Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sites: The National Gardens of Athens


Washingtonia Palms, now over 150 years old; beloved by Queen Amalia.


Designed in the late 1830s by Queen Amalia, the Royal Gardens, are Modern Greece's first decoratively landscaped park and botanic gardens. Now known as the National Gardens (re-named in 1927) this park has been open to the public since 1923 (although Athenians did have limited access since 1854). Quite a bit has been written about this historic place. But as is usual in Athens, very little is ever said about wildlife and natural features. Actually a stroll in the park is considered a top experience for visitors in Athens - but few visitors or residents realize the unique biodiveristy values of the place. There are many fascinating aspects to this park that lend it a high natural history interest:

- Old trees: (Many specimens over 150 years old remain, monumental Cypress, Holm Oak, Elm, Oriental Plan and various Palms; some huge stumps and old "wildlife-trees" rotting away  - important for insects (wasp nests), bats, birds).
-Water and water features: (old aqueducts and wells traditionally watered the Park, clean crisp water is channeled around in tiny ditches filling six ponds; these kind of naturalistic water features are rare in Athens).
-Botanical Garden qualities: (a huge variety of trees and shrub species: said to include about 520 species, with over 140 species of trees, 35 of which are native to Greece). The park is managed in such a way as to display botanic garden attributes- some trees being labled.
-Deciduous trees and shrubs: The Park is unusual for Athens because a large number of the trees are deciduous (perhaps roughly 25%); many of these are very attractive to wildlife because most deciduous trees host a richer insect fauna. The diciduous trees give the park a very different feel in winter (whearas most other parks in winter in Athens tend to be rather more gloomy). The Attic light shines throught in winter and you can 'see through the forest". In summer a deeper lovely humid shade fills the park. And becouse of the diciduous trees you get nightengales and blue tits in the middle of the city! 
-General wildlife. Although little is published, the Lepidoptera (over 15 spp of butterflies), and other insects are especially interesting; amphibians (frogs and toads), bats and even native freshwater Potamon crabs  have been spotted over the years. Marginated Tortoises exist in small numbers. A tiny, rather filthy zoo hosts a disorganized bestiary - but it does have a small herd of Cretan Wild Goat.
-Birds. A large number of birds breed, migrate through and winter in the Park. The humid conditions due to the constant irrigation are unusual and not found in any other Athenian park - these conditions help support a unique community of "woodland birds" in this otherwise dry city. The Hellenic Ornithological Society (in 2005) catalogued a total of 61 bird species present, including 16 breeding species. However, no formal ornithological survey has ever been published, the birdlife may be much richer. The site is considered one of the City's most important birding hotspots.

Since 2005, my friend Costas Papaconstantinou and I have been teaching a university ecology course across the street from the Gardens at College Year in Athens (a study abroad program for North American university students). We use the park each semester as an outdoor classroom. Some of our students base their semester research projects on the Park - they study birds, amphibians, water features, stray dogs and cats, trees and insects. The educational and wildlife values of this oasis in the center of Athens have obviously been overlooked and downplayed.

These are some of my personal proposals and suggestions on how to make the National Gardens better for wildlife, environmental education and an outstanding natural monument for the City of Athens:

1. The park management constitution (or management mandate) must incorporate saving and restoring the natural history attributes that make this park a living monument in Athens. It must be made clear that the gardens have a tradition as a historic botanical garden and nature interpretation area. The educational and nature awareness values of the park must be incorporated in management planning.

2. Retaining large dead tree trunks, rotting stumps (i.e. "wildlife trees), old trees, dead woody debris in the park is very important for wildlife. Many trees - large ones topple and die. Dead wood must remain on the ground where possible. Re-planting larger, mostly native, large-sized deciduous trees is very important. A preference for deciduous trees should be promoted since they are so scarce hotspots for wildlife in this city. Bushes and forbs attractive to butterflies should be planted. 

4. Planting Sour Orange Trees should be stopped. Sour or Seville Orange (known as the Nerantzia in Greek) is one of the most widely planted side-walk trees in Athens, and large areas of the park have recently been planted with this species! There is little reason to do this in such a botanically heterogeneous and structurally rich park. Landscaping care must not be replaced with haphazard "plantings". The park landscape should not be too dense and "buzy" - it was not originially designed as such! 

5. The is a small Botanical Museum (currently permanently closed) in the Park. Perhaps its use should be re-evaluated. Finding a way to keep it running or operational is not easy and a feasibility study is needed. A park interpretation center could be created here, but again this suggestion needs careful technical study.

6. A small children's Library is a very positive note in the Park. More Natural History books (field guides etc) should be made available. A special "Nature Guide Interpretation Project" should be incorporated in the Library.

7. The National Gardens needs an "All-Taxa Biodiversity Study". It is ridiculous that this place doesn't have a proper bird list available. The animal groups most interesting here are (in order of appearance): Insects, Other arthropods, Birds, Amphibians, Reptiles, Mammals (especially bats). Volunteer naturalists, local NGOs, Universities can provide cheaply organized survey projects, but professional coordination is required.

