Friday, 9 September 2016

Java's mountain forests, and the Asian songbird crisis

Posted by Stu

I recently returned from a two week visit to Java preparing for some research we hope to get going on the island in the coming months. Much of my time was spent with Bas van Balen, a world authority on birds on the island. First, we have a grant from the Shearwater Foundation to prepare for surveys of seriously endangered birds in and around twelve mountains in West Java. Some of these species, such as Javan Green Magpie and Rufous-fronted Laughingthrush have been hit by habitat loss, but particularly by crazy levels of capture for the cagebird trade. Some of the mountains simply have not been studied for decades and we need to know if some of these highly threatened species (birds but also primates and other taxa) can survive there. We may also be able to identify some potential sites for reintroductions, especially for the magpie.

Above: Workshop on bird surveying at Burung Indonesia's Bogor office; Below: Practicing methods at Gunung Gede with Bas van Balen (Photos: Stu)

One of our activities in Bogor was to run a four day training course on bird surveys for staff of Burung, the Indonesian BirdLife partner, and students from University of Indonesia and Bogor Agricultural University. Two days were spent in the classroom, talking about different survey methods and analysis, tackling bird identification issues, and problem-solving of how to get the best out of surveys in difficult and diverse situations. Then we moved to Gunung Gede and put some of these methods into practice for a couple of days.

Then attention turned to two PhDs I am hoping to set up in partnership with Chester Zoo. These concern the huge cagebird trade on the island and its catastrophic effect on wild populations of songbirds. The extent of the problem is laid out in full in this Forktail paper by James Eaton, Bas, Nigel Collar and others. It makes quite depressing reading. They tell a story of empty forests, cleared of shamas, and the wholesale loss of leafbirds and other species that really ought to be common across the landscape.

Two species impacted hugely by the cage bird trade: nominate melanopterus Black-winged Starling (left) and Greater Green Leafbird (right)

With Ria Saryanthi from Burung Indonesia I visited a large ‘bird farm’ on the outskirts of Bogor – these commercial captive breeding facilities are springing up across Java. I was expecting a really depressing ‘bird battery farm’ – but this place was rather different. Sure, they bred birds such as Straw-headed Bulbul and White-rumped Sharma (and several parrot and cockatoo species) but this was a well-run business. What was most incredible is the price of some of these birds. A pair of Straw-headed Bulbuls can fetch 45M Rupiah (> US$3,000) while a ‘singer’ (a champion who is used to teach younger birds to sing) can fetch more than $5,000. The troubled White-rumped Sharma regularly fetches $2,000, while a grand champion singer can fetch an astonishing $50,000.

What we hope to do is to run two PhDs in parallel – the first will look at factors influencing supply to, and demand for, the bird trade. Its aim is to identify points, people and psychologies that conservationists can target to turn an obvious love of birds in cages into a desire to protect birds in the wild. The second PhD will focus on the Critically Endangered Black-winged Starling, its current pitiful status in the wild and a detailed study of a release programme for the species, perhaps around Cikananga Wildlife Centre. I had some really positive discussions at the centre with Anais Tritto and the centre’s director, Resit Sozer.

Anais Tritto checks on starling breeding activity remotely at Cikananga (Photo: Stu)

Finally, I travelled with Bas to visit some key sites on the north coast for Java’s lowland endemics. This included Muara Angke, a fantastic urban nature reserve in bustling Jakarta (which reminded me again of the loss of Manchester’s Pomona island). Depressingly, we failed to see Javan White-eye at a couple of sites around Pamanukan – others have reported it to be getting hard to see in the area. Trappers had been active in the area before our visit, using MP3s of its call to catch whole foraging parties using glue. Individual white-eyes may sell for around $20 each. 

Habitat for, but without, the Javan White-eye. The species is currently Near threatened but is a sure bet for uplisting (Photo: Stu)

We had better luck at a nearby cement factory where Java Sparrows are able to  persist, simply due to the presence of security within the quarry compound. This once ubiquitous species has virtually vanished from the map due to excess trapping.

