2013 BOC Meetings

19 November 2013: Dr Christina Ieronymidou spoke on Avian responses to land-use in Cyprus, and the potential effects of agricultural change

Summary: Land-use change in agricultural landscapes poses a major threat to bird conservation in Europe, particularly in states newly acceded to the EU. Dr  Ieronymidou examined how bird assemblage composition and abundance of priority species vary in relation to land use across Cyprus, and how recent changes in agricultural policy are likely to affect avian biodiversity. Sampling of the bird assemblage and habitats was conducted along line transects at 202 locations across Cyprus. Bird community composition and abundance of priority species were related to habitat structure, land use, and landscape-level land cover. Agricultural statistics and policy documents were used to quantify agricultural change. Models of farmland bird responses to landscape structure show which land cover types and land uses are most important to priority bird species, and the effect of agricultural policy on key land uses indicates the likely impact on bird biodiversity. These results permit recommendations for targeted farmland bird conservation in Cyprus and the eastern Mediterranean.

Biography: Christina Ieronymidou recently completed a Ph.D. at the University of East Anglia, on ‘Avian land-use associations in the eastern Mediterranean’. Following an internship on nature conservation and biodiversity policy analysis at the Institute for European Environmental Policy, she is currently working at BirdLife International, implementing a study on wildlife comeback in Europe, funded by Rewilding Europe.

24 September 2013: Dr Roger Safford spoke on Recent advances in the knowledge of Malagasy region birds.

Summary: The Malagasy region comprises Madagascar, the Seychelles, the Comoros and the Mascarenes (Mauritius, Reunion and Rodrigues), six more isolated islands or small archipelagos, and associated sea areas. It contains one of the most extraordinary and distinctive concentrations of biological diversity in the world. The last 20 years have seen a very large increase in the level of knowledge of, and interest in, the birds of the region. This talk drew on research carried out during the preparation of the first thorough handbook to the region’s birds—487 species—to be compiled since the late 19th century. The systematics of most taxa have been assessed using molecular techniques, revealing numerous surprises and a new family, the Bernieridae (tetrakas), although intriguing questions remain, not least the relationships of those two most baffling of groups, the Leptosomidae (cuckoo-roller)  and Mesitornithidae (mesites). Current work is very patchy, with remarkably little study of ‘natural history’ despite the many gaps in understanding; an interesting exception is the explosion of work of satellite tracking of seabirds. These and other aspects were reviewed in a wide-ranging talk.

Biography: Roger Safford has been a frequent visitor to the Malagasy region since 1988, and in 1989–93 he completed a Ph.D. on the conservation of the endemic passerines of Mauritius, visiting all of the high islands in the region and developing an intimate knowledge of the region’s birds. His subsequent work has always retained a link to the Malagasy region, with numerous visits and publications, and since 2001 he has been responsible for supporting the work of the BirdLife International partnership in Madagascar.

21 May 2013: Annual General Meeting and talk: Dr Hugh Wright (previously University of East Anglia, now University of Cambridge) spoke on White-shouldered Ibis Conservation and the value of traditional land use.

On 21st May the Club held its AGM after which Dr Hugh Wright gave a very interesting talk on White-shouldered Ibis conservation and the value of traditional land use.

The ecology of the Critically Endangered and little-studied White-shouldered Ibis Pseudibis davisoni is of interest to conservationists, concerned for its survival, and to scientists intrigued by its association with traditional human land uses. Hugh presented on ibis foraging and breeding ecology, and the relationship between livelihoods and ibis conservation, using data collected in Cambodia for his PhD. Recording ibis sightings in the dry forest of Western Siem Pang Important Bird Area, Hugh and his team revealed the importance of waterholes and open habitats (such as abandoned rice paddies) to foraging ibises1,2. They also studied the role of local land use practices in maintaining these habitats, experimentally excluding domestic livestock grazing and human-induced fires and finding significant increases in ground vegetation as a result. These human land uses are now important for keeping habitats accessible to the ibis, especially in the near-absence of natural ecosystem engineers such as large herbivores lost to hunting. Local activities may not all be beneficial however, as conservationists suggest that exploitation and interference is a limiting factor at nests. Nevertheless, deterring these actions by employing local people as nest guardians did not improve ibis nest success, and Hugh provided evidence that natural predation may be the greater threat to nests, at least at Western Siem Pang3.

The dry forest landscape and low-intensity agricultural land uses within it are important to local people (many of whom live in poverty) as well as to the White-shouldered Ibis. Hugh studied livelihoods in 64 households, finding that forest products were a major source of subsistence and income, while herds of livestock provided a valuable form of savings and insurance. Opportunities to build on mutual interests and link ibis conservation with local livelihoods may be short-lived however, as livelihoods are beginning to change; in particular, the rise in tractors used for farming and transport is likely to replace livestock and diminish the grazing upon which the ibis depends. Mechanisation and an increasing human population are likely to change local land-use practices considerably; although there are now more ibises than previously thought (with a global population of c. 1,000 birds), the development of agriculture towards cash cropping and industrial scale agro-forestry plantations is a severe threat4. Hugh concluded that conservationists face a difficult challenge to reconcile rapidly advancing economic development (vital for local people) with the needs of a species reliant on more traditional farming and forest use.

