Keeping an eye on Balearic Shearwater

It’s been over a decade that Balearic Shearwater has held the dangerous title ‘Critically Endangered’, which puts it at the very top of the European Red List of Birds. To make sure it doesn’t disappear before our very eyes requires some very careful monitoring at sea, where it spends most of its life, and also on land where it breeds.

But so far we haven’t been doing enough to ensure the conservation of this species and if we wait any longer, we might notice too late that it’s gone forever.

Balearic Shearwater may not be the most colourful bird, it’s rather brownish and could be mistaken for a gull by an untrained eye, but it’s special. Only found as a breeder in the western Mediterranean’s Balearic Islands where it nests in caves, crevices and under rock boulders in inaccessible sea cliffs and small islets.

We think there are just a little over 3,000 breeding pairs, and maybe a global population of about 25,000 individuals. It’s long lived, most likely some birds live over 30 years though we have no sound data on this, it begins mating at 3 years of age, and lays a single egg per year. Losing adult birds is therefore of serious concern, as they are not quickly or easily replaced.

Unfortunately, the population has been steadily declining as a consequence of several threats, particularly fisheries bycatch at sea and predation by invasive species on land. This trend is alarming and scientists say it could become extinct in slightly over half a century.

Over the last decade, we’ve learned quite a lot about the Balearic Shearwater’s ecology at sea. Nearly all of its breeding colonies, plus the main Spanish marine hotspots, which were identified by SEO/BirdLife’s marine team have now been designated Special Protection Areas(SPAs) under the Birds and Habitats Directives. Rat eradication has been addressed in some colonies.

This is all good but we need to do more to safeguard the species. For one, management plans for these SPAs haven’t been implemented, and wider conservation action at sea is also missing. Furthermore, despite being one of the priorities highlighted in the Species Action Plan, we still don’t have a proper breeding monitoring programme in place. Without monitoring, we cannot understand the dynamics of the population, and so updating its conservation status and assessing the suitability of conservation actions (e.g., reducing bycatch rates) are impossible or at least unreliable.

Read more about the initiatives undertaken by SEO/BirdLife Spain to protect the Balearic Shearwater here.

Pep Arcos, David García, Daniel Oro, Meritxell Genovart & Maite Louzao

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