Java Sparrows, protected from trappers by security around a cement factory in Java (Photo: Reza A. Ahmadi)

More on these PhDs soon I hope.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Monitoring biodiversity on MMU campus

Posted by Simon Valle, Kosta Tzoulas and Stu

As part of its award-winning environmental policy, MMU has committed to enhancing biodiversity on its estate. A first series of exploratory 'bioblitzes' were done by staff, students and local experts in 2015 on the Cheshire Campus and in Ryebank Fields - these yielded very interesting data on the surprising number of species that can live so close to busy urban settlements. This year, we started our monitoring programme, again with the help of consultants at The Environment Partnership and students on the MMU Futures programme. 
Students monitor aquatic plants and invertebrates in the newly created wetland at Birley Fields (Photo: Stu)

Our first step was to set up 20 x 20 m monitoring plots, placed at key places within the All Saints, Birley Fields and MMU Cheshire campuses. We then used standardised methods to record a range of different animal and plant groups within the plots - trees and bushes, terrestrial and aquatic plants, invertebrates such as Ladybirds, lichens, birds, reptiles and mammals). These counts will form the basis of long-term monitoring of biodiversity levels.

Badgers were 'caught' on several camera traps at the MMU Cheshire campus.

Last year's bioblitz at MMU Cheshire Campus suggested the presence of a badger set, as well as signs of water vole presence (feeding remains, latrines and burrows). In order to confirm this information a number of camera traps were strategically placed as part of this year’s survey effort. Although all evidence suggests that the set may not be in use, the presence of badgers has been documented in several areas of the campus.
Camera traps have proved useful to document the presence of other species otherwise difficult to survey (e.g. fox), whereas for more numerous species like rabbits and grey squirrels they provide a useful index of occurrence (i.e. encounter rate) that can be used as a proxy their occurrence over the years. The presence of kingfishers was confirmed along the wetland habitats of MMU Cheshire Campus.
Kingfisher, a fantastic bird to have on MMU's estate (Photo: Laitche)

A relatively new UK species of bumblebee, Bombus hypnorum, was recorded both on Birley Fields and Crewe campuses. First recorded in Britain in 2001, this species has been, and still is, rapidly colonising the UK. In Manchester, moth specialist Dr Emma Coulthard has found over 20 individuals of the Diamond-back Moth (Plutella xylostella) which is a migratory species and can come in huge numbers depending on the weather events in the Mediterranean. Vegetation surveys in the Birley Fields showed that, although the campus hosts a limited number of species, it has an impressive structural and micro-habitat variety for an urban environment.

Sampling invertebrates in All Saints Park with the help of Paul Chipman and a ladder (Photo: Stu)
We thank our friends from The Environment Partnership (TEP), MMU staff, MMU's Environment Team for making it possible for us to set up a scientifically rigorous survey framework which will be used in the years to come to monitor species and inform management decisions across MMU's estate.

Friday, 1 July 2016

A new Viper for Europe - already Endangered

Posted by Stu

It is not every day that a new vertebrate is described from Europe. In a new paper published in Journal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research, Samuele Ghielmi and Michele Menegon (MUSE - Museo delle Scienze, Trento), Lorenzo Laddaga (Museo di Scienze, Domodossola), Sylvain Ursenbacher (University of Basel) and Stu talk about the ‘discovery’, morphology, genetics and conservation of Vipera walser, a new viper species from the north-western Italian Alps.

In 2005, Samuele Ghielmi noticed something odd about adders and lizards in the north-western Italian Alps. First, there was a population of European Adder Vipera berus in the area that was disjunct from V. berus populations in the rest of Europe. More intriguing was that within this area, the Common Lizard Zootoca vivipara, one of the adder’s main prey items over much of its European range, was replaced by Zootoca carniolica, its ancestral oviparous (egg-laying) sister species. This observation sparked a morphological and genetic study which led to the naming of Vipera walser

The beast - variation in individuals of Vipera walser sp. nov. Adult males (left) and adult females (right).

Vipera walser sp. Nov.

The new species is remarkably distinct genetically from both V. berus and other vipers occurring in western Europe. It shows closer affinities to V. darevskii and V. kaznakovi, species occurring in the Caucasus as well as to the widespread Meadow Viper V. ursinii complex. Morphologically, the new species appears to be more similar to V. berus than to its closest relatives occurring in the Caucasus, but can be readily distinguished in most cases by a combination of meristic features such as number of crown, loreal and periocular scales.

Phylogenetic tree showing position of Vipera walser, and relationships with other Vipera species.

Already Endangered

My own main interest in the new viper is in its conservation. The species is extremely range-restricted (< 500 sq. km) and occurs only in two disjunct sites within the high rainfall valleys of the Alps north of Biella. We recommend that the new species should be classified as globally ‘Endangered’ due to its small and fragmented range, and an inferred population decline (Red List criteria B1a/B2a). The other species closely related to walser are also either Endangered (V. kaznakovi) or Critically Endangered (V. darevskii) so the entire clade is in serious danger of being lost.

