itself to be seen by humans. And unfortunately, for many decades it wasn't.

Due to the rapid and widespread deforestation which has plucked Luzon of much of its forest cover (down as much as 83% since the 1930s in some areas), numbers of this little-known species plummeted such that for a time until its rediscovery in December 1993, it was widely believed to have gone extinct.

Today we know there are still a few small populations clinging to survival, but the species is still at dire risk of extinction due to the ongoing loss and fragmentation of its forest habitat. In recent years Isabela Oriole has been recorded in only five scattered locations throughout the island, and with an estimated population of just 50-249 adults remaining, it richly deserves its current IUCN Red List rating of Critically Endangered.

Due to its scarcity, little is known about the Isabela Oriole's feeding and nesting habits, and even its call was not officially recorded until 2003. However, the species finally received some much-needed visibility thanks to a project made possible through funding and support from the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP).

Project ORIS (a contraction of the Isabela Oriole’s scientific name) sees a team of young conservationists partner with Isabela State University and the Mabuwaya Foundation to secure the species' survival. The project's objective is to survey all remaining areas of suitable habitat on Luzon, create a conservation strategy and launch an awareness-raising campaign for the elusive bird, including promoting it as a flagship species for the remaining forests that are essential to the long-term survival of both it and various other species that share its dwindling habitat.
The project was set in motion in 2012 when the team received a Future Conservationist Award from the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP), a grant that enables young conservationists to undertake projects across Africa, Asia & the Pacific, South America and Eurasia. The programme works to build the leadership capacity of young conservation professionals working on important habitats and species in places with limited capacity. A partnership between BirdLife International, Flora & Fauna International and the Wildlife Conservation Society, the programme goes beyond grant giving because of its support and mentoring, alumni network and inclusion of valuable stakeholder and community interaction in all successful projects.

Several years of painstaking efforts from those involved with the ORIS Project paid off this August when local officials in Santa Margarita in the municipality of Baggao declared a 5,500-hectare tract of forest as a wildlife sanctuary. The declaration will protect habitat critical not only to the Isabela Oriole, but also to other threatened endemic species, including the spectacular Philippine Eagle Pithecophaga jefferyi. This iconic bird of prey, one of the world’s largest raptors, has also benefited from CLP support in the past.

New study reveals nesting secrets of Golden Eagle

New tracking project reveals crucial information for the conservation of Mexico’s national bird, including five new breeding territories near a quarry in Sonora. The majestic predator loves places that are hard to reach.

Careful footsteps shuffle forwards in the night. It’s a few hours before sunrise and an intense rainstorm threatens. A flash of lightning freezes the wincing face of a conservationist, who hopes his creaking backpack is not making too much noise. His colleague stumbles, so he quickly shines a red light to make sure she doesn’t collide with a prickly cactus.

They are in the remote Sonoran desert of north-west Mexico, on a special mission for a special bird. “Fear coupled with an adrenaline rush. Because if you make a mistake, they can maim you.” This is how Javier Cruz, Field Technician from Pronatura Noroeste (BirdLife in Mexico), describes fitting a radio transmitter to a Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos. The team has scaled cliffs and camped wild in mountains to locate the Golden Eagle nests, as part of a joint project between Pronatura Noroeste and the global cement and aggregates company, CEMEX.

The project is centred on CEMEX’s nearby Cerrito Blanco quarry, set deep in the biodiverse Sonoran desert, where the partnership – which began in 2012 – has undertaken field surveys for birds, mammals, plants, reptiles and amphibians and assessed the potential impacts of human activities in the area. As part of this ‘Biodiversity Action Plan’ to ensure good management of this sensitive area, Pronatura Noroeste and CEMEX studied the abundance and distribution of Golden Eagles and organised a national workshop to find out more, but this process unearthed important information for the team: the population is poorly understood nationally, let alone in the area around the quarry.

Despite a stable population trend when averaged out globally, the Golden Eagle is threatened in Mexico having been extirpated from most of its original range. The study found that over-grazing of native flora by cattle ranching is a factor, as it likely inhibits the abundance of prey availability for Golden Eagle and other top predators in the area like Mountain Lion.

