The Flight of the Sea Birds

6 mins read
Images courtesy of Hassan Saajin - Zuvaan Masveriya Map courtesy of FC Frigator

Globally, one in eight bird species is threatened, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, including some of the best-known migratory species.

Why conservation matters

The fight to save the birds starts with statistics. Globally, one in eight bird species is threatened, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, including some of the best-known migratory species. Many bird populations are currently declining worldwide, with 1,200 species facing extinction in the next century.

Birds contribute to human health, improve agricultural production, generate millions of dollars in ecotourism revenue, and serve as indicators of environmental well-being, including biodiversity value and habitat restoration success.

The Lesser Noddy, locally called kurangi, is a protected bird of the Maldives under Act 4/93 of the Environment Protection and Preservation Act. They are found abundantly across the isles, especially in the Northernmost Atoll of the Maldives – Ihavandhippolhu, part of Haa Alif Atoll. The whole of Ihavandhippolhu is listed as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International – a global partnership of non-governmental organisations that strives to conserve birds and their habitats. These birds visit the atoll predominantly during the northeast monsoon (Iruvai) season which lasts from December to March/April.

Lesser Noddies have a significant role to play in the ecological and economic make-up of the country. Feeding flocks of Lesser Noddies are used by Maldivian pole-and-line fishers to locate tuna schools. The noddies also bring in large quantities of marine-derived nutrients in the form of guano onto the roosting islands, which enhances productivity of both island flora and the adjacent coral reef.

“All Lesser and Brown Noddies in the Maldives appear to be nonbreeding birds, so they must breed elsewhere in Indian Ocean. However, during Iruvai, when the waters around Haa Alifu Atoll become particularly productive, we observe colonies of Lesser Noddies due to this super-abundance of food supply,” says Aishath Farhath Ali, President of Maldives Wetlands Foundation, who is a keen Ornithologist.

Effective conservation measures require knowing where and how birds migrate, and what dangers they face during migration.

Tagging birds with high tech

Technological advances are providing new insights into bird migration and showing that it is more complex and wonderful than scientists and conservationists ever imagined.

 Under a Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme (GEF-SGP) in Maldives supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), NGO FC Frigator from Haa Alif Hoarafushi Island is undertaking an initiative to conserve the seabird colonies and roosting sites of Lesser Noddies in Ihavandhippolhu Atoll. They are tracking the migration of the birds via satellite transmitters and identifying breeding colonies. A total of eight Lesser Noddies have been tagged thus far. 

There has been no previous tracking of seabirds from the Maldives, and only three published tracking studies conducted of noddies, even though there are five species worldwide with wide distributions.

“These new and constantly improving technologies are key aids for learning about Lesser Noddies and protecting our migratory birds in the face of habitat loss, pollution and other threats, while also exploring the potential for ecotourism returns,” said Hassan Hussain, one of the Founders of FC Frigator. 

Birding across borders

Bird tagging technology is allowing the group to create a sequenced record of the ebb and flow of the Lesser Noddy migration. It can detect their precise locations without thei r having to be recaptured.

The main overnight roosting site of Lesser Noddies in the Maldives is Gallandhoo Island, in Ihavandhippolhu Atoll. Gallandhoo, together with nearby islands of Medhafushi and Govvafushi, are major feeding ground for this species.

One of the Lesser Noddies tagged in Gallandhoo Island by FC Frigator on March 25, 2022, left Maldives on April 2, to arrive on Cousine Island of Seychelles (known for its nesting colonies of Lesser Noddies) on April 10.

That is 2,400 km covered in 8 days!

Data collected from bird tagging can help researchers better understand the birds’ ecology, biology and movement.

“The results of this research would be used to raise awareness of the importance of seabird populations in the Maldives and promote monitoring and conservation of noddies in the breeding and nonbreeding seasons. We have also been contacted by the team of Ornithologists in Cousine Island, Seychelles, who have a long-standing ringing effort on Noddies. It would be interesting to see if any of the rung Noddies from Seychelles does end up in Gallandhoo too,” continued Farhath, who is also the technical coordinator for the FC Frigator project with GEF-SGP and UNDP.

Protecting and reversing the declines of migratory birds is imperative to advancing sustainability goals. The successful implementation of such efforts demonstrates that bird conservation can further development, sustainability, and conservation objectives.