29 Mar 2019

New population of Blue-eyed Ground-doves discovered

Four new doves have been discovered, increasing the population of the Critically Endangered bird by 26 percent.

One of the new Blue-eyed Ground-doves © Marcelo Lisita/SAVE Brasil
One of the new Blue-eyed Ground-doves © Marcelo Lisita/SAVE Brasil
By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

In February 2019, staff at SAVE Brasil (BirdLife Partner) began hearing exciting reports from members of the communities surrounding Botumirim State Park in the state of Minas Gerais.

There had been sightings, multiple people reported, of Blue-eyed Ground-doves Columbina cyanopis (Critically Endangered), outside of the where the bird was usually found. The staff was both excited and skeptical. One of the rarest birds on earth, the Blue-eyed Ground-dove was actually thought extinct for 75 years before 14 individuals were spotted in the wild in 2015. A new population, even if small, would mean increased genetic diversity, and would also point to the possibility that there were more undiscovered doves in the wild.

On March 14th 2019, a team went out searching for the doves. The birds had been spotted inside the boundaries of Botumirim State Park, about 5 kilometers away from where the known population of Blue-eyed Ground-doves currently lives. The team searched for the birds along five independent transects, playing recordings of calls to attract the birds.

After 45 minutes the team’s search was rewarded. They spotted a couple of Blue-eyed Ground-doves preening each other, while a nearby male was singing. Over the next three hours the team spotted a fourth dove in the area. The sighting of the four new individuals represented a 26% increase over the formerly known population.

"Those who work with nature conservation are usually very resilient, but it is difficult to search for a rare species like the Blue-eyed Ground-dove in a habitat that looks perfect for it and not find it there,” says Marcelo Lisita, project assistant. “After one year of looking around different sites without finding any new individuals, it was with a profusion of excitement that we spotted these few in a new area.”

The discovery of the ground-dove was significant beyond its importance to the bird population. Since the discovery of the original population of Blue-eyed Ground-doves in 2015, SAVE Brasil has been working closely with surrounding communities to raise awareness about the bird. In early 2018, SAVE opened the reserve where Blue-eyed Ground-doves are found to visitors. Since that time they’ve been working to try to ensure that the communities benefit from ecotourism. Having a community member report a dove sighting shows that these outreach efforts were proving successful.

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Despite the new population, the outlook for the Blue-eyed Ground-dove is still unclear, so SAVE is doing all it can to increase the species’ chance of survival. In January of 2018, with the support of the Rainforest Trust, the organization managed to buy a small plot of land where the Blue-eyed Ground-dove was originally found, forming the Blue-eyed Ground-dove Nature Reserve. Visits to the reserve to see the doves are tightly controlled, and need to be scheduled in advance through SAVE. On July 6th of the same year, the local government established another 89,000 acres of protected land, creating the Botumirim State Park, which overlaps with SAVE’s reserve and enlarges the total protected area.

Recent surveys of the dove have found reasons to be hopeful. So far, eight nests have been spotted, although only one chick has reportedly fledged. With the discovery of the new population of doves, the team has also renewed its efforts to search other locations where the Blue-eyed Ground-dove might be found. Outside of the four individuals reported by the community members they haven’t had any luck, but they are not giving up hope. There are still plenty of places left to be visited.