Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year's Eve Wish: Go IMBRIW!!!

New Year's Eve 2014

This New Year I feel I should wish the VERY BEST for our Inland Waters Department, within the Istitute of Marine Biological Resources and Inland Waters (IMBRIW*) at the Hellenic Centre for Marine Resrearch HCMR (where I happen to work...).

We have done a hell of a lot of work in 2014....extensive fish surveying comes to mind: especially the monitoring work funded largely by generous EU funds for the implementation of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the Habitats Directive.

This is a unique time for inland waters ichthyology and fish conservation in Greece.  I sincerely believe we will keep up our great relationships and continue our over-worked, peculiar and awesome ways. Despite the austere and economically depressed times, I hope we continue to have European Union and Greek government support. Aquatic life and all associated resources for humans deserve what we do in Greece.

What we do is: science-conservation-lobbying-regional development-nature conservation combined! Important resources -data banks- are being developed and optimized: organizing databases, survey and assessment protocols and procedures, directly assisting water management and nature conservation in this country (and beyond).

This department employs just about 15 people (researchers, scientists, students and contractors) working on inland water fishes at this point in time. My humorous post-card (above) features just a few of the field electrofishing team members, from left-to-right: Vardakas, Kommatas, Koutsikos, Tachos, Zogaris. The three machines are high-powered German electrofishing generators received this Autumn. Thanks to the projects mentioned above we now have the largest suite of electrofishing technology of any research organization in Greece (big boat-based generators, various back-pack electrofishers).

We are growing and evolving, despite such hard times in Greece.
And we are tackling many, many ambitious initiatives.

Some of the important initiatives the Department's ichthyologists are currently working on, include the following wonderful research and conservation pathways:
  • Developing fish-based Indexes for WFD-compliant bioassessment in rivers (through collaborations with Austrian colleagues).
  • Threatened species conservation status assessment (with three other major research and academic institutions in Greece); assessing over 70 species and their status in and out of protected areas in Greece (Natura 2000 Habitats Directive application).
  • WFD and Habitats Directive fish research and applications in Cyprus (through work with institutions in Cyprus and Portugal).
  • Using fishes in ecological flow ecohydrological modelling and assessment; including habitat-use work through snorkeling surveys for the first time in Greece (with collaborators from Spain).
  • Studying fish communities in streams and rivers and applying a bottom-up approach to river & stream typology and water body delineation; including an application in a new 'study-basin', the Sperchios river.
  • Long-term research of fishes in temporary rivers (continuing work through a new EU funded international project that includes our long-term study basin, the Evrotas).
  • Exploring the taxonomy, phylogenetics, and biogeography of freshwaters fishes including an investigation into biotically-led freshwater ecosystem regionalization in the southern Balkans (with many international and national collaborations).
  • Recording and studying alien fish species and their impacts/effects on native species and ecosystems (both in Greece and Cyprus).
  • Investigating the restoration of rivers, wetlands and other inland waters, including species re-introduction and issues of restoring longitudinal connectivity (impacts of barriers in rivers and lagoons).
  • Participating in environmental interpretation, education, awareness and sensitization of the public on issues that affect inland water fishes. 
...And other initiatives that combine fishes with integrated river basin management and coastal zone management.....

And finally, what I think really counts is the legacy we leave in the wake of our many research projects:

-How we influence local people, communities, governments, management bodies, institutions.
-How we develop higher standards of research that is directly relevant to nature conservation.
-How we promote synergy among researchers and other academic teams, and develop thriving links locally and internationally.
-How we help define and apply 'best practice' in developing and using efficient applied tools, methods and research approaches for science, optimal water management and nature conservation.
-How we self-develop; how we learn (and teach) about fishes, ecosystems, management, and conservation.
-How we help create a better world.

May 2015 bring even better days!

Water reflects not only clouds and trees and cliffs, but all the infinite variations of mind and spirit we bring to it. – Sigurd Olson

*please see URL at: Institute of Marine Biological Resources and Inland Waters

Monday, December 29, 2014

Top 10 Birding Wetlands in Attika Greece: Artemis Lagoon

Top wetlands of Attika: For Birding...

In a sprawling peri-urban landscape around a major European capital city (Athens); where can someone see some descent birds?

Most would say: Wetlands!

Ok, some wetlands exit, but how good are they for birds? As most seasoned birders know, its not just the presence of a wetland site, the place needs to have some 'birdy' qualities. These are some attributes that I regard as important for distinguishing important wetlands for birds:

a) Extent - be large enough, habitat area must be adequate to hold large numbers and attract many species of birds.
b) Biological productivity- Birds need food!
c) Habitat variety - More habitat types, more birds.
d) Habitat quality - Certain  habitats attract specialized birds, or large populations or are important breeding, resting, feeding areas; certain 'special habitats' have outstanding importance; for example: old large deciduous tree groves, freshwater ponds, big reedbeds, mudflats, open grazed wet meadows,
e) Protection from disturbances - simple things like recreationists and dogs can ruin a place for birds; cover is important: islands in lakes, marshy expanses, thick wood-lots, cliffs next to wetlands etc.
f) Landscape naturalness - Its not just the site, the surroundings count and influence the sites attractiveness to birds. Sometimes a site is like an island in the city or industry that is a kind of negative influence that increases the site's value (oasis effect) but usually a good site has a good 'natural' landscape.
g) Relatively stable - I know wetlands are not, but some stable features such as a river or lagoon water body, something that produces rather predictable conditions.

