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The elf of the forest

Written by  yvette vieira ft juan adam

The Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds (SPEA), through its Madeira delegation, carried out an unprecedented scientific project, lasting four years, on the Macaronesia sparrow hawk. It is a predatory subspecies of Macaronesia that can only be seen on the island of Madeira and on five islands in the Canaries archipelago. The study allowed to discover much about the habitat of this mysterious bird of prey and it is estimated that only in the island of Madeira exist between 50 to 100 reproductive pairs. Also under this program were reintroduced 60 thousand indigenous plants of the Laurel forest, in a total area of 82 hectares that were the target of intervention, due to the proliferation of invasive species and the forest fires that devastate the island every year. The third part of the Life project consisted in the promotion of various briefings on the importance of boreholes to the local community, farmers, schools and tourists.

What is the importance of this study, not only at the regional level, but also at the national level?
Cátia Gouveia: The life Macaronesia sparrow hawk project arose because we identified a few threats to this sub-species. It is a bird of the Laurel forest that has suffered with the advance of invasive species, with more and more forest fires and all this combined with the lack of information that existed on this bird that is endemic of the Macaronesia, namely of Madeira and Canary Islands, we felt it was a priority to develop this conservation program.
I want to go back a little bit; how did you reach this conclusion to start this scientific project? Was there a survey, a study?
CG: There was already a census of the subspecies carried out between 2009/10 and there are also Atlas where we discovered that this is one of the lesser known species. The lack of information about this bird has made us aware of the conservation problems that the borehole could be reaching because we cannot have basic information about its distribution. This lack of data combined with habitat threats and the fact that this species is listed in Annex 1 to the Birds Directive means that we present this project to the European Union so that we can submit it to Life.

98 nests were identified during these four years and it is a population that you do not know if it increased or decreased, because the previous census only identified two.
CG: The data we had only identified 2 nests, because a study had never been done to identify this species, and in this four-year project we had qualified people on the ground with appropriate experience and methodologies. However, it does not mean that the population has increased, but rather that we have more solid information. The 98 nests do not mean that there are 98 couples reproducing each year, because some are in disuse. In total, the population of boreholes varies between 50 and 100 breeding pairs, which are already the data that we have at the end of the study.

One of the phases of this project was the sowing of native plants and removing the invaders from the Laurel forest, due to its unique characteristic that also suffers serious problems with the fires that devastate to the island every year.
CG: In fact, there were two phases in this project, first the control of invasive species and a cleaning action after the fires. On the area of invasive, plants were identified that were harmful to the Laurel forest, Henrique crowns, hydrangeas, genisteae and genista tridentata, more in the municipalities of Porto Moniz, São Vicente and Santana. Later these same areas were repopulated with native plants, these species were propagated in forest nurseries, through seeds collected in natural plants of the island and later they were reintroduced in the places where the invading plants were removed so that the ground continues being occupied and that does not leave space for these invaders to attack again, since, these species are very resistant, resilient and have a great capacity of propagation. We must constantly combat them, we do control monitors and we do not just do a removal. Continuous work is also needed over time, not only in the framework of the project, but also in a post-action to ensure that these three areas will continue to be controlled at the level of invasive.

This study led to discoveries about this sub-species that surprised us.
CG: In fact, the information we had about this bird was scarce and this project has always been a discovery at the level of the ecology of the boreholes. We are better aware of how they build nests, how they behave, how the male feeds the offspring, and these were all possible discoveries in this regard. It was also a very rewarding work for the population to raise awareness, we sensitized the farmers, the tourists, the community and the schools and it was very stimulating to pass along the information about the Macaronesia sparrow hawk making it an increasingly present and recognized by the local population.

Another focused aspect was that the female was 1/3 larger than the male.

CG: In the world of birds of prey, sometimes this happens. The female is larger than the male and its exploitation at the feeding level allows them to prey on other species, such as the common wood pigeon. The male as it is smaller has difficulty in hunting this type of birds and prefers the smaller, because it is more agile. There is another difference that stands out regarding coloration, which turns out to be a very interesting feature and people get much more awakened to this physiological particularity.

But is there a scientific explanation for this?
CG: It is not known, out of curiosity we went to get this information, we know that in other birds there are these characteristics, but there is not a very detailed explanation about it.

At the end of the project there was a crowdfunding campaign and did not reach the target value. What were the main objectives for this funding request?
CG: This Life project, through the European Union, enabled us to train a team for four years and we had this support for these specific actions, but in the post-project we intend to maintain them, that is, the work done in this period must be continued, not with the same intensity, but we must keep these actions. The fact that SPEA is a non-governmental organization implies that the continuity of these actions requires funding, we are an association that lives on the quotas of the partners, also depends on the European projects and at the end of this study we had some financial difficulties to ensure these initiatives. We've activated the crowdfunding campaign to block some gaps at this level so we can do more. After the end of this project and although we have not reached the amount we intended we will continue our mission, with other funds, nature conservation programs, even private or companies that want to contribute to preserve the boreholes.

And what you intend to do if you had obtained the full funding?
CG: During these three days, we are working on the boreal plan and the conservation of the Laurel forest. We are looking at the project priorities and where the available resources should be invested. One of the essential objectives is to prioritize this sub-species, every year there are fires and therefore we are always mapping a new territory, this because the Macaronesia sparrow hawk always build a new nest, in a different place, that is, every year we must identify where the bird is breeding. This permanent location is important, because when government issues permits for trees cuts always there is detailed information so that the nests are not reached. At fire level, these are relevant data, because we need to have a notion whether the fires are or are not limited to the distribution of the species. Then obviously, we have the actions of control of the invaders, it is necessary a continuous work for 10 to 15 years and in terms of information. I know it seems all priority, but our will is to continue because all this is interesting and SPEA is studying funding lines to continue with this project.


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