Our wonderful friends in Ascension have recently learnt that their bid to the Darwin Initiative for funds to develop a whole-island Biodiversity Action Plan has been successful – which is great news! The project is a joint initiative between the Ascension Island Government, the University of Exeter, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Queen Mary University of London, Royal Botanical Gardens Kew, the University of Lund, and of course, the RSPB – what a line-up!
The project will cover both terrestrial and marine environments, and all types of plant and animal. To show their enthusiasm, and celebrate as part of this year's Jubilee, staff from the Conservation Office have been carrying a poster with them around the island – from the top of Green Mountain to the sun-baked lava fields where our famous masked booby Rocky is raising his chicks. Stepping Up For Nature!
In a paper published this week in the scientific journal Condor, a team of RSPB scientists and Montserrat Department of Environment staff revealed for the first time the life history of the critically endangered Montserrat oriole in great detail. The team, led by Richard Allcorn, searched the Centre Hills on Montserrat for oriole nests over a period of 6 years, and recorded both the breeding behaviour and the potential threats to the national bird of Montserrat. The main findings of this research are that the Montserrat oriole can potentially be very productive: pairs can raise several broods each year, despite caring for up to 8 weeks for their fledged offspring. However, very few nests actually succeed in fledging young. Invasive predators, most notably rats that were brought to the island by humans several centuries ago, can destroy many nests and kill eggs or chicks. In addition, a native bird species, the pearly-eyed thrasher, also preys on Montserrat orioles, so that altogether only about 29% of nests succeed to fledge young.
Female carrying nest material (Steffen Oppel) Adult birds are less vulnerable to predators, and have very high annual survival probabilities compared to related species that live in North America. But the odds of surviving a given year are not constant - during the study period there were two years in which notably fewer adults survived than in the remaining years. The RSPB is currently investigating what may cause these annual fluctuations in adult survival - watch this space for more exciting results later this year.
Pearly-eyed thrasher (Steffen Oppel)
You can find the paper here.
By Ananya Mukherjee, Vulture Safe Zone Coordinator
We've so far identified three sites as provisional vulture safe zones - one in Uttarakhand (Ramnagar) and two in Uttar Pradesh. These areas are where we hope to release vultures back into their natural habitat.
Things are heating up!
Setting off from Ramanagar we headed towards Lakhimpur Kheri. Tarai Nature Conservation is based in Lakhimpur Kheri and is one of our provisional vulture safe zones.
Unlike Ramnagar, which is much more scenic and picturesque (it's located on the foothills of the Kumaon Hills), Lakimpur Kheri is a city full of hustle and bustle with heavy traffic congestion and terrific noise pollution. Chaos was the order of the day. It was also a lot hotter than Ramnagar!
As we moved in search of new vulture colonies our vehicle’s first stop was Pilibhit where we spotted large numbers of vultures.
Spotting new roosts
I'm still quite new to vulture spotting and only really know how to identify white-backed vultures. However, with the help of BNHS staff and Toby, I quickly learnt that the vultures I was now seeing were Himalayan Griffins. They were flocking together in groups of ten to fifteen around a carcass close to their roosting site.
We decided to follow the trail and 'voila!' - we saw even bigger numbers of vultures across the water as well as more roosting sites. Our vehicle swerved in the direction of the newly-spotted roost sites. Toby and Janki started counting the birds, I was busy taking photos, while Mandar did what he does best - identifying the species of vulture and their age.
Suddenly there was a yelp of joy as someone spotted a slender billed vulture, a rare sighting. I looked into the trees to see a small shy creature, perhaps a juvenile, which clearly sensing eager eyes staring had decided to keep its head hunched into its body!
After a while the bird suddenly raised its head, giving me the perfect opportunity to take a few photos of it:
What is a Vulture Safe Zone?
Vulture Safe Zone work involves ensuring that there is no diclofenac in the 30,000 sq. km area (or 100km radius), especially in the food supply of the vultures ie the cattle carcasses that they feed on. We do this through targeted awareness programmes and sampling to find out whether diclofenac is being sold by pharmacies and/or used by cattle owners to treat their sick cattle.
The provisional vulture safe zones had already been discussed in the November 2011 SAVE meeting and it is in the process of becoming a vulture safe zone.
What would that entail? A hundred percent removal of Diclofenac which has caused the critically endangered status of Gyps vultures in the South Asian subcontinent within a 100 km radius of a provisional vulture safe zone.
The third zone
The third provisional vulture safe zone is in Katerniaghat, an area close to the Indo-Nepalese border. It's a biodiversity hotspot that is home to white-backed and long-billed vultures. Other vultures seen in the area include king vulture, cinereous, Egyptian, Eurasian, and the Himalayan griffin.
Neo Human Foundation in Jharkhand is the last provisional vulture safe zone which we visited. This is the most advanced in terms of raising awareness and advocating for a diclofenac free area. This is because Neo Human Foundation’s work is based on the notion of ‘a New Man or a No Man’ philosophy. The underlying philosophy is to live sustainably in a planet under pressure and so the need to change into a new man. With such a profound philosophy and passion to make a difference in the environment, Satya Prakash indeed has taken the lead in ensuring that diclofenac is not being sold in the town of Hazaribag where a number of vulture colonies have been identified in semul trees.
Different species of birds have different levels of metabolism and there are different ways in which NSAIDS work on the Cox1 and Cox2 metabolic pathways in different birds. A subject that is still being researched. However, Meloxicam has been identified as safe and does not harm vultures.
