Conservationists and Communities Rally to Save Colombia's Rare, Rediscovered Brushfinch
The Antioquia Brushfinch, seen here feeding on a native blueberry plant, has benefited from conservation efforts since the species' rediscovery in 2018. Photo courtesy of SalvaMontes
Conservationists and communities in northwestern Colombia are rallying to save the recently rediscovered Antioquia Brushfinch, finding new populations and taking action to protect the Critically Endangered bird's rapidly disappearing habitat. Partners in this effort include local researchers and land managers, supported by Colombian and international conservation organizations including Corporación SalvaMontes, American Bird Conservancy (ABC), World Land Trust, and others.
The Antioquia Brushfinch, a rusty-crowned Colombian songbird, was described as a new species in 2007, based solely on old museum specimens. In the wild, however, this bird eluded scientists until it was documented for the first time in the field in January 2018. Researchers Rodolfo Correa Peña, Sergio Chaparro-Herrera, Andrea Lopera-Salazar, and Juan L. Parra published this rediscovery in the journal Cotinga in 2019. This promising news catalyzed efforts to find more individuals and to better protect the species' alpine shrubland habitats from being converted to crops and pasture.
“The area where the bird was rediscovered was rapidly being cleared for cropland, therefore finding additional populations and sites was critical to develop conservation actions,” says Daniel Lebbin, ABC's Vice President of Threatened Species.
Subsequent search expeditions resulted in conservation actions, including the following:
Sergio Chaparro-Herrera (Proyecto Atlapetes, Universidad de Antioquia) led a team of Colombian researchers to conduct searches for the brushfinch in about 20 sites near Santa Rosa de Osos and Yarumal in 2018 and 2019, with support from ABC. Antioquia Brushfinches were found only at a site near San Pedro de los Milagros, where the habitat has since been further degraded.
The Corporación para la Investigación y el Ecodesarrollo Regional (CIER), with support from ABC, conducted outreach with farmers in the municipality of San Pedro de los Milagros, where the species was rediscovered, to design a participatory conservation strategy for this species in 2019. Dairy farms constitute the main production activity in this area. The Centro para la Investigación en Sistemas Sostenibles de Producción Agropecuaria (CIPAV) participated in this outreach. The center has extensive experience working with the region's dairy and cattle farmers to improve silvipasture practices. The farmers visited two model farms, where they learned about sustainable dairy farm practices. This program was successful and well-received by the community.
Fundación Guanacas Bosques de Niebla expanded the Guanacas Reserve in 2020 to 1,700 acres with additional land acquisition support from World Land Trust. It was suspected that this area might harbor the Antioquia Brushfinch. Since expanding the reserve, the species was photographed on-site and detected nearby. “In the Guanacas Reserve, the Antioquia Brushfinch has…territory free of the habitat-loss threat…it is a biodiversity sanctuary," says José Rodrigo Castaño, founder of Fundación Guanacas Bosques de Niebla.
In late 2019, the local conservation organization Corporación SalvaMontes coordinated a large-scale two-day search for the Antioquia Brushfinch at 25 sites, mostly in the northern part of the species' known range, with 85 volunteers and support from ABC and Rainforest Trust. The species was found at eight sites, five of these new for the species. Then, in November 2020, SalvaMontes and collaborators conducted a follow-up census at 16 sites identified in 2019, again with support from ABC. This time, 42 participants observed at least 19 individual Antioquia Brushfinches in three days. However, the loss of habitat in the area is worrisome, and conservation actions will need to develop quickly to protect the species. “In the last six months, we have seen an accelerated habitat loss trend, triggered by the increase in intensive potato monocultures,” says Santiago Chiquito, Project Coordinator at SalvaMontes.
SalvaMontes followed up the 2019 searches with a mapping and land tenure analysis to assess ideal locations for protecting Antioquia Brushfinches in 2020. The group launched a new project in December 2020 that will protect 300 acres of habitat through ten-year conservation agreements with three property managers on lands with known Antioquia Brushfinch populations. Habitat will be protected and enriched through plantings that include a native blueberry that is important to the brushfinch and also for human consumption.
Brushfinch maps produced by SalvaMontes, along with the organization's expertise, will be useful to the Yarumal municipality in their efforts to protect lands that also secure water supplies. “With support from ABC, we have been able to map with UAS technology (high-resolution photogrammetry) more than 4,000 hectares (9,884 acres) and identified about half of that area as potential habitat for the species,” says Sebastian Vieira, SalvaMontes Executive Director.
“Much work remains to be done to save the Antioquia Brushfinch from extinction, but with the efforts made since rediscovery nearly three years ago, and conservation being implemented now, the future for this species is looking much brighter,” says Sussy de la Zerda, ABC's International Programs Manager.
ABC would like to acknowledge the many donors who have supported our Antioquia Brushfinch conservation efforts, including Hank Kaestner, The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, the estate of Mary Janvrin, Ted Reissing, Ivan Samuels, David and Patricia Davidson, John Harris, Sharon Forsyth, and David Harrison. We also thank Wendy Willis for her efforts to raise funds for the Antioquia Brushfinch, and the many individuals who contributed to her Trailblazing for Brushfinches fundraiser.
American Bird Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. With an emphasis on achieving results and working in partnership, we take on the greatest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on rapid advancements in science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats, and build capacity for bird conservation. Find us on abcbirds.org, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@ABCbirds).
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