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Almost two girls for every boy is perfect start to pochard breeding programme

Scientists working to save the rarest bird in the world, the Madagascar pochard, have reported ducks (girls) outnumber drakes (boys) by almost two to one in the first two broods being reared in captivity, giving further hope to the emergency rescue mission.

16 ducklings being raised by WWT’s ‘Team Pochard’ in Madagascar, along with colleagues from Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and The Peregrine Fund, have now been “sexed” and 11 are female. WWT’s aviculture manager Nige Jarrett explains: “This is a perfect start to a conservation-breeding programme. There are fewer than 20 adult birds left in the wild, all on one lake – their future is very precarious.

“In 2010 we will be working to breed as many pochards as possible to reintroduce on to wetlands across the species’ former range. To do this we need our young birds to lay lots of eggs , so females really are the currency we’re dealing in. 11 out of 16 in the first two broods is fabulous news.” Team Pochard is raising three broods of pochard ducklings in captivity in Madagascar. Like all ducks, it is possible to tell their sex by examining their bottoms. The two eldest broods were recently handled to be leg ringed and at the same time the birds were sexed: well over half of them turned out as females. The sexes of the birds in the third brood may yet bring more good news.

The current emergency rescue mission was mounted after a reconnaissance team visited in July and found the situation was worse than feared. The team discovered just six females and evidence that ducklings from 2008 had died at just a few weeks old, leaving the entire species highly vulnerable to extinction. Working with local people and the government of Madagascar, this work is part of a wider plan to establish a conservation breeding centre in the region in 2010.

You can follow the team’s progress at wwt.org.uk/teampochard.

WWT is grateful to the Mitsubishi Corporation Fund for Europe and Africa and the US Fish & Wildlife Service for providing funds to support this work.

Are the Bewick’s predicting a white Christmas again?

With the country in the grip of arctic conditions from Russia, there’s an old Russian saying tthe swans bring winter on their wingst. So are the Bewick’s swans migrating from arctic Russia to winter at WWT Slimbridge in Gloucestershire accurately predicting a white Christmas – like they did back in 2004?

After a milder autumn initially delayed the exodus of wintering Bewick’s making the 3,000 km flight into the UK, the recent colder weather has seen an influx of swans arriving at WWT Slimbridge in numbers not witnessed since the winter of 2004. Back then, media reports of the sudden influx of Bewick’s at Slimbridge hinted at the possibility of a white Christmas – and they were right. Back in 2004, 53 Bewick’s swans arrived at Slimbridge during the first 17 days of December, but this year 138 Bewick’s have touched down at the WWT reserve – 74 of them in the last week alone. In 2004, the numbers went on to double just before Christmas Day, which saw the UK’s first official white Christmas in years.

WWT swan researcher Julia Newth said: “Maybe it’s just an old wives’ tale, but it certainly seemed an accurate prediction when the last white Christmas occurred in 2004. The weather really does play a part in the timing of migration, so perhaps the Bewick’s sense the colder weather ahead? “With freezing temperatures and north easterly winds predicted over the next few days, we are expecting more Bewick’s swans to pile in to WWT Slimbridge, so it will be a white Christmas for us regardless!”

Success! hatch confirms doubling of population

The short text sent from Madagascar by Team Pochard’s Owen Joiner (Aviculture Manager at WWT’s Washington Wetland Centre) said it all: “100% hatch just complete. Massive grins”

Fantastic news that all seven eggs from the third clutch of Critically Endangered Madagascar pochards have hatched successfully at the hotel – incredibly, the total number of chicks we’ve hatched in captivity in the past few weeks outweigh the small number of birds left in the wild! From a precarious 19 adult birds (of which just 6 are female on a single lake in northern Madagascar, we now have 40 Madagascan pochards.

This amazing feat is down to the avicultural skills of WWT’s very own Nige Jarrett and Sparky – now back in the UK after handing over to the second team in Madagascar. Before he left the country, one of Nige’s last jobs was to rush these ‘just laid’ eggs from the lake to the hotel as the rains threatened to cut them off. It was a gamble as the eggs were moved earlier than they would have liked and it was touch and go whether the treacherous and bumpy journey would have damaged the growing chicks in the eggs and stopped them from hatching successfully.

