- The glossy ibis, a migratory bird that winters in the tropical island of Sri Lanka, has been observed nesting there for the first time in nearly 150 years.
- Sri Lanka is a key stopping point for nearly 250 species of migratory birds, many of which have in recent years appeared to be staying over for longer or visiting in larger numbers.
- While climate change has been identified for changes in the migratory behavior of many species, in this case it appears that local conservation efforts have succeeded in attracting bird species that historically used to frequent Sri Lanka in large numbers.
- Bundala National Park, where the glossy ibis flock is nesting, has been shut to visitors since mid-May because of the COVID-19 pandemic; once it reopens, park managers plan to keep visitors away from the nesting site so as not to disturb the birds.
BUNDALA, Sri Lanka – The glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) is a fairly rare but regular winter visitor to Sri Lanka, seen at the Bundala National Park in the island’s south before it leaves again in spring. So the sight of these black birds in the middle of May left park warden Ajith Gunathunga puzzled. He kept his trained eye focused on the species, and on May 21 discovered them nesting — with chicks in the mix.
“The glossy ibis build their nests in a colony where some other waterbirds also nest. I could observe about 20 glossy ibis in the location and total of six nests with a few of them having little chicks, fed by the adults,” Gunathunga told Mongabay.
Bundala is Sri Lanka’s first Ramsar wetland and is popular with migratory and pelagic birds. The ibis nesting colony was discovered near a safari jeep track popular with tourists; but because all national parks across Sri Lanka have been closed since mid-March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the birds were able to enjoy undisturbed parenting time.
Authorities now plan to keep this particular jeep track closed beyond the lockdown period to prevent disturbance to the nesting birds. Sri Lanka has eased many of the restrictions imposed during the lockdown, but all national parks remain closed. Gunathunga said that once Bundala opens, visitors including birdwatchers will be kept away from the nesting sites.
Protecting breeding sites
The May 21 observation of the glossy ibis nests with chicks in them came almost 10 weeks after the park was shut down. Glossy ibis eggs take about three weeks to hatch; before that, the breeding pair needs about four weeks for site selection and nest building. That suggests they benefited for much of that cycle from having a visitor-free park to themselves, says Sampath Seneviratne, senior lecturer in zoology with the University of Colombo and president of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka.
“It is possible that these birds found conditions favorable for breeding even before the lockdown, though the lockdown itself would have contributed to a calmer environment,” he told Mongabay.
He added that migratory waterbirds tend to nest in this ad-hoc manner if conditions are suitable, and that it’s possible the glossy ibis would breed in Sri Lanka next spring too. “If the new chicks after maturity also breed in the island, then we can safely record that Sri Lanka has a resident breeding population of the glossy ibis,” Seneviratne said.
That wouldn’t be unprecedented, says Jagath Gunawardana, an environmental law expert and birding enthusiast. He points to an 1872 observation by the ornithologist William Vincent Legge on glossy ibis breeding in Sri Lanka. According to Legge’s History of the Birds of Ceylon, eight nests were recorded at a lake in Thissamaharama in the south, just 16 kilometers (10 miles) from Bundala national park. But the birds disappeared in the first quarter of the 20th century for reasons unknown, Gunawardana told Mongabay. The glossy ibis made a comeback in 1952 to Kalametiya, also close to Bundala, and after that in Bundala itself, Gunawardana said.
In 1973, a solitary glossy ibis was reported in the Nedimala wetlands in suburban Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital. A flock of eight glossy ibis was recorded in 1990 from the urban Bellanwila-Attidiya sanctuary; 34 individuals were recorded at the same site in 1995, Gunawardana added.
“Glossy ibis dons breeding plumage just before leaving Sri Lanka in end-March or April,” he told Mongabay. “On a number of occasions, I observed them collecting twigs that are used for nest building. However, no nests were built in the urban locations this time around.”
According to Seneviratne, Sri Lanka is home to 508 bird species, nearly half of which (245) are migratory. Their routes are known as flyways, and Sri Lanka is the last landmass south along the Central Asian flyway.
The glossy ibis is just one of a growing number of migratory birds increasingly passing through Sri Lanka. In 2012, the knob-billed duck (Sarkidiornis melanotos) reappeared on the island after an absence of more than half a century. Since that first sighting, the duck has become a regular winter visitor to Sri Lanka with a growing number of sightings.