Golden Eagle is a priority species for conservation nationally. “They are Mexico's national bird”: stresses Martha Laura Argüelles Corral, from CEMEX Corporate Social Responsibility at their Yaqui plant. “We are proud to participate in a Biodiversity Action Plan to support Golden Eagles, their conservation is a concern”.

With surveys revealing at least two pairs of Golden Eagle nesting not far from main quarrying operations, Pronatura Noroeste’s project with CEMEX provided a unique opportunity to find out more – a chance not to be missed. The team set out to tag juvenile birds with radio-transmitters to better understand their range and dispersal, working with the Mexican Environment Agency (CONANP). “It was a unique experience,” says Javier Cruz. “And we never thought that it would yield so much information, from the daily movements, where they perch, where they fly to and above all, where they sleep.”

The transmitter-backed eagles have produced maps of the birds’ movements and now a picture is emerging of their post-natal dispersal. According to Francelia Torres, Field Technician, Pronatura Noroeste: “Now we know that their distribution can often include many municipalities, including an individual crossing the US border. As well as places very difficult to access, what surprised us the most was that Golden Eagles frequent places often with very little human disturbance.”

The project is showing that this region is very important for the conservation of Golden Eagle, and giving a real insight into their lives. After a year of having fitted transmitters, five new breeding territories have been confirmed in Sonora in 2016. The project’s workshop also enabled the training of a skilled local Golden Eagle conservation team. Miguel Cruz, Project Coordinator, Pronatura Noroeste is excited for what they can continue to find: “The team continues to strengthen, in a region where it was unknown that they could be nesting.”
Slap-bang in the middle of the Mexican flag, clutching a snake in its talon, perched on top of a prickly pear cactus, is a Golden Eagle. With an impressive wingspan of over two metres, the Águila Real (Royal Eagle in Spanish) is a great choice for a national emblem. But as a top predator, it is also a good indicator for the health of the Mexican environment, as it relies on abundant prey.

This is why the next phases of the project include restoration of Sonoran grassland habitat, especially focussing on a tree-like cactus that reaches over 20 metres: the Saguaro. This cactus is recognised as a keystone species in the ecosystem, meaning it supports a wide variety of other life; particularly bats and birds, which use them to nest. Other current plans include engaging landowners since changes in cattle ranching are needed to benefit the whole ecosystem, including Golden Eagle.
Nearby, CEMEX wants to ensure they have a positive impact around the quarry. “The alliance between CEMEX Mexico and Pronatura Noroeste has been very valuable,” says Martha. “We look forward to continuing to work together to contribute to the biodiversity management of Cerrito Blanco”.

Pronatura Noroeste have also begun outreach work to prevent the persecution of Golden Eagles. But surprisingly for the most part, despite their size, they are not well known by local villagers. “This is a very cautious bird,” according to Francelia. “They are even overlooked by the locals”.

The team hopes to restore local Sonoran attachment to the Golden Eagle, as their project uncovers more conservation secrets. Javier knows what this feels like, already: “After fitting the radio transmitter, freeing the eagle I felt the most immense satisfaction and sense of peace.”

Hooded Grebe threatened by dam construction

Hooded Grebe threatened by dam construction

An emergency motion passed today at the IUCN World Conservation Congress appeals to Argentinian Government to save Critically Endangered bird from badly-planned hydroelectric dams

The Hooded Grebe Podiceps gallardoi, a species already under pressure from the spread of invasive species and with less than 500 breeding pairs remaining, is facing a new and imminent threat from the proposed construction of two hydroelectric dams on the Santa Cruz River, Argentina, warns conservation organisation Aves Argentinas1. An international commitment made today gives fresh hope for this bird, which was only discovered 42 years ago.

Found only on remote lakes of the Patagonian wilderness during the breeding season, the Hooded Grebe (Macá Tobiano in Spanish) was thought to be largely isolated from human threats. However, in winter it searches for food in only three areas – one being the estuary of the Santa Cruz River, now threatened by the proposed dams.

