Thursday, October 22, 2009

Destruction of wetlands and unidentified weaver in Tanzania [2 Attachments]

My name is Fiona Reid. I lived in Dar es Salaam for 11 years and was a teacher at the International School. My husband Graham and I are both zoologists, have lived in Africa for 26 years and have been keen birders during this time. I worked voluntarily for some time with the Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania and I co- authored a book called the Birds of Dar es Salaam. This email is to draw attention to the ongoing destruction of a large wetland area west of Bagamoyo in Tanzania and its associated diverse birdlife. In addition, there is a potential new species of Golden Weaver under threat.

A few years ago I was asked to look at the Saadani game reserve, north of Dar es Salaam with a view to making a list of the birds for a book on Saadani. This meant driving regularly up and down the 64 km of dirt road between Bagamoyo and Msata. The wetland habitat and its associated bird diversity on the road between Bagamoyo and the Ruvu river was quite spectacular. There were many birds such as herons, egrets, harriers and other birds of prey, terns, Black Coucals, kingfishers, beeeaters, weavers, widowbirds and bishops amongst others. We regularly saw a small golden weaver in the thick scrub near water and although we observed it often, we were unable to identify it, despite checking all the references on weavers. We also saw a few African Golden Weavers whose rufous-orange head, pale red eye and longer bill which seemed less black and glossy were distinctively different. Before long we were convinced that we had found a new species of bird..which we called the "Ruvu Weaver". However, despite informing a few people and trying to capture it on film, we never confirmed this as we had a poor camera. In addition a few thought it looked like African Golden Weaver from our poor photos so we gave up! We left Tanzania for Kenya 2 years ago and have not been back to the area since.

In Kenya we have been able to get fantastic views of both Golden Palm Weavers and African Golden Weavers, often together and this added to our conviction that this "Ruvu Weaver " was different. Last weekend we came back to Dar for a business trip and thus went to find our weaver again. This time we had a better camera and hoped to solve the problem...however we were quite prepared for it to be a weird African Golden Weaver!

Like most of Africa the area was experiencing a severe drought. Many people had also moved in to farm the wetlands and a great deal of burning was going on, right up to the edge of the Ruvu River. Standing water was being removed by generator powered pumps in several places. In addition, the road was much busier and there was a brisk business of bicycles ferrying charcoal towards Bagamoyo. See attached photos of wetland destruction.

We were glad to see that the road was being improved but very worried when we saw that almost all the sites, in which we had seen the weaver, had been destroyed. The wet areas along the side of the road which once held good numbers of weavers, warblers, bishops and widowbirds had been bulldozed of all vegetation and drained into pits. On the entire road through about 10 km of wetlands, we found nothing but cleared land, new irrigation schemes and all natural vegetation had been cleared or burnt.

Finally, in a small area of permanent water we found a few of the weavers. Although the bulldozers were in the process of clearing all the vegetation and pushing the soil into the water (see photos below) there were also many wetland birds there: Pygmy Geese, Darters, Black Crakes, Squacco Herons and Pratincoles amongst others.

The weavers were in some burnt out scrub. It being so dry, they were not breeding so we saw no signs of nest building and they were scattered and difficult to photograph so we did not end up with good photo (again!). However, we observed them well and think that they do not belong to the normal range of African Golden Weaver and seem to share characteristics of these and the Golden Palm Weaver which has recently been struck off the Tanzanian list.

For those wanting to take a further look into this weaver, I have constructed a table of differences and attached it to this email, but the most obvious features are that the male has a very dark, almost black eye in all light conditions when seen with binoculars (Swarovski 8X30). (When a photo is blown up to high magnification the iris appears very dark red). There is a small area of bright orange on the fore crown and on the chin / throat but not on the face. The bill is more conical and very shiny black. The female has a dark eye and a bi-coloured bill. The nest is attached to a few stems of vegetation and can be above water or in scrub nearby.

Comments on this are most welcome. For instance does anyone know if Environmental Impact Assessments are carried out on road projects in East Africa and if wetlands are supposed to be protected during construction? Please send this email on to anyone you think might help in preserving the remains of this wetland and its birdlife. In addition, if you have photographs to add to help in the identification of this bird, I would be most grateful.

Many thanks

Fiona Reid

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