8. There is a notorious problem with water - especially up-keep of the water features (six ponds). As for fish, only goldfish are present in the water features, perhaps more species may be introduced (for example a interesting idea would be to replace goldfish with a native cyprinid). The amphibians are interesting and their habitats must be retained and better managed (cat predation seems to be a problem - we have found many dead green toads on occasion).

10. The current state of the zoo is plain ugly; but I firmly believe the National Gardens should have a zoo. A very small zoo could have nature interpretation values and it is a traditional feature of this park (i.e. the oldest zoological collection in Greece). If the current zoo can be re-modelled it could promote nature interpretation and biodiverisy sensitization of visitors to animals in general. The zoo environment is also a very positive note in the park landscape; it is one of the liveliest places for people in the park. My simple suggestion would be: a) keep the Cretan Wild Goat, b) perhaps include a few domesticated animals such thats all. c) organize the ducks into a new bird simple "landscape", d) Bring in a couple of domesticated Ostrich, e) Organize the poultry foul and farm-animal aspect - make it small and clean; f) Deal somehow with the empty Lion Cage (maybe build in an interpretive info-point here outlining the history of the zoological collection). NO other wildlife species are required, I stress this.  Do away with everything else! This doesn't need a lot of money, if it is carefully planned. It will be a smaller, simpler zoo. Better horticulture and animal care - without radical changes (i.e. I stress,  I am against the wholescale dismantling of the zoo).

 Bellow I provide some snap shots from yesterday's walk (March 26th 2012) with the CYA students in the Park.



Of course, the most beautiful native tree is the Oriental Plane. This is the largest specimen in the Gardens complete with nesting Rose-ringed Parakeets in one of its tree holes. It is just coming into leaf-bud now in late March.  

An Elm. Dutch Elm disease has affected almost all the the monumental Elms in the Garden. Fortunately someone chose not to totally cut this specimen and although its still alive only a single branch juts out. Its a true wildlife tree, quite hollow inside. 

Parks in Athens are usually dominated by conifers (hardy pines and cypresses). Deciduous trees like this Elm in the background are especially attractive to migrant birds during early spring. Here students find a list of warblers try to tick-off the species we were observing - a Blackcap Warbler! 

Its surprising that there are wild amphibians in the middle of a dry crazy city like Athens. I have yet to actually catch and identify this Ranid frog species from the Gardens. Any guesses on what it may be?

This is the place to watch for frogs. Its a natural-looking stream-like cascade with rapids located in the upper part of the Gardens. Water features like this our definitely one of the most interesting aspects of the educational experience here.

Students observing Painted Turtles at one of the deep old circular ponds. I was impressed with the turtle's interesting social behaviour we observed here.  This spot could be re-naturalized. 

One of the most spectacular trees in the Gardens are the native Holm Oaks (Quercus ilex), probably planted by Amalia's staff about 150 years back. They are absolutely huge trees - rarely encountered this large in the wild in Greece.

The Grand Pond. Actually an old shallow duck pond, concrete-lined and rather lifeless. After the Bird Flu epidemic a few years back the ducks have been totally removed and now the water is cleaner and Green Toads breed. I even herd some Ranid Marsh Frogs calling yesterday! This place is landscaped quite well - micro-habitat enhancement is possible here. For example: a small Typha reed bed in the corner...
A peaceful moment with a stray dog, near Amalia's Gate. The most beautiful time in the Garden is definitely immediately before closing at sun-down. 

Outside the Gardens, near Zappeion. An "Edge" habitat - good place to observe Serins and other small passerines. Screeching Rose-ringed Parakeets are common - nesting in tree hollows.  The Queen is said to have loved palms and there are many in the Gardens - the Date Palm in the center is one of the tallest surviving ones. Many trees have toppled due to storms in the past.
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Our American university students posing for a snap shot. They are carrying field notes with lists of animals and plants likely to be encountered in the area. In a mini-bioblitz they check-off species encountered - learning so much about what biodiveristy a city park can support. In their mind the park is transformed: it becomes a wonderful jungle, the walk a "nature exploration". They are now sensitized into appreciating nature.



2 comments:

  1. Great article Stamatis! You brought back so many memories since for me the Royal Garden which became our National Garden in later years was my first contact with nature. I was born and raised in Thession and this Garden was a refuge and a place of discovery. I still remember some of the stories about how some of the species, especially fish, got to this beautiful place. Yes, our National Garden was our family garden when I was growing up! Your suggestions are wonderful and I hope that you can generate enough support to implement them. You definitely got my vote. Best regards, Constantine

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  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this issue Constantine. I think the Gardens are were I begun seeing differences among the pigeons as toddler - some were Collard Doves! In the '70s there were a few Deer in the pen, the lions too, and of course the Agrimi Goats- the goats would frequently escape and be spotted roaming around - to hop back into the enclosure somehow later. I remember the fish (goldfish or Koi in one of the ponds too).... Many many stories....Eucharstw!

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