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News for February 2001

Bird On! News
1st February 2001

David Tomlinson

Distant islands have been in the news recently. In mid-January, the RSPB reported that "a globally important South Atlantic seabird site, containing hundreds of pairs of breeding albatrosses and penguins, has been almost completely destroyed by a blaze started accidentally by British troops attempting to remove ordnance from a remote island in the Falklands".

The RSPB's report went on to say that despite valiant attempts by the military and local fire crews, the blaze on South Jason island destroyed some 90% of the tussac grass on the island, the habitat containing colonies of 1,750 pairs of black-browed albatrosses and 900 pairs of rockhopper penguins. It made a tragic story, and all the more poignant with stories of fire crews from Stanley reporting the sad sight of burnt penguins and other seabirds crawling away through the tussac grass, unable to escape flames fanned by ferocious South Atlantic winds.

Few places are less accessible than South Jason Island, so it was extremely difficult for anyone to check the accuracy of the RSPB's story. Two weeks later, Brigadier Geoffrey Sheldon, the commander of British Forces in the Falklands, wrote to The Daily Telegraph to report that the black-browed albatross colony on South Jason was "thriving and unaffected", and he accused green groups of exaggerating the damage caused by the fire.

Ian Strange, the Falkland Islands' leading naturalist, has visited the island since the fire, and counted no fewer than 800 albatross chicks. He also found that the rockhopper colony was unaffected by the fire, though it seems that a small colony of Magellanic penguins may have been affected, along with some ground-nesting petrels. However, it is pleasing to report that it wasn't quite the disaster it first appeared to be.

Time will tell whether the oil spill in the Galapagos Islands was the disaster that was, at first, widely predicted. The Galapagos Islands are one of the world's natural wonders, and home to a unique and fascinating variety of wildlife. Many of the most interesting creatures, such as the giant tortoises and the various species of Darwin's finches, live on land, so are unaffected by the spill.

However, the clear (and until now) unpolluted waters of the islands are home to many species of reptiles, marine mammals and seabirds, including the endemic flightless cormorant and the Galapagos penguin. Both the cormorant and the penguin are regarded as endangered. According to recently published book Threatened Birds of the World the Galapagos penguin population has fallen by 50% in the last 30 years, and currently numbers only about 1,200 individuals. Like the penguin, cormorant numbers have also declined, with the total population today estimated at 900 birds.

There seems little doubt that oil spills will continue for as long as man transports tanker loads of crude oil in ships around the world. There have been so many disasters in the past that it seems remarkable that all the lessons about taking tankers close to vulnerable islands have not already been learnt. Our seas do have remarkable powers of self-recovery, and few of the major spills of recent years have had the dire environmental impact at first forecast. It will be interesting to see whether this latest spill is the disaster that was at first predicted. In view of the special nature of the Galapagos, it is difficult to be over optimistic.

The Galapagos penguin and flightless cormorant are just two of some 1,186 species of birds (or 12% of all the world's species) that have a real risk of becoming extinct in the next 100 years. This statistic comes from Threatened Birds of the World, a handsome, hefty (3.5kg) tome, produced by BirdLife International, and superbly produced by Spanish publisher Lynx. This is a volume that is certain to inspire fresh enthusiasm for conservation. Hopefully it will make people get out and fight to save the world's endangered birds and their habitats.

Why? Because it shows what we will lose if we let such treasures as the Galapagos penguin and the flightless cormorant go the same way as the great auk and the dodo. Threatened Birds of the World given the same comprehensive treatment to all the world's globally threatened species: a half page that not only includes the bird's portrait and a map of its world distribution, but also details of its range and population, ecology and threats to its survival. In addition, extensive coverage is given to the extensive number of birds categorised as being at lower risk/near threatened, and those scarce species of lower risk/least concern.

Currently one in eight (or 12%) of all bird species has a real risk of becoming extinct this century. Threatened Birds of the World not only makes a brilliant job of highlighting their plight, but gives a glimmer of hope for their future.

According to Threatened Birds of the World, the black-breasted puffleg, a hummingbird found only in Ecuador, is a critically threatened species. Its future prospects looks less than bright if Ecuadorian Government approves plans for a US$594 crude oil pipeline to be built through Mindo Important Bird Area, one of Latin America's most wildlife and bird-rich mountain areas, and the only place where the puffleg occurs. According to Dr Mike Rands, International Director and Chief Executive of BirdLife, "Building an oil pipeline through Mindo IBA will put the area's globally important birds, other wildlife and forests at risk from oil spills and construction damage". BirdLife has been campaigning for an alternative route to be used, but it seems unlikely that the Ecuadorian Government will take much notice of BirdLife's pleas.

It's not just third-world countries that show a lack of concern about habitat conservation. Greece is currently planning to turn one of its most important wetlands, Schinias marsh, into a rowing and canoeing centre for the 2004 Olympic Games. Development will turn the marsh - an important migration stop-over for many species of birds - into a series of artificial rowing lakes, while the development will also include a helicopter pad, and parking and seating facilities for 40,000 spectators.

Alastair Gammell, the RSPB's international director, argues that "opportunities exist to use alternative sites that won't compromise either the glories of the Games or the nation's considerable wildlife heritage". Sadly, the Greek Government's record in protecting wetlands and wildlife habitats is abysmal, and one suspects that few members of the Government could care less whether the marsh is destroyed. The fact that it is the British-based RSPB that is leading the fight to save Schinias marsh says a lot about conservation in Greece, where few local people have any interest in conservation, either. Draining and developing marshland is still seen as progress.

It would be interesting to know what the Greeks would make of Britain's National nest Box Week: the idea of erecting nest boxes on your property is not one that has yet hit Greece. However, here in Britain many thousands of nest boxes are likely to be erected this month. February is the optimum time to put up new boxes, as it gives prospecting birds plenty of time to get used to them before they start nesting in the spring. During February and March it is normal to see birds such as blue and great tits and starlings inspecting potential nest sites and boxes.

However, though February may be the ideal month for putting up boxes, they can be erected much later in the spring, and still be adopted. I have put up house martin boxes in mid May, and had house martins move in within minutes of the box being put in place. Similarly, I once watched spotted flycatchers prospecting for a suitable nest site on my house in late May. I responded by putting up an open-fronted nest box, and the flycatchers moved in at once, and went on to rear their brood.

If, like me, you are not a handyman, then it's best to buy in your nest boxes. The finest you can buy are the magnificent Schwegler boxes, made out of woodcrete, an ingenious mixture of pine sawdust, burnt clay and concrete. This means that they won't rot, are resistant to both weather and predators, and don't suffer from condensation problems. If you want the best for your birds, then Schwegler boxes are the ones to go for. Schwegler boxes are available direct from Jacobi Jayne & Company.

However, making nest boxes can be fun, and for guidance on how to do so turn to the BTO's definitive guide, Nestboxes. Copies are available from the BTO Collection, Freepost 1155, Canterbury, Kent CT3 4BT, or phone 0800 072 0130. They cost 5.95 each, including p&p.

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