Monday, 22 May 2017

Asian Songbird Crisis Meeting and the ‘birders' graveyard’

Posted by Stu

I recently returned from Singapore and Indonesia – a trip almost wholly dedicated to planning our work on the Asian Songbird Crisis (Eaton et al. 2015).  One of the main jobs was to get Tom Squires and Harry Marshall, our two new PhD students, up to speed with the conservation issues, and in tune with the Javan culture, environment and language. I was travelling with the guys, along with Nigel Collar, Ria Saryanthi (Yanthi) from Burung Indonesia, and Andrew Owen from Chester Zoo, the PhD sponsor/partner.

The PASTY bird market in Yogyakarta (Photo: Harry Marshall)

Our first stop was the 2nd Asian Songbird Crisis Summit held at the Jurong Bird Park in Singapore. There is a great synopsis of this three day meeting by Nigel in the forthcoming BirdingAsia. There was some fantastic discussion among the 55 participants. The scale of the problem, the wide range of issues involved, and ‘takes’ on what might be the main solutions took up much of time – but a personal highlight was a great talk on rhino horn use in Vietnam by Madelon Willemsen of TRAFFIC – particularly how social profiling can be used a basis for changing the behaviour of consumers. We were also updated on efforts by Jess Lee to form an IUCN Asian Songbird Crisis Specialist Group – more on this very soon.

Then we travelled on to Taman Safari, a safari/theme park near Bogor and venue for the Bali Myna Leucopsar rothschildi. Efforts to conserve this flagship species have been ongoing since the 1980s. Needless to say, these efforts have not been very successful – but there was a feeling at the meeting that a corner may have been turned and that coordinated efforts by Indonesians, supported by Western conservation organisations might at last have a chance of success (see later).  During our time at Taman Safari, we had, thanks to Tony Sumampau, the opportunity to meet with the Indonesian Minister of the Environment, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, to discuss our planned research and actions to help the songbirds. Ibu was receptive and more meetings are planned to push our agenda forward.

Captive breeding of Bali Mynas is big business in Java and Bali (Photo: Stu)
After this meeting, Nigel and I joined Tony Sumampau for a visit to some bird breeding facilities both in Bogor and Klaten – the latter badging itself as Java’s 'bird-breeding capital’. Here, expensive species such as Black-winged Mynas, Bali Mynas, Javan Pied Starlings, and Straw-headed Bulbuls were being bred on an industrial scale. Facilities are not pretty but this supply of birds may soon start to have an effect on demand for some wild-caught birds – it is already having an effect on prices which have fallen considerably in some species. 

Kicau Mania! - songbird contest in East Java (Photo: Harry Marshall)
Next up was a really interesting experience. We attended a singing competition run by the respected PBI Song contest club. I didn’t really know quite what to expect. Set in a local park, tens of people brought their best singers, to compete in one of almost 30 categories from Straw-headed Bulbul and Sharmas to lovebirds and Canaries. Unlike other songbird competition clubs, PBI accepts only contestants which are captive bred. Getting other bird clubs such as the fast-growing internet clubs with huge numbers of members, to adopt this rule would be a major breakthrough.

The savannas of Baluran National Park in East Java are key to the survival of the Critically Endangered Grey-backed Myna (Photo: Harry Marshall)
 Then we flew to Banyuwangi on the eastern tip of Java, primarily to look for the Critically Endangered Grey-backed Myna Acridotheres tricolor in Baluran NP and Grey-rumped Myna Acridotheres tertius and Bali Mynas Leucopsar rothschildi (both CR) in northwestern Bali. We were pleasantly surprised by the situation in Baluran – the park seems well-wardened by an organised and enthusiastic set of NP staff. Mynas appear to be doing quite well, and may number more than 50 in the park, show signs of breeding well, and were said to be expanding out of the main savannah to other areas of the park. This is potentially great news for this troubled taxon. We didn’t get much chance for birding but managed good numbers of Green Peafowl, Javan Banded Pitta, a Javan Frogmouth, and a young Leopard Cat catching moths on the road. 

Bali Myna in artificial nest hole at one of the release sites in Bali Bharat National Park (Photo: Tom Squires)
A day on Bali started with a visit to the breeding centre in Bali Bharat (Andrew noted some quite serious genetic problems in young birds) and a drive out to one of the release sites near Lampu Merah. A few Bali Mynas are being fed and monitored here, and there are apparently a handful of grey-rumped mynas too. But the strangest and potentially most encouraging thing we saw was the Bali Myna release site at Labuhan Lalang. Incredibly, released birds seem to be thriving at this busy tourist trap – feeding on the ground among the cafes and shops, and breeding in nest boxes by the busy main road. They are guarded of course – and perhaps it is only a matter of time before they are stolen – but it is just possible that they will thrive here simply because it is so busy. Last stop was the grounds of the exclusive Menjangan hotel (the hotel has a concession to manage land within the NP) turned up a few ‘original’ Grey-rumped Mynas.

