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Europe and Central Asia
12 Oct 2015

Saving Macaronesia's biodiversity, one species at a time

The laurel forests of Madeira Island is the only habitat of the Macaronesian Sparrowhawk. Photo: Sandra Hervias
By Tânia Pipa

Macaronesia (no relation to the Micronesia archipelago in the Pacific Ocean), is a collection of four archipelagos in the North Atlantic Ocean off the coasts of Europe and Africa. They are the Azores and Madeira islands (Portugal), the Canary islands (Spain) and Cape Verde. BirdLife is one of the few international NGOs working at all these archipelagos, thanks to the work of SPEA (BirdLife in Portugal), SEO (Birdlife in Spain) and Biosfera (Cape Verde).  

All four island groups are incredibly rich in biodiversity; despite representing only 0.2% of EU territory, Macaronesia hosts over a quarter of the plant species listed in Annex II of the Habitats Directive. But teeming plant and animal life comes with its own set of problems, from the threat of extinction to invasive alien species and habitat destruction. This is a summary of the work carried out there by SPEA, both on land and in the open seas.

Working in the Laurel Forest

The Laurissilva, also known as the laurel forest, is a subtropical and humid type of forest that only survives in the Maraconesian archipelagos. It is home to an incredible number of endemic species and subspecies, and hosts some of the least-known and more threatened birds in Europe.

SPEA’s work began there in 2002 with a small passerine: the Azores Bullfinch (Pyrrhula murina), commonly known as Priolo. This bird, an endemic species which only lives in the Serra da Tronqueira (a Natura 2000 site on the eastern side of São Miguel Island) was Critically Endangered – only 200 breeding pairs existed. After years of conservation efforts and three LIFE Projects, the Bullfinch has been downlisted to Endangered on the IUCN Red List. The population is now estimated to be 1,300 individuals.

The Macaronesian Sparrowhawk is found only in the laurel forests. Photo: Javier Tomás

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Today, SPEA’s work with laurel forest birds continues, and the latest example is the EU funded project LIFE Fura-bardos, which aims to study and protect the rarely seen Macaronesian Sparrowhawk subspecies (present only in Madeira and the Canaries). Using this species as an indicator for the forest’s wider biodiversity, SPEA will identify management measures that can be applied in similar forests. 

Saving the seabirds

The Macaronesian islands are vital breeding areas for several species of seabirds, which are one of the most endangered groups of birds in the world. Seabirds are threatened by habitat destruction, invasive mammals, artificial lights, fisheries bycatch, overfishing and marine litter, among other things. In 2008, SPEA (together with SEO) was amongst the first in the EU to publish a detailed inventory of the marine IBA network, leading the way forward in marine conservation.

Both of Madeira’s threatened petrels, the Zino’s petrel (Pterodroma madeira) and the Desertas Petrel (Pterodoma deserta), have been a top priority for SPEA (in collaboration with the Madeiran Natural Park). SPEA has been working to control or eradicate invasive species such as cats, rabbits and mice, which has contributed decisively to the successful recovery of both species of petrel. 

The pest-proof fence on Corvo Island was used to restore seabirds' breeding habitat. Photo: Frederico Cardigos

On the Azores’ smallest Island, Corvo, the LIFE project Safe Islands for Seabirds evaluated the impact of invasive rodents, feral cats, goats and sheep on one of the most emblematic seabird species in the Azores, Cory’s Shearwater (85% of the world population of Cory’s Shearwater Calonectris borealis breeds on the Azores and Madeira archipelagos).

This project found that cats caused the most harm, destroying 84% of all nests and eggs damaged by predators. Habitat restoration and the construction of Europe’s first predator-proof fence were among the measures used to mitigate the impact on seabirds. 

Cory's Shearwater juveniles rescued from artificial lights. Photo: Tânia Pipa

Light pollution – a major threat to juvenile seabirds – is another area where SPEA is taking action in Macaronesia. Over the last 20 years in the Azores and 5 years in Madeira, a huge and successful campaign involving volunteers, local organisations, city halls and SPEA has helped regional governments rescue and release thousands of Cory’s Shearwater juveniles impacted by artificial lights.

This is proof that no conservation measure cannot be successful without local support: allowing local people to explore, be aware and participate in the preservation of natural heritage, which at the same time leads to sustainable development of their communities.


Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.