By Ben Stockwell
Welcome to the first blog in our Darwin’s Land Bird Appeal series, which focuses on the brightly coloured and much adored, little vermilion flycatcher.
With an average height of just 13cm, it is easy to see where the little vermilion flycatcher gets its name. The males possess the bright red feathers that make this bird so recognisable, whilst the grey females with a peach coloured breast are more difficult to spot. As with all flycatchers, they eat various insects and can often be seen feeding whilst in flight.
The little vermilion flycatcher is endemic to Galapagos, meaning it is found nowhere else on Earth and is the remaining species of two once found on the Islands. Interestingly, the two were only classed as separate species back in 2016, when researchers identified specimens collected by Darwin from San Cristobal as being genetically separate from those captured on other islands.
Sadly, the San Cristobal flycatcher is now extinct, likely because of invasive species, such as rats that eat the young birds and their eggs. Their extinction remains the only documented extinction of an endemic land bird species on the Islands. However, the same threats loom large over a number of land birds in Galapagos, including its relative the little vermilion flycatcher, which is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN’s Red List of Endangered species. Today they are extinct on Floreana and Santa Fe islands and in decline on Santiago, Rabida, Isabela and Santa Cruz.
It was originally thought the disappearance of primary forests for agriculture was the main driver of their declines. However, recent research by the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) has shown that whilst this is one contributing factor, invasive species appear to be playing a key role. The parasitic fly Philornis downsii, whose larvae feed on the young of many birds in Galapagos, was identified as a major impact on the species. Interestingly though, on Mina Roja on Santa Cruz, several abandoned nests showed few signs of P. downsi infestation, suggesting the impact of the flies on this local population might be relatively low.
Instead, the team believe that the presence of the invasive raspberry plant (Rubus niveus) is driving population declines on Santa Cruz. They think this due to the little vermilion’s preference for feeding in open areas within forests. The raspberry plant forms dense patches, covering otherwise open space, which prevents the birds from feeding normally.
Galapagos Conservation Trust is partnered with CDF to help increase the number of little vermilion flycatchers on Santa Cruz island. To do this, the team will remove invasive raspberry plants from Mina Roja on Santa Cruz to allow the forests to recover naturally. As well as this, they will increase the amount of open space to allow the birds to feed, whilst also reducing the pressure of invasive species, such as rats and P. downsi, on the birds. The latter will be achieved using techniques trialled by the Mangrove Finch Project team, which you can read more about in the next blog in the series.
We have a number of projects that will benefit from your kind support, including the vermilion flycatcher, Floreana mockingbird and mangrove finch projects, so donate today to help save Darwin’s land birds.
Other ways to help the land birds of Galapagos!
Why not purchase one of our land bird-themed t-shirts, jumpers or bags? Alternatively, spread some Christmas cheer with our vermilion flycatcher Christmas card or gift someone a Floreana mockingbird adoption!