2019 BOC Meetings

Monday 18 November 2019

Professor Tim Birkhead

Tim Birkhead gave a talk entitled The wonderful Mr Willughby – the start of scientific ornithology.  The first scientific bird book was The ornithology of Francis Willughby, named in Willughby’s honour by his friend John Ray after Willughby’s death at the age of just 36 in 1672. These two men were pioneers of the scientific revolution and changed the way we think about birds. Until recently it was widely assumed that Ray was the brains and Willughby a mere ‘talented amateur’, but after a decade of research Tim has been able to show that Willughby was every bit as brilliant as his co-author and friend John Ray. In his talk he told the story of Willughby’s short but spectacularly productive life – a story every ornithologist ought to know.

Biography: Tim Birkhead is emeritus professor of behavioural ecology at the Univ. of Sheffield. He completed a D.Phil. at Oxford on guillemots (Alcidae) in 1976, before taking a lectureship at Sheffield in 1976 where he has been ever since. Tim is a Fellow of the Royal Society—the UK’s most prestigious scientific society. His main research is on promiscuity in birds, but he is also interested in the history of science. He has maintained a long-term study of Common Guillemots Uria aalge on Skomer Island, Wales, for the last 47 years and raised UK£150,000 through crowd funding to keep the study going. Tim has won several awards for his undergraduate teaching. He is also an award-winning author and has written 15 books, including several popular science works. He has featured on BBC Radio 4’s Life Scientific, The Infinite Monkey Cage and Inside Science, and his book The most perfect thing: the inside (and outside) of a bird’s egg was made into a TV programme with David Attenborough, who referred to the book as “Magnificent”.

Report on the joint meeting on Neotropical Birds with the Neotropical Bird Club and the Natural History Museum in the Flett Theatre, NHM, London, 26 October 2019.

For the third time in nine years, these three organisations came together to spend a day reflecting on the biology and conservation of the astonishingly diverse Neotropical avifauna. Whereas the morning session focused on critical conservation needs in three diverse areas of South America, the afternoon comprised three more wide-ranging talks on bird biology, encompassing mimicry, behavioural physiology and new discoveries of avian taxa. We were particularly fortunate to have one of Brazil’s foremost ornithologists, Luis Fábio Silveira, to open the event by delivering an outstanding plenary lecture on a key threatened area, the Pernambuco Centre of Endemism, in relation to which he currently holds a major grant to research conservation requirements. This set the tone of the day, as it was followed by a succession of high-quality presentations, much appreciated by an enthusiastic audience of some seventy people. Outlines for each talk are provided below, and both the BOC and NBC are grateful to the NHM for providing an excellent London venue for the event to take place.

Luis Fábio Silveira (University of São Paulo, Brazil)

Avoiding extinctions in the most threatened area in the Neotropics: the Pernambuco Centre of Endemism, Brazil

The Brazilian Atlantic Forest is a hotspot with very high biodiversity but also a high level of deforestation and degradation. The Pernambuco Centre of Endemism (PCE), originally distributed to the north of the São Francisco River in the states of Paraíba, Alagoas, and Pernambuco, is today the most endangered Atlantic Forest region and one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world, as only small and isolated habitat fragments remain (~3% of its original distribution). Moreover, this is also the least studied Atlantic Forest region. Whereas in recent years four bird species there have been recognized as extinct, new bird and mammal species are still being described. Our lack of knowledge concerns not only the composition of the biodiversity, but also ”where” and ”why” it is concentrated. Luis is therefore not only researching the taxonomy and systematics of birds and mammals from the PCE, much of which is at risk of being lost before scientific recordings can be made, but also using this knowledge to propose and apply conservation management practices and to implement a programme to communicate research results and the importance of the PCE to the general public.