Many thanks to staff and students at University of Indonesia for making me and my ecology so welcome.

After a talk to Masters and undergraduate students at University of Indonesia at Depok (hosted by Dr Nurul Wirnani), I spent the last four days of my trip on Sumatra. This is an island I have visited only once for a couple of days at Wai Kambas back in 1992. This time, I went to Gunung Kerinci and the Tapan Road within the Kerinci-Seblat National Park. The former can be frustratingly quiet and some of the endemics incredibly hard to see. Some know the site as the ‘Birder’s Graveyard’.

Gunung Kerinci from Pak Subandi's homestay. The encroachment into the National Park and heavy trapping pressure are serious threats here (Photo: Stu)
After a flight from Jakarta to Padang and a six-hour drive from Padang to Pak Subandi’s homestay at the base of the mountain, I was ready for an onslaught of birds. The first two hours of birding the following morning yielded Schneider’s Pitta, Salvadori’s Pheasant and Rusty-breasted Wren-babbler. This is easy I thought. I spent the next 8 hours trudging in the rain seeing almost nothing. The following day at Tapan road was bird-filled – lots of fruiting trees by the road held Sumatran green pigeons, Sumatran Trogons, broadbills, Blue-masked Leafbirds etc etc. The next day was very slow on Kerinci – not a sniff of a Cochoa or Red-billed Partridge. The final day yielded Graceful Pitta and Sumatran Leafbird at Tapan, along with daytime Binturong, Masked Palm Civet and two Yellow-throated Martens, and Sumatran Owlet and Salvadori’s Nightjar back at Kerinci.  

Friday, 5 May 2017

Parrots and parakeets in the Dominican Republic

Posted by Stu

Hispaniola is an extraordinary place physically, culturally and biologically. The western third of the island is Haiti, born out of a slave rebellion at the end of the 18th Century, and seemingly being punished/punishing itself ever since. The eastern two-thirds is Dominican Republic (DR), with the Caribbean’s tallest mountain, oldest colonial city, and largest tourism business. The island is home to around 38 endemic bird species, including a ‘tropical’ crossbill and the Palmchat, which represents an endemic family on the island. It is also home to the poisonous Hispaniolan Solenodon Solenodon paradoxus, Number 7 in ZSL’s EDGE mammal chart due to its phylogenetic distinctiveness and its Endangered Red list status.

Good forest remains in the Parque Nacional Sierra de Bahoruco (Photo: Stu)

I was in Dominican Republic (DR) with my good friend and ex-PhD student Matt Geary (now University of Chester) to scope out a potential study of the Hispaniolan Amazon Amazona ventralis, Hispaniolan Parakeet Psittacara chloropterus, both Vulnerable, the Near-threatened Hispaniolan Trogon Temnotrogon roseigaster and other important birds on the island. Our hosts were Groupo Jaragua, the DR BirdLife partner.

The first two days were spent meeting Yolanda Leon (President) and Andrea Thomen (Project Manager) of Groupo Jaragua to discuss potential projects and our field visits. We were quite shocked by the volume of parrot ownership in the country’s cities and towns. We also had time to visit a couple of sites in the country’s capital Santo Domingo. The excellent botanical gardens had some of the commoner lowland endemics including the excellent Hispaniolan Lizard Cuckoo and good numbers of wintering American passerines including Prairie Warbler, many Cape May Warblers, and the lovely Black-throated Blue Warbler. We visited a large Hotel in a posh area of town and watched perhaps more than 500 Hispaniolan Parakeets and a couple of Hispaniolan Amazons arrive from various green spaces across the city to roost in trees in front of the hotel. 

Vulnerable Hispaniolan Parakeets Psittacara chloropterus getting ready to roost (Photo: Yolanda Leon)

Then we moved southwest to Groupo’s Oviedo field station for three days. Here we visited southwestern side of the famous Parque Nacional Sierra de Bahoruco. We recorded reasonable numbers of the parrots here, both in the mixed pine/broadleaf forests and in cloud forest patches at  higher altitude. A parrot nestbox scheme didn’t seem to be doing too well – there is a lot of pressure from parrot catchers up here, with apparently little intervention by the poorly paid park guards. Nice birds included both the endemic Hispaniolan and introduced Olive-throated, Hispaniolan Crossbill and Golden Swallow. There were also a lot of American warblers up here – especially Black-throated Blues but also the odd Blackburnian and Black-throated Green, as well as the resident Pine warblers.

