An Oasis For A Rare Brazilian Songbird

Friday, December 16, 2016 - by Jennifer Howard

American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and its Brazilian partner Aquasis have secured more than 170 acres of critical habitat for Araripe Manakin, one of the world’s rarest and most spectacular birds. The land acquisition roughly doubles the size of the existing Araripe Oasis Reserve in northeastern Brazil, and connects it to the much larger Araripe National Forest, potentially protecting new breeding territories for the striking red-and-white bird and other rare species such as Yellow-faced Siskin.

Expanding the reserve is a critical contribution to the survival of the Araripe Manakin, an Alliance for Zero Extinction species. Discovered only 20 years ago, the species has dwindled to a population of fewer than a thousand individuals. These birds depend on a unique type of forest found only at the base of the Araripe Plateau in Brazil, where encroaching human development—including farming, cattle grazing, and home construction—has pushed them to the edge of extinction.

In 2014, ABC helped Aquasis purchase 140 acres in a prime breeding area for the Araripe Manakin. This year, ABC and Aquasis had the opportunity to acquire an adjacent property that includes springs, streams, and forests—all the elements required to support as many as eight new breeding territories for Araripe Manakin. The purchase was made possible by the support of the IUCN National Committee of The Netherlands, Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, Quick Response Biodiversity Fund, David Davidson, Larry Thompson, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and a number of other donors who generously gave to ABC’s online campaign.

“With this expansion, we can continue to secure the Oasis Reserve as an epicenter for forest habitat protection and restoration, the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services, and the wise use of water resources along the slopes of the Araripe Plateau,” said Alberto Campos, Aquasis Co-Founder and Director of Development.

Refuge in a Dry Land

The Araripe Plateau occurs in the heart of the vast, semi-arid, drought-strickencaatinga biome that dominates most of the landscape of northeastern Brazil. Water here is precious, and the demand for it is increasing as the region quickly develops into an urban landscape.

The Oasis Reserve provides a life-giving source of water for the surrounding communities living in the caatinga shrublands. It also serves as an essential refuge for other birds that specialize in this habitat, such as the Silvery-cheeked Antshrike, the White-browed Antpitta, and the Caatinga Antshrike.

Another endemic species in the area, the Yellow-faced Siskin, will also benefit from the reserve expansion. This northeastern Brazilian bird, a favorite target of the pet trade, uses many kinds of habitat, including lowlands, mountains, forests, and open areas. The bird was relatively common until the 1980s but it has declined substantially in recent decades.

Expanding the reserve not only protects essential territory for the birds, it enables conservation actions that will boost their numbers. “For many of these species closing in on the brink of extinction, we need to do more than just protect habitat,” said Bennett Hennessy, ABC’s Brazil Program Coordinator. “We need to understand the species’ limiting factors and actively manage habitat to increase the population. The Oasis Araripe Reserve has the in-depth research knowledge to apply habitat improvement techniques to increase the population of the Araripe Manakin on land the reserve owns.”

Managing water resources will be essential to that effort, because streams have been an important limiting factor in the recuperation of the Araripe Manakin. The birds breed in understory vegetation that overhangs running water. While this makes it harder for predators to reach the birds’ nests, it limits breeding sites in such a drought-prone area where springs and streams are rare.

Because streams are so important for local agriculture, most streams in the region, even those in forested areas, are heavily used, with water diverted elsewhere for use by people. Human activity, including habitat destruction that leads to forest loss, has also been directly destroying Manakin breeding habitat. The removal of stream-edge vegetation leaves fewer areas in which Araripe Manakins can nest.

The reserve extension will allow Aquasis to better manage two vitally important springs in the area for the benefit of birds as well as people. The southern spring will be managed to create two streams, which Aquasis will reforest with vegetation that offers ideal breeding habitat for the Araripe Manakin.

Aquasis will also now be able to use the northernmost spring to create a stream route that traverses more of the forest area and offers more breeding territory for the birds. With good stream management and revegetation, Aquasis predicts it will be able to provide habitat for 12 new nests in the northern part of the reserve—where the newly acquired land is located—and eight in the southern section. That would support breeding areas for as many as 20 pairs of Araripe Manakins, whose reproductive success will be vital to the survival of their species.

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