So if you take account of the above attributes and what we know about bird populations in Attika* it is not hard to guesstimate which sites are the most IMPORTANT birding areas out of Attika's 100 + known wetlands**.

This is my opinion, ranked in order of importance:

  1. Schinias-Marathon - Largest lowland freshwater areas, extensive wetlands, and varied habitats.
  2. Assopos Delta - Oropos - marine lagoon, river delta and varied habitats, rich shallow marine.
  3. Vourkari Megaron - lagoon and shallow eutrophic bay, salt meadows, quite varied.
  4. Artemis Lagoon - tiny lagoon and reedbed next to beach.
  5. Vravrona Wetland - tiny wetland and shallow bay in 'natural' landscape.
  6. Lake Koumoudourou - lake-like lagoon in industrial landscape.
  7. Lake Marathon - old secluded reservoir; undisturbed and in a 'natural' landscape.
  8. Loutros & Rafina - agricultural river valley with spring flooding and small river mouth.
  9. Phaleron Bay - Eutrophic city foreshore with river mouths (Kifissos, Ilissos, Pikrodaphne).
  10. Tritsis Park (Pyrgos Vassilisis) - fairly large city park with large artificial ponds.
This ranked listing is simply an expert assessment. And it is still pretty arguable if for example one or two important sites are not left out; but I chose to stop at 10 sites. (For example,  runners-up for the top-ten include: Breksiza, Alyki Anavissou and Schinos).  Ranking is not meant to exclude or otherwise artificially debase the significance of any site (but it can be misinterpreted by those not in the know about such structured assessments). I reiterate: here we are talking about BIRDING SITE INTEREST in wetlands. Don't forget, not the overall conservation or overall biodiversity value is assessed. (However birds are pretty good indicators of habitat qualities at the landscape scale).

And then there is the ranked order-of-importance: That I think is even more subjective;  I have not recently looked at the bird population statistics. But its not just the stats. I mean to assess based on my general all-round holistic feeling of birding site "importance". Some sites have outstanding "potential value" (even though they are pretty degraded today) so these are ranked higher. For example, Vravrona and Artimis Lagoon are neck-to-neck really - Artemis lagoon is more degraded and smaller however it does have consistently larger numbers of waterfowl. Both sites are heavily disturbed by recreationists so their potential value if managed is much higher. Of course, some of these sites have been better studied (Vravrona is bigger and better studied than Artemis), others are poorly studied (Lake Marathon, Phaleron Bay are rarely visited by birders in recent years). I have thought this over enough! The race for first place is also difficult: I think really it must be Assopos-Delta Oropos, but I placed Schinias first due to its really really high potential value. Whatever the case, I challenge anybody who cares to speak her/his mind to challenge me on this assessment!

Now to today's snap-shot story: Artemis Lagoon visit in winter. 

Artemis Lagoon on the East Coast of Attika. Number #4 above is pretty good, birding-wise, but again it has more "potential" than its current state of affairs. Its located in a rather ugly sprawling sub-urbanized landscape and looking rather drab and untidy. Lots of infill, garbage, derelict buildings, scattered concrete and a big sad beach (that does have a fine view though). I first visited the site for birding in 1996 (although I did know the site in the late '80s when it was bone-dry due to a prolonged drought we had back then). The site has seen a rapid urbanization of its immediate landscape - in the past it was a popular hunting spot - now that the houses are all around hunting has stopped and the bird numbers have shot up! Also the water regime has totally changed, the lagoon used to be dry in summer, now with much of the riparian and catchment area paved and built-up the lagoon never dries. In fact it floods! So in the last 15 years we have seen a remarkable change here, and more birds.

In winter its rather good for a quick visit and combines wonderfully with sites #8 and # 5. I visited twice this week: on Dec. 27th (evening stroll: 14 spp. spotted) and Dec. 28th (midday stroll: 24 spp., in cold windy conditions). Best birds were the two Ferruginous Ducks, 1 Redshank, 15 Med Gulls, and 5 Reed Buntings. I also enjoyed three Eurasian Skylarks, not usually seen in the area. However, during the last two or so years a man by the name of Kyriakos grazes his 70+ flock of sheep/goats on site so the grasses are trimmed down and much better for lots of small birds. (Wow, the economic crisis has brought in a new kind of management...). The lagoon was spewing quite a bit of water out to see and I am sure there are fish inside (Grey-mullets at least). Piscivorous birds included 4 Gr. Cormorant, 1 Grey Heron, 1 Little Egret.

I share some snapshots of the scene. More on the site in the near future (conservation-wise, I hope!).


*I want to say that without the help of my friends and comrades at the Hellenic Ornithological Society much of this understanding and interest would not have developed, i.e. concerning wetland site assessment, conservation, politics etc.