The new viper appears to be quite common in suitable habitat within its range. We need detailed studies of the species’ precise habitat requirements, to determine how past and current land use changes have affected the species, and how they might be altered to benefit the species in the near future. The species appears to inhabit open areas, often with rocky outcrops, and may not tolerate woodland unless it is very sparse. European mountains experienced a long period of agropastoral expansion from the Late Middle Ages to the 19th century, with large areas of the Alps converted to pasture and heathlands. These open landscapes were presumably beneficial for V. walser. However, the decline in agropastoral activities in the last 100 years and associated afforestation is probably the biggest threat to the species. Other immediate threats are culling and collection of specimens by enthusiasts.

Habitat of Vipera walser sp. nov

Longer term, the ability of V. walser to withstand or adapt to climatic change expected to take place within its range will be crucial. Its current habitat is restricted to just a few valleys, which experience some of the highest rainfall in the Alps. Climate models indicate that in the next 20 years, these valleys will become far wetter and warmer. Research on how the viper might be able to react to climate change is a priority.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Better forest 'simply' means more frugivores

Posted by Stu

We think our paper, just published in Forest Ecology & Management, has quite an important message, and one that should be encouraging, even in an archipelago with so little forest remaining and so many threatened species.

The study was part of Carmela Espanola’s PhD here at MMU and supervised by Nigel Collar, Aldrin Mallari and myself. She and her team walked around 500 km of transects, at 24 sites on the Philippine island of Luzon, looking for large avian frugivores. The target species included large pigeons, hornbills and parrots – birds crucial to proper functioning of forests in the tropics. If these seed dispersing birds disappear or become ‘functionally extinct’ then we might expect serious consequences for the health of forests.

The Imperial pigeons Ducula are key seed dispersers in southeast Asia's forests (Photo: Christine E. Telesforo)

What we did was to relate the presence of the different species to a series of habitat predictors, recorded at over 1,200 plots along the transects – these included things like altitude, canopy cover, and other indications of the quality of the forest. Basically, we asked what the difference was between plots that contained the frugivore species and those where the species was not found.

Survival for species like this Luzon Bleeding-heart is not just a matter of finding suitable habitat, but also avoiding hunting or capture (Photo: Carmela Espanola)
Our first finding was not so surprising - Frugivore species richness was highest in forest with large-girthed trees. But more interesting was that some small-scale agricultural disturbance was tolerated or even favoured by some species. World birders will know well this pattern – low intensity use of forests, which could be a little logging, or especially the creation of small mixed gardens within the forest, can be very good spots to see frugivorous birds. Importantly, our study showed that frugivore richness was highest in forests on flat ground, areas which are usually the first to be converted to agriculture. 

White-eared Brown-dove can tolerate seriously degraded forest, but still prefers good forest on Luzon (Photo: Pablo Espanola)

But I think the most important aspect of the study was our attempt to find non-linearities and other complexities in frugivore presence and richness responses along the habitat quality gradient. I, for one, felt sure that we would find some places along the disturbance gradient where there would be sudden rises in frugivore abundance – and, that in turn, management could be targeted at these points to gain disproportionate benefits for wildlife.

The forest disturbance gradient - importantly, we found linear increases in frugivore richness along this gradient.

We did not find that – rather, the probability of occurrence increased linearly along the forest quality/restoration gradient. While the precise benefits in terms of seed dispersal, and costs of management, at different points along the quality/restoration gradient are likely to be themselves complex, avian frugivores benefit proportionately from step improvements right along the gradient. Thus, any actions to improve forest quality on Luzon, from reforesting the most degraded lands to preventing degradation of relatively healthy forests, are likely to benefit frugivores. 

Carmela's PhD was funded by Loro Parque Fundacion. She now lectures at University of the Philippines.


Friday, 27 May 2016

Wildfowl demography research - golden goose or lame duck?

Posted by Beth Roberts and Stu

The identification of research biases is vital in order to stem the current rate of biodiversity loss. Such identification will help to focus future research, thereby maximising its impact. In our new paper, just published in PLOS ONE (View paper here), Beth, Ed Harris (MMU), Geoff Hilton (WWT) and Stu investigate the taxonomic and geographic biases in wildfowl demographic research, and devise a simple metric that will help to focus research attention to 'plug the gaps' most effectively.