In 2015, a rare vagrant, fulvous whistling-duck (Dendrocygna bicolor) was found with ducklings, indicating in-country breeding. Nests of migratory blue-tailed bee-eaters (Merops philippinus) have been recorded several times, with the latest nest colony recorded in eastern Sri Lanka in 2017.
The glossy ibis has increased its visits to the country since 2015, according Seneviratne. He said he observed a flock of more than 100 individuals this past May, with many in their breeding plumage. While he could not find evidence of breeding, he has continued to observe large flocks of glossy ibis.
Climate change has been cited as a factor for changes in migratory patterns among many species, but the main factor here appears to be the success of conservation measures in attracting migratory birds to breed and nest, Seneviratne said.
“This could be a positive response to some of the conservation efforts bearing fruit, resulting in populations of birds increasing as conditions become favorable for them,” he said.
Beyond Sri Lanka, the breeding range of the glossy ibis, a widespread species, has expanded. In Algeria, the glossy ibis made a comeback after almost a century with the first breeding recorded in 2002. A new range in neighboring Tunisia was first recorded in 2008, and records up to 2017 indicate continuous nesting, though sporadic. Until 2006, the glossy ibis was very rarely found breeding in France, but field research has shown evidence of a significant increase in breeding pairs, reaching up to 2,087 in 2017. Even in North America, the glossy ibis seems to be expanding its range.
Banner image of a glossy ibis pair, courtesy of Vimukthi Weeratunga.
Climate change has thrown our beautifully balanced planet into chaos. As oceans and forests transform and ecosystems go into shock, perhaps a million species teeter on the edge of extinction. But there may still be hope for these organisms. Some will change their behaviors in response to soaring global temperatures; they might, say, reproduce earlier in the year, when it’s cooler. Others may even evolve to cope—perhaps by shrinking, because smaller frames lose heat more quickly.
For the moment, though, scientists have little idea how these adaptations may be playing out. A new paper in Nature Communications, coauthored by more than 60 researchers, aims to bring a measure of clarity. By sifting through 10,000 previous studies, the researchers found that the climatic chaos we’ve sowed may just be too intense. Some species seem to be adapting, yes, but they aren’t doing so fast enough. That spells, in a word, doom.
Matt Simon covers cannabis, robots, and climate science for WIRED.
To determine how a species is adjusting to a climate gone mad, you typically look at two things: morphology and phenology. Morphology refers to physiological changes, like the aforementioned shrinking effect; phenology has to do with the timing of life events such as breeding and migration. The bulk of the existing research concerns phenology.
The species in the new study skew avian, in large part because birds are relatively easy to observe. Researchers can set up nesting boxes, for instance, which allow them to log when adults lay eggs, when chicks hatch, how big the chicks are, and so on. And they can map how this is all changing as the climate warms.
By looking at these kinds of studies together, the authors of the Nature Communications paper found that the 17 bird species they examined seem to be shifting their phenology. “Birds in the Northern Hemisphere do show adaptive responses on average, though these adaptive responses are not sufficient in order for populations to persist in the long term,” says lead author Viktoriia Radchuk of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
In other words, the birds simply can’t keep up. By laying their eggs earlier, they’re encouraging their chicks to hatch when there are lots of insects to eat, which happens once temperatures rise in spring. But they’re not shifting quickly enough.
This isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to human-caused climate change. Life on Earth is so diverse because it’s so adaptable: Temperatures go up or down, and a species might move into a new habitat and evolve to become something different over time. But what we humans have unleashed on this planet is unparalleled. “We’re experiencing something on the order of 1,000 times faster change in temperature than what was seen in paleo times,” says Radchuk. “There are limits to these adaptive responses, and the lag is getting too big.”
Which means now more than ever, we have to aggressively conserve habitats to help boost species. “I think the results of this paper really add an abundance of caution, that we shouldn’t hope that species will adapt to changing climate and changing habitats, that we don’t need to do anything,” says Mark Reynolds, lead scientist for the Nature Conservancy’s migratory bird program, who wasn’t involved in the study.
Indeed, this paper is a terrifying window into what might be happening to ecosystems at large. A bird doesn’t live in a vacuum—it preys and is preyed upon. An ecosystem is unfathomably complex, all sorts of creatures interacting, which makes these dynamics extremely difficult to study, especially when Earth’s climate is changing so quickly.
“It’s not an internet type of network, it’s not an electrical grid,” says Peter Roopnarine, curator of geology and paleontology at the California Academy of Sciences, who wasn’t involved in this work. “These are systems that have very specific structures and configurations to them. We have poor documentation of that.”
