Sun, Aug 24, 2003 - Page 17 News List

A mythical bird no longer

The Chinese crested tern was thought to be extinct but has been found and filmed in Taiwan

By Vico Lee  /  STAFF REPORTER

PHOTO COURTESY: LIENCHIAG COUNTY GOVERNMENT CONSTRUCTION BUREAU

After 60 years the Chinese crested tern -- nicknamed the "mythical bird" for its elusiveness -- is a myth no more.

One thousand copies of the documentary The Bird of Myth: Chinese Crested Tern (神話之鳥: 黑嘴端鳳頭燕鷗) were released to bird societies worldwide last Saturday and they are expected to revive interest in the species, which was previously thought extinct.

For the Executive Yuan's Council of Agriculture (農委會) and Lienchiang County Government, who commissioned the Taiwan Wild Bird Federation (中華民國野鳥學會) to make the film, it's an exhilarating milestone for conservation work in the Matsu Tern Conservation Area (馬祖列島燕鷗保護區).

The Chinese crested tern is the latest addition to the 30 species of birds, mostly crested terns, spending their summer in the conservation area.

The International Red Paper for Conservation, which lists species that need special preservation, has listed the Chinese crested tern as a class-A endangered species since 1937. Compared with the better-known black-faced spoonbill, also a class-A endangered species in Taiwan, the Chinese crested tern is even rarer, numbering an estimated 100, while the spoonbill population is roughly 1,000.

According to Liu Hsiao-ru (劉小如), a research fellow at Academia Sinica's Insitute of Zoology who confirmed the discovery of the Chinese crested tern after it was first discovered in China in 1863, there have been just five sightings, some of which were uncertain.

The last confirmed sighting was in China's Sandong province in 1937. The most recent, but unconfirmed sighting, was of three terns in the Yellow River Delta Area in 1991. Most people thought the bird was already extinct.

Filmmaker Liang Chiei-de (梁皆得) came across the bird when making another Liengchiang County Government-commissioned documentary on crested terns in the Matsu Tern Conservation Area in 2000 and passed the information on to Birdlife International, a league of bird associations from over 100 countries. The organization asked for bird societies worldwide to search through their data to see if anyone had caught the rare bird on celluloid.

Taiwan Wild Bird Association researcher Won Rong-hsuei (翁榮炫) found among his 1998 photos four terns, which suggested the birds passed by the Pachang Creek inlet in Chiayi in their migrations. Chang Sho-hua (張壽華), the chief of the Matsu Construction Bureau (連江縣政府建設局) and general director of the Matsu Wild Bird Society, found one tern among his 1997 photos of the Matsu Conservation Area.

Chang believes there are more sightings of the terns which went unrecorded because few bird-watchers can identify the species.

"They look very similar to other crested terns, except for the patch of black color around the tip of their beak. Also, they like to blend in with other crested terns, making them hard to recognize for the untrained eye," Chang said.

In the documentary, which covers three years, there are four couples of terns mating and breeding on two of the eight islets which compose the conservation area.

Although the reasons for the near-extinction of the tern have not been pinned down, Chang found from his observations that the bird is probably not a skillful feeder.

"We often saw the tern coming back from its food trip with nothing in its beak, while other terns had brought home big meals," Chang said, adding that his findings are not conclusive as the colony is small.

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