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Brave efforts pay off in doubly-successful project to restore colonies of Chinese Crested Tern

By Shaun Hurrell, 13 Aug 2015
New hope for recovery of Critically Endangered seabird thanks to successful restoration project and team's dedication. Photos: Simba Chan
New hope for recovery of Critically Endangered seabird thanks to successful restoration project and team's dedication. Team shown here releasing banded chicks. Photos: Simba Chan

Chinese Crested Tern Thalasseus bernsteini is one of the rarest birds in the world. Only rediscovered 15 years ago, after its assumed extinction for six decades, this Critically Endangered seabird has a very small population size and only three breeding sites are known.

But the BirdLife International Partnership including the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society (BirdLife Partner), are proud to announce the wonderful news that the Chinese Crested Tern has had its most successful breeding season since its rediscovery, thanks to a project to restore a breeding colony on Tiedun Dao, in the Jiushan Islands – where over 70% the global population (at least 52 birds) were attracted and stayed to breed!

Also as part of this successful project, conservation groups and volunteers from mainland China, Hong Kong and USA successfully initiated the first ever tagging operation of Chinese Crested Tern and other seabirds on Jiushan Islands, where 31 birds were fitted with numbered bands on their legs so more can be learned about the species in order to continue to save them from extinction.

Chinese Crested Tern in the colony late May</br>when most birds were incubating precious eggs.</br>Photo: Simba Chan

Simba Chan, Senior Conservation Officer of BirdLife Asia Division, braved a severe typhoon to ensure the colony’s breeding success: for the second year running he physically stayed on the island throughout the season to monitor and protect the birds, and dissuade illegal egg-collectors.

As a result, at least 25 breeding pairs of Chinese Crested Tern formed and at least 16 chicks hatched and successfully fledged. The >52 birds were attracted to this safe nesting site by the team’s decoys and sound playback system as in 2013 and 2014. In addition, 2015 is the first year that birds have been attracted to all three known breeding sites: the Jiushan Islands and the Wuzhishan Islands of Zhejiang Province, and the Mazu Islands along the coast of Fujian Province each having successful breeding records, as compared to only the Jiushan Islands in 2014.

A banded crested tern chick. Photo: Simba Chan

Chinese Crested Tern is listed as Critically Endangered by BirdLife International as the authority on birds for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, now has an estimated population of less than 100 individuals. Taking the figure of 13 (minimum estimation) chicks fledged from Tiedun Dao in 2014, within two to three years the number of breeding Chinese Crested Terns could have doubled from the original number when project was initiated in 2010 – when the global population was no more than 50 birds!

The thoughts of the colony were paramount in Simba Chan’s mind when a super-typhoon hit Tiedun Dao in the midst of the breeding season:

“Although the typhoon was very strong and hit us directly, less than 5% of the colony were casualties because we maintained vegetation to shelter the colony, and tried to discourage the chicks from moving down to the shore before the typhoon hit the island. This shows how we could apply our scientific observations from the previous year to improve the survival rate of the terns.”

A Partnership of hope for Chinese Crested Tern and more

Initiated by the Xiangshan Ocean and Fishery Bureau, the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History and the Wild Bird Society of Zhejiang in 2010, the project shows the benefit of a team of partners working to secure the future of this species.

Banding chicks on the island in August 2015. Photo: Simba ChanThe main reasons for the success of the project are sound scientific methodology, good planning, and commitment from all sides,” says Simba Chan.

The decoys and audio playback technology to attract the birds to the safe island were developed by Dr Stephen Kress of Cornell University and the National Audubon Society (BirdLife in the USA) and proved very effective from the outset.

Regarding follow-up work, Simba Chan added: “This year, we will work with Burung Indonesia (BirdLife in Indonesia) to promote awareness at potential wintering sites for the recovery of these birds. Suitable transmitters are being considered for tracking the migration of Chinese and Greater Crested Terns in the coming years to reveal their migratory route.”

“We also aim to encourage cooperation between China and other countries in Asia for joint actions in seabird study and conservation”,

said Vivian Fu, Assistant Manager BirdLife/Hong Kong Bird Watching Society  China Programme.

The regular monitoring and banding of terns was documented by China Central Television. The documentary will be shown throughout China on major television channels in late 2015 and will bring a greater awareness of bird conservation among the general public in China – important for all the depleted seabird populations along China’s coast.

“The restoration project is not only important to save Chinese Crested Terns from extinction, but also has significance to wildlife conservation in China,” said Simba Chan.

“It has clearly shown local communities have a strong wish to revert the dire situation of many endangered species.”

The banding team on Tiedun Dao, including Simba Chan with decoy tern (far right). Photo: Simba Chan

With all this we are bringing a species that was believed to be extinct only 16 years ago back into recovery.”

The Chinese Crested Tern restoration project was initiated by the first international seabird symposium in China in 2010. After the abandonment of breeding colony of Chinese Crested Tern on the Jiushan Islands because of illegal egg-collection in 2007, the Wild Bird Society of Zhejiang and the Xiangshan Government worked with BirdLife on a public awareness programme to stop seabird egg collection and consumption. Ground work started using decoys and audio attraction in 2013 to bring the birds back and was very successful from the start.

The project consists of a team of partners working together to save the Chinese Crested Tern from extinction: the Xiangshan Ocean and Fishery Bureau, the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History, the Wild Bird Society of Zhejiang, BirdLife International, the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society (BirdLife Partner), and the tern restoration team from Oregon State University.

This project was only made possible with the generous support of the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong, the Endangered Species Fund from the State Forestry Administration of China, and the BirdLife International Preventing Extinctions Programme supporter Mark Constantine.

The Xiangshan Ocean and Fishery Bureau and the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History also provided significant logistical support which helped make the project such a resounding success.

Proud Chinese Crested Tern parents with a chick crucial to the future survival of this species. Photo: Simba Chan June 2015