On a very basic level, if insects start breeding earlier in the year because the planet is warming, birds have to shift their life cycles. That means the birds’ predators do, too. “One phenological change in one species can have a ripple effect through the system,” says Roopnarine.
Another major consideration here is generation length. Species that more rapidly produce offspring tend to adapt better to change. That’s why bacteria can so quickly evolve resistance to antibiotics: They proliferate like mad, and individual bacteria with the lucky genetics to survive the drugs win out and pass those genes along. Something like an elephant, which may not reproduce until she’s 20 years into a 50-year lifespan, is working with way longer timescales and may struggle to adapt to change.
What’s so troubling about this study is that, by comparison to other animal families, birds are relatively adaptable in their phenology: They can tweak the timing of their migrations, for instance. A less mobile critter like a frog has no such luxury. But what these researchers have found is that flexibility is no longer enough for salvation.
A collection of bird bones sat in lab storage for more than a decade, believed to be the remains of an ancient eagle. Little did scientists know what was hiding in the fossils: “Squawkzilla.”
Heracles inexpectatus was discovered by scientists in New Zealand, according to a study published Wednesday. At about 3 feet (1 meter) tall, the bird would probably have stood nearly as tall as the average American 4-year-old.
Scientists have been finding enormous prehistoric birds for years, but this one still shocked them. It’s the largest parrot ever known to have walked the Earth. It might have even preyed on other birds.
At an estimated 15 pounds (7 kilograms), the now-extinct bird beats out all the other parrot competitors, at nearly double the weight of the endangered kakapo, New Zealand’s reigning giant parrot.
The scientists approximated its size based on two leg bones, called tibiotarsi, under the assumption that they both came from the same bird. The researchers compared the drumstick-like bones to bird skeletons in the South Australian Museum collection and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s electronic collection.
The fossils were dug up in 2008 in St Bathans, New Zealand, where many thousands of bird bones have been found.
The large bones, believed to be the bones of an ancient eagle, flew under the radar for a decade. It was during a research project in the lab of Flinders University paleontologist Trevor Worthy that graduate student Ellen Mather rediscovered the bones.
After that, a team of researchers began reanalyzing the findings earlier this year, according to the BBC.
“It was completely unexpected and quite novel,” Worthy, the study’s lead author, told National Geographic. “Once I had convinced myself it was a parrot, then I obviously had to convince the world.”
The bird probably lived during the Early Miocene, which spanned from about 23 million to 16 million years ago.
Researchers concluded that the bird probably couldn’t fly and consumed what was along the ground and easy to reach, according to National Geographic. But that might not have been enough to satiate the giant parrot.
It’s possible the bird had more carnivorous ways, like another New Zealand parrot, the kea, which has been known to attack and subsequently munch upon living sheep, the magazine reported.
Michael Archer, a co-author of the research and paleontologist at the University of New South Wales, told National Geographic that Heracles might have even been eating other parrots, giving way to a nickname: “Squawkzilla.”
Archer told Agence France-Presse the bird had “a massive parrot beak that could crack wide open anything it fancied.”
Heracles probably won’t be the final unforeseen fossil from the St Bathans area, Worthy told AFP. The researchers have turned up many surprising birds and animals over the years.
“No doubt there are many more unexpected species yet to be discovered in this most interesting deposit,” Worthy said.
2019 © The Washington Post
This article was originally published by The Washington Post.
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Some bet as much as $200. Others wager as little as breakfast or a beer. The real prize — bragging rights and status — goes to the owner of the bird that sings the most vigorously during the competitions that kick off at dawn on Sundays in parks in Brooklyn and Queens.
The male chestnut-bellied seed finches are judged on how fast, and how long, they sing when held beside each other in cages, stimulating their instinct to establish dominance.
But this avian twist on “America’s Got Talent” has also fueled an illegal cottage industry: the smuggling of finches into the United States from South America.
Last week, a 39-year-old Connecticut man was charged in federal court in Brooklyn with smuggling nearly three dozen finches from Guyana into the country through Kennedy Airport. The 34 birds were nestled into plastic hair curlers and placed in carry-on luggage, which was selected for a spot inspection, according to court records.
Mr. Gurahoo was freed on a $25,000 bond, posted by his uncle, who lives in Queens and told the judge he is originally from Guyana. Mr. Gurahoo’s lawyer, Eric Pack, had no comment.
The contests, known colloquially as “bird races,” are especially common in Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto Park in Brooklyn.