This decision was totally vindicated, as while the seven final chicks were hatching to the sound of heavy rain outside, they knew that, if they had waited, it would have been too late!

Madagascar pochard population set to double

The race against time to save the Madagascar pochard from extinction is well on the road to success.

WWT’s ‘Team Pochard’ in Madagascar, along with colleagues from Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and The Peregrine Fund look set to achieve the incredible – doubling the population of the Critically Endangered Madagascar pochard in just one month!

The emergency rescue mission, mounted after a reconnaissance visit in July revealed the situation was worse than feared (discovery of just six females and evidence that chicks from 2008 had died at just a few weeks old), hatched the first eight precious ducklings two weeks ago.

This week (Wednesday) a second clutch of eight more chicks hatched and were taken on the perilous journey by road to transfer them the makeshift rearing facility hurriedly set up by the team in a hotel. A ninth egg then hatched just as the team reached the safety of the hotel.

Amazingly, a third clutch of seven eggs has also been collected but, although they are not due to hatch for another week, they are also being moved now for fear that the rapidly setting in rainy season will make the road impassable until spring.

This is the start of a major project to prevent the extinction of the species. A conservation-breeding programme will, in time, reintroduce birds to wetland sites in the species’ former range, and will work with local communities to protect the remaining site.

First super whooper completes migration in ‘Supersonic’ time

A satellite-tracked Super Whooper swan has lived up to his name and completed the migration between Iceland and Scotland, flying 800km non-stop over the ocean in just 14 hours. The aptly named Supersonic Bill was just three hours short of the shortest ever recorded journey time by a whooper swan.

Supersonic Bill arrived at Caerlaverock on Monday, with mate C9U, just in time for the morning feed. The satellite data received today not only reveals the very quick journey, but also shows that he seemed to accelerate towards the end of his journey to Caerlaverock, almost as if he knew when the morning feed was due and wanted to make it in time. Caerlaverock Reserve Warden Richard Smith said: “We know that Supersonic Bill was travelling at 114kph past Auchencairn Bay on the Solway at 8am on Monday. He covered the final 25km in just 15 minutes before flying onto the whooper pond here at Caerlaverock to be greeted by me with a barrow of grain! Not surprisingly he looked a bit tired, but otherwise not bad given that he was in Iceland only the day before!”

The unseasonably mild conditions in mid to late October saw a lull in swan migration following the arrival on 7 and 8 October of Baldur, a WWT Welney bird, and K9H, a Caerlaverock bird to Britain after spending the summer in Iceland. Baldur has since shed his satellite transmitter, but we are confident he will soon turn up at Welney where we will be able to identify him by his leg ring. But as well as Supersonic Bill and his mate, today’s satellite data download shows us that three more of our 50 Super Whoopers have taken advantage of the colder snap since the weekend. Y6K, a Welney visitor, and Y5T (a yearling) – both tagged in Iceland in August, completed their migration to Ireland at the weekend, and Sigrunn – a WWT Martin Mere regular – arrived in Northern Ireland on 4 November.

First step to save the world’s rarest bird taken successfully!

A complicated and challenging mission to a remote lake in Madagascar has resulted in a huge step being taken in efforts to save the world’s rarest duck from extinction.

A collaborative team of specialists were hampered by electrical storms, gruelling journeys and illness in their bid to secure a precious batch of eggs laid by the Critically Endangered Madagascar pochard (Aythya innotata) in early October.

Madagascar pochard ducklings credit RE Lewis, Durrell

The pochard, a medium-sized diving duck, was feared extinct by the late 1990s but it was rediscovered in 2006 when biologists from The Peregrine Fund, who were scouting for a threatened bird of prey, the Madagascar Harrier, observed 20 adult pochards living on a single lake in northern Madagascar.

Thanks to funding in 2009 from the Mitsubishi Corporation Fund for Europe & Africa, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, WWT, The Peregrine Fund and the Government of Madagascar joined efforts to establish a conservation-breeding programme for the ducks, with the hope of reintroducing them back into their wetland habitats.

