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The last spotted ground thrush on Malawi’s lonely mountain

  • An expedition to Malawi’s highest mountain sought to confirm the presence of a rare subspecies of spotted ground thrush, last spotted in 2005.
  • Two birds and one nest with baby birds were found in the Chisongeli forest, the biggest intact block of Afromontane rainforest left in Malawi, which experts say lacks adequate protection.
  • Illegal logging and snares threaten the birds and other endemic wildlife in the Chisongeli forest, with the ground thrush expedition finding 68 hunting snares in just one 100-meter (330-foot) transect.
  • The researchers say complete protection of the forest is needed to save the last spotted ground thrush and other endemic wildlife on Malawi’s Mount Mulanje.

Mount Mulanje’s bare granite face looms above the lush surrounding landscape. Said to be the inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lonely Mountain (home to Smaug the dragon), Malawi’s highest mountain also holds a treasure: a mating pair of spotted ground thrushes, one of the rarest birds in the world.

“Ground thrushes are like the holy grail for birders,” Mathias D’haen, operations manager for African Parks, told Mongabay. The subspecies of spotted ground thrush found on Mt. Mulanje, Geokichla guttata belcheri, may be among the holiest. In 1989, scientists assumed that only 40 pairs were left. The last of its kind was spotted in 2005.

Belcheri has only been found in four locations in Malawi, and three of these have been nearly completely deforested,” Ruben Foquet, a project leader for Biodiversity Inventory for Conservation (BINCO), told Mongabay.

A team of researchers decided to visit this fourth location, on Mt. Mulanje, the biggest of the remaining forest patches and with the highest chance of harboring a viable population. However, because the species had not been observed for 15 years, D’haen said, they faced the grim possibility of documenting a species extinction.

Ground thrushes, as their name implies, spend a lot of time on the ground, hopping around and looking for small insects to eat. So it was there on the ground in the densely vegetated, steep, and humid Afromontane forest patch on the mountain, that the team focused their search efforts.

The expedition was led by D’haen and Foquet as well as Tiwonge Gawa from the Malawi University of Science and Technology, Humphrey Chapama from the Forest Research Institute of Malawi and Matthias De Beenhouwer of WeForest.

Researchers camped by Mount Mulanje on an expedition to search for the spotted ground thrush. Image by Ruben Foquet.

At the onset of the expedition, the researchers used a combination of methods to search for the birds: on-the-ground surveys, acoustic monitoring (tiny recorders capturing bird sounds in the morning and toward dusk) and camera traps aimed low.

“Going through all these camera traps we’ve recorded lots of blue duikers, lots of giant pouched rats, and checkered elephant shrews … lots of nice mammals and some bird species,” Foquet said, “but there was not a single spotted ground thrush on the camera traps.”

The acoustic monitoring was also a flop. There just weren’t any thrushes singing in the forest. So the researchers took a different approach, D’haen said: “We decided to basically opportunistically walk around in the forest looking for the thing.”

Moses Samalani, a master’s student from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), records bird songs in the forest. Image by Ruben Foquet.
Two of the expedition leaders Humphrey Chapama, a botanist at Forest Research Institute Malawi (middle, top), and Ruben Foquet (middle, bottom), with thesis students from LUANAR John Kafere (left) and Moses Samalani (right). Image by Ruben Foquet.

The team spent a total of five weeks tramping around the forest early in the morning and just before dark. The thrush is one of the first birds to sing in the morning and also sings late into the day. By the third week, without a single glimpse or song from the bird, the group was feeling pessimistic, D’haen said. “We said, ‘What are we doing here? Wouldn’t it be better if we were just searching somewhere else or doing something else? What are we doing with our time?’”

Then, early in the morning of Nov. 23, 2020, a single bird flew out from the underbrush.

“It was only a split second and we didn’t even see it sitting or emerging, we saw it in flight,” D’haen said. “It was quite apparent … even if it was only a split second. It was impossible to mistake.”

“Mathias [D’haen] was walking in front of me,” Foquet said. “And he suddenly froze. He looked with his binoculars at something which I didn’t see and then he told me, ‘We’ve got him, Ruben! We’ve got him!’”

A fleeting but unmistakable glimpse of the spotted ground thrush (Geokichla guttata belcheri), captured by Mathias D’haen.

The team shifted their remaining efforts toward searching around this area in the Chisongeli forest, a 1,300 hectare (3,200 acre) protected reserve that remains the largest intact block of Afromontane rainforest left in Malawi.

After several days exploring the steep slopes, D’haen found two of the thrushes flying back and forth from a nest, about 4 meters (13 feet) above the ground in a native toad tree (Tabernaemontana elegans). The tree was downslope from the trail, so he was able to peek with binoculars. He spotted a nestling and snapped some photos.

