New habitat for Europe’s rarest song bird

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Classified as having a ‘vulnerable’ conservation status, the aquatic warbler is Europe’s rarest migratory songbird. LIFE in Lithuania is working to improve the warbler’s status by rebuilding habitat and achieving an innovative translocation method from another viable population.

Disappearing territory

The European aquatic warbler was assessed as ‘vulnerable’ in 2015 on the IUCN Red List. It has suffered a 95% reduction in its population in the last century, mostly as a result of habitat loss. Lithuania is one of only 4 countries left in the world where birds regularly breed and nest, and 95% of the species is found only in Belarus, Ukraine and Poland.

The aquatic warbler lives in a very specific habitat made of fen mires or sedge-covered wet meadows. As its habitat is increasingly fragmented, populations become smaller, more isolated, and more vulnerable.

Experience

LIFEMagniDucatusAcrola is coordinated by the Baltic Environmental Forum (BEF) Lithuania, which has been running LIFE projects since 2010 to ensure a long-term favourable status for the aquatic warbler. A previous project, LIFE BALTIC AQUATIC WARBLER, monitored 6 breeding sites and mapped critical habitats.

Restoration and translocation

The project has 2 main focuses: restoring the species’ habitat and carrying out a pilot translocation to the restored habitat. Translocation is the process of moving individuals from a viable population to a new area in order to restore an extinct or highly threatened species.

This involved moving 11 nests from a population of around 3 000 singing males in the area of Zvanets, a protected fen mire region in Belarus and the species’ most important breeding site globally, to Žuvintas biosphere reserve in Lithuania.

The LIFE project is a first in Belarus. “LIFE has funded other aquatic warbler projects in the EU, but the only way to really ensure the long-term survival of the species is to go beyond the EU border and connect these isolated habitats,” explained Žymantas Morkvėnas, BEF director.

14 hours of continuous bird feeding

The translocation was a serious test for ornithologists working on the project. One of the most delicate activities is successfully breeding young chicks. Vitalij Jakovich, a zoologist from Belarus, explained the efforts needed to raise and feed the birds. Chicks needed to be hand-fed their insect diet, with a team working from 4.30 to 21.00 every day. Another team of ornithologists and volunteers capture mire insects using nets.

“We forgot about everything else”

Once the first juveniles reached a stage where they could find food and fly, they were gradually released. 49 out of 50 birds from the first translocation attempt were released into the wild – an outstanding success in conservation terms. “Now we’re counting the days until the birds return,” said Mr Morkvėnas. “It was a really unexpectedly emotional period for the team. It was very labour-intensive; we felt so responsible for the chicks that we forget everything else. The team had a mental contract where we committed to do everything to keep every single bird alive.”

Photo from the translocation

For long-term viability, LIFEMagniDucatusAcrola is working in parallel on creating a sustainable habitat for the birds.

Restoring this ‘stepping stone’ habitat is a continuation of work done under BALTIC AQUATIC WARBLER. Reducing fragmentation is a major precondition to the species’ survival, and involves

  • removing reeds and biomass which competes with the natural sedge mire habitat
  • planned biomass burning, timed to avoid the breeding period of the majority of reedbirds and other animals

Sustainable land management

In another significant step, in October 2018 a new biomass plant was opened in the town of Dreverna. The plant, a farm building repurposed with project money, will convert biomass collected by landowners into animal bedding or fuel pellets. Late-cut biomass is traditionally disposed of, so this brings new opportunities for local businesses. It will also give some flexibility to when grasses can be cut – bringing even greater chances for reedbirds to breed in peace.

Extensive monitoring is also in operation to build inventories of individuals, plant communities, conservation actions, quantities of insects, and water level changes. This will enable the project to make an informed decision on whether water pumping is needed, and when.

Monitoring has implications for land management. For example, Lithuanian farmers who are part of the “sustainable agriculture and climate programme” (in partnership with the project) need to adapt their mowing schedules based on the presence of brooding aquatic warblers in their fields.

“We put the farmers on the front line of communications”, said Mr Morkvėnas. “We want to make the warbler famous so that farmers are proud to have them on their land.” The project is preparing banners farmers can display to welcome the warblers back in May or June.

Working hand in hand with locals is one of the many steps in the project’s long-term goal to build a lasting, sustainable network of habitat for the vulnerable aquatic warbler. Many opportunities are available to support the project or get involved in other ways.

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