But meloxicam is still not as popular as diclofenac and would require hard advocacy and campaigning in the Indian subcontinent from the government to the grassroots level to drive home the point that it does not harm the vultures when they eat cattle carcasses treated with Meloxicam. It would also require a ban on the human multi-dose vial size of diclofenac which are being sold in the Indian market and often used for veterinary purposes.
With our campaign for saving vultures slowly gaining momentum, the day is not very far away when the sale of multi-dose vials of diclofenac becomes a ban!
With thanks to Save Our Species for their valuable sponsorship, which helps us carry out this essential work. For more information on the SAVE consortium and its work, visit www.save-vultures.org/
[Posted on behalf of Paul Donald, a man who truly loves larks]
Landing on the lovely beaches Santa Luzia is slightly easier than jumping from a moving boat onto the low cliffs of Raso, but we were still drenched when we waded ashore. Santa Luzia is a giant compared with Raso, covering 35 square kilometres, but it has not been permanently inhabited since the 1970s. All that remains of its former inhabitants are their ruined houses and a few stone walls. Actually, that is not quite all that remains, for when the people left, the animals they brought with them stayed, and Santa Luzia now has the problem that so many islands around the world face, that of introduced mammals.
Because cats and mice are firmly established, there are very few birds on the island. The most conspicuous absence is at night – in all their time on the island, José and Tommy Melo of the local conservation group Biosfera have never heard the weird nocturnal calls of breeding seabirds, many species of which should be present. Absent also are Raso larks, yet we know they were once here, and by a most unexpected means. Barn owls breed occasionally on Santa Luzia and they use the same nest sites for many years. Their pellets and droppings accumulate over long periods, allowing scientists to treat them as archaeological sites. Careful excavations have shown that the lower, older layers contain the bones of Raso larks as well as native reptiles like skinks and geckoes. Then there is a sudden change, when people arrived on the island, and more recent layers contain only the bones of mice.
So Raso Larks were here, and disappeared at around the time that people arrived. Elsewhere, piles of old seabird bones bear witness to the island’s past glories. Our aim on this trip was to assess what needs to be done to restore the island, and its historic populations of Raso larks, seabirds, reptiles and turtles. Island restoration is expensive, but our visit proved that the effort would be worthwhile. We identified an area of potential Raso lark habitat that was around the same size as the whole of Raso, and everywhere we went we could see potential breeding sites for a range of seabirds.
Unfortunately, everywhere we went, we also saw signs of cats. As so often, the need is clear, but significant resources will be needed to restore what could become one of the most important bird islands in the north Atlantic. After two nights on the island, we had to return to Sao Nicolau across seas that were rougher than on the outward journey. Writing this several days later, my arms and legs are still stiff with the effort of clinging on. But seeing these two wonderful islands again was well worth the pain.
We'll bring you more updates as plans progress!
[Posted on behalf of Paul Donald from our International Conservation Science team]
It seems a bit odd to get drenched to the skin in order to see a bird adapted to surviving some of the longest droughts on the planet, but when Rob Sheldon, head of RSPB’s International Species Recovery Team, and I arrived last week on the tiny islet of Raso, in the Cape Verde islands off west Africa, we were no drier than we would have been if we had swum there!
The little navy of the local conservation group Biosfera, comprising two small rigid inflatable boats, deposited us on Raso after two hours battling across two-metre swells from the island of Sao Vicente - thankfully we were too busy clinging on to notice the large hammerhead shark that José Melo spotted circling our little fleet. José knows these waters as well as anyone having spent much of his life fishing them. This fisherman-turned-conservationist, his brother Jorge and son Tommy comprise the heart of Biosfera, and all have spent much time on Raso successfully stopping the terrible slaughter of young shearwaters for food. Now Jose, Tommy and Jorge have brought Rob and I, together with Domingos Leitão of the Portuguese BirdLife Partner SPEA, to Raso to plan the conservation of another species.
The Raso lark is a truly remarkable bird, which makes up for its dull exterior (well, it is a lark!) by being perhaps one of the world’s most unexpected survivals. Confined to just 7 square kilometres of arid lava, this little bird has somehow survived droughts that have seen its population plunge to terrifyingly low levels. When I was last on Raso in 2003, the entire population there, and hence in the world, numbered fewer than a hundred birds, the majority of them males. So, after drying ourselves off a bit and carrying our supplies of food and water off the boats and up the low cliffs that surround Raso, we were happy to see that the population is currently very healthy.
Mike Brooke of Cambridge University, who visits the island each year to study the species, estimates the population to be well over a thousand birds, an increase brought about by a number of particularly wet autumns. Our visit to Raso confirms that – we saw small flocks of birds all over the island, even on the top of the hills and in areas where in my previous visits I have searched for the bird without success. Also interesting is that birds were not seen digging for food, as they were in 2003, suggesting that there is plenty of food on the surface.
When it rains, the birds breed and the population goes up, but during the long droughts that have afflicted Cape Verde, some lasting over 15 years, its population dwindles to tiny numbers. Clearly, this bird has flirted with extinction many times. The population might be very high now, but it is only a matter of time until the next drought knocks it right back to levels that make extinction likely. If cats or rats get onto the island, extinction might occur even more rapidly. So the only long-term solution is to establish a second population elsewhere. Visiting the potential future home of a second Raso lark population would cost us another soaking...