Thursday, August 14, 2014

Breksiza Wetland near Athens: Turtles!

Breksiza Wetland : Turtles!

The former USA Military Base at Breksiza was dismantled after the end of the cold war. No naturalist knew that a tiny wetland was hidden inside! Then the local government etc. turned this prized piece of open ground into in to a dump; then with the 2004 Olympics at least 1.6 M Euros were paid for anti-flooding works on site. Its scandalous: I will not show the huge ridiculous culverts and high-grade concrete canals etc here – a totally unfounded claim for “anti-flooding public works scam”.  There is no upland catchment for flooding, no river valley, only a karstic spring-wetland….*

Ok, now turtles.

Many people like Turtles, especially when you see them in clear spring waters with the little ‘fishies’ and you can throw them some popcorn or bread. You get the idea….This kind of 'summer fun' takes place at Breksiza wetland behind Nea Makri beach (about 35 km due east of Athens). 

I reacted to the call to go and see if the “turtles are dying from the pollution-choked waters at Breksiza”. An environmentalist friend found me on my cell. So, Dimitri my son, a 17 year old impatient spear-fishing macho type and I drove over to Nea Makri on this blistering hot midday. Ok.

These are our observations and photos in 15 mins we spent watching the turtles:
  •        The turtle numbers did seem marginally lower (we had counted at least a couple of dozen two years ago- but this may be just the timing of our visit - I think they go into aestivation during a very hot summer sometimes...). But the composition is as in the past: We counted 10 Mauremys rivulata (Stripe-necked Terrapins), 3 Trachemys scripta (Red Ear Slider – an American invasive sold at pet stores everywhere) and one Emys orbicularis (European Pond Terrapin). All these at the tiny pool with clear spring water rushing in from the large spring-fed pools upstream of the “Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods” just north of Nea Makri proper.
  •         The native terrapins about – both species – are native wildlife, protected by EU Directives and Greek law, for those who do not know better; PLEASE DO not feed these animals; PLEASE do not introduce domesticated (often disease-ridden captive alien species such as Aquarium turtles). Turtles are very smart (!!!), they will become conditioned to feeding, but they will also find a way to find food. I have actually seen them foraging for grapes in vineyards at the Karystos wetland during a very dry drought. What will kill them is the destruction of the wetland at Breksiza….
  •          There were a very few foam bubbles in riffle of the canal waters at Breksiza. Probably from detergent used to wash clothes, since several of families of Gypsies squat around the waste-ground and sell trinkets near the beach. So the “foaming polluted waters” probably refer to this.
  •           Terrapins are rather resilient to water pollution; and the water is still flowing strongly, actually even entering the sea a few meters downstream of the culvert (…the “super-culvert paid by EU taxpayer’s money!!!).
  •      We also made some serious fish observations. Two age classes of grey-mullet (Liza sp.) and to our amazement a predatory fish stalking them….it was a sea bass about 10 cm in size (see below). My son’s opinion is that it is in fact a Striped Sea Bass (Dicentrarchus punctatus), a rather rare fish in Greek freshwaters (see former blog posts of mine on this). I think it is the first time it is reported in the wetlands of Attika (although truthfully we have’nt searched much…).
Finally my son was a bit nerve-wracked by my insistence to stay and “photograph” the turtles, but we did’nt fight on this. The midday sun was glaring at 38 or so degrees.

I thank my environmentalist friend for phoning to ask to go check on the turtles. We’ll be back soon.

*A natural wetland always existed on site – sacred also to the watery Egyptian Gods who have a sanctuary on site! (See Its a spring-fed clear water wonder- this tiny relict spring. Of course it was almost thoroughly drained when the refuges from Makri landed here from Asia Minor in 1923 and then again I guess by the Americans. So please, why the 1.6 m. European Euros for flood protection? It could have become a beautiful wetland nature park. How many of us feel disheartened about this wasted opportunity at Breksiza? 

One of the two spring-fed 'streams' from the spring-lake wetlands of Brexiza. Agriliki Hill a foothill of Penteli in the background.
The river mouth of the stream above entering Marathon Bay, looking NE towards the nearby Schinias National Park.
Pre-construction estimate of 1.6 million Euros for anti-flooding works and gypsy clothes drying at Breksiza.

