Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Book Review: Important Areas for Seabirds in Greece

June 12th 2013

A new book depicts a research and conservation success story for Greece. Its a product of a recent Life Project but it carries the weight of a long-term research survey journey through the many and varied coasts of this country. It all started in 1995; at the time nobody could ever have thought that the Hellenic Ornithological Society (HOS) could discover Greece's hidden pelagic bio-treasures. Well, it did.

I was privileged enough to be on board the first seabird expeditions; we made amazing finds.
Many threatened birds use the islands as refuges. Where we intially thought we had only a few dozen Audouin's Gulls we soon found over 700 pairs!  Shearwater and falcon colonies, migration "fall outs" isles, songbird breeding communities.... And its not just birds. Its many, many little pieces of untouched paradise. Few had ever thought of protected "parks" here. An incredible number of unique biodiversity sites were identified in this work; they became the initial backbone of the insular Natura 2000 protected areas network of this country. Dozens of new protected areas were founded through the work of one organization, the HOS. That's the success story. Now this book adds yet more knowledge and cartography: proposed protected delineation through the concept of  marine Important Bird Areas (marine IBAs). 41 outstanding areas are identified, assessed, mapped and scientifically presented.

The book is a tribute to the exploratory and conservation spirit of HOS. It  was written by my friends Jacob Fric, Danae Portolou, Aris Manolopoulos, and Thanos Kastritis. Many more have contributed to the book and also through several previous projects that supported the work. The book is very well written and will please the "little scientist" inside every reader. I am particularly fond of the design aspects, they are excellent - an in-house labour of love. Its a beautiful scientific book! enticing journey for any lay-person or naturalist interested in Greece. 

Now, the sad thing is that many of these important bird areas are threatened! The pressures are diverse and  varied: New wind farm projects atop rock islets, sprawling tourist developments, selling-off of entire islands; new recreational activities and many many sea vessels everywhere (bringing with them rats!) and more.... and ofcourse the issue overfishing and illegal fishing making the seas go "life-less". An amazing challange. I hope people become inspired...

And one last thought.
Through this small blurb I want to thank my friend Costas G. Papaconstantinou who helped HOS in outstanding ways to begin, strategise and lead the seabird researches and protected-area creation campaigns. Costas gave me my first job in Greece when I stepped off the plane from Canada in the Spring of 1995. He had found private funding for us to "go on a fishing boat to survey all the islands of the Eastern Aegean...". His interest in the blue wilderness excited me, but it puzzled me: There was so much to do in Greece, so much uncharted ground for conservation on the mainland. I thought: "Why go there? The islets are practically "protected" by their desolation". I was wrong. How else would we have dozens of new protected-areas without these first exploratory surveys? It was not long that a lot of these unknown areas became "threatened areas".  And today we should be fighting to save these islets and seas, many of which are now "legally" protected - but only on paper! 

The fight for conservtion at sea is continuing in NGOs, governments and research institutions in Greece and the EU, and the HOS is spearheading this growing movement. Lets help.

Check out:

The 41 marine Important Bird Areas identified in the book: Lets save them!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Road trip: Alexandroupolis to Thassos...

31st of May 2013

My partner and I were invited to an Greek-Bulgarian ecotourism forum on Thassos. This is the northernmost island in the Aegean. A last-minute booking got us to the nearest available airport, Alexandroupolis near the Turkish border. (No space on flights were available at the very small airport at Kavalla). Thassos is immediately opposite Kavalla, the most convinient crossing is from the small harbour of Keramoti.

So here was an opportunity for yet another road-trip this month: Alexandroupolis to Keramoti!!
We rented a small car for the day (cost: 60 Euros) and with 20 Euros of gasoline we easily and slowly rode the 165 kms from Alexandropoulis airport to Keramoti. We started the drive at 9:30 and took the 16:15 ferry across to the island.

First stop was a beach. One of the nicest is at Fanari. White sand with many scattered "sea balls"... These are egagropili - or Posidonia sea balls!. Egagropili  (a.k.a. Posidonia spheroids) is a technical term used to describe the spherical agglomerates generated by the progressive disintegration of the fibruous residue which surrounds the rhizome of Posidonia sea grass. Interpreting what these balls are baffled scientists for centuries - and it was discovered quite recently - I think in the 19th century - if I recall correctly. The reason they assume this oval form is due to the wave action along the shore. In the case of Fanari beach there were so many balls washed on the beach that they helped "lift" the low beach dune formations.

Then we visited the very threatened Lake Vistonis (a new dam on the Kompsatos River is in the planning stage...). Its an amazingly huge lake-like lagoon bordered by various saltmarshs and marine lagoons. In the lagoons, on islets, are a couple of churches - one known as Agios Nikolaos. They belong to a Mount Athos monastery. Walking out to this road-side attraction is usually a great birding experience. Not today. Only a few Mediterranean Gulls..But what a beautiful sky!

Lunch stop at Porto Lagos harbour. A Thracian sea-food treat! View to the lonely fishng boat in the harbour; no tourists here.... I know this place well. Back in 1986 and '87 I used to work as a birder volunteer in the pinewood across the harbour - many fond memories. Now the wooden watch tower that the Forestry Service built for us back then is rotted away and in disrepair - but the heron colony seems to be doing well. Porto Lagos is such a frontier village; the "far-off feeling" here is real.

We reached Kermati by the new Highway. This harbour village is right on the Nestos Delta and has a special character: Thassos looms just offshore. The place gives me the feeling of a harbour way to the north, not in the Aegean at all. After leaving the rent-a-car here we step on the ferry for an easy crossing to the emrald islnad. Great views from the ferry but few birds. Just one Mediterranean Shag this time; lots of Yellow-legged Gulls. Its summer in the northern Aegean.