Christian Devenish (Manchester Metropolitan University)

Conservation of dry forest endemic birds in northwest Peru

Conservation ecologists face the dual challenge of working with difficult-to-study species and providing ecological metrics that support both global conservation efforts and local conservation management prescriptions. Christian’s talk presented metrics identifying distributions, site-level and global abundance, site-contextualised habitat requirements, and threat analyses for dry forest endemic birds in the globally important Tumbes region of Peru. Results from field studies show extreme variation in abundance within species across the study area, although species’ broad distributions were generally congruent. From this he recommended key sites for the conservation of threatened Tumbes endemics, including extensions of existing protected areas and unprotected sites, especially in the south of their ranges. Threats and opportunities were discussed within the local economic context, especially export agriculture and farming communities. This research has recently been published as a policy document by the Peruvian National Parks authority, and is available on their website: http://sis.sernanp.gob.pe/biblioteca/?publicacion=1917 .

Martin Schaefer (Fundación Jocotoco – www.jocotoco.org)

Using science to protect Ecuador’s most threatened birds

Private reserves are effective in protecting threatened biodiversity, yet private owners rarely use science to direct their conservation activities. Martin’s talk presented thirteen years of ecological work on the endangered El Oro Parakeet Pyrrhura orcesi and the endangered Pale-headed Brush-finch Atlapetes pallidiceps in Ecuador. Through targeted conservation actions, Fundación Jocotoco quadrupled the population of the Pale-headed Brush-finch within nine years. Their work elucidated the truly cooperative breeding system of the El Oro Parakeet, shown also by other Pyrrhura species. The cooperative breeding is characterized by delayed breeding and the effective population size is low, with only 42% of adults reproducing. Moreover, the distributional range of this species shifted a dramatic 300 altitudinal meters within only 30 years. Genetic data show that even forested valleys can become dispersal barriers. These data allow Fundación Jocotoco to adjust reserve design in order to protect this endangered species and many other endemics in Ecuador.

Alexander Lees (Manchester Metropolitan University)

Diversity in avian mimicry

Apparent cases of visual mimicry – where the plumage of one species converges on that of another unrelated species, are surprisingly common in birds and especially prevalent in the Neotropical region. Alex’s talk gave an overview of the different forms of mimicry, including Müllerian, aggressive and Batesian mimicry, which are suspected to occur in birds and highlighted the cutting-edge science being used to uncover these patterns.

Samuel Jones (Royal Holloway London)

The physiology/behaviour nexus in a Central American cloud forest songbird, the Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush Catharus mexicanus

Very little is known about how energy usage relates with season and behaviour in tropical species. Tropical birds are known, however, to have lower metabolisms than temperate species, suggested to be a product of ‘slower’ lifestyles (such as smaller clutch sizes and greater adult survival). Using a variety of behavioural and physiological techniques, Sam has explored seasonal shifts in territorial behaviour and physiology in Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes Catharus mexicanus, a Central American cloud forest endemic. This study offers an intriguing insight into the energy costs of long periods (often 5-6 months) of intense territorial defence, and how energy usage may shift with season in other tropical forest songbirds.

Joseph Tobias (Imperial College London)

Frontiers of knowledge: a quarter-century of Neotropical discovery

The launch of the Neotropical Bird Club coincided with a period of intense ornithological exploration by field ornithologists, birders and sound recordists. Unsurprisingly, the 25-year period since then has seen some dramatic discoveries from new species to staggering range extensions and unexpected taxonomic changes. Joe’s talk showcased the most spectacular of these discoveries from around the Neotropical region and made some predictions about what we might expect from the next quarter century.

