10 April 2009

Ongoing Efforts to Conserve Severely Endangered Birds of Hispaniola

Adult male, Ridgway's Hawk. Photographs by Lance Woolaver, unless otherwise designated.

For Lance Woolaver, efforts to get an advanced degree in ornithology focused on helping to understand the life and times of one of the most endangered hawks on the planet, and an equally as rare cuckoo.

Ecology and conservation of the Ridgway’s Hawk (Buteo ridgwayi) of which an estimated 300 exist, is one topic, and the Bay-breasted Cuckoo (Coccyzus rufigularis), another as he continues working for species’ protection on Hispaniola and in the Dominican Republic.

"The Peregrine Fund was the first conservation organization to focus on the Ridgway’s Hawk in 2002, when they carried out preliminary surveys to get an idea of the remaining population size, distribution and threats and they have played the leading role in conserving this species since then."

"When I arrived in 2004, none of the local people had any idea that this was a special bird that was only found near their village and nowhere else on the planet."

Each season since then, Woolaver, first as a student at York University, journeyed to the Caribbean to study the hawks.

Teatro for the Ridgway's Hawk, 2007.

In 2007 The Peregrine Fund (TPF) and Sociedad Ornitologica de la Hispaniola (SOH) organized an amazing play or "teatro" that made a huge impact on the awareness throughout local villages.

"These plays were written and acted by a professional theater group," said Russell Thorstrom, with The Peregrine Fund. "The play was based on the life of a Ridgway’s Hawk near a local community. The play highlighted as a nesting pair of Ridgway’s Hawk, the local community, conservation and biodiversity and protected the species for future generations. The play was presented at seven communities around Los Haitises National Park and one showing in Santo Domingo, the capital of Dominican Republic."

Three significant achievements during the 2008 season from January to August were:

1) "monitoring and protection of hawk nests, and the banding of nestlings. Thirty-nine nest attempts were monitored, 18 of which were successful producing 23 fledglings. Seventeen nestlings were banded, bringing the total number of hawks banded since 2005 to 108 (36 adults and 72 nestlings)," Woolaver said in his report.
2) compiling a Conservation Management Plan for the Bay-breasted Cuckoo, funded by the American Bird Conservancy.
3) SOH produced an educational pamphlet about endemic psittacines which are in need of conservation - the Hispaniolan Parakeet (Aratinga chloroptera) and Hispaniolan Amazon (Amazona ventralis) for use in community awareness programs. WPC provided advice in preparing this publication.

Lance Woolaver holding a nestling. Photograph by Eladio Fernandez.

Measuring a juvenile Ridgway's Hawk. Photograph by Rina Nichols.

TPF translocated four young during the 2008 season to an area outside the Park. They are planning on establishing other populations in other areas of the hawk's historic range through translocations and hacking of young birds collected from the Los Limones area this season.

Wildlife Preservation Canada will be working closely with SOH and TPF to provide assistance in the translocation of young to areas outside of Los Haitises.

Woolaver’s efforts this coming season, working for Wildlife Preservation Canada (WPC), are "slightly scaled down due to lack of funding and the end of the intensive research for my PhD. But the same three local men are continuing to monitor and protect nests, band fledglings and adults, and collect date on breeding and feeding ecology. We now have many young birds that we banded that are beginning to breed so we are learning a lot about survival and dispersal."

The local team is managed by Jorge Brocca, director of Sociedad Ornitológica de la Hispaniola, and the fieldwork carried out by Timoteo Hernandez, Pastor Leon and Hilario Pollanco from the village of Los Limones.

This team continues to talk with landowners (building mutual respect and trust, etc.) and visiting local schools and taking older grades on field trips.

Their initiative gets a positive reaction by "local villagers who now protect the hawks and nests on their conucos, which are the small farms in the valley basins, primarily with root crops mixed in with some beans and some fruit trees," Woolaver said. "Since the first start of a project to protect this unique hawk, the situation has changed and "the people are genuinely proud of ‘their’ hawk."

"The rainforest is so productive that just these hilltop patches could provide plenty of food (tree snakes and anolis lizards, skinks in the undergrowth) for the hawks and their young.

"A good example of local residents protecting the hawks comes from 2006. We had a nest and nestling fall to the ground due to stormy weather. The nest was about 9 km from the village so not easy to get to. The local landowner that was working his conuco moved the nestling and what was left of the nest onto a rock outcrop, added material to the nest, and built a crude shelter to protect the nestling from the shade. He then protected the nestling for nearly a week until he was able to get word to the local hawk guys and myself in Los Limones. The adults continued to diligently feed the nestling on the ground. We promptly went out as soon as we could, rebuilt the nest in the palm tree and climbed up and put the chick back. That chick fledged and is alive today.

