October, 2011

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Saving Species

The need for species conservation has never been greater. Despite notable successes in improving the fortunes of a number of bird species, more are being forced onto the list of those that need attention, both globally and in the UK. If we want to have a
  • After the oil – counting the penguins

    Hi - Andre Farrar here, moonlighting from the Saving Special Places blog.

    Back in March, we were all horrified at the news that oil was washing aruond the islands of Tristan da Cunha, in the remote Southern Atlantic.  Here's some blogging from the time.  Many of you rose to the challenge, stepped up and donated to a hastily organised appeal - raising over £64,000 - to all of you a heart-felt thank you.  Time has now past, and the breeding season of the northern rockhopper penguins is underway and we've received this update from Trevor Glass (Conservation Officer), Katrine Herian (RSPB Project Officer on Tristan da Cunha), Brad Robson (RSPB).

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    Background:  On March 16th 2011 the bulk carrier MS Oliva ran aground on Nightingale Island in the South Atlantic Ocean. The ship was travelling from Brazil to Singapore with a cargo of 65,000 tonnes of soya beans and 1500 tonnes of bunker fuel. As the ship broke up in the rough seas, the soya and oil were discharged into the waters around Nightingale.  In the days that followed, the oil reached Inaccessible Island, a World Heritage Site, and Tristan more than 30km away.

    Nightingale Island is part of the Tristan da Cunha archipelago and home to breeding seabirds including the endangered Northern Rockhopper Penguin, Eudyptes moseleyi. Penguins on Nightingale and its islet Alex (or Middle) island were coming to the end of their 3-4 week moult period at the time of the oil spill and many of the birds were returning to sea for the winter pelagic (out at sea) stage of their life cycle. It was then that they became covered in thick oil that had leaked from the ship. Due to difficulties of access around the islands, it was impossible to gauge at the time just how many penguins might have been affected by the oil.

    Breeding populations of Northern Rockhopper penguins have been monitored on Tristan da Cunha since the 1970s. Updated population counts across all four of the islands at Tristan da Cunha (Tristan, Inaccessible, Nightingale and Middle Islands) were made in 2009 by Tristan Conservation Department staff with assistance from RSPB’s Brad Robson and Peter Ryan of University of Cape Town. Estimated breeding numbers at these four islands were Tristan 6,700 pairs, Inaccessible 54,000 pairs, Nightingale 25,000 pairs and 83,000 pairs at Middle Island.

    To date:  It’s over a month now since we first started preliminary work on the penguin breeding population counts. This is an anxious time as you never know on Tristan just when you will get the weather to get over to the outer islands. At the beginning of September with the wind in the south-east we managed to get over to Inaccessible and Nightingale to assess how many occupied penguin nests in the rookeries already had eggs. In the wake of the MS Oliva oil spill in March, it is vital to carry out counts of breeding penguins at as many of the rookeries as possible across Nightingale, Inaccessible and Tristan. Counts need to take place at peak laying time so that the maximum number of breeding pairs are recorded. When we have an idea of how many breeding pairs have returned to each rookery, then we can begin to assess just how many penguins might have been affected by the oil spill.

    Tristan fishermen already reported seeing numbers of penguins at the rookeries around Tristan itself, but it wasn’t until we got a suitable day with the wind in the south-east and not too big a swell that we could get over to the uninhabited islands.

    At Inaccessible we went into the rookery at Blenden Hall, one of nine rookeries on the island, and where many oiled penguins were seen several days after the grounded ship started leaking bunker fuels back in March. RSPB’s Brad Robson reckoned that just over 50% of occupied nests had eggs, indicating that it could be another 10 days to two weeks before peak laying. At Nightingale, Conservation Officer Trevor Glass reported around 40% of occupied nests had eggs.