Robert Prŷs-Jones

Monday 16 September 2019

Dr Pat Morris

Pat Morris gave a talk entitled The Hastings Rarities – taking the long view.  He explained that is now over 50 years since hundreds of bird records were dismissed as potentially fraudulent on the grounds that it was unlikely that so many rare species would turn up within a short period of time and a limited area around Hastings. Statistical analysis confirmed a significant difference between the number of records within that area and time compared other areas of Kent/Sussex and with later. In ornithological terms it makes limited difference, as most of the suspect species have been found subsequently in that area. It has long been widely accepted that fraud occurred and that a local taxidermist, George Bristow, was responsible for perpetrating this. Bristow was unable to defend himself, having died, and the taxidermy profession was besmirched. Although protests were made at the time the issue appears closed. However, there remain worrying doubts when the evidence is examined closely. At the same time, in retrospect there may be further evidence to confirm Bristow’s guilt.

Biography: Dr Pat Morris was Senior Lecturer in Zoology at Royal Holloway, Univ. of London, and well known for his studies of mammal ecology. He is a past Chairman of the Mammal Society, a former Council Member of the National Trust, and has published >70 scientific papers and c.20 books. A consultant to several major publishers and the BBC Natural History Unit, in his spare time he has pursued a long-standing interest in the history of taxidermy and was appointed the first Hon. Life Member of the Guild of Taxidermists. He was awarded the Founder’s Medal by the Society for the History of Natural History and made MBE in the 2015 Honours List ‘for services to the natural and historic environment’.

Monday 20 May 2019: Julian Hume gave a talk entitled Birds of Lord Howe Island: past, present and future. Lord Howe Island, situated 790 km north-east of Sydney in the Tasman Sea, was first observed on 17 February 1788, making it one of the last islands to be discovered by Europeans. An endemic gallinule, pigeon and parakeet were quickly hunted to extinction, but habitat alterations were minimal; therefore a diverse forest bird fauna remained intact. The accidental introduction of Black Rats Rattus rattus in 1918 and barn owls (Tyto) in the 1920s resulted in another wave of bird extinctions, but several endemics survive including a flightless rail. Seabird diversity is also high and they still breed in large numbers, although rat predation is an ongoing problem. Julian presented the results of a recent palaeontological and ornithological survey of Lord Howe Island, highlighting fossil discoveries and conservation successes, and also discussed the pros and cons of plans to eradicate rats entirely from the island in 2019.

Lord Howe’s Currawong

Julian Hume has travelled widely in search of avian palaeontological deposits, especially in the Mascarene Islands of Mauritius, Réunion and Rodrigues, on Madagascar and in Hawaii. More recently, he has turned his attention to islands off the Australian coast and most recently spoke to the Club in early 2017 on his research into the dwarf Emus Dromaius spp of the South Australian islands. By profession he is an artist specialising in extinct birds, but also has a Ph.D. in avian palaeontology and is a Scientific Associate of the Natural History Museum, Tring. He has written a number of books and published many papers on birds and their fossil history, his most recent book being the second edition of the widely acclaimed Extinct birds.

Monday 18 March: Julia Day gave a talk entitled Continental vs. island evolution of a ‘great speciator’: resolving the Zosterops taxonomic conundrum. Different environments, such as islands and continents, have had profound effects on how biodiversity is shaped. While evolutionary processes are predicted to follow different patterns in island and mainland radiations, the extent to which these geographical contexts influence evolutionary trajectories remains poorly understood. This is in part because few studies have focused on species-rich groups of highly dispersive animals, which can colonise both continents and extensive archipelagos over comparable timeframes. In this talk Julia focused on how resolving the evolutionary relationships of white-eyes (Zosterops)—lauded as a ‘great speciator’—in Africa, Arabia and associated islands, combined with morphological data, has allowed us to better understand evolutionary processes across these different geographic landscapes. Julia also discussed how museum collections and genetic data have aided in the task of deciphering the tricky and sometimes infuriating taxonomy of this highly cryptic group, leading to a likely substantial increase in mainland species.

Julia Day

Julia Day is Associate Professor at University College London and has developed a research programme in evolutionary and, more recently, ecological research. She mainly works on species-rich groups of African fishes but, being a birder, couldn’t resist the challenge of working on a notoriously difficult-to-identify avian group.