World Bird News November 2017

The Birder's Market | Resource | Bird news for Britain / Rest of the World | World Bird News | World Bird News 2017 |  World Bird News November 2017

New study pinpoints birds of prey as hardest hit by wind farms

A new study has revealed which bird and bat species are most at risk of collision with wind turbines, with birds of prey and migratory birds coming top of the list. This research is the first to take a global view of the problem, and pinpoints some possible solutions to allow birds, bats and wind turbines to share the skies with less conflict.
In this uncertain age of climate change, countries across the world are on the search for greener options for energy production. Many are increasingly turning to wind power, and as numbers of turbines soar it is vital that their full impact on birds and other wildlife is explored. Dr Chris Thaxter of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) presses the importance of finding the “delicate balance between a greener future and healthy biodiversity.”

A main concern with wind farm development is the risk of birds and bats colliding with turbines; the giant revolving blades not only capture the power of the wind, but can also catch out unsuspecting wildlife, leading to fatal collisions. This problem has been well documented in Europe and North America, however until now much less was known about the situation in other parts of the world where wind power is rapidly expanding.

For the first time, a global view of the situation has been revealed in a recent study published in Proceedings Of The Royal Society B, which has modelled rates of collision for various bird and bat species in relation to factors such as their migratory behaviour and ecology, as well as wind turbine height and capacity. This important work was led by the BTO and supported by BirdLife International, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the United Nations Environment’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre, and the University of Cambridge.

The most vulnerable species were found to be birds of prey, especially the White-tailed Sea-eagle Haliaeetus albicilla, Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos and Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus - partly due to the fact that they often use artificial habitats such as farmland for their hunting, which is where onshore wind farms are most often placed. A recent Nature article suggests that the high collision rates for raptors could also be due to their visual adaptions for hunting; they have a large blind spot directly in front of them which means that a wind turbine can catch them completely out of the blue.

The high vulnerability of birds of prey is especially problematic as many such species are slow to reproduce, meaning that the loss of breeding adults in fatal collisions has a much greater effect on the population than on many other species. Added to this, many birds of prey are already globally threatened, especially African and Eurasian vultures, so windfarms in the habitats of these birds have the potential to worsen an already drastic situation for the survival of these species.

Meet the guardians watching over Argentina's threatened nesting sites

In Argentina, there are only 600 Saffron-cowled Blackbirds left, and nest predation is sabotaging their chances of population recovery. But this looks set to change thanks to the incredible dedication of Colony Guardians – volunteers who camp out at the nesting sites to watch over the eggs and chicks.
In Argentina, the loss of our Pampas grass habitat is a huge threat to biodiversity. Agrochemicals, cattle trampling and the intentional burning of vegetation all spell disaster for national treasures like the Strange-tailed Tyrant Alectrurus risora and the Pampas Meadowlark Leistes defilippii. But the impact is even worse on species who are struggling to rear enough young to bounce back.

This is the case for the Saffron-cowled Blackbird Xanthopsar flavus. Classed as Vulnerable worldwide, the situation is even worse in Argentina, where the species is listed as Critically Endangered due to extremely rapid population declines. And the success of the few reproductive colonies left is being severely sabotaged by predation from foxes, reptiles and raptors. Not to mention the cuckoo-like brood parasitism of the Shiny Cowbird Molothrus bonariensis.
That’s why, after a highly successful campaign in 2015, Aves Argentinas (BirdLife partner) joined forces with charities and government bodies alike* to create the Saffron-cowled Blackbird Conservation Project.

Our aim is simple: every spring, we locate the reproductive colonies and nests scattered around the provinces of Entre Rios and Corrientes. Then we appoint Colony Guardians to watch over them, using an adaptation of the techniques used for the Hooded Grebe Project in the cold Patagonian plateaus.

But it’s not easy. Each breeding season starts with great uncertainty as to where the blackbirds are going to settle their nests. And searching every ranch and grassland is a difficult task when the crops and land uses change year by year. Every season we cover over 15,000 km in our quest along the provinces’ roads. However, after long hours of driving, perseverance and an extensive network of connected informants, we finally locate the colonies and their nests (which themselves are notoriously difficult to spot).

Our biggest asset at this stage is our dedicated community of land owners, farm workers, birdwatching clubs, provincial park rangers and members of Grasslands Alliance (Alianza del Pastizal), all poised for a flash of yellow and black plumage.

Once the colonies are found, we call in our heroic volunteer Colony Guardians to watch over the nests and fledglings and drive predators and parasites away. We erect special exclusion nets which bar the way of snakes, raptors and mammals while allowing the Saffron-cowled Blackbird free access. Our presence also deters potential illegal bird poachers and traffickers. And while protecting the nests, we can study the ecology and reproductive biology of this fascinating and globally threatened species.

We monitor the development of the eggs and chicks with extreme care using camera traps and video recording devices. These cameras also help us to understand how the parents are adapting to our presence, how they care for their chicks, and which predators are the worst offenders.

Throughout the 2015 and 2016 breeding seasons, we located and monitored the success of 15 Saffron-cowled Blackbird reproductive colonies. We found that in protected nests, 69% of the offspring fledged successfully, whereas in unprotected nests the survival rate was only 36%. From this we can see that our presence really does significantly improve the breeding success of the Saffron-cowled Blackbird.

The project is still in its early stages, so it is important to evaluate each step carefully. However, our initial results are looking very promising indeed. They suggest that the extra chicks we help to fledge will be enough to generate urgently-needed population growth when they reproduce the following season.

Year by year, the project is gathering strength thanks to the provincial governments, researchers, volunteers and members dedicated to the conservation of this beautiful bird. In fact, this year our volunteers and local birdwatchers were presented with a Nature’s Heroes Award by BirdLife International in recognition of their hard work protecting this species.

Next spring, we hope to locate even more new colonies, as well as recovering individuals we tagged last year. We also hope to expand our network further and hone our research and communication techniques. To continue our work and increase our capacity we need all the help we can get - but if the devotion and enthusiasm of our existing supporters is anything to go by, this achievement looks well within reach.

If you would like to support work with the Saffron-cowled Blackbird, you can donate directly to the project here. Alternatively, bid on one of our beautiful paintings of endangered birds to raise money for their conservation, or become an Aves Argentinas member.

The Birder's Market | Resource | Bird news for Britain / Rest of the World | World Bird News | World Bird News 2017 |  World Bird News November 2017

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