Mixed news for Asia’s vultures

Slender-billed Vultures, Assam (c) James Eaton / Birdtour Asia

Slender-billed Vultures, Assam (c) James Eaton / Birdtour Asia

The latest issue of the IUCN’s Vulture Specialist Group newsletter (PDF, 200KB) has been published. Covering vulture news from around the world, the newsletter includes mixed news from Asia where, on the positive side, there is a growing prospect of the first releases back to the wild of Critically Endangered vulture species in Nepal and India.

Offset against this, however, are ongoing concerns over the continuing use of the vulture-killing drug diclofenac and derivatives thereof: one Indian pharmaceutical company is challenging in court the latest ban on multi-dose vials of the human formulations. Meanwhile a paper demonstrating that aceclofenac (a pro-drug to diclofenac) is indeed metabolised directly to diclofenac in cattle has been published this month, highlighting the urgent need for a veterinary ban.

Illegal cage bird trade threatens Black-winged Myna

Black-winged-Myna / Khaleb-Yordan

llegal trade is pushing the Critically Endangered Black-winged Myna towards extinction © Khaleb Yordan

Jakarta, Indonesia, 13th August—So rare that captive breeding centres have been robbed, the soaring prices and drop in availability of Black-winged Mynas in trade point to a species on the brink.

Black-winged Mynas are prized in the cage bird trade for their striking black and white plumage, lively behaviour and singing ability; today their extreme rarity in the wild adds to their desirability.

The species is native only to the islands of Java and Bali and is protected under Indonesian law. Despite this, illegal capture in the wild continues, while trade is carried out openly in Indonesia’s notorious bird markets.

Surveys by TRAFFIC and Oxford Brookes University researchers between 2010 and 2014 found significantly fewer Black-winged Mynas available in the three largest bird markets in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta: down by three-quarters since the 1990s. This coincides with a more than ten-fold increase in asking prices and the near complete decimation of the species in the wild.

The crisis facing the Black-winged Myna and other Asian songbirds is scheduled to come under expert scrutiny next month at the inaugural Asian Songbird Crisis Summit, taking place on 26-29th September 2015 in Singapore.

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Superabundant bird decline mirrors Passenger Pigeon

Yellow-breasted Bunting male on the breeding grounds © Ulrich Schuster / Amur Bird Project

Yellow-breasted Bunting male on the breeding grounds © Ulrich Schuster / Amur Bird Project

One of the Eurasia’s most abundant bird species has declined by 90% and retracted its range by 5000km since 1980 a new study shows.

Yellow-breasted Bunting was once distributed over vast areas of Europe and Asia, its range stretching from Finland to Japan.

New research published in the journal Conservation Biology suggest that unsustainable rates of hunting principally in China have contributed to a catastrophic loss of numbers and also in the areas in which it can now be found.

“The magnitude and speed of the decline is unprecedented among birds distributed over such a large area, with the exception of the Passenger Pigeon, which went extinct in 1914 due to industrial-scale hunting”, said Dr Johannes Kamp from the University of Münster, the lead author of the paper.

High levels of hunting also appear to be responsible for the declines in Yellow-breasted Bunting.

“A Century on from America’s folly and Asia is blindly following suit, allowing a once superabundant bird to spiral into oblivion,” said Richard Thomas, OBC Council Member.

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Jerdon’s Babbler rediscovered in Myanmar

Jerdon’s Babbler, rediscovered in Myanmar in May 2014 © Robert Tizard / WCS

5th March 2015—Jerdon’s Babbler Chrysomma altirostre has been rediscovered in Myanmar by a scientific team from WCS, Myanmar’s Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division – MOECAF, and National University of Singapore (NUS).

Jerdon’s Babbler had last been seen in Myanmar in July 1941 and was considered by many to be extinct in the country.

News of the exciting rediscovery has been unveiled in the latest issue of BirdingASIA, the six-monthly journal of the Oriental Bird Club.

