Baby little vermilion flycatchers offer hope for the Critically Endangered population

Little vermilion flycatchers, Pyrocephalus nanus, are found throughout most of Galapagos, with the main exception being on San Cristobal where it was never found. It is now likely to be extinct on several islands including Floreana and Santa Fe. Furthermore, on Santa Cruz the population is in serious decline, threatened by a range of invasive species. As a result, this colourful bird is classed as Vulnerable. Find out more about our Little Vermilion Flycatcher project here.

The dramatic decrease in the population on Santa Cruz over the last few decades has left an estimated 30 to 40 breeding pairs remaining. Most of these are found in Mina de Granillo Rojo, a Scalesia forest overrun by invasive blackberry and other introduced plant species. Since 2020, GCT has supported the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) in their efforts to save the Santa Cruz population from extinction. Since the project began, the team have proved that an integrated conservation management approach including habitat restoration alongside avian vampire fly (Philornis downsi) control is vital to the successful fledging of chicks.

A yellow female little vermilion flycatcher. They look different to the bright red plumage of the male little vermilion flycatchers.
Female little vermilion flycatchers look different to the bright red males © CDF Juan Manuel García

We are excited to announce that in 2021, thanks to the dedicated work of CDF scientists and Galapagos National Park (GNP) rangers, eight chicks successfully fledged adding vital numbers to this critically endangered population. This is the largest number of successful fledglings since the team started monitoring the population back in 2017. In 2020, six fledglings were recorded although the lockdown due to the pandemic shortened the field season.

This is good news, as each new fledgling gives us hope that we can keep this extremely small population alive.”

David Anchundia, a PhD candidate working on this project

In 2021, the team experimented with a new way to reduce the impact of the avian vampire fly. The main method of control, as with the Mangrove Finch Project on Isabela, is direct insecticide injection into the nests. However, this method is challenging with sometimes difficult field conditions and some nests being high above the ground and impossible to access; one flycatcher nest was 11m high. A potential solution is self-fumigation where birds incorporate natural materials (such as feathers) treated with an insect growth inhibitor into their nests. Last year the team trialled dispensers containing treated nest materials and, out of the 24 flycatcher nests monitored, 15 contained treated feathers. In 2022, the team will continue this technique on Santa Cruz alongside a study in Isabela to test how effective this approach is. The hope is that self-fumigation will support the conservation of a range of land bird species all affected by the avian vampire fly.

Park rangers clearing the plots of invasive plants to aid conservation of little vermilion flycatchers
Park rangers clearing the plots of invasive plants to aid conservation of little vermilion flycatchers © CDF David Anchundia

A further success in the plots where invasive blackberry was removed is the natural recovery of several endemic and native plant species including the threatened giant daisy tree, Scalesia pedunculata. As such, management actions are also benefiting the restoration of the Scalesia forest, one of the most threatened habitats in the Archipelago.

This article will feature in the Spring/Summer 2022 edition of Galapagos Matters and has been edited slightly for this blog.

Written by Lisa Wheeler, Project Manager at Galapagos Conservation Trust

What can you do to help?

Help us tackle invasive species in Galapagos, and protect endemic birds like the little vermilion flycatcher by joining up as a GCT member or donating to our work.