World Bird News September 2015

The Birder's Market | Resource | Bird news for Britain / Rest of the World | World Bird News | World Bird News 2015 |  World Bird News September 2015

Storks - counted and supported by local volunteers!

Storks - counted and supported by local volunteers!

The best-known and most iconic migratory bird in Macedonia is the stork. Which is why we were excited to conduct a national census as part of our Mediterranean Flyways project, the NABU-funded stork census initiative and the EuroNatur European Stork Village Network – we knew that this would be very important scientifically but it would also show us just how strong our ties are with our Local Conservation Groups and volunteers.

The census showed that we have 817 active nests in Macedonia, occupied by 2027 juvenile storks, but it took over 20 volunteers and the involvement of the local population from over 1000 villages to collect the data.

“The stork census was completed in the middle of July, just before the juvenile storks leave the nests. It was a mammoth task and we are extremely grateful to all of the local conservationists and stork-lovers who made it happen”

states Ksenija Putilin from the Macedonian Ecological Society.

The local volunteers worked in different conditions and found various ways of handling the terrain; one of our volunteers covered his region on a bicycle, two volunteers counted storks on motorbikes, one hiked up hills to get a better look at what is inside each nest and some got lost many times looking for remote locations. However, most of them were excited to report back what they saw and how proud every local was of “their” storks.

This pride of one’s storks sometimes even lead to tensions so the volunteers had to tread carefully when talking about ‘the villages with most storks’, ‘largest nests’ or the commitment of locals who take care of them.

“We were about to leave a village where we didn’t find a nest so we stopped to check with a local whether this was true and he confirmed it. So, we left the village and drove away but 10 minutes later we were stopped by a shepherd who wanted us to correct the mistake – there was a nest in the village, and it was on his roof!”

reported Bisera Vlahova, an MES volunteer.

But we discovered that this pride in not unfounded - in many villages the locals indeed act as conservationists. In a region of Macedonia which is famous for stork stories the locals have built their own nesting platforms and are looking at ways to improve them so they can get even more storks to stay there.

“I saw a large nest on a roof, but it was very strange so I looked at it from different sides. Then the owner of the house stepped out and explained that it is strangely shaped because he had to put an armchair underneath it when it once almost fell apart”

states Bobi Arsovski, MES volunteer.

Migrant birds losing breeding grounds to poor farm management

When you read the words “summer holidays”, you probably associate them with travel, the beach, bucolic landscapes and relaxation. If migratory birds that breed in Europe before flying off to warmer places in the autumn – like swallows or Montagu’s Harrier – could speak, their responses would be very different.

Farmland is a very important habitat for migratory birds: Up to 65% of species use it at some stage during their life cycle. But what these birds encounter here does not sound very relaxing. “Species and habitats depending on agricultural ecosystems are doing worse than general assessments” state the EEA’s ‘State of the Environment in Europe’ report.

With widespread intensification of landscapes and farm management with an industrial character, dramatic decline in the quality and quantity of grasslands and loss of space for nature, Member States have also reported agriculture to be one of the main threats to migratory birds and BirdLife International has identified expansion and intensification of agriculture as the main threat to almost 80% of globally threatened and Near Threatened migratory land and waterbird species. All this is happening despite numerous efforts to improve the situation.

Against the doom and gloom stand the Birds and Habitats Directives. These policies have proven their worth and importance in protecting species, but they need to be implemented better, especially on farmland. On the other hand, another piece of legislation: the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is more of a hindrance than a help.

The CAP was recently reformed, ostensibly to make it more environment-friendly (and justify the huge investment of public money going into it). At the heart of the reform is the so-called ‘greening’, officially introduced this year. It asks farmers to respect three measures: grassland protection, crop diversity and keeping 5% of the farms in nature-friendly use (ecological focus areas), such as hedgerows and flower strips.

To incentivise farmers to follow these environmentally beneficial practices, 30% of the income support they receive from the EU is now conditional on the farmers implementing these measures.

If well implemented, these could make a huge difference for our migratory species and farmland birds in general by improving the quality of European farmland. However, overviews by the European Commission show Member States are implementing these measures unevenly, by making use of the staggering array of options, derogations and loopholes introduced into the legislation. So it seems unlikely they will achieve any environmental success from it.

For example: Almost all Member States chose to allow the growing of nitrogen-fixing crops in ecological focus areas instead of dedicating this measure to natural, undisturbed features like landscape elements. When a landscape is dominated by crops, what we need is not more crops, but more space for nature without spraying of pesticides or other disturbances that is needed for wildlife.