The printed article will be distributed to Club members, while an electronic version can be downloaded here: BirdingAsia22 pp13-15 (PDF, 50 KB)

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Asian ibis on the Edge


Giant Ibis (c) James Eaton / BirdtourAsia

An assessment by scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Yale University of bird species worldwide has helped produce a list of the top 100 most Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (Edge) species.

Top of the list is the rare and striking Giant Ibis, which today can most easily be found in northern Cambodia. Approximately 230 pairs remain in the wild, many of them protected by local campaigns run through the Sam Veasna Centre and BirdLife Cambodia. Chief threats to the ibis are habitat loss, human disturbance and hunting.

New bird family from the eastern Himalayas


The Spotted Elachura Elachura formosa, newly elevated to single-family status. (c) James Eaton / BirdtourASIA

DNA molecular analysis has revealed that the Spotted Wren-babbler is a unique species, unrelated to wren-babblers and is best placed in its own family, the Elachuridae.

Henceforth the species will be called the Spotted Elachura Elachura formosa.

The discovery, by Professor Per Alström and co-workers, is published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

Molecular analysis of passerine families identified 10 separate evolutionary branches, one of which was unique to the Spotted Elachura, the only living representative of one of the earliest off-shoots within the passeriformes

The Spotted Elachura is extremely secretive and difficult to observe, usually staying hidden within dense tangled undergrowth in subtropical mountain forests.

The male’s high-pitched song doesn’t resemble any other continental Asian bird song. The close resemblance in appearance to wren-babbler species is thought due either to pure chance or convergent evolution.

Hiding in plain sight: Cambodian Tailorbird discovered within city limits of Phnom Penh

New Species: the previously undescribed Cambodian Tailorbird has been found in Cambodia’s urbanized capital Phnom Penh Photo (c) James Eaton / Birdtour Asia

A team of scientists with the Wildlife Conservation Society, BirdLife International, and other groups have discovered a new species of bird with distinct plumage and a loud call living not in some remote jungle, but in a capital city of 1.5 million people.

Called the Cambodian Tailorbird Orthotomus chaktomuk, the previously undescribed species was found in Cambodia’s urbanized capital Phnom Penh and several other locations just outside of the city including a construction site. It is one of only two bird species found solely in Cambodia. The other, the Cambodian Laughingthrush, is restricted to the remote Cardamom Mountains.

Scientists describe the new bird in a special online early-view issue of the Oriental Bird Club’s journal Forktail.

A new species of lowland tailorbird (Passeriformes: Cisticolidae: Orthotomus) from the Mekong floodplain of Cambodia (Forktail 29: 1-14) (PDF, 670 KB)

Authors include: Simon Mahood, Ashish John, Hong Chamnan, and Colin Poole of the Wildlife Conservation Society; Jonathan Eames of BirdLife International; Carl Oliveros and Robert Moyle of University of Kansas; Fred Sheldon of Louisiana State University; and Howie Nielsen of the Sam Veasna Centre.

The small grey bird with a rufous cap and black throat lives in dense, humid lowland scrub in Phnom Penh and other sites in the floodplain. Its scientific name ‘chaktomuk’ is an old Khmer word meaning four-faces, perfectly describing where the bird is found: the area centered in Phnom Penh where the Tonle Sap, Mekong and Bassac Rivers come together.

Only tiny fragments of floodplain scrub remain in Phnom Penh, but larger areas persist just outside the city limits where the Cambodian Tailorbird is abundant. The authors say that the bird’s habitat is declining and recommend that the species is classified as Near Threatened under the IUCN’s Red List. Agricultural and urban expansion could further affect the bird and its habitat. However, the bird occurs in Baray Bengal Florican Conservation Area, where WCS is working with local communities and the Forestry Administration to protect the Bengal Florican and other threatened birds.

This same dense habitat is what kept the bird hidden for so long. Lead author Simon Mahood of WCS began investigating the new species when co-author Ashish John, also of WCS, took photographs of what was first thought to be a similar, coastal species of tailorbird at a construction site on the edge of Phnom Penh. The bird in the photographs initially defied identification. Further investigation revealed that it was an entirely unknown species.