However, an emergency rescue plan was mounted after a reconnaissance visit in July revealed the situation was worse than feared – with the sighting of just six females and evidence that the young had died just a few weeks old.

As a result, members of the team monitored the tiny population during their breeding season, reporting that three female birds were preparing to lay eggs. A team of duck specialists from WWT and Durrell immediately flew to Madagascar in an attempt to bring the eggs into captivity.

Patience was becoming a required skill, as Glyn Young from Durrell describes; “It was a race against time to get the team and the equipment to the lake before eggs started hatching. The situation was not made any easier as massive electrical storms had delayed our arrival in the country. Once all the equipment had cleared Customs, we had to wait for three days as a bridge was repaired on the only access road to the lake. To add to our woes, having finally made it to the lake, we all fell ill!”

Having commandeered part of a local hotel in order to create a temporary breeding facility, a batch of eggs was removed from a lake-side nest as near to hatching as possible. With extreme care, the day-old ducklings were transported to their make-shift rearing facility, 12 hours away.

Transporting the ducklings credit HG Young, Durrell

Peter Cranswick from WWT describes the significance of this achievement, “This is conservation at the cutting edge. The urgency of the situation has meant a great deal of invention and improvisation – but next year simply may have been too late. Safely bringing birds into captivity marks the start of a 20- or 30-year conservation project that will also help restore wetlands across the region.”

Eight ducklings are now reported to be doing very well, but work continues as the team attempts to secure two more clutches from the wild over the next few weeks. However, this collaborative rescue mission has provided hope for the future for the Madagascar pochard.

“This is the first important step toward saving this rare species from extinction,” said Russell Thorstrom, a biologist in charge of The Peregrine Fund’s Madagascar program. “It shows how organizations working cooperatively can overcome challenges and continue onward in their conservation effort for this critically endangered duck.”

First Bewick’s swans return to Slimbridge

The first group of Bewick’s swans arrived last night. Around 13 of swans, which winter in the UK having migrated from their breeding grounds in Arctic Russia, flew in under strong south westerly winds, much to the surprise of staff at Slimbridge.

The usual conditions for the arrival of the swans are clear nights with a north easterly wind, which helps them on their journey from the continent. For birds the size of swans, flying into the gusty weather of last night would have been exhausing. They will benefit from the sanctuary and good foraging available at Slimbridge.

Visitors to Slimbridge will be able to see the swans at commentated swan feeds each evening. Check the centre pages for more information.

Winners of the WWT Nikon photography competition announced

A pintail, a shelduck and a little grebe featured in the winning images of the WWT Nikon Photography Competition 2009, announced at an awards ceremony held at the WWT London Wetland Centre.

The competition asked photographers to ‘show us what WWT means to you’ and the UK’s photographers responded with over 1,700 photos taken at WWT’s nine wetland visitor centres.

The winner of the WWT Nikon photograph of 2009 is Wayne Davies from Swansea for his photo of two shelduck called ‘taking a ducking’, taken at WWT Llanelli.

Mr Davies said: “I have always had a passion for nature and bird photography. Since I have acquired a digital camera I can take advantage of the opportunities that the Wetlands Centre and its facilities can offer. I’ll think nothing of spending 4-5 hours sitting in a hide trying to get the shot I’m after, or walking around the grounds following a clouded yellow butterfly for miles in the hope that it will alight on a flower.”

Alexander Baker, from Horsham picked up top prize in the junior category with his photo entitled ‘I’m a little greeby’, which was shot at WWT Arundel. And, the winner of the WWT Nikon digiscoping photograph of 2009 was Paul Jarvis from Rufford for his photo of a pintail taken at WWT Martin Mere called ‘perfection in the evening’.

