Working for birds in Africa

Slender-billed quest

Date posted: 
Friday, December 5, 2008

The RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) and other partners have launched a last push to find one of the world's rarest birds. They have issued a call to search for and find any remaining populations of Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris. This announcement was made at the Ninth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Migratory Species (UNEP-CMS COP 9), in Rome, Italy, 1-5 December.

Classified as Critically Endangered, Slender-billed Curlew is the rarest species found in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, with no confirmed records since 1999. Regarded as very common in the 19th century, it declined dramatically during the 20th. It migrated from its presumed breeding grounds in Siberia, across central and eastern Europe to wintering grounds in North Africa and the Middle East. Flocks of over 100 birds were recorded from Morocco as late as the 1960s and 1970s. However, between 1980 and 1990, there were only 103 records, and from 1990-1999, this dropped to 74, with most recent verified records being of one to three birds. However, the Slender-billed Curlew is easily overlooked, challenging to identify and may use countries, such as Iraq and Iran, that have been relatively inaccessible to experienced birders in recent years.

"Although the situation for Slender-billed Curlew does look gloomy, the fact that other species have risen from the 'dead' recently does fuel our optimism. We are encouraging people not to give up on this bird", said Nicola Crockford of the RSPB and chair of the Slender-billed Curlew working group. "Additionally, this bird was known to inhabit remote areas - so it is just possible that small numbers of the bird may still be wintering in an isolated part of North Africa or the Middle East, or that some unknown nesting site may be discovered in the depths of Central Asia. But our quest is definitely a race against time."

The working group has developed a tool kit to assist people to identify and report Slender-billed Curlew in the field. This identification leaflet, a downloadable mp3 file of the call and a map of all recent sightings by season, mean that birders will now know what to look for, and when and where to look for it. Technological advances will assist with this work. Satellite tags are now small enough for use on Slender-billed Curlews; if any can be found and caught then the sites used during the migratory cycle could be determined. Also, research on feather samples from museum skins may soon enable a narrowing down of the search area for the breeding grounds (the only nesting records date from 1909-1924 in the Tara area of the Omsk-Novosibirsk region, south-west Siberia).

"This is the last chance to find Slender-billed Curlew. If we lose this species, it will be the first extinction of a European bird since Canary Islands Oystercatcher Haematopus meadewaldoi in 1981", said Richard Grimmett, BirdLife's Head of Conservation. "We've launched The BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme to save the world's most threatened birds. For many species - such as Slender-billed Curlew - the first step is to confirm if they still survive, and then identify and protect the sites that they use."

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