    Breeding pair of Northern Rockhopper penguins at Blenden Hall rookery

    Towards the end of September, the conservation department team got over to Nightingale and Alex islands to carry out the counts. The team were based on Nightingale camping out in the islanders’ Huts along the edge of the north-east coast. Two trips in a small RIB got all the team safely landed on Alex. Not many fur seals around yet so landing on the rocks was quite easy. The rookery is amongst tall, thick clumps of tussock grass which cover the whole island. The tussocks are so tall you can’t see where you are heading and you often have to bend over to make your way around large old clumps taking care not to slice your fingers on the razor edge of the grass.

     A team of six carried out the counts: two people walking the boundary of the rookery recording the track on a GPS unit. From this, we can work out the area of the rookery. The other four carried out 35 line ‘transects’ across the extent of the rookery. Two people each hold one end of a 20m piece of rope in as straight a line as possible through the clumps of tussock, while the other two each walk the length of the line recording how many occupied nests they see within 1m either side of the rope. From this we can work out the breeding density of the penguins in the rookery. Once we know the breeding density and the area of the rookery we can estimate the breeding population.

    Simon Glass counting occupied nests 1m either side of a 20m line, Nightingale penguin rookery

    Simon Glass counting occupied penguin nests & Graeme Rogers holding the rope, Nightingale rookery

    I've added an edit on 27 October to the following paragraph received from our friends on Tristan.

    While the penguin numbers on Alex had increased on the previous year, there will be quite a lot of inter-annual variation in the numbers as the proportion of the population breeding each year is likely to be quite variable and to vary in response to feeding conditions at sea. And although this looks promising, we will have to carry out counts for the next three to five years to get a better idea of the impact of the oil spill.

    Thursday 13th October

    We have been waiting for two weeks now for a suitable day to get ashore again at Inaccessible island. Team finally managed to land this morning on the north side at Salt Beach to carry out the count at the largest rookery on the island. Waiting to hear from Trevor when they arrive back tomorrow how the counts went. Counts still to be done at all the rookeries around Tristan.


  • Deadly techniques reap a dreadful harvest

    I’ve just received this post from Tassos Shialis – Illegal Bird Killing Campaigns Officer for BirdLife Cyprus.  You can add your voice to condemn the killing in Cyprus – if you have already, thank you – do, please, forward this post.

    Non-native acacia bushes on Cape Pyla provide ‘perfect’ bird trapping hotspot

    The issue of past policy decisions (which are nowadays proven erroneous) being the source of a current problem is repeated once again, this time with the acacias, a non-native plant introduced extensively by the Cyprus Forestry department about 20-30 years ago. The intention was to forest the area as the existing natural habitat was not looking ‘green’ enough. However, apart from the ecological issue of introducing a persistent, invasive, non-native plant species that would degrade the natural habitat, these acacia bushes at Cape Pyla (right on the bird migratory routes) create the most concentrated bird trapping areas in Cyprus.



    Blackcap caught in a net - a deadly and efficient tool used illegally to catch and kill migrant birds Picture: Guy Shorrock (RSPBImages)

    About 10 days ago the BirdLife Cyprus team was covering a square (1x1 km2) in Cape Pyla which is full of acacia bushes. Scouting around, we could see that there were a few obvious places with thick acacia bushes that we wanted to check out. These acacia areas do not normally belong to anyone - a no man’s land basically -and hence trapping is widespread in them, plus the fact that they offer a very good cover for migrating birds. Signs of trapping activity could be seen everywhere e.g. piles of pebbles on the site of dirt roads (pebbles are used to flush the birds into the set nets in the morning), plastic buckets, pole bases.

    What we found in this specific area was unparalleled in all the 10 years of the monitoring programme run by BirdLife Cyprus. Twenty-five nets were counted and a total of more than 1 km of cleared and prepared net rides were found within that one square, an unbelievable number considering that this find was during daytime, when trappers would normally remove nets from sight! We were nervous of checking further some of the patches, since such levels of trapping imply an organized network of blatant trappers, fearless of prosecution and most definitely not likely to be daunted by the 2-man BirdLife Cyprus team.