** For a presentation of work done by HOS and HCMR on wetland inventory in Attika see: HCMR/HOS 2010 (In Greek)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Agia Triada Cave (Karystos Greece), Summer of '85

A friend from the past has sent us these pics taken back in the summer of 1985. What an amazing surprise! They are during the 'exploration phase' of my career in Karystos. I was only 15 years old but enjoying long languid summers at my village in Lala on the island of Euboea (Evia). I lived in Athens for three years back in my teens, but was a frequent visitor to Karystos. I was always happy to meet other inquisitive naturalists, and these shots were taken by young Biology students who visited me. We embarked on a 7 hour exploration of Agia Triada Cave - the region's deepest wildest and most spectacular underworld wonder. Walking bare-foot along the riparian woods outside the cave we discussed wildness and nature. I wish all kids could have summers like that.

At the time I was deep into the birds. This is my first research piece published in the newsletter of the Hellenic Ornithological Society: Zogaris Birds of Karystos

Friday, December 19, 2014

Published: A rare fish, the Oman Blenny, discovered in Kuwait

Athens December 20th 2014

During a diving trip to Kuwait* in June 2014, Aris Vidalis and I took some photos of a weird-looking fish swimming upside-down in a dark cavern on a coral reef slope at 9 meters depth. 

The pics were later identified as the Oman Blenny, a tiny yellowish fish known to be an endemic to Oman and rarely reported in the tropical reef fish literature. Endemic means found only in Oman!!! The type locality where this tiny fish was first described (in 1985) is 1500 kms from Kuwait in the Indian Ocean! So we decided to publish this. Although we have not caught the fish, and it is only a single individual we carefully identified it with the assistance of our good colleague Dr. Ronald Fricke who knows tropical fishes well. 

The record is now published in the rather prestigious journal CBM (Cahiers de Biologie Marine) which is run out of the Roscoff Biological Station and has an Impact Factor of about 0.62 (in 2013).  I want to thank the editors for featuring the discovery on the periodical's front page (above) and hope this promotes more inventory research of cryptobenthic reef fishes in Kuwait (and the Gulf). 

As the article was uploaded just two days ago in my Research Gate account already more than 35 downloads have taken place and I got an interesting reply from Dr. Uwe Zajonz of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt:

"Gill and Zajonz reported [the Oman Blenny] in 2011 (p.11) already from Socotra (a visual observation through), hence its surely not endemic to Oman and we may assume now a relatively wide distribution range in the Arabian region, perhaps the entire area apart of the Red Sea".  

So basically, this promotes the hypothesis that the fish is truly more widespread and not at all an endemic to Oman (and perhaps not brought into the Gulf as some kind of invader in taker balast waters; read our paper for more on this). Until now there are very few sightings of the fish in Oman or in the Yemen. So, please look out for this fish in the Persian/Arabian Gulf and the West Indian Ocean to help delineate its distribution. 

You can read our paper at:  Zogaris et al. CBM

* Our deepest gratitude to Kuwait Foreign Petroleum Company (KUFPEC) for funding our volunteer research and nature conservation efforts in the Gulf. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Ankara for Greek visitors


If you glance at the history of Modern Greece and Turkey, there is one special target city (not only Smyrna). In 1922, the invading Greek armies lost a long and terrible war just 80 kms short of Ankara. Ankara became the new capital symbolizing the birth of Turkey. In 1930, Venizelos and Ataturk met in Ankara to discuss a lasting peace. They thought of forging a joint foreign policy and even the possibility of a federation of the two countries. Upon Venizelos' visit, Ankara was dressed in the blue-and-white colours of Greece. Could this be the end of war?

But since then, Athens and Ankara have been at odds, our last war in 1974 does not seem 40 years ago to us. Or far Cyprus. Athens and Ankara are divorced. Although capital cities of neighbouring NATO states, there is no direct airline flight between them. A Turk in Athens, a Greek in Ankara, sounds like a cold war spy story.... 

I visited as a scientist seeking collaboration; on three short trips in '13 and '14. I was surprised that so many people had never seen a Greek in Ankara...although the history of modern Turkey says so much about us. Greeks are the 'defeated' and the 'missing people'. The mass population exchanges between the two countries in the 10s and 20s, the wastes of war and nationalism hype...this has removed nearly all who speak Greek from Asiatic Anatolia (and North Cyprus). And our mass expulsion from Anatolia gives deep pain to us and raises many questions in so many Turks. Why can we not live together?

A trip to Ankara is a pilgrimage of sorts. Historic, modern; an unknown city. Everything cultural is stimulating here. The people are warm, even in their sprawling and sometimes cold capital.  We met so many fascinating people in places of great contrast. In their poverty in shanties, in university halls, in museums, in luxury restaurants: smiley good-hearted people, incredibly hospitable. And a youth full of energy for change and rebellion against backwardness, against oppression. Such a beautiful cultural fabric, and such contrast from a typical European city.

I share some snapshots of our November '13 visit to Ankara. My wife, Vasso and I hiked around the castle hill, pondered on the history of rocks and old walls, visited two museums and shopped till we dropped - all in a single day!