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.