Alexander Baker junior winner, with judge Chris Packham

Paul Jarvis, digiscoping winner with Chris Packham

The judging panel comprised TV presenter Chris Packham, Tim Hunnable (Nikon UK Ltd), Peter Day (WWT council), Marcus Hawkins (Digital Camera magazine) and Sheena Harvey (Editor, Bird Watching Magazine)

Llanelli scoops top tourism award

WWT National Wetland Centre Wales, Llanelli has officially been hailed the best day out in Carmarthenshire. In the first Carmarthenshire Tourism Association’s tourism awards held last week, WWT National Wetland Centre Wales fought off stiff competition from two other finalists to be named ‘Top Day Out’ in Carmarthenshire 2009.

The winners were announced at a gala awards dinner at the Stradey Park Hotel in Llanelli hosted by the Carmarthenshire Tourism Association in partnership with The Carmarthen Journal and Llanelli Star newspapers. Picking up the award on behalf of WWT National Wetland Centre Wales, Acting Centre Manager, Eleanor Keatley said: “We are both proud and thrilled to receive this award which is a testament to the tremendous hard work and commitment of the staff and volunteers here at WWT National Wetland Centre Wales.

“Not only is it fitting that we have won this award the very first time, but it also coincides with Sir Peter Scott’s centenary which is wonderful!”

Will our wildlife be celebrating Natural England’s third birthday?

Three years ago last weekend, Natural England was born. Formed from the merger of three organisations, it emerged into the expectant glare of England’s wildlife charities, including WWT, the UK’s leading wetland conservation charity.
We have been watching Natural England intently since its birth, helping and co-operating where we can. Its responsibilities have been clear – to protect and improve England’s natural environment, its wildlife, and the habitats upon which wildlife depends.

But three years on, how well it is doing?
There is no doubt that Natural England has made some impressive progress. And it deserves considerable praise for that. But with the political and economic landscape moving under its feet, what does the future look like? And where do we think Natural England should turn its attentions next?

We joined Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, the Bat Conservation Trust, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, The Grasslands Trust, Plantlife and the RSPB in a snapshot assessment of Natural England’s initial tenure. This is what we agreed…

An ‘A’ for effort
We’re pleased with Natural England’s progress towards the vital goal of improving the condition of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in England. It’s not all rosy – only 15% of SSSIs include invertebrates as protected features, and considerably more could be done for plants. But great progress has been made with 89% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest in a recovering or favourable condition – on track to meet the Government 2010 target.

We’re also impressed by the organisation’s evidence-based input to policy development, such as recent moves related to set aside, and the formation of a government policy that supports environmentally responsible renewables. Wildlife-friendly farming has undoubtedly benefited under Natural England, with innovative and well targeted agri-environment schemes aimed at halting wildlife declines. The take-up of these schemes by the farming community has been good and wildlife should benefit as a result.

And as the Government’s main conduit into saving species from extinction, we know that Natural England faces a tall order. However, we’ve been collectively impressed by its scientifically based approach to saving endangered species, involving a wide range of NGO partners.

Must try harder This wouldn’t be a realistic report, though, if it didn’t point out some of the areas into which we think Natural England could put more effort. And as campaigners advocating a bigger voice for nature, we’re sure you’d expect nothing less. In the next few years, we want to see Natural England became a more vocal champion for nature. We hope our own voices are strong, but a little extra volume would go a long way! We need Natural England to provide impartial scrutiny of Government performance on wildlife conservation, and offer more consistent and well-versed advice to landowners, planners and other bodies so that they can contribute fully to conserving wildlife.

And while the intention has been good, Natural England has been painfully slow in organising systems for administering key agri-environment schemes. This overly bureaucratic approach is really hindering delivery of these schemes, and we want to see all blockages removed.

Finally, Natural England has made only tentative steps on habitat restoration and creation – notably through funding Wetland Vision projects. This really worries us, as larger areas of good habitat and ecological corridors to join them up are essential to help nature survive under a changing climate. We think the slow pace of progress is largely down to a lack of funding, but this area deserves more of Natural England’s resources. So how should we assess Natural England’s overall progress? There’s no doubt that its vision is good, and its progress is sound in some areas. But could it do more? Of course it could – and because our nation’s wildlife depends on it, it absolutely should.

That’s why we’re pleased to wish Natural England a Happy Third Birthday. We hope that, in another three years time, we can give it an even bigger party – and raise a toast to an even more secure future for England’s wildlife.