For the past 5 years, SPEA (Birdlife in Portugal) and the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), together with other partners, including the Azores Regional Government, have been implementing a LIFE project to save the Critically Endangered Azores Bullfinch Pyrrhula murina - or Priolo as it is known locally - from extinction. This species is Europe’s rarest songbird, and the second most globally threatened bird species in the whole continent. It occurs only in small pockets scattered in a 6,000 hectare mountain range on São Miguel island in the Azores. The species’s natural habitat, which was already patchily distributed and degraded, is currently severely threatened through invasion by aggressive exotic plant species.
The LIFE project has been improving the Azores Bullfinch habitat since 2003, by clearing exotic plants and planting native trees that provide the food that the birds depend on. Project staff have also been monitoring the population, which seems to be responding well to this habitat management – the population appears to be increasing fast, at least in the transects monitored by the LIFE project team.
Last year, conservation scientists decided that there was a need for a complete snapshot of the Azores Bullfinch distribution, as well as a more robust measure of the species density, habitat use and numbers. The team in Portugal and in the UK then developed a unique field experiment - a simultaneous survey of all the Azores bullfinches in the complete world range.
The event, partly funded by a generous grant of US$17,000 (€11,000) from the Disney Conservation Fund, attracted much interest and 50 volunteers from the UK, Holland, Brazil, Spain, France, mainland Portugal and the Azores spent several days in June being trained on Azores Bullfinch songs, habitat classification and distance sampling.
Almost 200 one-kilometre squares were checked and 287 point counts took place, with eight minutes spent at each point. A total of 78 Azores Bullfinches were counted, which should result in a final estimate of several hundred birds – an increase on the 200 individuals estimated five years ago. Encouragingly, there were a number of records from outside the core range for the species, suggesting it may occur more widely than previously thought.
SPEA has been appointed the Species Guardian for the Azores Bullfinch as part of the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme and Birdwatch magazine recently stepped forward as a Species Champion. This support will enable SPEA to build on this work into the future. "This is great news for Azores Bullfinch and shows how the work of the Species Guardian is really making a difference", said Jim Lawrence, the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme Development Manager.