Identifying the biases

We conducted a systematic review of the published research data. First, we used strict criteria to search through two commonly used databases - Web of Knowledge and Google Scholar - for papers relating to wildfowl demography. Our review involved the screening of over 8,000 papers using Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines. Of those papers, 1,586 met the search criteria. Following the screening, we proceeded to identify, in each paper: which demographic measures were recorded; the subject species; and the country of study.

The majority of demographic information for wildfowl is concentrated on just a handful of species. Best-studied is the Mallard, but Pintail Anas acuta, the second best-studied taxon, is far better looking (Photo: Dick Daniels)

We discovered significant research biases, with North America and Europe dominating the research output; species found in those regions accounted for over 90% of the research outputs. In addition, we found that over half (55%) of the research output concerned just 15 species from seven genera.

Geographical bias in wildfowl demography studies - little research has focused on the tropics.

Further, when we examined the distribution of research outputs across threat categories, we found that threatened species were poorly studied. Our research revealed that there were 21 species with no demographic research output at all, seven of which are globally threatened: the Critically Endangered Pink-headed Duck (Rhodonessa caryophyllacea) and Baer’s Pochard (Aythya baeri); the Endangered Campbell Teal (Anas nesiotis); and the Vulnerable White-headed Steamerduck (Tachyeres leucocephalus), Southern Pintail (Anas eatoni), Philippine Duck (Anas luzonica), and Swan Goose (Anser cygnoides).

Importantly, a task force has now been initiated to gather records and carry out survey work on the Baer’s Pochard. The Philippine Duck Project has also been started to gather abundance and demographic information.

The future for Baer’s Pochard Aythya baeri is bleak indeed (Photo: Graham Clarkson, WWT)

Redressing the imbalance in research 

Our aim was to provide a tool for the conservation community to prioritise and address these research gaps, using measures of research output, threat status and the availability of potentially useful surrogate information from congeneric species. According to the metric, the 25 highest priority species include thirteen threatened taxa and nine species each from Asia and South America, and six from Africa. For example, the Blue-winged Goose is classified as Vulnerable, has a restricted range (being found in the highlands of Ethiopia) and has no conspecific species. Our paper exposes the need to examine research gaps not just in isolation, but in conjunction with threat status.

The Ethiopian highland endemic Blue-winged Goose Cyanochen cyanoptera (Photo: Rod Williams, WWT)

Friday, 22 April 2016

Pomona Island: ducks, docks and urban greenspace

Posted by Stu and James Walsh

In this post published on Earth Day 2016, Stu and James Walsh, Mancunian birder and ecologist, talk about the past, present and future of Pomona Island – a small patch of Open Mosaic Habitat nestled in a sea of redevelopment at Salford Docks. The island may be small, but has a big history, and important presence for wildlife and recreation, and a very uncertain future.

Above: Pomona Island habitat (Photo: Stu), Below: The island and surrounds (Google Earth)

Disappearing ducks

Stu has, for many years, had a special affection for the area around Salford Docks (Port of Manchester). In the late 1990s, He did a two-year research project on the large flocks of Pochard Aythya ferina and Tufted Duck A. fuligula that used to feed at the turning basin at Salford. Up to 3-4,000 diving ducks used to congregate at night on the docks and at Pomona – to feed on chironomids (bloodworms), Oligochaete worms and other pollution-tolerant invertebrates (Marsden & Bellamy 2000). When disturbed during the day, they would fly to quieter spots such as Chorlton Water Park and Rostherne Mere (Marsden 2000).

Pomona and surrounding development (Photo: Stu)
Large numbers of Pochard (above) and Tufted Duck used to feed at night at the docks (Photo: pyntofmyld)
Despite the site being one of the UK’s most important for Pochard, and by far Greater Manchester’s most important wildlife phenomenon, the ducks were forgotten, and the docks developed. Now, just a handful of diving ducks use the site due to increased disturbance levels from quayside developments, but more importantly due to improvements to water quality at the site. Ironically, while Pochard was doing well in the 1980s and 1990s making their loss no big deal, the species has just been uplisted to Globally Vulnerable according to the IUCN Red List. What a sorry state for the bird to be in – and it makes me wonder what if the redevelopment at Salford were taking place now? Would it be so easy to ignore such important numbers of a globally threatened bird species on the site? Probably.

