Recent monitoring of the endangered Little Vermilion Flycatcher on Santa Cruz, Galapagos shows encouraging results

Little Vermilion Flycatcher Santa Cruz Galapagos

--- Press release --- Surveys of the Little Vermilion Flycatcher on Santa Cruz Island carried out by scientists from the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and park rangers from the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD), found that six chicks have fledged their nests and joined the existing population this field season. These birds and their parents are thriving in areas of the Galapagos National Park where actions are being undertaken by park rangers and scientists to restore their habitat and control the parasitic nest-fly (Philornis downsi).

“These results are encouraging for the conservation of these birds that are disappearing from Santa Cruz Island, ”says Birgit Fessl, coordinator of the CDF Landbird Conservation project.

The finding of six new Little Vermilion Flycatcher nestlings “is evidence that the actions implemented in the area are having positive effects on the recovery of this species," said Danny Rueda, Director of the Galapagos National Park.

General information

The endemic Little Vermilion Flycatcher is one of the most charismatic and colorful birds of the Galapagos Islands. It is found on eight of the larger islands. The males have a very bright red plumage on the chest, head and black feathers on the back while the females have chocolate brown plumage on the back and creamy yellow on the chest. 

Some populations of the Little Vermilion Flycatcher have been threatened due to a combination of habitat alteration and the impact of the invasive parasitic fly Philornis downsi. On Santa Cruz Island it is estimated that there are no more than 40 breeding pairs. For this reason, the bi-institutional Landbird Conservation Project of CDF and the GNPD is working to mitigate these impacts and help populations recover.

Management and actions

In late 2018, CDF and the GNPD began a pilot project to control introduced species and restore the habitat of the Little Vermilion Flycatcher.
Habitat restoration is being carried out in six experimental plots. Aggressive invasive plants are being removed, such as blackberry, that cover the soil and block the growth of native and endemic plants. In addition, introduced rats and the larvae of Philornis downsi are being controlled. The parasitic larvae spend the day in the base of the nest and, during the night, attach themselves to the skin of baby birds. To control these larvae, a larvicide is carefully injected into the base of the nest using a specially designed pump and an extendable tube of up to 6 meters with a plastic syringe on its tip.

Nest monitoring and data collection

The nesting season occurs in the hot and rainy season, typically from January to May. During these months scientists go out into the field 5-6 days a week to look for and monitor the progress of the nests. They also band birds to track their movements, determine their survival, and see what kind of food they prefer. The monitoring day is usually from 5:30 am to 1 pm and each person typically walks an average of 4 km and up to 10 km in a day.

David Anchundia, CDF ornithologist, mentioned: "The field work is hard but our bi-institutional team is focused on the conservation of Galapagos landbirds. We are sure that this species will recover and that in the future we will be able to see these little red birds flying around the highlands of Santa Cruz again.”

At the moment there are six new fledglings from this season learning to hunt insects and following their parents. The desired goal is that this new generation will be integrated into next year's breeding population and that the population will continue to increase.

"Due to the health emergency caused by Covid-19, research activities have been paralyzed and it has not been possible to continue monitoring nests and collect more data. However, when the emergency ends we will visit the birds' territories to determine whether there were any more fledglings from the nests we treated " adds Anchundia.

The team has confirmed that the birds like the restored sites, free of invasive plants. This year, 5 out of 6 plots were observed to be actively occupied by birds for feeding and nesting, and there is even competition among them for these sites. This is the first year that these measures are being evaluated and if positive results are obtained the replication of this method will be continued in the future.

This research was carried out thanks to the support of Galapagos ConservancyGalapagos Invasive Species Fund, Kris Norvig,  Lindblad Expeditions - National Geographic Fund, Galapagos Conservation Trust and International Galápagos Tour Operators Association.

In addition, we are grateful to Tui de Roy and Godfrey Merlen for all their support raising funds.

The “Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands”, in French “Fondation Charles Darwin pour les îles Galapagos”, Association International sans but lucratif (“AISBL”), has its registered office located at Chaussée de la Hulpe 177 Bte 20 (rez) - 1170, Brussels, and is registered under the trade registry of Brussels under the number 0409.359.103.

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