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Long-legged Warbler comes out of hiding!

Researchers rediscover long-lost bird…

Suva, Fiji ? Researchers from BirdLife International have just rediscovered the Long-legged Warbler Trichocichla rufa, a small bird not seen since 1894 and feared extinct. The mysterious bird, found only in the mountains of Fiji, and also known as the Long-legged Thicketbird, was found one year into a survey of rare birds in the Pacific nation and photographed for the first time ever. Fijian researchers found 12 pairs in Wabu, a remote Forest Reserve on the island of Viti Levu, Fiji`s largest. This small, reddish-brown bird, named after its relatively long legs for a warbler and its preference for dense undergrowth, was only known from four birds collected in 1890-1894, and a handful of reports in the 1980s-1990s, none of which was confirmed as true. Another sub-species on the island of Vanua Levu, Trichocichla rufa clunei, was discovered in 1974 when two birds were seen, but has not been found again.Vilikesa Masibalavu, BirdLife International coordinator for the Darwin Initiative*-funded project, was the first to identify the bird: I heard a loud song which was different to any other Fijian bird, he says. The team spent the next few days recording the beautiful warbling songs of this bird which was previously un-described. The song echoing around the mountain valleys is perhaps the reason why the local people called it the Manu Kalou or Spirit Bird in the nineteenth century.

* The Darwin Initiative is a small grants programme that aims to promote biodiversity conservation and sustainable use of resources in less developed countries. The Initiative is funded and administered by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, (Defra).At first incredulous, I soon realised that this was indeed the bird that we had been searching for all this time, says Guy Dutson, BirdLife Project Manager in Fiji. My reactions were a mix of excitement at seeing and hearing the bird for myself, and happiness and respect for my Fijian colleagues who made the discovery all by themselves. Altogether nine pairs were found along a two-kilometre stretch of stream with dense thickets of undergrowth, indicating locally high population densities at an altitude between 800-1000m in this un-logged forest. Two of the pairs were seen with recently-fledged juveniles.The Long-legged Warbler is a very secretive species but now that we know its song, we can find it and make our first assessment of its conservation needs, says Dutson. They appear to need dense vegetation beside mountain streams. We are happy to conclude that they are surviving in some remote mountain forests. Although currently safe at Wabu, they remain at risk from forest clearance elsewhere, and predation by introduced mongooses. The next time the bird was spotted it was caught in a net and shown to government and community representatives who have set aside the local area for conservation purposes and are keen to restrict logging in the area. BirdLife will now work with the community and the Department of Forestry to help ensure the long-term protection of this forest.Most forests in Fiji are unprotected and are at risk from logging or conversion to mahogany plantations. BirdLife research has indicated that degraded forest is unsuitable for this and many other bird species. Mongooses are another threat: introduced into Fiji to kill rats, they also prey on ground birds like the Long-legged Warbler and are responsible for the local extinction of all of the ground-nesting birds on the main Fijian islands. Fortunately, however, the warblers at Wabu were successfully nesting beside a river with frequent mongoose activity.BirdLife Fiji now proposes four actions to further assess and protect the bird:

* ongoing survey work to better define distribution and habitat requirements;

* threat assessment by linking distribution to probable threats, notably logging, plantations and mongooses;

* advocacy for greater protection of Wabu Forest Reserve and also other proposed protected areas where it has been recorded, notably in the Sovi Basin;

* a review paper and action plan written for this species at the end of the fieldwork in 1-2 years time.The organisation is currently collecting more data to enable the bird`s status to be classified according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List criteria for species of conservation concern, where, in 1994, it was classified as Critically Endangered. The re-discovery of the Long-legged Warbler, only found in the mountains of Fiji, is a rare beacon of hope when all to often birds are becoming extinct in their natural habitats, especially those endemic to small islands comments Dutson. We must now work to ensure that this bird does not disappear after managing to hide from us for so long, and I hope to make sure it gets the protection that it deserves.

For further information or interviews please contact:
Guy Dutson at BirdLife International in Suva, Fiji: tel +679 3317193: 9238472 (mobile); guy.dutson@birdlife.org.uk
Gareth Gardiner-Jones at BirdLife International in Cambridge, UK: tel. +44 (0)1223 279903; (0)7779 018 332 (mobile); gareth.gardiner@birdlife.org.uk

4th July 2014