Newspaper article International New York Times

Hawk's Fate Is Crucial to Islet's Future

Newspaper article International New York Times

Hawk's Fate Is Crucial to Islet's Future

Article excerpt

A project to protect a hawk on a Portuguese island could help other hard-pressed native flora and fauna, and stoke local interest in conservation.

It was warm and sunny when we started out from Funchal, the harbor town that is the capital of the Madeira archipelago of Portugal, on a recent morning. After a drive of about 45 minutes, we were high in the mountains. Thick fog was streaming across the rugged red and green landscape, and it was cold enough to make us want to put on hats and gloves.

The island of Madeira is a rare gem that juts out of the deeps of the Atlantic Ocean about 300 miles from the Moroccan coast. The sea and the winds have carved the volcanic rock into a magic land of pinnacles, islets and coves. Endemic forms of lizards, birds and other animals, as well as plants, have evolved in this splendid isolation.

We had come to observe an effort to help ensure the survival of one these creatures, the Macaronesian sparrow hawk, a medium-size raptor found only in Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal, and the Canary Islands to the south, which belong to Spain.

Our guide, Ana Isabel Fagundes, a biologist who runs the local branch of Spea, a Portuguese bird protection group, and her colleagues are betting that by aiding this fierce predator they will also help a wide range of other hard-pressed native flora and fauna and stoke local interest in conservation.

This Galapagos-like place within easy reach of Europe has suffered rough treatment from humans since the first Portuguese settlers came in the early 15th century. These early arrivals burned much of the laurel forest that covered the island of Madeira to clear land for planting sugar cane. Over time exotic animals like rats and mice and ornamental flowering plants and trees were introduced, and they played havoc with the native birds and other species.

So far, Ms. Fagundes's team has identified only nine nesting pairs of the elusive hawks on Madeira. She attributes this scarcity to habitat loss and, possibly, to persecution by farmers worried that the hawks, which dine exclusively on other birds, will devour their chickens.

Along the rough track where we were, workers had been chopping out broom, a weedy shrub that crowds out native plants and is fodder for destructive brush fires.

Ms. Fagundes hopes that with the broom removed, the feathery tree heather and the tall, red-leaved blueberries will increase, creating food for the smaller birds like laurel pigeons that are the favored prey of the Macaronesian sparrow hawk. What is good for the hawks will be good for many other native species, she said.

Above all the project, costing 1.6 million euros, or $1.9 million, which is mostly funded by the European Union, is intended to help restore stretches of laurel forest, a primeval rain forest habitat of a type that scientists say exists only on Madeira, the Azores and the Canary Islands. …

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