Long-tailed Macaques

Long-tailed Macaques
Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Desert Sparrow Project

The Desert Sparrow (Passer simplex) is a small passerine found in North Africa and Central Asia. So far two subspecies have been described for the Sahara desert (P.s. simplex and P. s. saharae); the third subspecies, localized in areas of Irán, Turkmenistán and Uzbekistán, also known as Zarduny’s Sparrow (P. S. Zarudnyi), may be split into full species status in the near future, on the grounds that it shows no sexual dimorphism between male and female.

Desert Sparrow breeding pair

Desert sparrows are one of the most characteristic birds of the Sahara desert. Superbly adapted to arid conditions, they prefer to breed in oases and wadis (dry river beds) with some vegetation, and often live close to humans. Berber builders intentionally leave nesting holes in their adobe houses and barns to for the birds, which they call “bar-rode”; in their traditions, the song of a Desert Sparrow in their home is a sign of good news. Tuareg people call the birds “Moula-moula” and are also quite fond of them. In very remote areas they are the only birds found in or around villages or nomadic camps, but as more settlements are built for tourism, and distances between them are reduced, a host of new species soon follow: Domestic doves (Columba livia), Collared doves (Streotopelia decaocto) and especially House sparrows (Passer domesticus). All these species compete directly with the Desert Sparrow for food; House sparrows are bigger and more prolific, and eventually occupy most of the available nesting space.

Passer simplex in Merzouga.
The area between Merzouga and Tafilalt in Morocco is the northernmost point in the Desert Sparrow’s African distribution. It is also one of the few sites where this bird can be seen in the Western Palearctic, which makes it especially attractive for international birders. Desert Sparrow populations in this area have suffered a marked decline in recent years, due to increasing human activity around the tourism industry in Erg Chebbi, the most important sand dune habitat in Morocco. The current Desert Sparrow population in this area is no more than 100 individuals, according to a census made in 2010 by ICO (Catalan Institute of Ornithology). 25 pairs nest in an oasis in the middle of the dunes (accessible by camel only). They seem to be relatively safe, but saturated; there is no room for more. Birding tour companies have located four more breeding pairs outside the area occupied by the hotels around the dunes; they nest in palm trees, holes in acacia or tamarisk trees, and one inside an active Brown-necked Raven (Corvus ruficollis) nest.

House Sparrow (left) with Desert sparrows perched on a camel saddle

In view of the declining numbers of the species, the Emberiza Fund has designed a project with the objective of helping Desert sparrows keep and possibly increase their numbers in the Merzouga area, by providing them with especially designed nest boxes.

Nest boxes.
The nest boxes have been custom-built drawing from the experience gathered by ICO researchers in previous years, adding details extracted from designs used successfully with North American House Finch and House Sparrow. Desert Sparrow is slightly smaller than its domestic invasive cousin, so the entrance hole has been narrowed by 2 mm, in an attempt to prevent house sparrows from using it; experience will tell if this works. The boxes have been built by a local carpenter, following Emberiza’s blueprint. This eliminates transportation and import costs, and also makes a modest contribution to the local economy.

 Male Desert Sparrow on a jaima (Berber tent).

Desert sparrows usually breed between March and August, but this can vary greatly from year to year, depending on climatology. This means that the nest boxes must be installed all year, and their location is determined by several factors:

-       Availability of acacia, tamarisk, or palm trees, tall enough to provide safety from predators (3-6 meters).
-       Closeness to fine sand areas with abundant growth of Alfa grass, an important natural food for the birds.
-       Distance from human habitation as villages, lodges, irrigated cultivation.
-       Nest boxes must be installed on the side of the tree that receives the most shade during the day.

After several scouting trips by members of Emberiza to find the best locations, in December 2012 fifteen nest boxes have been installed in the Merzouga area. A local agent has been hired to monitor and care for the boxes; further assessment of nesting success and will be done by birding tours to the area, organized by Boletas (www.boletas.org) and Audouin Birding Tours (www.audouinbirding.net).

Female Desert Sparrow

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A feisty skunk

In November 2012 I traveled to Torres del Paine National Park in South Chile, with the main goal of seeing and photographing pumas. I organized the trip through Trogon Tours, a company specialized in South American birding and wildlife trips, owned and managed by my friend Luis Segura, who was my guide throughout the trip. Luis secured the services of José Vargas, a local tracker who has lived and worked in the park all his life, and who probably knows more about Patagonian pumas than anyone alive. 

Patagonian Hog-nosed Skunk (Conepatus humboldtii)

We spent every early morning and late afternoon searching for pumas. One morning, just before sunrise, we were driving the one dirt road that traverses the park when some 100 meters in front of us we saw a puma running along the road, and there seemed to be something running after it. For a moment, it looked as if the dim pre-dawn light was playing tricks on us, but as we drove closer there was no mistake: a Patagonian Hog-nosed skunk was chasing our puma. As we got closer, the puma sprinted across the road and disappeared behind a ridge. He looked like a young male, an almost fully-grown cub really, probably belonging to a family we had been watching for a couple of days in the area. The skunk stayed by the road. We left the car and started walking after the puma, hoping to get close enough for some photos, with no success; after a long hike we lost it and returned to the car. By then it was mid-morning, and to my surprise the skunk was still there, minding its own business, digging for worms and grubs among the wet green grass. 

 The skunk crossing the dirt road, the one chance I had of a clean, full-body shot.

A few days earlier I had seen a skunk in the park, a shy young animal that ran away as soon as I tried to approach it. Judging from the rusty color of his coat, this one was an older guy, more experienced and confident in his chemical dissuading abilities, and didn’t seem to mind our presence at all. I asked José if he could try and make it move towards me, so I’d have him under better light. As soon as he noticed José getting closer, the skunk raised his head and confronted us, grunting and huffing his annoyance. It was hard not to laugh: the guy was the size of a small cat, and was confidently confronting three grown men, totally unafraid.

We kept a respectful distance and gave him his space, and he continued foraging in a nearby meadow. He kept his head low to the ground, so it was difficult to get a good shot of his head and his unique snout. At one point I sat on the ground, waiting for him to appear from behind a bush for a low shot, and to my surprise he walked briskly towards me until he was less than a meter away, at one point almost touching my feet with his nose.  José was concerned, to say the least: “Por favor, Ignacio, ¡no te muevas! ¡Que no se asuste!”, even though the chances of the little fellow being afraid of anything seemed quite remote. The prospect of having to drive me in his car after being skunk-sprayed must have been horrifying, and rightly so. Luckily, the skunk chose not to use his weapon of mass destruction on me, and just continued his mid-morning stroll; after chasing a puma away, he clearly wasn’t going to be bothered by some annoying photographer. You could almost hear him humming “La Cucaracha”. And he did give me some close-up shots of his nose that almost made up for losing the runaway puma…

 A bit too close for comfort...

Patagonian (or Humboldt’s) hog-nosed skunks (Conepatus humboldtii) are rather common in Torres del Paine. Tough and adaptable, they eat almost anything they can find or catch, and prefer open grassland with small woodland patches, pretty much the kind of habitat favored by the puma. Both species must cross their paths relatively often, and if the puma is a fully grown, experienced and hungry adult, one can imagine that the outcome can be quite different; however, so far this old character had proved quite capable of holding his ground.

You can see more images from the trip at my website: www.iyufera.com