“This is like a sport from back home,” said Ray Harinarain, a bird importer who lives in the Cypress Hills neighborhood of Brooklyn. “People from Guyana move here and bring their traditions.”
Champion birds bestow status on their owners and can increase the value of the finch — “like a racehorse,” Mr. Harinarain said.
Under federal law, transported birds must be quarantined for 30 days to ensure they do not carry avian flu or Newcastle disease, which can infect humans and domestic poultry, said Paul Calle, the chief veterinarian and vice president of health programs at the Wildlife Conservation Society. That inconvenience, coupled with a superstition that birds from the wild are more virile and better singers than birds bred in captivity, feeds the market for smuggled birds.
“Some people just prefer to smuggle,” Mr. Harinarain said.
“It’s an underground thing,” he added. “People don’t want to talk about it.”
All 34 birds discovered last week were alive, and placed in the custody of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which has regulations that allow for their return, if feasible, to Guyana.
The manner in which the finches are often smuggled — with no protection from high or low temperatures, no food or water and limited ability to move — creates stress, making the animals more susceptible to shedding any virus or parasite they might be carrying.
“With a multibillion dollar U.S. poultry industry, there’s a lot at stake and a lot at risk if they’re moving animals like this,” Mr. Calle said. “It’s a terrible thing.”
Though chestnut-bellied seed finches, with obsidian-colored wings and rusty breasts like robins, are not a threatened species, their illegal importation also poses ecological risks.
The finches’ robust numbers in their native region could decline to the point of collapse, as happened around the turn of the 20th century in North America with the once-ubiquitous, now-extinct passenger pigeon, said Susan Elbin, director of conservation and science at New York City Audubon.
Or, just as European starlings were introduced with good intentions into Central Park in the 1890s, only to quickly spread across the continent, displacing multitudes of native birds, exotic animals run the risk of establishing themselves and becoming a harmful invasive species.
“The problem is: They could die out, or they could do well,” Ms. Elbin said.
Donald Bruning, an ornithologist who worked at the Bronx Zoo for decades, said smuggling undermines the businesses of legitimate breeders. And the mortality rate for animals brought into the country illegally is abnormally high, he said.
He also noted that the practice may be completely unnecessary: There are far better ways, he said, to groom a champion finch than by plundering wild populations.
Baby finches, he said, learn to sing by imitation. Mr. Bruning, who was instrumental in the passage of the Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992 that safeguards exotic bird species from being harmed by international trade, suggested competitors record the songs of champion birds and play them for chicks raised legally in captivity.
“That would solve the whole problem,” Mr. Bruning said.
‘I didn’t know that seagulls were protected’: B.C. man escapes fine for destroying gull’s nest
Angelo Mion learned the hard way that a seagull is more than just a flying rat. At least as far as the law is concerned.
The 82-year-old East Vancouver man found himself before a judge for the first time in his life this week after having pleaded guilty to an offence: destroying the nest of a migratory bird.
And so here he was shuffling at the glacial pace that was as fast as his feet could carry him down the aisle of a fifth floor B.C. provincial courtroom to face judgment.
“I didn’t know that seagulls were protected either. I don’t think most people do,” his lawyer told Judge Patrick Doherty.
“He didn’t know he was doing anything wrong.”
Mion’s tangle with the law grew out of the ornithological obsession of a couple whose high-rise condo allowed them a clear view of the rooftop of a low-rise East Vancouver apartment building Mion built in the early 1980s.
The octogenarian doesn’t live in the building, but he still serves as caretaker. And in the summer of 2016, his neighbours took an interest in the birth and hatching of two fledgling gulls.
Crown prosecutor James Billingsley said gull chicks are flightless for five to six weeks. But once they do take to the skies, their nests still serve as a kind of homing beacon.
“It’s how they orient themselves in cases of extreme weather,” the prosecutor said.
One of the neighbours claimed he saw Mion walk onto the roof one July morning and “chase and kick” at the two baby gulls. The birds’ parents screeched and circled in the skies overhead as the neighbour yelled at Mion to stop.
That night, the other half of the couple saw Mion “sweeping the nest into a bucket.”
They called wildlife officials, who showed up at the door of Mion’s home, “but he refused to open it.”
‘These are these common seagulls, right?’
Fast forward to the summer of 2017 and the high-rise neighbours had their eyes on a new nest of gulls. There were three this time.
Then, in mid-August, one of the neighbours came home to find there were none.
“He saw shovel marks,” Billingsley told the judge.
