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New bird species discovered “just in time”

New bird species discovered “just in time”

Joint Filipino-British conservation team success

Cambridge, UK, 17 August 2004 – A new species of bird has been discovered on a remote island in the northern Philippines, by a team of Filipino and British wildlife researchers. The Calayan Rail is a relative of the internationally familiar Moorhen, with bright red beak and legs contrasting strikingly with its dark plumage. But unlike its familiar relative, the Calayan Rail is flightless, or nearly so, and found only on the small island after which it is named.

The bird may be new to science, but is well known to local people, by the name ‘Piding’. Although apparently not under immediate pressure, the small known population and limited distribution of the species make it vulnerable to habitat loss and introduced predators. Eighteen of the 20 living species of flightless rail are considered threatened, and the majority of rail species which have become extinct since 1600 were also flightless.

The Babuyan Islands Expedition team were surveying the birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians of the island group when they discovered the rail in lowland forest on the island of Calayan, at an altitude of 300 m. Calayan was last visited by ornithologists one hundred years ago, in 1903-04.

On 11 May 2004, bird team member Carmela Española was walking in the forest when she saw a small group of unfamiliar dark brown birds with distinctive orange-red bills and legs in undergrowth near a stream. She then saw two more birds cross the trail and begin turning over dried leaves with their bills. Her notes and photographs, and recordings of their loud, harsh, rasping calls, later helped show that the species was not only new to her, but also new to science.

“I felt sure the Babuyan Islands would hold some interesting discoveries, but I didn’t expect to find a totally new species!” Genevieve Broad, the co-leader of the expedition, said. “I’m thrilled for the team. I hope this will bring the recognition these islands deserve as an important site of biological diversity.”

She added that the Calayan community is concerned about the future of the island’s environment and natural resources. “We received a lot of support from local people including the Mayor, who would like to see the island and the sea around it protected.”

The Babuyan Islands Expedition team saw adult and juvenile birds on several occasions over the following days, within a two-kilometre range of their rainforest camp, and estimated there are probably 100-200 pairs in the area. The sightings were made in forest with coralline limestone outcrops, caves and small streams. The team took photographs and video footage of the birds in the wild, and of one young female in the hand, together with detailed measurements. PTO The Calayan Rail appears to be nearly or completely flightless. Birds were seen skulking in undergrowth or out on open trails, sometimes alone, sometimes in family groups. The Okinawa Rail from the Japanese Ryukyu Islands is the most similar rail in appearance, but there are distinct differences in voice and colour pattern.

The Calayan Rail may be classified as ‘Vulnerable’ under the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List criteria for species of conservation concern. Although they are not thought to be under immediate threat, the development of roads on the island may lead to new settlements, resulting in loss of habitat and the introduction of predators such as cats and rats. Such alien predators have been implicated in the majority of flightless rail extinctions.

The Expedition team plans to undertake further research to determine the conservation habitat requirements, distribution and population numbers of the rail, whilst working closely with local communities to minimise threats and to encourage long-term initiatives to protect the forest.

Josh Cole of the Rufford Small Grant committee, who provided funding for the expedition, commented: “We are delighted that our involvement in funding conservation work on the island has helped in such a significant scientific discovery.”

Nigel Collar of BirdLife International said, “The discovery of the Calayan Rail is a wonderful demonstration that the world has much to reveal to us yet. However, these newly discovered species are nearly always at risk from human influence, because most are on islands or mountains, where their ranges are naturally quite small. The Calayan Rail is another species that we have discovered just in time, another case for long-term care by human society. I warmly congratulate the team on their extraordinary and beautiful find.”

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