Hispaniolan Amazons Amazona ventralis (VU) in Parque Nacional Jaragua (Photo: Yolanda Leon)
A long and hot hike into the Parc Nacional Jaragua with Julio, an ex-parrot trapper, was extremely interesting. Parrot nests in fat-trunked Cherry Palms and the few remaining large trees in this dry spiny forest but are hammered both by local trappers and, more worryingly, by a team of ‘professional’ trappers who apparently took around 150 chicks last year. Nest trees/palms are identified at the start of the breeding season (April) and these are monitored as chicks grow until they are harvested just before fledging. Worryingly, there seems to be so much competition among trappers that chicks are being taken from nests earlier and earlier (to ensure others don’t take them first). One consolation perhaps is that the terrain is very difficult and I (may be wrong) but can imagine that not all nests in the large area are found – the species usually produces four chicks so a few successful nests coupled with the ‘fact’ that adults are not taken might be the key to sustaining the population. The gorgeous Broad-billed Tody occurred in the area at huge densities, and perhaps some signs of Solenodon in the less rocky areas.

Above: Discussions about parrot harvesting in Parque Nacional Jaragua (Photo: Matt Geary), Below: Old parrot nest cavity in Cherry Palm (Photo: Yolanda Leon)

Our final field trip was to Reserva Ebano Verde, a private reserve owned and run for the DR government by Fundacion Progressio, a DR banking trust. The contrast between this and the state-run parks was immediately obvious – no encroachment and proper control of trapping. Here there were high densities of Hispaniolan Trogons, helped in part to nest boxes put up by Simón Guerrero, a retired ornithology lecturer and passionate conservationist. We saw parrots here also but it also became apparent that the Hispaniolan Parakeet is really not doing well across the country. The cause of its decline is not known and is puzzling, especially considering it seems to be taking over the capital city! 

Illegal farming is a problem in DR's national parks (Photo: Stu)
There is much to find out about the hole-nesters on Hispaniola. I was quite surprised how many parrots are taken as pets in the cities, how rare the parakeet was, the level of corruption in the country, and also how much forest loss there has been away from the very dry forests of the lowlands and the montane areas. Hispaniolan Oriole is perhaps a bird to watch as it may be getting very scarce. Certainly not scarce is the endemic woodpecker - I have never seen so many woodpeckers anywhere in my life – they are literally everywhere and these birds must be important in creating holes for the secondary cavity nesters. Matt, Nigel Collar and I hope to be able to find funding for a PhD for a Dominican soon.  

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Mammal watching in Namibia and South Africa

Posted by Stu

A bit of a personal post this, and a link to Jon Hall’s excellent Mammal Watching pages.  This is a short report on 60 mammal species and some birds seen on our (Jo, Amy, Katie and my) August 2016 trip to Namibia and South Africa. 

The fun started quite unexpectedly with an overnight stop on the drive from Johannesburg to Lambert’s Bay at Akkedisbult Cottage, situated on a farm near Hopetown. The owners, Gerald and Nici are progressive farmers, employing ‘guard donkeys’ to protect their sheep, using limited and selective control of predators such as Caracal and Jackel, and having a detailed knowledge of the ecology of their land. They invited us for an impromptu night drive in their 1950s Land Rover. Two hours in the freezing winds brought us excellent views of an Aardvark and two Aardwolf, several Bat-eared Fox, a Zorilla, and numerous Spring Hare. Black-footed Cat, which people see at Marrick near Kimberley, and Mountain Reedbuck also occur.  

Next stop was the lovely Lambert’s Bay, looking for Cape Clapper Lark and Cape Long-billed Lark and to visit the Cape Gannet colony. Mammals included Meerkat, Cape Fur Seal and a breaching Humpback Whale.

Tankwa Karoo National Park – we had seen Aardvark here a few years ago but no luck this time – in fact goodies were few and far between  - some Bat-eared Fox and Cape Mountain Zebra. The Tankwa, however, was as gorgeous as I remembered it and so well worth a visit. We stayed two nights in the beautifully remote Varschfontein cottage and one night at De Zyfer cottage close to the HQ, where there was a half-eaten porcupine in one of the outhouses.