  1. Wright, H. L., Collar, N. J., Lake, I. R., Bou, V. & Dolman, P. M. 2012. Foraging ecology of sympatric White-shouldered Ibis Pseudibis davisoni and Giant Ibis Thaumatibis gigantea in northern Cambodia.Forktail 28: 93-100.
  2. Wright, H. L., Collar, N. J., Lake, I. R. & Dolman, P. M. (in press) Amphibian concentrations in desiccating mud may determine White-shouldered Ibis breeding season. Auk.
  3. Wright, H. L., Collar, N. J., Lake, I. R., Net, N., Rours, V., Sok, K., Sum, P. & Dolman, P. M. (in press) Experimental test of a conservation intervention for a highly threatened waterbird. Journal of Wildlife Management.
  4. Wright, H. L., Net Norin, Sok Ko & Sum Phearun (in press) White-shouldered Ibis Pseudibis davisoni population size and the impending threat of habitat conversion. Forktail 29.

6 April 2013: A joint BOC, African Bird Club, Natural History Museum meeting held at the Natural History Museum, London.

This was the second of a series of joint meetings planned by the BOC and the NHM in conjunction with various regional bird clubs. This time it was the turn of the African Bird Club. The day’s program consisted of six talks, three before lunch and three after. The morning started with a talk by Paul Donald on the Liben Lark Heteromirafra sidamoensis possibly the most threatened species in Africa. Paul was standing in for Bruktawit Abdu, who unfortunately had been unable to travel from Ethiopia as originally planned. Paul spoke about the taxonomic history of the species in regard to other forms in the genus elsewhere in the Horn of Africa, and described the research being done in Ethiopia to understand the requirements of the lark and to conserve its habitat on the Liben Plain. This was followed by a talk on the Lesser Crested TernSterna bengalensis in Libya by Abdulmaula Hamza, who explained that there are now three breeding locations known for the species in Libya and that at each of these there has been an increase in numbers in recent years. Abdulmaula has carried out detailed research on the species’ feeding requirements and has carefully analysed the fish species taken. He has also ringed a large number of chicks, 20 or so of which have been recovered in different parts of the Mediterranean and West Africa. The morning session concluded with a presentation about birds and birdwatching in Rwanda, Africa’s most densely-populated country, given by Jason Anderson. Jason described the various habitats to be found within Rwanda and reviewed the different species of birds to be found in each. His talk was illustrated with many high-quality photographs and also accompanied by sound recordings.

The lunch break was followed by the African Bird Club’s AGM and then the talks resumed with an account by palaeontologist and artist Julian Hume of his work reconstructing the lost world of the Dodo and the extinct birds of the Mascarenes, from the fossil record and from the scant historical documentation of the early settlers. Dr. Siobhan Cox then talked about her genetic work producing a phylogeny for the white-eyes of the African mainland, focusing in particular on the east African region. Her results indicate that traditional taxonomic understanding is incorrect, notably for the Montane White-eye Zosterops poliogaster, and that there are likely to be more species than currently accepted. Nigel Redman concluded the day’s activities with an account of a recent trip to the officially-unrecognised Republic of Somaliland, a seldom visited self-governing country that is technically part of Somalia despite declaring independence in 1991. His talk focused on the poorly-known endemic and near endemic birds of the Somali region and was illustrated by photographs of most species. Nigel also talked about the larks in the region and their taxonomic status and history.

Attendance at the meeting was excellent with approximately 110 people present, and there was enthusiastic support for the planning of future meetings with other regional bird clubs.

Talking Naturally was invited to record a series of short interviews at the meeting. To listen to the interviews visit the Talking Naturally website.

26 February 2013: Dr James Reynolds (University of Birmingham Centre for Ornithology) spoke on Ascension Island and Sooty Terns: an ecological disaster or a smorgasbord in the eyes of conservation biologists?

Ascension Island in many ways is an ornithological outpost of the UK. It is one of a number of UK Overseas Territories and is ‘off the beaten track’ because of its remote location midway between West Africa and Brazil in the tropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Jim began by providing historical, geographical and cultural contexts of the island, before describing its ornithological treasures as a major breeding ground for seabirds within an otherwise landless seascape of 1 million square miles. He has worked there since 2008, when accompanying the Army Ornithological Society (AOS) as their scientific advisor. The AOS has been mounting expeditions to the island since 1990, since when many seabird species (including Masked BoobiesSula dactylatra, Brown Noddies Anous stolidus, Black Noddies A.minutus, Ascension Frigatebirds Fregata aquila and White Terns Gygis alba) have been censused.

However, the focus of Jim’s talk was the mainstay of the AOS’s and his on-going research. The Sooty Tern Onychoprion fuscatus breeds on the island and work over the last 23 years has unlocked many of the species’ secrets. For example, he provided empirical evidence from ringing-recapture efforts for its sub-annual breeding cycle, he documented the precipitous decline in the population size from as many as 3,000,000 birds as recently as 100 years ago to the current population of 340,000 birds, he described the major predation pressure from a meso-predator (rat) release event as a result of the eradication of the apex predator (cat) in 2004, and he explored the role of food availability in the tern’s population biology. He finished by explaining how current state-of-the-art tracking technology is revealing movements of the species for the first time, bridging a major gap in our knowledge about where birds go post-fledging for up to the first 7 years of their lives, about where they forage in the South Atlantic and about how they spend the 91% of their lives when they are not on land.