“We were really happy when we finally got that photo,” D’haen said.

Male and female spotted ground thrush at their nest in the Chisongeli forest. Image by Mathias D’haen.
Adult spotted ground thrush feeds its young, whose bill can be seen just over edge of the nest. Image by Mathias D’haen.
Mathias D’haen, one of the expedition leaders, was the first to spot the spotted ground thrush during their search. The expedition was funded by the African Bird Club, the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, BirdLife International, Idea Wild and the Association for Bio-engineers of the University of Leuven (VBI). Image by Ruben Foquet.

Five subspecies of spotted ground thrush are known to exist, all in isolated patches of moist evergreen forest. Two are known from single specimens in South Sudan (G. g. maxis) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (G. g. lippensi). Two are migratory coastal races, one of which (G. g. fischeri) lives in Kenya and Tanzania, and the other (G. g. guttata) in South Africa. G. g. belcheri, endemic to Malawi, is believed to be resident, so it does not migrate like the rest.

The team didn’t find any other spotted ground thrush on the mountain, but they did find something else in the Chisongeli forest: snares, lots of them. In one 100-m (330-ft) transect, they counted 68 hunting snares set on the ground.

A rodent caught in one of the ground snares in the Chisongeli forest. Image by Ruben Foquet.

“People are setting traps in the path of the forest to catch small mammals … we also saw actually that they do catch birds, ground birds, very easily in those traps,” Tiwonge Gawa, a lecturer in ecology at the Malawi University of Science and Technology and chairwoman of the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi, told Mongabay. “There were lines and lines and lines of traps in the pathways.”

The snares point to a larger issue: humans are coming into the forest reserve for food, firewood and timber, meaning that this last stronghold of Afromontane forest in Malawi is at risk.

Eucalyptus plantations were planted on the outskirts of the forest decades ago and have provided fuel and income for local communities, but they have not been maintained. As the last eucalyptus trees are cut, the buffer between the villages and the Chisongeli forest is shrinking, Foquet said, and selective logging is spilling over into the forest reserve.

“There wasn’t a single place in the forest where you wouldn’t hear the chainsaws,” D’haen said. “You would always hear chainsaws around the forest.”

Locals carry wood down from the eucalyptus forest on Mount Mulanje. Image by Ruben Foquet.

“The most pressing threat to the [Chisongeli] forest is illegal logging,” Eric Charles Mbingwani, the forestry officer for Mulanje district, who is responsible for the management of Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve, including the Chisongeli forest, told Mongabay in an email.

“The Department of Forestry does not have enough funding to enable it [to] conduct forest protection activities and this has led to massive deforestation and degradation,” Mbingwani said. He also cited a lack of reliable vehicles and inadequate staff for shortcomings in management.

“There are lots of communities living around who have a need for resources,” Foquet said. “It’s a matter of balancing their needs and law enforcement…In short, it’s a very, very complicated forest reserve to be working in.”

Two local sources of energy: firewood and hydoelectric. Image by Ruben Foquet.

The Chisongeli forest and much of Mt. Mulanje have already been stripped of perhaps their most iconic tree: the endemic Mulanje cedar (Widdringtonia whytei), Malawi’s national tree. The tree is valued for its beautiful and rot-resistant red wood and fetches exorbitant prices on the market.

Many conservation groups have focused their efforts on the charismatic, now critically endangered, tree, including WeForest and the Mount Mulanje Conservation Trust. But, Foquet says, conservation efforts in the region need to be better coordinated among groups, and the landscape is “highly politicized” due to the tremendous value of Mulanje cedar timber. Government workers and politicians have been found to be involved in illegal logging in the past.

Two boys en route to the eucalyptus sawpits in the Chisongeli forest. Image by Ruben Foquet.

What has received less attention than the iconic cedar are the myriad other rare and endemic species of the region. There are many that are “just hanging to their last piece of habitat,” Gawa said.

Spotted ground thrushes are among those clinging to life in what remains of the forest. Researchers say G. g. belcheri has gone locally extinct in the Ruo Gorge forest, where it was once found, and is now probably restricted to just the Chisongeli forest on Mt. Mulanje. The subspecies is currently listed as endangered and will likely be elevated to critically endangered based on these new findings.

“The habitat needs to be protected to ensure we do not lose the species,” Mbingwani said. “The sighting of this endangered species may draw attention to this forest.”

What is needed to save the spotted ground thrush is very clear, Foquet said: “Its complete protection.”

The Chisongeli forest remains the largest intact block of Afromontane rainforest left in Malawi. To save the endangered and endemic species within it, researchers call for its complete protection. Image by Ruben Foquet.

Banner image of spotted ground thrush (Geokichla guttata belcheri) by Mathias D’haen.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough_

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