Etosha NP – one night Okaukuejo; two nights Halali; two nights Namutoni (camping)

There were a lot of civilians in Etosha, especially in the campsites, but it is a fantastic place for mammals. A great feature of a stay in the park are the illuminated waterholes at Okaukuejo and Halali, the one at Namatoni being perhaps not so good. Lots of ungulates on the drives, especially around Halali and Namutoni, including Black and White Rhinos, Black-faced Impala (introduced into the park during the Angolan Civil War) and the lovely Damara Dikdik, plenty of Elephants, Giraffe and Burchell’s Zebra, several Lions, one Cheetah with small cub, and a single Leopard. Honey Badgers are a certainty at Halali Rest Camp – in the bins and drinking from the water taps at night.

Evenings/nights at waterholes produced

Okaukuejo (dusk-10 pm) – Black Rhino (2), White Rhino (1), Elephant, and a stunning Brown Hyena (1 – wandered in at 8pm, drank and wandered out). This is a superb waterhole with large numbers of animals during the day and goodies at night.

Halali (around 8 hrs on two evenings) – Spotted hyena (6), lion (4), Cape Porcupine (1), Cape Fox (2), Black Rhino (2), Cape Hare (sev). Much quieter than Okaukuejo but fantastically exciting nonetheless.


I loved this place and think it has great potential. The Conservancy (gated and well policed) is doing well I believe and they have recently introduced White Rhino here. We stayed at the Mara, opposite the expensive Erongo Wilderness Lodge – nice rooms and a campsite. The owner is really into his mammals and has seen Brown Hyena (Spotted is not here apparently), Leopard etc etc on night drives along the road, and Cheetah in the afternoons.
You are free to drive the roads within the conservancy at night. Around five hours of night driving up and down the D2315 and D2316 produced great views of Aardwolf and Bat-eared Fox on the D2316 (rough road), plus Giraffe, Mountain Zebra, Gemsbok, Common Duiker etc on the D2315. I wish we’d stayed longer and done more free night-driving – lots of predators to see. We didn’t see Black Mongoose.

Cape Cross 

Our target here was, of course, Brown Hyena. We camped two nights at the Cape Cross Lodge (cold) which was nice. There are other places along the coast but all looked pretty grim. We spent the first dawn overlooking the seal colony fence from the entrance road (from the main road C34) to the lodge (in fact we could see the main gate to the seal sanctuary from our position). No sign, so we spent the next hour driving around not seeing hyenas but seeing lots of jackals. We found lots of brown hyena footprints in various places – especially around seal carcasses on the beach at the first turn off north. Also no sign between 7-10 pm driving and scanning along various roads in the area. The following morning we positioned ourselves before dawn on a rise on the main road at about 210 74’ 26.03 S 130 99’ 25.06. No luck until 15 mins after dawn when one walked right past us – and we followed it up the track towards the crater for 25 mins until it entered the dry river bed at 210 43’ 04.24 S; 130 59’ 59.16 E. Hyenas apparently come to drink at the small trough at the front of the lodge – but it would be a long wait I guess.


Then we drove through Walvis Bay and into the Namib-Naukluft National Park, staying at Homeb campsite and visiting the nicer Mirabib, nearby. Plenty of Mountain Zebra and Gemsbok, but few other mammals of interest. The gravel plains on the road close to Homeb was the only place I saw Burchell's Courser (group of 12). We were disappointed with Sossusvlei - crowded and touristy. The area has good numbers of mammals and looks especially good for mesopredators. It is a shame you need to be out of the park by nightfall. Within the park, the area where the road crosses the river looked great, Dune Lark was easy at the base of the dune near the lookout, and Brown Hyena tracks were seen around the base of Elim Dune.

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

We entered the park from Namibia at the Mata Mata border post and had three nights (Nossob then two nights at Twei Riverein – the whole place was heavily booked in August). The area around Nossob is superb, especially for predators – two Cheetah sightings (Twin Palms road was good), Lions, Bat-eared Fox etc. 

An all-nighter at the Nossob waterhole (illuminated until 10 pm and from 4 am – otherwise scanned with a Maglite) was a bit disappointing but nevertheless exciting - Spotted Hyena (2), Lion (2), Cape Fox (2), Spring Hare (1). Anything can turn up here.

Driving within the park from Twei Riverein was sometimes slow but we managed one Leopard, two Cheetah (all five cheetah we saw were females with cubs), Lion, Spotted Hyena, and the only African Wild Cat of the trip (crossed the road near Rooiputs).

Any further information, please get in touch

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.