    One could describe this extensive network of cleared net ride corridors as a labyrinth, as some patches appeared to have no end to the number of net rides created. With all these net rides in one square, it is almost certain that no bird would escape trapping if it were to pass from the area . All the finds were reported to the Sovereign Base Area (SBA) Police (as Cape Pyla is part of the Eastern (Dhekeli) Sovereign Base Area) and the SBA personnel visited the area that same afternoon…but reported that they found none of the 25 nets! It would appear that the trappers had decided to remove their nets in the intervening time, despite the fact that a careful trapper would have taken them down immediately after the morning catch, rather than leaving them blatantly set up during daylight hours.  

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  • Return to Cyprus

    RSPB volunteer, Phil Hughes, has just returned from helping BirdLife Cyprus in the grim task of monitoring the illegal bird trapping that blights the country.  Our work to protect the natural world is full of stories of people stepping up ... Phil's personal commitment is an inspiration, here's his story, in his own words. 

    For the second time this year, I'm going out as a field survey volunteer with BirdLife Cyprus to monitor the illegal trapping of wild birds. The first time I joined birdlife Cyprus was in January. In January it was evident that trapping was widespread and we found nets erected in broad daylight, but the activity did not appear that effective...we did not find many captured birds.

    It was felt at that that time that this lack of trapping activity may have been down to the late arrival of the thrushes, the main target species during the winter period. I went away from Cyprus wondering if the trapping activity was really as extensive and damaging as was being alleged.

    Returning to Cyprus in September, during the main migration season, for my second stint with BirdLife Cyprus, my questions were soon answered. As with the winter monitoring we went out every day, the difference this time was that we daily encountered extensive activity and found dead and dying birds.

    The use of limesticks was widespread and devastating: birds such as fan-tailed warblers, red-backed shrikes, lesser whitethroats stuck to lime sticks desperately trying to free themselves, with the result that their wings and beaks also get stuck and the birds end up hanging upside down, awaiting a slow death.

    The pictures we took of the birds trapped on limesticks are so shocking I have not shown tem to my wife or children. It would upset them too deeply.

    The limestick activity knew no limits; our attention was drawn one day to the activities of an elderly man sticking lengths of bamboo into an earth bank. These lengths of bamboo were to support a limestick to act as a perch - three birds were already caught. This activity was being carried out in broad daylight in plain view of adjacent houses.

    If I had any doubt after January's monitoring about the extent of the trapping activity, September really put me right. Limesticks were shocking. Even if you remove the bird from the lime stick and try to clean the horrible gooey substance from its feathers it is unlikely that it will be able to fly again.

    As shocking as the lime sticks are, they do not take the numbers that the nets capture. This was brought home to me starkly one day when we stumbled into a relatively short length of net squeezed between citrus trees. Six birds were in the net, five blackcaps and a garden warbler. This was a very small net tucked away in a location that had not even been prepared as a net ride and yet six birds had been caught, I assume in a very short time. We released the birds – we could not not intervene.

    Another gory find was the heads of birds in a net ride, once the trappers return to the net all birds not already dead have their heads cut off to make their removal from the net easier.

    Areas where nets are normally sited are called net rides; the net ride is prepared by pruning the trees either side to provide a clear passage to erect the nets and to collect the catch. The net rides are a good clue to look for when monitoring for this activity. 

    Again, after my experiences in January I found myself wondering, are we right to question this practice, is it just a few birds that poor dirt farmers catch for the pot? Another question was answered in September, this is big, this is large-scale; this is not a few birds for the pot but organised crime on a large-scale.

    I now hope, having seen what I've seen this September, that the thrushes again stay away in January - otherwise they'll be slaughtered. I find it distressing think of any bird and in particular a bird that sings so beautifully as a song thrush, more beautiful than the Nightingale in my opinion, being slaughtered for a so-called 'luxury' dish.

    If any RSPB groups would like a presentation on my experiences monitoring and working with Birdlife Cyprus - please contact me! If you are interested please contact Phil via this blog.

    A beeeater trapped - and this time released alive. Picture credit: BirdLife Cyprus

    If you can add your voice in protest at this sickening activity - here's where to go. If you already have, thank you and do forward this blog.

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