[Chris Bowden updates us from South Asia]
Quite a relief - an exciting downpour last night as the first heavy rains of the year made our trip to the local supermarket a memorable one – especially getting back to the car with a borrowed umbrella!
Vulture news since I wrote has been mainly in the form of meetings, with the latest Governments Regional Steering Committee meeting in Delhi focusing on developing a big GEF funding proposal. Followed by a brief trip to Kathmandu to meet SAVE Partners there, and the best news has been confirmation that the World Bank has funded a two year vulture project in Bangladesh, run by IUCN Bangladesh which started last month...I’m looking forward to my Skype meeting next week to discuss Vulture Safe Zones with the project manager, and also to plan my visit there in June. More updates and details on the SAVE website.
Bangladesh oriental white-backed vulture on nest by (Tania Khan)
The UK coastline is a remarkable place. It is in a constant state of flux as the ebb and flow of the tides and stormy weather move and shape the sand and shingle. Shingle ridges appear and disappear and sandy areas washed away by the sea are deposited elsewhere.
Many species of wildlife make their home on this ever changing landscape including little terns. These small seabirds, not much bigger than a blackbird, lay two or three brilliantly camouflaged eggs in a shallow scrape just above the high water line. Incubation lasts for about three weeks and then the chicks fledge about three weeks later. They gather small fish to feed themselves and their young just off the coast.
Little terns are migrants that spend the winter feeding off the coast of south and west Africa. In mid April, they arrive back on our shores to breed. They would normally move with the shifting beaches and make their home there. However, this process is being affected by the impacts of climate change and man made developments.
Photo by Kevin Simmonds
Many of these beaches are being squashed between rising seas caused by climate change and hard sea defences. These beaches have no where to expand and this valuable habitat shrinks in a process known as coastal squeeze, leaving the terns with a shortage of suitable places to nest.
This reduction in suitable habitat is forcing little terns to nest in fewer and fewer colonies. Their population is now very vulnerable to factors such as predation, storms, human disturbance and egg theft because they are putting their eggs in fewer and fewer baskets.
In September 2013, eleven organisations including the RSPB, Natural England and National Trust received EU LIFE+ funding to support a Little Tern Recovery Project. Through this project, we want to protect the current breeding sites and enhance and create others to allow the population to expand. The more sites little terns have to breed, the more resilient their population will be.
We are working to restore their habitat by monitoring potential nest sites and recharging small areas of lost shingle damaged by storms. Electric fences have been installed to keep ground predators such as foxes at bay. Wardens will be on guard at many sites to stop egg thieves who are sadly still a problem. Egg thieves do not just take eggs from one or two nests – they will take as many eggs as they can and destroy a whole colony. In July 2013, more than 50 little tern eggs were stolen from Crimdon Dene near Hartlepool, where 65 pairs of the birds had been nesting.
Along with the Project partners, the public also have an essential role in helping little terns. These birds are being forced to share some of our busiest beaches with people and this increased disturbance can be a major problem. Through this project, we aim to create awareness and work with local communities and beachgoers who can help act as guardians for these magnificent little birds by helping to give them space to breed.
[Ian Barber is the RSPB’s Senior Partner Development Officer for Asia and he has just returned from a work visit to Nepal. Read all about his trip, below. Ian’s companions on this trip are Jyotendra from Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN), Suraj Mahato who is paid by BCN to monitor Bengal florican areas, Kewal Chaudhary who is in charge our Vulture Safe Feeding site in Chitwan, and DB Chaudhary who the overall manager of the Vulture Safe Feeding site.]
When I woke at 6 am little did I know what excitement the day held.
I was all set to venture within Nepal’s premier National Park - Chitwan. Here, I was trying to take a look at the work being done to save the few remaining Bengal floricans where a project funded by the Darwin Initiative is in its second year. In the first year surveys identified the location of grassland areas that have the potential to be new habitats for the rare birds. Additionally, satellite tags were fixed to two birds and we have been checking out where they have been going.
Bengal florican, Shambhu
After breakfast of sweet tea, rotis (flat bread) and omelette we set off to look at the grassland areas where the community has established some trial management plots to help us tease out exactly the type of habitat the birds prefer. We will then try to replicate these on other grasslands. The team has been busy removing scrub and small trees that has been overrunning the grasslands and making them more open areas for the birds – which they like! One plot, a control plot, had been deliberately left uncleared to double check that the birds did indeed ignore these areas. Disappointingly, a discarded cigarette had accidently burnt this whole area which means our theory could not be proved this year.
As well as a fine selection of birds including honey buzzard, chestnut-headed and green bee-eaters, dark-throated thrush, pied hornbill and a single cinereous vulture, we had the good fortune to see several hog deer and a jackal galloping across the grassland. But as the mid-morning sun beat down on us it soon became too hot to be wandering around exposed grasslands so we headed back to the village for a welcome cup of chai followed by an early lunch of rice, lentils and curried vegetables. We rested for a few hours until our batteries were sufficiently recharged to head back out again around 3 pm when the heat was beginning to drain from the day.
As we re-started our work in a second area we came across a small herd of four rhinos. We spotted two adults and two sub-adults quietly grazing about 50 metres into the distance. It was a wonderful sight seeing these monsters with their armour plating and small horns at such close quarters. BUT... they were directly in the way of where WE wanted to go. So we had to sit tight a while and hope they moved off. They had been blissfully unaware of us until the wind directly changed and they caught our smell. One adult and two younger rhinos soon disappeared into cover but the last and the BIGGEST one stood ground. We then had one very slow, careful walk along the grassland area keeping a close eye on the forest on both sides for angry rhinos deciding to take a fancy to coming closer to us!
The Gang of Four - Kewal Chaudhary
None shall pass! Kewal Chaudhary
Thankfully, our careful voyage was well-received and we began mapping the second area. However, soon we spotted a large tree ahead of us FULL of vultures. This didn’t sit right with me as it wasn’t a known roosting vulture. We approached and then one of the team stumbled over a dead spotted deer. This was obviously the cause of gathering vultures, who were wary of coming down until we had passed. The deer itself had not been dead very long as there was no smell or signs of decay. And, as it appeared to be a healthy male just starting to grow its horns for the mating season our hunch was that it had been poisoned. A poisoned deer in a vulture safe feeding zone could spell a disaster for these vultures congregating and other wildlife, so we contacted the community forest members.
Poisoned spotted deer, Ian Barber
While we were waiting for the community members to arrive we found another dead deer and concluded that local poachers had set some poisoned bait. In poor areas such as this, additional food or income is welcomed. When the locals arrived they said they had found two deer the previous day which they had buried so the vultures could not be tempted.
Informing the Community Forest leaders about the poisoned deer, Ian Barber
After completing our grassland survey we returned along the same path and came across a small scrapping in the ground which looked like a deer mineral lick. This provides a source of trace minerals important for maintaining a deer’s health. On closer inspection of the lick, our team agreed it smelt like rat poison. We quickly covered the area to prevent any more deer getting near it and left it for the members to dig it over later when they buried the deer.
At the end of a long hot day we headed back to the village for a welcome cup of tea. We also wrestled with the fortune of seeing such wonderful wildlife while at the same time thinking how best to work with the the local people who are so poor that they have to poison such dignified animals as spotted deer to survive.