Only around half of the Member States chose to designate a significant amount of grasslands in Natura 2000 sites as environmentally sensitive, thereby granting them extra protection. It is worrying that the other half of these environmentally sensitive grasslands is thereby left without decent protection from potentially harmful farm management.

BirdLife hopes therefore that the European Commission’s upcoming biodiversity mid-term review demands a strong evaluation of the biodiversity outcomes from the CAP and charts a path for correcting at least the most glaring forms of abuse. Without a radical change of course, our migratory guests will continue to find an ever less welcoming landscape when summer comes.

Bird migration through Italy: The good, the bad and the ugly

The beauty of Italy, and how easy it is to recognise from space was recently lauded by an Italian cosmonaut. The cosmonaut may be biased of course, but there’s no doubt the elongated shape of the country and its position in the middle of the Mediterranean is of crucial geographic importance for millions of birds migrating between Africa and Eurasia.

From a conservation viewpoint, it seems like a good time to ask ourselves how dangerous a migratory trip along the Italian flyway is. Has the situation improved in the 50 years since BirdLife’s Italian partner LIPU was created?

To answer these questions, we start with BirdLife’s recent report on the illegal killing of birds in the Mediterranean. The report clearly highlights that Italy is by far the worst country on the northern rim of the region, with an estimated 5.6 million birds killed yearly in the country. This figure reflects the fact that illegal killing of birds (especially of passerines) in Italy is still widespread. This is certainly the case for most of the islands, for a vast region in the central Alps and for many areas along the peninsula.

But there are also reasons for hope, in particular from a LIPU case study in southern Sardinia. LIPU has a long history of fighting illegal killing and taking in this area, mainly by removing thousands of traps each year from the beautiful but deadly evergreen forests and maquis (shrubland). It has only recently been possible – through the LIFE project A safe haven for wild birds: Changing attitudes towards illegal killing in North Mediterranean for European Biodiversity – to implement a comprehensive strategy, including raising awareness in schools, launching a public information campaign (called Leaving is Living) and stronger co-operation with enforcement agencies. This strategy is starting to pay off and the number of traps found in the area has decreased in the last few years.

Traditionally, hunters are a strong lobby in Italy and unfortunately have been mostly using their political power to support the continuation of these practices. But this group is ageing and recruitment of young hunters is proving difficult. Killing birds isn’t so cool in Italy anymore and mentalities are changing. LIPU is active in showing that while traditions are important, not all traditions are good–particularly not illegal ones.

In July 2015, the Italian Parliament approved a law to ban bird capturing by mist-nets and the use of living decoys. This is an extremely important step, although moving from theory to full implementation on the ground will require all our attention.

The campaign against the shooting of soaring birds of prey and storks on the Messina Strait has been a success both in Sicily and on the mainland. However, it would be a terrible mistake to reduce efforts in Italy’s main bottleneck. This is why LIPU and other organisations still help to patrol the area during migration.

For waterbirds, most of the largest Italian wetlands have been given legal protection and designation as Natura 2000 sites. The huge impact of hunting has been partially reduced as a result, but illegal killing and taking, pollution and a poor level of habitat management are still serious issues.

Overall, there are still many open wounds, but important battles have been fought and won. There are concrete signs that eliminating deadly traditions and illegal practices is possible. Many Italian youth are realising that birds have a right to migrate. In absolute terms, the situation is improving for birds travelling through Italy. However, many populations of migratory species have drastically fallen over the last few decades and the effects of climate change are expected to hit them harder in the coming years. So we need to intensify our efforts and speed up the healing process.

'Birding and conservation go together... You can't do one and not care about the other'

“We are sincerely grateful for this interview; I know this is a very busy time for you”.

“Not a problem, I always make time for birds.”

Jonathan Franzen, one of the best writers of our era, is right in the middle of the launch of his new, much anticipated novel Purity. Avid birder, BirdLife supporter and member of the Rare Bird Club, he comments on BirdLife’s latest scientific study on a very sensitive issue: the ongoing illegal slaughter of birds in the Mediterranean.

The report suggests that the illegal killing of birds in the Mediterranean still has horrifying dimensions. You are a passionate birder and a writer who explores human motivations, cultures and thinking processes in great depth; what are your thoughts on the phenomenon?

I’ ve spent a lot of time studying and reporting on the illegal killing of birds, and I’d like to begin by saying that I find Birdlife’s estimate of 25 million birds killed illegally every year—shocking though it may sound to most people—very conservative.

