[Posted on behalf of Steffen Oppel, Senior Conservation Scientist overseeing research on Montserrat]
Montserrat is a small island in the Eastern Caribbean, and would be a lovely tranquil paradise with lush green rainforests and golden sandy beaches if it wasn't for the active Soufriere Hills volcano! Since 1995, it has been bubbling and spewing ash, erupting occasionally, and turning the southern half of Montserrat into an inaccessible danger zone where you can get hit by flying boulders at any time – not the ideal place for conservation work.
People were displaced, forests on the slopes of the volcano were destroyed, and the native flora and fauna had to seek refuge in the only rainforest patch remaining on Montserrat - the Centre Hills. Covering an old (and luckily still dormant) volcanic cone, the Centre Hills forest provides a green lung of 1200 hectares that is the pride of this small island. Reaching 750m above sea level, the rugged forest is the home of the national bird of Montserrat - the critically endangered Montserrat oriole.
A beautiful jet-black and orange songbird, the oriole lives only in forests and eats mostly insects that it collects from trees. Since the original volcanic eruption in 1995, it has lost most of its habitat as the rainforests of Montserrat were destroyed by lava flows and volcanic ash. Even in the remaining forest in the Centre Hills there are dangers that did not exist on Montserrat before it was colonised by people – the same old story of introduced mammals, brought to the island by humans over the course of the past centuries, making life difficult. Rats can climb trees and steal eggs or kill chicks in the nest, and feral pigs dig up the ground and uproot native vegetation.
Ever since the population decline following the eruption, we conservationists have been concerned about the fate of the Montserrat oriole. Can this iconic bird species survive the challenges of extreme natural disasters and ongoing pressure from introduced mammals? To follow its fate, an annual monitoring program has been established that aims to track the population in the Centre Hills. Coming soon - regular updates about new research findings and experiences during the annual bird survey that is undertaken each year in March and April to estimate the number of birds remaining.
See also the BirdLife Data Zone for more technical information, and the RSPB's Montserrat project pages.