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Finch found as Island is lost?

Researchers discover new bird species just as its refuge is lost…

Researchers have discovered a new species of finch but its Venezuelan river islet habitat has already been destroyed to make way for a new dam.

The new species has been named the Carrizal Seedeater Amaurospiza carrizalensis after the tiny islet where it was discovered. Only three birds were found on Isla Carrizal in eastern Venezuela and it is not known what size the population of the small, blue-flecked finch may be. However, owing to the loss of this only-known habitat, researchers are keen to mount another expedition as soon as possible to see if the species might be found in the vicinity.The discovery of the finch, reported in journal The Auk No 120, was a surprise to researchers Miguel Lentino and Robin Restall, who conduct occasional studies for BirdLife International`s Partner in Venezuela, Audubon Venezuela, because the River Caroni area in the Orinoco Basin has been relatively well-covered by biodiversity surveys in the past. The reason the finch had not been discovered until now is because its habitat is spiny Guadua bamboo, impenetrable physically and visually, and because Carrizal is itself an uninhabited islet in the middle of the River Caroni.

From examination of the three birds found, Lentino and Restall identified the Carrizal Seedeater as a separate species as it has a larger bill than other finches and small plumage differences. The male is dull grey with splashes of blue, while the female is varying shades of brown. Another key factor in its identification is the fact that the poorly known seedeater group had never before been found in Venezuela and the geographically closest member of the group lives on the other side of the Andes mountains in Colombia and Ecuador. The bird was only discovered because a Venezuelan electricity company, EDELCA, had commissioned Lentino`s survey to assess local wildlife before commencing work on a dam across the nearby Caura River. Carrizal Island, as EDELCA property, was already scheduled for deforestation for development of the Tocoma Dam, part of a major hydroelectric project along the length of the Caroni river. Part of the reason for the survey was to see what could be done to compensate for the loss of spiny bamboo caused by razing the island, and, at this time, the Carrizal Seedeater had not been identified as a new species. As a result, the island was cleared before its importance was fully-recognised.

EDELCA are very keen to pursue a new search for the finch in the vicinity, where the same bamboo is also found and are disappointed that the bird has not yet been found anywhere. The company has offered logistical support for a new expedition but has limited funds for conservation work.In the surrounding area of this lower basin of the Caroni, there are extensive patches of spiny Guadua bamboo and we are convinced that the Carrizal Seedeater will be found in them, says Clemencia Rodner, President of Venezuela Audubon. However, we must do surveys and map the Guadua patches, and try to figure out population densities. I believe that the responsible action is to mount a major study of this habitat as soon as possible.

The discovery of the Carrizal Seedeater is an exciting development for global bird life, but the discovery is tempered with the knowledge that we have now destroyed the place where it hid from us for so long. says Robin Restall. It is ironic that, as we celebrate the discovery of a new bird which has been under researchers` noses for so long, this bird may now be losing the most favourable habitat for its continued survival.

For further information please contact Clemencia Rodner at Audubon Venezuela in Caracas on +58 212 992 3268. E-mail:presidencia@audubondevenezuela.org or Richard Thomas at BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK on + 44 (0) 1223 277 318 or 07779 018332 (mobile). E-mail: gareth.gardiner@birdlife.org.uk

4th July 2014