"There have been situations like this every year. Just this year a landowner told the team of a nest that was falling down and the local team climbed up and fixed the nest and the nestlings are now safe."

Habitat changes are having a drastic impact on the local flora and fauna.

Fire at Los Haitises National Park.

"The Dominican Republic covers the eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola," Woolaver said in his 2008 report. "Less than 10% of the Dominican Republic remains forested and the remaining areas of native pine, rain and cloud forests are highly fragmented and in immediate danger of further loss due to unregulated logging, slash-and-burn agriculture, and cutting for charcoal production. In addition, hunting and persecution of birds for food and as crop-pests has also had a significant impact. Currently, 21 of the 32 endemic bird species are considered threatened and very little data exists regarding the ecology and status of the majority of these species.

"There is still a massive problem from slash-and-burn agriculture and this is out of necessity as the people have no other choice at the moment if they are to feed their own children, but they are no longer cutting down hawk nest trees. It is a bit surreal though to see an entire valley wiped out yet all the Royal Palm trees which the hawks use for nesting still standing. If the next step could be made whereby locals practice sustainable agriculture in the valleys and leave the tops of the hills forested then everyone would benefit and the hawks and people could easily live side-by-side, and I honestly think the local people would want this as well."

During his field studies, "my most satisfying moments have come from quietly sitting and watching hawks on their nests, either females fussing over their nests (moving the same twig back and forth on the edge of a nest until she feels it is just right) or gently turning eggs, or patiently holding food for a one day old chick while it learns to feed," Woolaver said. "These quiet moments one-on-one with the hawks bring peace and a feeling that everything will be alright and that all the long days and effort are worthwhile.

Ridgway's Hawk nestlings.

Pastor Leon with Ridgway's Hawk nestling. Both photographs by Timoteo Hernandez.

"In 2007 I watched a young female with her first nesting attempt care for and fledge two healthy and strong fledglings. I had first seen her as an egg and then banded her as a nestling at one of the first nests we found in 2005.

"I am also grateful for the friendships I have made in the village and seeing the three local men take charge and being more than able to carry on the work of protecting and monitoring the hawks. They are exceptional people and very well respected members of the community. I think this is the very best that a conservation biologist can hope for when going to another country and working with an endangered species.

"Wildlife Preservation Canada has a long and successful history of providing expertise and funding work with critically endangered species in other countries (Mauritius Kestrels for example)" Woolaver added, "and also realise that a long-term commitment is almost always needed to bring a species back from the brink once it has reached a critically low level. WPC also has a history of working on several levels, locally with species in Ontario (eastern Loggerhead Shrike), nationally (Burrowing Owls) but also internationally (Mauritius Kestrel, Pink Pigeon, Echo Parakeet, Madagascar Teal) are just some examples.

The project to learn more about the Ridgway’s Hawk was part of the WPC program called the Canadian Collection.

"They fund Canadian students to carry out research on endangered species, Woolaver said. "My PhD. thesis was on the ecology and conservation genetics of Ridgway's Hawk, hence the initial funding. Even though the funding was initially for this thesis research they recognized the need for a long-term commitment and the value of working with one of the world's rarest hawks."

Timoteo measuring a Ridgway's Hawk.

A repaired Ridgway's Hawk nest.

"It is one of WPCs strengths that they have this wealth of experience that has come from working on projects at different levels worldwide. There is also the very pragmatic reality that WPC is a relatively small organization and a small amount of money can go much further in a developing country than it can in North America so a small amount of money can make a very real difference in a country like the Dominican Republic.

"WPC has done an amazing amount of work in the past even though they are a small organization and I think this is due to their staying very focused and you can't get much more focused than trying to help the rarest hawk on the planet."

The Sociedad Ornitológica de la Hispaniola, a Dominican Republic non-governmental organization (NGO), "is a strong partner and they are WPCs main partner organization implementing and overseeing work with the hawk this year. They are planning to increase the education and awareness component this year through funding provided by The Peregrine Fund and BirdLife International and in cooperation with another experienced Dominican NGO (Grupo Jaragua Inc.). We will also all be jointly producing a much needed Action Plan this year and this will be funded primarily by BirdLife."

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