“The modern discovery of an un-described bird species within the limits of a large populous city – not to mention 30 minutes from my home – is extraordinary,” said Mahood.  “The discovery indicates that new species of birds may still be found in familiar and unexpected locations.”

The last two decades have seen a sharp increase in the number of new bird species emerging from Indochina, mostly due to exploration of remote areas.  Newly described birds include various babbler species from isolated mountains in Vietnam, the bizarre Bare-faced Bulbul from Lao PDR and the Mekong Wagtail, first described in 2001 by WCS and other partners.

Colin Poole, Director of WCS Singapore and a co-author of the Forktail study said, “This discovery is one of several from Indochina in recent years, underscoring the region’s global importance for bird conservation.”

Co-Author Jonathan C. Eames of BirdLife International said: “Most newly discovered bird species in recent years have proved to be threatened with extinction or of conservation concern, highlighting the crisis facing the planet’s biodiversity.”

Steve Zack, WCS Coordinator of Bird Conservation, said, “Asia contains a spectacular concentration of bird life, but is also under sharply increasing threats ranging from large scale development projects to illegal hunting.  Further work is needed to better understand the distribution and ecology of this exciting newly described species to determine its conservation needs.”

Video (c) Martin Kennewell / Birdtour Asia

Supplementary Online Material
Sonograms etc




Two new sites for Jankowski’s Bunting discovered


Jankowski’s (Rufous-backed) Bunting, photographed at one of the newly discovered grassland sites. Photo (c) Terry Townshend

A survey in Inner Mongolia and Jilin Province, China, by a team from the Beijing Birdwatching Society in May 2013 has discovered two new sites for Jankowski’s Bunting, an Endangered species, holding at least 12 birds, plus more than 30 individuals were found at a single established site.

Terry Townshend, a British birdwatcher living in Beijing accompanied the team and talks about the discovery in his blog.

Sonadia Island declared IBA


Sonadia Island in Bangladesh, a wintering site for Spoon-billed Sandpipers, has been recognised by BirdLife International as an Important Bird Area (IBA). Photo: © Richard Thomas

Sonadia Island in Bangladesh, where 10% of the known population of the Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus spends the winter, has been recognised as Bangladesh’s 20th Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International.

“A series of recent surveys confirms that Bangladesh is still an extremely important wintering ground for Spoon-billed Sandpiper, and we identified Sonadia Island as the main wintering site in Bangladesh”, said Sayam U. Chowdhury, Principal Investigator of the Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project, a group of young conservationists who monitor the wader population, and work with local communities to raise awareness and reduce threats.

Sonadia Island also supports the globally Endangered Spotted Greenshank Tringa guttifer, and other threatened and Near Threatened birds such as Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris, Asian Dowitcher Limnodromus semipalmatus, Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata and Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa.

BirdLife Partners and others involved in the “Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper” project have been working at Sonadia since 2009, when hunting of waders on the mudflats was identified as a major threat to the fast-diminishing Spoon-billed Sandpiper population. Local hunters have now been trained and equipped for alternative, more secure and sustainable livelihoods. A very successful campaign has led to a better understanding of the importance of shorebird conservation in general, and a sense of pride and custodianship towards the Spoon-billed Sandpiper in particular.

”The work has gone extremely well, and we are trying to really deliver conservation through the local communities,” said Sayam Chowdhury.  “Through the provision of alternative livelihoods we have seen hunting reduced to almost zero.  Hunters are now working as fisherman, tailors and watermelon producers.  An awareness-raising event we held in December 2012 involved close to a thousand people, local government and non-governmental organisation representatives.”

Source: BirdLife Interenational media release, 22nd April 2013.

Read more about Sonadia Island and the thoughts of Rob Sheldon, the RSPB’s Head of International Species Recovery Team, who is visting the site currently on the RSPB Blog site.