October, 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
  • Mice predation causes devastating Tristan Albatross breeding failure in UK Overseas Territory

    Guest Blog by Dr Alex Bond, RSPB Senior Conservation Scientist

    Situated 350km south of the main group of islands in the Tristan da Cunha group is Gough Island, a seabird Mecca home to 23 breeding species of seabirds from tiny diving-petrels to massive great albatrosses.  In September 2014, I went to Gough on the SA Agulhas II as part of the annual takeover as the team transitions from Gough 59 to Gough 60 (yes, there have been 60 overwintering teams!).  The crew of biologists, meteorologists, a medic, radio operator, and mechanic will be there until next September.

    One of the most important tasks during takeover is the Tristan Albatross (Diomedea dabbenena) chick count.  These wanderer-type albatrosses breed only on Gough (with one pair on Inaccessible Island; they were extirpated from Tristan over 100 years ago) where mice – yes, mice! – are the main predator of their chicks.  You might be wondering how a 25g mouse can take down a 9kg albatross chick, but I can assure you that a) it does happen, and b) it’s a big problem.

    Dr Alex Bond with Tristan albatross chick

    Typically, these large albatrosses raise a chick successfully in 60-70% of their breeding attempts, and it takes so long (about 10-11 months) that they only breed every other year. But because of mouse predation, the albatrosses on Gough raise a chick successfully in only 30% of their breeding attempts. 

    Worst ever year for Tristan Albatross chicks

    Combined with mortality of adults in longline fishing operations in the Southern Ocean and mouse predation, Tristan Albatross are struggling.  But knowing this did nothing to prepare me for the 2014 albatross chick count.

    163 chicks. From just less than 1,700 nests counted in January. The lowest ever recorded for Tristan Albatross. Ever.

    Searching the empty hills for missing chicks

    When we landed in Giant Petrel Valley on the west end of the island, we immediately knew something was wrong.  Instead of seeing tens or hundreds of white dots sitting in nests on the hills from the helicopter, we saw none.  Where there were 541 adults happily tending nests in January, there were now 14 chicks in Giant Petrel Valley and West Point.  When the three teams met at the end of a long day of hiking (and not seeing many albatross chicks), we were all worried we had missed some chicks, or forgotten to check certain places, but we hadn’t – the birds just weren’t there.

    Giant Petrel Valley, Gough Island with very few Tristan albatross chicks this year.

    The second day went much the same as the first – 16 chicks out of 192 nests on Green Hill, 23 chicks where 274 adults were found only months before on Spire Crag, and on, and on.

    Predation by mice

    But how does this happen?  The albatrosses, having evolved to breed on islands without land predators, have no behavioural experience with mice.  The mice attack the chick (and sometimes the parents simply sit). After one or two nights, and attacks of three, four, five or more mice, the chick dies, and just like that, the adults’ investment in incubating and egg for months, and feeding a chick for weeks is for naught.

    Conservation efforts

    The RSPB Centre for Conservation Science recently published a paper on the prioritization of UK Overseas Territories for eradications of introduced species, and Gough came out on top.  We’ve spent the last 15 years gathering evidence on the effects of mice, studying their biology and behaviour, conducting bait trials, and consulting with our partners on Tristan da Cunha, in South Africa, and with experts overseas. 
    We’re hoping for a green light soon on an eradication of mice from Gough, and should have a decision in early 2015.  In the meantime, the remaining albatross chicks are preparing to depart, and in a few short months, the adults will return to try again, and I’ll be back on Gough next September, hopefully with more albatross chicks.

    Find out more about our work on Tristan da Chuna and also see coverage of the Tristan Albatross breeding season on the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) website.

    Our work on the Tristan Islands has been supported by many funders including OTEP, Darwin, Darwin Plus, the European Union’s EDF-9 and ACAP.

  • Wonking isn’t easy

    Blog post by James Robinson, RSPB's head of nature policy

    Working in policy is often not the easiest or most glamorous of jobs. Those of us who work in this area don’t get to spend much time in the beautiful habitats and with the amazing wildlife we’re fighting to save. Instead, most of our time is spent inside, chained to the desk, staring at a computer screen. Even when we do get out its usually to sit in a meeting debating the minutia of an issue with others.

    None of this is to say it isn’t important. Quite the opposite in fact. But it does mean we often get the reputation of being slightly nerdy folk, focusing on the details and getting excited over the punctuation use in paragraph 63, line 248 of a consultation. I’m not quite sure where the name “policy wonk” came from originally, but it does sometimes seem strangely appropriate and it does seem to be a moniker which has stuck.

    Policy is hugely important, but its not always immediately obvious when its made a difference. Save a nature reserve from development and you can see its still there in the morning. Successfully deliver a species recovery project and you can draw a pretty straight line between your actions and the recovering population. But get a policy change right? Well it can be years or decades before you can be sure if it’s been successful or not and even then it’s often hard to work out exactly what role all that hard work played in making things better for nature.