A wildlife inspector called on Mion again, this time wanting access to the roof for an inspection. Mion told him there was no need, because he had already removed the nest.
“Mr. Mion stated that he was the only one with access to the roof,” Billingsley told the judge.
“And (the officer) should go and get a helicopter because that was the only way (he) would get access to the roof.”
In a distinguished career behind the bench, Doherty has presided over complex cases involving alleged sexual assault in the RCMP, trespassing on Indigenous land and fraud.
This appeared to be the first time he had been asked to consider the rights of a Glaucous-winged gull.
“These are these common seagulls, right?” he asked Billingsley.
“That’s correct,” Billingsley answered. “All gulls are protected under the Migratory Birds Convention Act.”
The rise and fall of the Glaucous-winged gull
According to a 2015 University of British Columbia study, the number of seagulls in the Strait of Georgia, which separates Vancouver Island from the B.C. mainland, has dropped by 50 per cent in the past three decades. Diet is considered a factor in their decline.
They’re known for eating almost anything — hence the “flying rat” reputation — but they historically relied on a marine diet. Apparently french fries, cookies and other scraps picked off the plates of tourists are not an improvement.
Destroying a gull’s nest carries a penalty ranging from $5,000 to $300,000. Billingsley was looking for a fine of $8,000.
But Mion’s lawyer, Ken Westlake, said an absolute discharge would be more appropriate.
Born in Italy in 1937, Mion came to Canada in 1956 with a Grade 5 education. A mason by trade, he worked until the point his body failed him, raising children and grandchildren.
He has prostate cancer and other health issues. Westlake said the gull’s nest was blocking the drain in the apartment building.
Mion wore a crisp light check shirt and brown dress pants as he sank into a chair beside his lawyer.
Westlake said the old man was “adamant” that he didn’t touch the nest until the chicks were gone.
And he disputed any suggestion that the neighbours could have seen his infirm client “kick” at anything.
“He walks with some difficulty,” Westlake told the judge. “What (the neighbour) observed and what he believes have nothing to do with what happened.”
After a break to consider the facts, Doherty decided to give Mion an absolute discharge — meaning he won’t have to pay a fine and hopefully will never have to set foot in a court again.
The judge pointed out that ignorance of the law is no defence. But in some circumstances, it can be a mitigating factor.
“It is absolutely inconceivable that he will be caught doing anything wrong again,” the judge said.
Police are investigating after the body of a buzzard was found in woodland with one of its legs severed and a hobby was found alive with one leg severed.
The police share this latest appeal. Ed
Officers from the Isle of Wight’s Country Watch team are investigating two incidents where protected birds have been injured, possibly by traps.
We are working with the RSPB to establish what happened after the birds were found in the Briddlesford area, both with severed legs.
On 14th March the body of a buzzard was found in woodland near to Littletown with one of its legs severed.
On 23rd September a hobby was found alive with one leg severed. This bird was taken to the RSPCA and humanely put down.
Illegal and barbaric method of trapping
PC Tim Campany from the Country Watch team said:
“We are working closely with our colleagues from the RSPB to establish what happened. One line of enquiry is that the birds may have been caught and held in a spring-type trap.
“This is illegal and is a barbaric method of trapping, it leaves the bird once freed from the trap unable to land and feed and it will eventually die of starvation.
“All wild birds are protected by law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which makes it an offence to intentionally harm them. Anyone found to have done so faces an unlimited fine and/or up to six months in jail.
“Raptor persecution is a priority of the National Wildlife Crime Unit and will not be tolerated. I would urge anyone with information on suspicious vehicles, persons, or traps located in the Briddlesford area to call us on 101.”
Get in touch
Anyone with information should call 101 quoting 4418 0374 840.
For more information about the Country Watch team please visit the Website.
A man from Gravesend, who was caught illegally trapping birds, has appeared before Medway magistrates court.
Last Monday, the 39-year-old admitted possessing wild birds, using bird lime and possessing items used for trapping birds.
Officers from the Rural Task Force teamed up with the RSPCA in the summer to execute a search warrant at the man’s home.
The action, which followed information being received from the RSPB, resulted in a number of caged wild birds being seized.
Officers also found rat glue and other bird trapping equipment.
The man was interviewed by officers and admitted he was trying to catch wild birds in his garden.
He was given a 28-day curfew order and must stay at home between 7pm and 7am and ordered to pay £300 in costs and a £85 victim surcharge.
It is illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act to trap wild birds.