I’m not sure there’s a “general” motivation for the killing—the cultural contexts, and therefore the motivations, vary from country to country—but what every Mediterranean culture has in common is that there used to be a lot of birds and not that many people. For millennia, the enormous flow of biomass during the spring and fall bird migrations was a source of protein for genuinely hungry people, especially in the spring, when they were running low on cereals.

So, throughout the Mediterranean, you find a deep cultural memory of “birds to eat” being a nice thing that nature does for people. Clearly, now the situation is very different: the killing is no longer sustainable, and nobody is starving.

Obviously we do not question starving people hunting for food. But rather, the caging and illegal killing done for “sport” or traditional “delicacies”.

The situation is different on the African side of the Mediterranean. Egypt is the worst case, especially in the use of mist nets with playback, but also in the use of firearms at desert oases. Hunger is not an issue in Egypt, but the killing of birds provides income for many poor people.

What makes it tragic is that hunting with modern technologies is wildly unsustainable. And unfortunately there’s not a good legal framework to stop it. Even if Egypt had good police—in fact, they have bad police—in many cases people aren’t even breaking the law.

But this is not the case in Europe: In countries such as Italy, France or Cyprus, laws do exist.

The law is still widely flouted in European Union member states. The most unforgivable violations are those of hunters with guns in Europe. But even the legal hunting is too much. It’s not that I don’t understand the tradition. I grew up in a family where hunting was part of life. But the various European hunting organizations don’t want to admit that there are simply too many hunters and too few birds to make the tradition sustainable.

And yet the big numbers of victims are caused by limesticks and mist nets on songbirds.

That’s certainly the case in Cyprus, where, despite heroic efforts by CABS [Committee Against Bird Slaughter] and BirdLife Cyprus, the situation is really bad. The Cypriots have a culinary tradition of Ambelopoulia—blackcap warblers grilled, stewed or pickled. This appears to be a legitimate tradition. But nowadays, the trapping of songbirds is pursued on an industrial scale, by criminal gangs. And precisely because it’s illegal to capture or serve ambelopoulia, and because they’re expensive, the practice now has connotations of “luxury” and “forbidden delicacy”. Restaurant people in Cyprus have told me it’s mostly tourists, especially Russian tourists, who are eager to taste the birds.

It’s like with oysters: people eat these little blobs of protoplasm, which are repellent-looking and expensive, as a kind of cultural display. Golden Orioles are a similar kind of delicacy in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf States. According to local myths, eating an oriole is like taking two Viagras.

How do you deal with the typical criticism of birders and nature lovers: ‘With all the problems affecting human beings, why should we care’?

We should be free to care about whatever we want to. There will always be human problems, and if we can only save nature “after” we’ve solved these, it means we never will. There are also strong scientific arguments for preserving biodiversity. We know, for example, that birds are great indicators of the health of an ecosystem. A planet with 12 species of birds in it is a planet that’s dying. It means that all of your ecosystems are in trouble.

Let’s take a real example. In a place like Syria, where hundreds of thousands are dying and have died, and millions must leave their homes to find refuge, why should we care about the fate of the last Northern Bald Ibis [Geronticus Eremita]?

My instinctive reply would be beauty. Beauty matters. And the world would be poorer if the Ibis went extinct. But there are more rational responses. In Syria, there are reports linking the outbreak of war to overgrazing in certain areas, to the point where agriculture and the local economy collapsed. This resulted in massive unemployment, hence the social unrest.

Are you suggesting there is a link between the violence against nature and the violence between human beings?

I wouldn’t go that far. It’s like the old argument that pornography causes rape. I grew up in a Swedish-American family where hunting was normal, and where everyone was also a pacifist. There’s no automatic link between hunting and murder. But I do know that, in Campania [a region of southern Italy] the Camorra prepares young killers for their job by getting them to kill animals first.

Can we change people’s mind and culture?

Of course, there are plenty of examples. The first one that comes to mind is Anna Giordano [ornithologist and LIPU/BirdLife Italy activist, currently employed by WWF in Sicily] and her fight in the ’90s against the shooting of raptors in Sicily. Through the efforts of one courageous young woman, the problem was almost entirely solved. It’s a good example of how traditions can change. I’m generally unimpressed with arguments based on “tradition.” In the American South, it used to be traditional to own human slaves.

In Italy today, maybe 80% of the population is on our side, and poaching is declining in most of the country. For that, we should thank, among others, the work of CABS in Brescia and Ischia and the policing work done by WWF and LIPU in Campania. Unfortunately there is still a terrible 20% that seems to enjoy the killing despite the naming and shaming. If you go to the Adriatic in the spring or fall, the wetlands are teeming with Italian hunters.