Past Pomona

Now, almost the whole of Salford Docks/quays has been redeveloped. But one tiny portion remains undeveloped for the moment. Pomona Island is a patch of ‘Open Mosaic Habitat on Previously Developed Land’ to give it its proper title, an important mostly urban land use rich in biodiversity. Pomona island is a human-made island, bordering Pomona docks, the site where ship carrying Guiness and less important cargos unloaded from the Manchester Ship Canal’s opening in 1894 to its effective closure in 1982. 

The island has a long and important history – in the 1830s, it was home to the ‘Pomona Pleasure Gardens’, a playground for Manchester and Salford’s growing upper classes. Then in the 1860s, the 30,000 capacity Pomona Palace was added. This was a major venue for social events and political rallies – Benjamin Disraeli spoke to a vast crowd here in 1869. There is some wonderful information on the island’s history here and a great film about the place by George Haydock here.

Present Pomona

In the mid-eighteenth century, the Pomona Pleasure Gardens were a huge draw for the people of south Manchester who came in large numbers for fresh air, entertainment, and green space. Looking down on the site now, it is again an oasis, the only green space left among the sea of redevelopment. Walking around the island recently with James Walsh and staff from MMU really brought home the beauty of the place, along with its importance for wildlife.

Common spotted orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsia (Photo: S.Björn)
Around 150 plant species have so far been recorded at the site – including, of course, many introduced species, but also some interesting species such as Bee Orchid, and Northern Marsh and Common Spotted Orchids. A list of plants recorded is available online. The site looks to have excellent potential for butterflies and moths, and Bee numbers at Pomona are extremely high. Surveys of various faunal groups might throw up a few surprises. 
Above: Wheatear, a common Spring migrant on the island, Below: the Schedule 1 breeding Little Ringed Plover (Photos: James Walsh @MancunianBirder)

It is the site’s birds which are best known, mainly thanks to the efforts of James and a committed group of community ecologists. More than 125 species have so far been found at the site. These include lots of nice migrant records including Osprey, Jack Snipe, Whinchat, nine warbler species, and lots of spring Wheatears. But it is the bird species that are in general decline across the country that are most welcome at Pomona – Snipe, Lapwing, Skylark, Reed Bunting etc. The site houses 50 pairs of Sand Martins on the dock walls, and is also home to the Schedule 1 breeder, Little Ringed Plover. A current list of birds recorded is on James' blog.

Future Pomona

The island has, for many years, remained undeveloped. Now, however, it seems that just about the last green/brown space at the docks is to disappear. In November 2015,
the controversial Pomona Island plan was discussed at Trafford Town Hall (for live coverage from the meeting which reads more like commentary from a boxing match than a planning application debate see Todd Fitzgerald's piece. Like most bouts, there was only ever going to be one winner, and that was housing development - which has started already at the northeast of the site. Of course, the city needs homes, but the Salford Docks area has already worked very hard for the Northern Powerhouse, to the extent that the island is all that's left undeveloped.

There is such a strong recognition now that urban nature reserves are fantastically important - every swan and butterfly within them is so much more important than their rural cousins because they are experienced by so many people. Many cities around the world are reaping benefits from their mini-reserves - Toronto has the Humber Bay Park, Buenos Aires the fantastic Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve. These cities point the way towards where Pomona could have gone, and many believe it might be an opportunity lost. 

Save Pomona (Artwork: Liz Ackerley)

Perhaps most frustrating for us two Mancunians is that at almost the exact moment that the first bulldozers start work on our island, London opens the Woodberry Wetlands Reserve. Woodberry Wetlands is an urban nature haven, centred on an old reservoir in North London - just a little further from Arsenal's Emirates Stadium than Pomona is from Old Trafford. 

Alternative ideas for Pomona Island
 Pomona is, most believe, a lost opportunity to create a world class nature reserve/tourism attraction, but there are some who are optimistic that the situation can be turned around, and that the science, business and political communities can find a solution that is beneficial to wildlife. Protection of Sand Martin nesting walls, creation of green roofs and saving just a small area of habitat as a nature reserve would be a big victory for the environment and the people of Manchester, the European City Of Science 2016. 


Marsden, S. J. (2000). Impact of disturbance on waterfowl wintering in a UK dockland redevelopment area. Environmental Management 26: 207-213.

Marsden, S. J. & Bellamy, G. S. (2000). Microhabitat characteristics of feeding sites used by diving duck Aythya wintering on the grossly polluted Manchester Ship Canal, UK. Environmental Conservation 27: 278-283.