February, 2014

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

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
  • Investigating Hawfinch Declines

    This week saw the launch of the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science – and one of the strongest foundations of RSPB Science is research into the causes of bird population declines: the diagnosis, in medical parlance.  Through this process we now understand what many of our rare and threatened birds need to thrive and survive, allowing us to develop effective, practical conservation solutions.  But some birds still require the detective approach.  One of these is the hawfinch.  Research Biologist Will Kirby picks up his deer-stalker and magnifying glass and gives the low-down on looking for clues:

     The UK’s largest finch, bright colours, powerful bill for opening tree seeds, difficult to find and declining at an alarming rate, that’s Hawfinch in a (cracked) nutshell. Latest estimates suggest a UK breeding population of only 500-1000 pairs (similar to Cirl Bunting or Corncrake). The 2007-11 Bird Atlas estimates a 76% reduction in breeding range over the last 40 years, most of which has occurred since the late 1980’s. Long gone are the days when they were considered pests in the cherry orchards of Kent...

    Very little research has been undertaken on UK Hawfinches and there is no consensus on what might be driving the declines. Some ideas put forward at a 2011 workshop of experts convened by RSPB included: low nesting success (possibly predator induced); a shortage of over-winter food and changes to habitat, though evidence to support any of these is lacking.

    Studying breeding Hawfinch was always going to be a tricky proposition: they spend most of their time hidden in the upper canopy of mature woodland, their song and calls are relatively indistinct, they are not especially territorial, their nests can be 20m+ in height – and there aren’t many left! However, we had to start somewhere and in 2012 RSPB and Natural England began the current study. Our first field-season was spent mapping and comparing habitat in areas which had either lost or retained breeding pairs between the current and previous Bird Atlas periods, in counties as far apart as Cumbria and Kent.

    In 2013 we moved the study on to start investigating the birds themselves and with help from local Ringers in the Wye Valley, female Hawfinches with caught and fitted with radio-tags. Following these birds has started to provide the first information on how they use their woodland habitat and shown that they are extremely mobile, regularly travelling several kilometres between feeding and breeding sites. One female was found to be nesting 17km from the catching and tagging site whilst another moved 3km between her first (unsuccessful) nest and a second attempt.

    This coming season we are planning to build on the small sample of birds we tagged last year and with the benefit of experience, hope to follow more birds for longer and to find more nests to monitor. We are still at a very early stage in the process of attempting to diagnose the causes behind the Hawfinch decline and even if we can, finding solutions is not going to be easy. But at least we have made a start...

    For more information on our hawfinch work, ‘diagnostic’ research on other species, and whole programme of science, from national and international monitoring schemes to testing practical conservation solutions, please visit the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science website.                           

  • Spiky yellow woodlouse – the global population doubles!

    The UK's Overseas Territories are an amazing storehouse of unique biodiversity, and while you may be familiar with some of the bird species that have appeared on these pages (such as the St Helena plover, the Ascension frigatebird and the Montserrat oriole), you probably haven't ever heard of the spiky yellow woodlouse – in my humble opinion, one of the coolest isopod crustaceans around!

    Until recently, this species was thought to number a mere 50 individuals – a scarily small number, especially for an invertebrate where populations often are comprised of millions, or millions of millions. These woodlice live in a tiny patch of natural habitat no bigger than a tennis court on the UK Overseas Territory of St Helena (an island of 47 square miles, in the South Atlantic far off the coast of southern Africa). In the photo below, the woodlouse's preferred black cabbage trees can be seen to the right of the shade canopy (an area called The Dell).

     The Dell, St Helena (Phil Lambdon)

    Obviously, such small numbers and extremely restricted distribution makes the 'spiky' highly vulnerable to extinction, especially in a landscape that has changed radically over the past few centuries and where the pristine natural environment is reduced to a few pockets. Two St Helena emblematic invertebrates (the giant earwig and giant ground beetle) have not been seen for over 40 years, and may have gone forever from the island, and therefore from the world. For the woodlouse, it would only take a disaster such as high winds felling a few trees to destroy this population, despite the St Helena National Trust working tirelessly to restore habitats for native plants, invertebrates and fungi (with Darwin Initiative and Fauna and Flora International funding).

    However, some good news! Several years ago, a second patch of spikies was reported on the cliffs at High Peak by Mike Thorsen, but in the intervening time, the area could not be found again. But recently on a day with decent weather, local conservationists Andrew Darlow and Phil Lambdon roped-up and abseiled down the cliffs to investigate further. And in a very inaccessible part they found a small patch of heavily shaded black-scale fern with a new population of woodlice – probably about 40 individuals, but maybe as many as 100.

     Phil Lambdon at the new spiky site (Andrew Darlow)

    So the great news is that the global population has just been doubled, as has the number of sites where the spikies live – a wonderful result. Hopefully the future will bring more finds, and there are plans afoot for captive breeding, so we will bring you news of this exciting conservation work in the future. Congratulations to the St Helena National Trust and island environmentalists for Giving Spiky A Home!

     A spiky yellow woodlouse with babies (Phil Lambdon)

  • Northern bald ibis – the eastern population still exists…barely

    {An update from Chris Bowden on our northern bald ibis work]

    Our trusted fieldworker in Ethiopian highlands, Yilma Abebe, with some RSPB support, managed to spend three days at the site where the relict Syrian northern bald ibis mainly overwintered - and reported this week that three adults were seen, which is good news, given that we were fearing they had finally disappeared from the east.

    The group included the female Zenobia who had previously been paired to Odeinat (who disappeared over a year ago in Saudi Arabia). Interestingly, she was accompanied by an un-ringed adult, so perhaps there’s a faint hope that they are indeed a pair, and might make it back to breed in Syria?

    There was also one other lone bird sighted in the area. We await further details of Yilma’s visit, but it’s good to know there is still a faint hope for the population. As you may know, only a single adult was seen back at the Syrian breeding site last spring, and despite the problems in the country, the field team there somehow managed to continue some field checks. Our thoughts are certainly with them and their families.

     Bald ibis at Ethiopian wintering site (Gianluca Serra)

    For earlier background, see the RSPB's web-pages (click here).