    But sometimes, just sometimes, an opportunity comes along for a single stroke of the policy meant to make a real and major difference. Not just incremental shifts, inching towards a better future, but a wholesale leap to a better place. Today is one of those days!

    Today, representatives of the UK Government are meeting with colleagues from across Europe to decide whether to support a ground breaking resolution to support a groundbreaking international resolution to reduce and minimise poisoning of migrating birds.

    The resolution is being proposed at the conference of the Convention on Migratory Species in Ecuador this November.  If approved it will set out a road map for how countries across the world, including the UK, can tackle poisoning of birds from lead shot, insecticides, rodenticides, use of poisoned baits  and veterinary drugs such as the vulture-killing drug diclofenac.

    The draft resolution is the culmination of years of work by a group made up of global experts on poisoning and I’m proud to say the RSPB has played a key role working with our partners in the UK and abroad, in getting it to this point.

    Today could be a historic moment in tackling one of the biggest and most wide-ranging conservation problems facing some of the world’s most-threatened wildlife.  Supporting this resolution to address poisoning would bring us a major step closer to the moment when we can declare an end to this widespread conservation issue.

    And it would be the policy wonks that made it happen!

    So today is a big day. I’m keeping everything crossed that the representatives of Governments across the EU and in a few short weeks Governments from across the world, grasp this opportunity. Can policy wonks save the world? I think we can and today we’ll find out.

    They say the pen is mightier than the sword. Well here’s the opportunity to prove the pen is mightier than the poison!

    Fingers crossed…

  • Estimating the number of vultures in Turkey

    Guest blog by Dr Steffen Oppel, RSPB Senior Conservation Scientist

    Vultures are declining in many parts of their range, and in Europe the Egyptian Vulture is in most desperate trouble. The populations of this species in eastern Europe have declined from less than 500 pairs in the 1980s to around 80 pairs in 2014. The Balkan population of Egyptian Vultures is now only a tiny remnant, but there is a much larger population in neighbouring Turkey. Unfortunately nobody knows how large that population actually is, and whether it is declining or stable.

    Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus). Photograph by Nidhin Poothully

    Counting vultures on migration
    Turkey is a large country and could harbour 1000 - 3000 pairs of Egyptian Vultures, but surveying the entire country is not feasible and so the size and status of the Egyptian Vulture population is unknown. However, satellite tracking of Egyptian Vultures tagged in Bulgaria and Greece revealed that Egyptian Vultures migrate to Africa via a small bottleneck around the Gulf of Iskenderun in southern Turkey. In September 2013, the RSPB and a group of collaborators from Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB, Birdlife partner in Bulgaria) and the Doga Dernegi (Birdlife partner in Turkey) explored this area and identified a spot from where the autumn migration of raptors could be observed - with the hope of obtaining a first estimate of the number of Egyptian Vultures breeding in western Turkey.

    Amazing sights of mass migration
    From 16 August to 16 October 2014, a team led by Doga Dernegi and the RSPB, partly funded by the Ornithological Society of the Middle East (OSME), counted all the migrating raptors passing over the small village of Sarimazi in southern Turkey. The field crew witnessed a staggering display of mass migration, with >45.000 Lesser Spotted Eagles (>95% of the world population!), >30.000 Honey Buzzards, >25.000 Steppe Buzzards, and >9000 Short-toed Snake Eagles. Countless White and Black Storks, White Pelicans, and numerous songbird species completed the fantastic experience of one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles to watch.

    White storks on mass migration. Photograph by Steffen Oppel

    Turkish vulture population could be struggling
    These numbers are several orders of magnitude larger than previous counts at a nearby mountain pass (Belen Pass) - with one exception. Both in 2013 and in 2014 the crew counted far fewer Egyptian Vultures than a British Ornithologists expedition recorded at Belen Pass in 1976, despite being in a more suitable location.

    Lower than average fledglings per nest
    Monitoring of the breeding success of Egyptian Vultures at an important site near Ankara (Beypazari), which Doga Dernegi has carried out since 2010, also indicates that the Turkish population may be struggling. Pairs in this area raised on average only 0.96 fledglings per nest, which is even lower than the rapidly declining Balkan population (1.13 fledglings/nest).

    Volunteers counting migrating raptors passing over the small village of Sarimazi in southern Turkey. Photograph by Steffen Oppel.

    More monitoring needed to understand vultures in Turkey
    Long-term monitoring programs cannot provide answers immediately, and several years of autumn migration counts will be necessary before a trend of the western Turkish Egyptian Vulture population can be estimated. However, so far the first indications are not encouraging and more research is required to better understand the status and potential problems of Egyptian Vultures in Turkey.

    Find out more about our work on diagnosing population declines of Egyptian Vultures and our work in Asia on vultures. If you are interested in volunteering in Sarimazi, Turkey in 2015 contact Dr Steffen Oppel. Please consider Signing the change.org petition to remove Diclofenac (vulture killing drug) from the EU market.