In France, I think it’s different. The French have the longest list of huntable bird species, in part because French culinary traditions are intimately connected with French nationalism: if you attack their tradition of eating for example, the Ortolan, it can be perceived as an attack against their national identity and culture.

How would you run a campaign to stop it?

I favour the use of shocking images. I think that a one-minute video showing shocking images, like those that showed baby seals clubbed to death to make furs, would get public opinion on the side of nature. Combined with sound scientific reporting, it could make a real difference.

On the Adriatic Flyway, there’s an urgent need to support the small groups and individuals who are fighting bird poaching. It doesn’t take many people to guard a large wetland, but those people need to be paid. And I’ve seen firsthand that having one guard can make a huge difference.

In Egypt, where technology allows the mass slaughter of birds and the political situation is impossible, the only real long-term hope is to invest in an education program in primary and secondary schools. Eating songbirds used to be normal in Northern Europe, but that tradition has gone extinct. It’s not inconceivable that this could happen in Egypt, too.

Some would disagree about the use of images. Many found our cover [of the review of illegal killing in the Mediterranean] disturbing.

I understand that. At first I myself found those type of images repellent. I compared them to the ones that anti-abortionists use, showing foetuses (although I am immune to those and remain pro-choice). I think it’s a failure of imagination of the French not to consider what is happening to the population of the species of birds being eaten, but the truth is that many birders don’t want to imagine it.

We need to get the message across: Birding and conservation go hand in hand. You can’t do one and not care about the other. If you care enough about birds to go out and spend your time watching them, you can’t stay silent about the massacre that’s happening in the Mediterranean.

The migration of soaring birds of prey explained

The migration of soaring birds of prey explained

Birds of prey, commonly called raptors, have been persecuted for hundreds of years in Europe and other parts of the world, usually as suspected predators of gamebirds. But these species – which include birds like buzzards, eagles, falcons and vultures – are actually an important way to check the health of our ecosystem (they are often called ‘indicator species’) and keep things in balance.

Based on their flying strategy during migration, birds of prey can be divided into two classes: those who almost constantly flap their wings and can fly over land and water (small, active flyers like falcons and sparrowhawks), and those who rely on the lift of thermal air currents to glide and save energy (these have large and broad wings, like eagles and buzzards). These thermal soarers have to fly mainly over land as water bodies provide no thermal lift during daytime. They must also often avoid high mountain ranges.

These geographical features, especially the Mediterranean Sea, have split up the region into two main migratory routes and led to a concentration of migrants in some locations, called ‘bottlenecks’. Observations here have given us great insight into the migration strategies, population sizes and demographics of many birds of prey species, especially those that are difficult to survey on their breeding grounds.

At some sites, like in Israel, annual migration counts have been organized for decades, so the data can be used to study population crashes (for example those linked to the use of the pesticide DDT) and recoveries.

Because of its many seas and mountain ranges, Europe and the Middle East are exceptionally rich in such bottlenecks – such as Falsterbo in Sweden, the Strait of Gibraltar in Spain, the Pyrenees in France and Spain, Burgas in Bulgaria, the Bosporus and Iskenderum in Turkey, and various sites in Israel and Egypt. A recently rediscovered bottleneck is in Batumi, Georgia. Storks and birds of prey from Eastern Europe, European Russia and West Siberia fly through here, leading to daily bird counts of over 100,000 and season totals of more than a million.

SABUKO, the Society for Nature Conservation has been cooperating with the Batumi Raptor Count (BRC) to study this bottleneck and raise awareness of its value. Every year, about 30 international volunteers travel to Batumi to take part in the count of migrating raptors. They are joined by an increasing number of tourists, who stay in guesthouses run by local families. The income this generates has played a major role in convincing an entire village to stop killing migratory birds.

These kinds of success stories are few. The illegal killing of birds continues to be a major problem at many migration hotspots. Some observatories at bottlenecks have often set up very effective schemes to raise awareness among the population of the value of migratory birds.

However, campaigns need to be organized to scale up conservation efforts along the whole flyway. Schoolchildren form a great target group for educational drives about the importance of migratory birds – we should make sure that the new generation develops a different attitude towards them, focusing on protecting, not killing. These initiatives can be complemented by ecotourism development, which creates economic opportunities for local communities, generates the necessary income to sustain the conservation effort and gives them an incentive to protect the birds.

The Birder's Market | Resource | Bird news for Britain / Rest of the World | World Bird News | World Bird News 2015 |  World Bird News September 2015

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