Houses have already been built along the river banks to house construction workers, but no damage to the river has begun yet. However, on 9 September, it was made public to the Argentinian media that President Macri will be relaunching the dam proposal next week.

“The time to act is now,” said Patricia Zurita, Chief Executive of BirdLife International2. “We cannot afford to lose the habitat of Argentina’s beloved Macá Tobiano (Hooded Grebe)”.
The development is currently moving forward without a proper Environmental Impact Assessment or Strategic Environmental Assessment conducted by the Santa Cruz government. The river named after this region is Argentina’s only glacial river and following new information compiled by Aves Argentinas (national Partner of BirdLife International), the area downstream was recently declared an Important Bird & Biodiversity Area3 and global Key Biodiversity Area4 due to its ecological importance.

The river carries a huge amount of fertile sediment downstream to the estuary. With two dams blocking this natural process, there will be a complete change to the river flow and aquatic ecosystems of the area, resulting in the loss of wintering habitat and changes in food availability. In addition to the Hooded Grebe, the estuary harbours three other species listed as Near Threatened: Magellanic Penguin Spheniscus magellanicus, Chilean Flamingo Phoenicopterus chilensis, and Magellanic Plover Pluvianellus socialis; as well as many others like the endangered subspecies of Red Knot Calidris canutus rufa.

Today Aves Argentinas warned the conservation community with an announcement at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, currently underway in Hawaii. An emergency motion was proposed by Ana Di Pangracio (Deputy Executive Director, Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (FARN)6) that called for a suspension of dam construction until both suitable and updated Environmental Impact and Strategic Environmental Assessments hvae been completed, and was immediately passed.
Speaking earlier at the Congress, Sergio Bergman, Argentinian Minister for Environment, said that Argentina has “returned” to the international conservation stage, and insisted that Argentina remains committed to the goal of “zero extinction”. The action resulting from this new motion will be the first test of this commitment for the Hooded Grebe.

In Argentina, a coalition of NGOs, including Aves Argentinas and FARN, has formed to discuss the issues presented by the impact of the dams planned for the Santa Cruz River, and to analyse in depth the necessity and feasibility of the project before it is too late.5

The dams proposed by the government are linked to foreign investment, and would be constructed by a consortium of companies: Argentinian-based Electroingeniería and Hidrocuyo, alongside the Chinese Gezhouba Group Corporation.

The possibility of building the hydroelectric dams was originally investigated in 1950, but scrapped because of their cost and high environmental impact. The dams are still considered low priority in Argentina’s future energy mix.

A new report launched this week by Río Santa Cruz Sin Represas clearly shows that for the same price as the proposed dams, a modern renewable energy combination that includes the use of well-placed wind energy would yield a 55% greater power output per year, without threatening Argentina’s endangered birds. Also a 2014 Oxford University study found that large-scale dams are uneconomic.

“The campaign of the current Argentinian government remarked the importance of sustainability and the promotion of renewable energy”, says Hernán Casañas, Chief Executive of Aves Argentinas. “The serious impact of these hydroelectric projects should be considered contrary to other conservation activities that government itself has promoted, including the protection of the Hooded Grebe.”

The Hooded Grebe is already in severe trouble, having declined by over 80% in the last 25 years due to the introduction of the American Mink, which decimates the Patagonian breeding colonies. Aves Argentinas, working with local NGO Ambiente Sur have set up teams of volunteer ‘Colony Guardians’ who watch over the breeding sites.

Aves Argentinas has been working for more than 7 years on the conservation of the species, developing an intensive invasive predator control programme, and has invested nearly US$ 500,000. In 2013, the Argentinian Government declared a new 52,000 hectare protected area: the Patagonian National Park, in part to protect the breeding colonies of the Hooded Grebe.

“The Patagonia National Park will be a centre for the economic development (eco-tourism) of four locations in Santa Cruz”, says Hernán Casañas. “These proposed dams are jeopardising the flagship species of the Park, a species which the people of Santa Cruz love as a symbol of conservation in Patagonia.”

The Birder's Market | Resource | Bird news for Britain / Rest of the World | World Bird News | World Bird News 2016 |  World Bird News September 2016

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