Critically endangered Christmas frigatebird spotted in Apo Reef

In Photo:  Threatened seabirds—Christmas frigatebird (Fregata andrewsi) and streaked shearwater (Calonectris leucomelas)—photographed in Apo Reef Natural Park off Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro, on June 25 and February 7, respectively.

Biodiversity advocates underscored the importance of protecting and conserving Apo Reef Natural Park (ARNP) in Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro, following the discovery of a critically endangered Christmas frigatebird in June.

In a statement, the Mindoro Biodiversity Conservation Foundation Inc. (MBCFI) said the Christmas frigatebird, one of the world’s critically endangered seabirds, was spotted for the first time at the ARNP on June 25.

The species was first recorded in the country in Tawi-Tawi in 1995.

Since then, a total of 161 individuals have been recorded from the Sulu Sea with only one record from Metro Manila in 2013 and record this year in Panay.

The recent sighting at the ARNP makes it only the third record of the species in the Philippines outside of the Sulu Sea.

A survey team was taking a break along the beach when Bob Natural, MBCFI monitoring and evaluation officer/biologist, first spotted a single juvenile frigatebird flying overhead.

MBCFI Research Program Manager Geoff Tabaranza said the threatened bird was observed soaring over the main island of ARNP during a survey of seabirds, which was conducted in collaboration with the DENR-ARNP Protected Area Office.

The survey tallied nesting populations of hundreds of rare Bridled terns (Onychoprion anaethetus) and Black-naped Terns (Sterna sumatrana).

Earlier on February 7 MBCFI recorded three individuals of an uncommon near-threatened seabird—streaked shearwater (Calonetris leucomelas) for the first time near ARNP.

“This highlights the significance of the ARNP as a conservation site, serving as nesting grounds for seabirds and a stop-over feeding site for migratory species,” Tabaranza said. The ARNP is one of the priority projects sites of MBCFI.

The Christmas frigatebirds are large black seabirds measuring up to a meter in length. The juvenile has black upperparts, pale cream head, dark breast band and distinctly shaped white patch in its belly and under the wings.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has included it in the Red List of Threatened Species as critically endangered—the highest category assigned to species that are at the brink of extinction, Tabaranza noted.

According to the IUCN, the species has a small population that breeds in a tiny area of just one island. Its global population is in continuous decline due to hunting and accidental trapping in fishing gear. Other threats include clearing of vegetation in nesting sites, marine pollution and overfishing.

The most recent census from 2003 estimated a global population of only from 2,400 to 4,800 mature individuals. The IUCN has urged immediate action to prevent the extinction of this species with the protection of all known and potential nesting habitats, including surveys to identify the extent of its foraging area.

The MBCFI is pushing for stronger protection measures on Mindoro Island, which it considers “a treasured island,” because of its unique ecosystem and island biodiversity.

In 2015, the group revealed and verified its 2013 study, wherein 18 new species on Mindoro Island, including 10 new species of birds, three bats, three fishes, a snake and an owl, were recorded on Mindoro Island.

Just last month, on the occasion of its 10th founding anniversary, the group, led by Executive Director Grace Diamante, turned over to the DENR one newly discovered plant species, and a total of eight newly recorded species in the island.

Mindoro is a separate biogeographical region from the Philippines, which explains its good number of endemic plant and animal species that are nowhere else to be found in the world.

Image Credits: Bob Natural and Djop Tabaranza/MBCFI

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