The Seychelles Warbler Research Group comprising of the Universities of East Anglia and Sheffield in the UK, and the University of Groningen (the Netherlands) have invested a total of 40,000 British Pounds towards Seychelles warbler (Acrocephalus sechellensis) research. The funds will be used in the restoration of the Cousin Island Field Station in order to enlarge research capacity for this and other species. The Field Station was set up by Birdlife International in 1971. It has served hundreds of students and researchers since."Cousin Island Special Reserve is a perfect model for doing scientific research. We have invested in it because it's a natural laboratory where you can do controlled research in a contained, yet very natural, wild environment," said Dr. David Richardson of the University of East Anglia who coordinates the Warbler Group. Seychelles warblers have been the subjects of intensive ongoing research by the group since 1988 and Richardson has been coming out to the Seychelles since 1997.
"We have monitored the birds for many generations," he says.
Continuous monitoring and research has covered many aspects of the species biology making it the most extensive, productive and high profile study ever to be undertaken on an avian island endemic.
The research has shown for example how important the extended family is to Seychelles warblers just as it is to humans. Seychelles warblers often participate in what is called ‘cooperative breeding’ where young warblers, especially females, and grandparents help in raising offspring, which is beneficial to the warblers (see Zwazo 19). Other research has looked at female infidelity in the warbler and its reasons, and there is ongoing work on genetic variability.
The Warbler Group has given scientific and public talks locally and throughout the world and has published papers in leading journals on many aspects of the warblers’ biology. Richardson delivered a talk on how science and conservation works hand in hand at Nature Seychelles on July 14.
The Seychelles warbler story begins in the 1960’s when the total world population of 26 individuals lived in a patch of mangroves on Cousin and the species was heading towards extinction. The cause of the decline was loss of habitat - Cousin was then a coconut plantation -and the introduction of rats. To save the bird, Cousin was purchased for conservation by the International Council for Bird Preservation (now Birdlife International). Management of the island was directed towards regenerating the indigenous vegetation and keeping Cousin rat free.
"This led to a spectacular recovery of warbler numbers on the island and by 1982 Cousin had reached carrying capacity," says Nature Seychelles Chief Executive Nirmal Shah. After Cousin, new populations were established on Aride and Cousine to increase the bird's population and range and improve its chances for survival.
"In 2001 an action plan written for the warbler aimed at getting populations on five islands with over 5000 birds," says Shah. "Nature Seychelles undertook the fourth translocation to Denis in 2004 and the population is flourishing there. We hope to add a fifth island to the list by the end of the year and hopefully be able to take the species off the list of threatened birds. Not bad from 26!"
Photos: Warbler research on Cousin Island (Martijn Hammers)