Dimitris walks through a part of the 'savannah' near the wetland (on R). Agriliki hill in the background - a fragment peice of 'Wild Attika'. What an opportunity for NATURE PARK. (Wake up!!!!).
Fence in former USA Military Base of Nea Makri. Thanks USA.
Pond terrapin above (a rare species, needing clear lotic conditions) and the more hardy Striped-necked Terrapin. Both native turtles in need of protection.
The beautiful alien from the pet-stores, Red Ear Slider an American speceis at Brexiza. Only large adult individuals seen. Please do not throw your pets away. 
To my surprise, the turtles were peristantly looking for food hand-outs!!! Just like in Florida. Ok. This is not cool.
European Pond Terrapin. A rarity in Attika; "Near Threatened" in the Greek Red Data Book, a declining species in this country. 

Young Stripe-necked Terrapin. Also "Near Threatened" in the Greek Red Data book. Both speices are protected by the Habitats Directive as well. Now you know the names...remember them**
What species is this?

The fish on the top Left is a Sea Bass with spots. Lots of spots. Dimitris says its definately a Dicentrarchus punctatus. The others are Mugilids (Liza sp.).
You can watch the fishes (little Grey-mullets) and the Turtles. Wild!

** Names of the Turles in Ελληνικά:

Stripe-necked Terrapin = Ποταμοχελώνα (ή Γραμμωτή Νεροχελώνα)
European Pond Terrapin = Βαλτοχελώνα (ή Στικτή Νεροχελώνα)
Red Eared Slider = Κοκκινόλαιμη Νεροχελώνα

Thanks for listening students!

Dikelas Night Dive at Karystos

Mid August 2014 Karystos, Euboea Island Greece

Best ecotour experience: A night dive!
For youths, to break-free of civilization as-we-know-it, nothing compares to night diving. On this dive Thaleia and Artemis of the Dikelas Dive Center in Karystos guided a team of five – two of us included a 12 year old Constantine and my 17 year old Dimitri.

Just 10 minutes speed-boating southeast of Karystos: Waves rocking, dizzy– until we were set free outside, go under, GO!

We actually did two dives one before sunset, one at about 22:00; 40 minutes each; down to 24 m depth. But behind the snap-shot flashes and filming was an eerie trance, beckoning kids across ages. Overwhelming and mysterious pelagic majesty.

You do not feel fear, but awe and out-of-this world scenes flood new experiences. The lights exaggerate the alien feeling. The same scene two hours ago was totally different.

The numbers of fishes at night are much lower, but some really interesting encounters take place; a menacing Moray Eel, several octopi, larger-than life breams, bright red cardinal-fish and scorpionfishes, sleeping rabbitfish, varied patterned parrotfish, amazing colours everywhere.

I highly recommend this gift to any family.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Samothraki Nature Observatory: Summer 2014 Notes

End of July 2014

HCMR research is continuing on Samothraki this summer. My personal contribution during this week-long stint focused on exploring riparian condition and key vegetation structure in the riparian woods, and on wetland and stream ichthyofauna. I also kept notes on birds. 

Our colleagues Anastasia Lambou, Nikos Skoulikidis and local supporters and visitors are doing various other researches also, primarily in the streams and in support of local conservation initiatives. We all thank Team Leader, Nikos Skoulikidis, for the extra effort.Vasso Vlami helped immensly in the field. Anastasia who is planning a PhD that includes the island's stream macroinvert fauna is also vital in the organization of this initiative. And we also thank the local authorities who support our stay on the island.

In a week in late July –early August we explored stream environments in the north and western part of the island; electrofished and seine netted in some streams and at the major lagoon area of Agios Andreas. We also talked a lot with the locals and the local authorities. 

The weather was stormy for nearly three days and this did not allow us to scale the uplands where we had planned a “great transect” through the southern wilds of the island (from Vatos Beach to the Fonias Springs via the upper Yiali valley). Good reason for a re-visit.

Here I scribbled some notes (compiled on the Ferry trip back to Alexandroupolis):


Some of the observations I made on this trip:
  • Water levels in the streams and wetlands were surprisingly high this year, most of the water received very late in the spring and also in summer (!!).  The salt lagoon (Almyri) near Agios Andreas was full of water (unlike last year) and nesting Shelducks (T. tadorna - a large group of about 12 individuals with young) and many Black-necked stilts were seen (but no young seen).
  • I did four electrofishing trials;  with only mugilids caught at the Varades streamlet (a stream that was incidentally not flowing to the sea last year). No Eel at Polypoudi (were great habitat existed inside Alonia village).
  •  Seine netting at Agios Andreas yielded the usual community (gobies and blennies as documented on my last blog post on this subject last year); but, the lagoon is probably artificially cut-off from the sea and there is no migrating fish population. Despite this I did see three Great Cormorants, five Shags, and two Little Grebes fishing in the lagoon – are they feeding only on large bodied Gobius cobitis??). 
  • I did 14 QBR+ surveys. These are riparian vegetation surveys and riparian habitat condition assessment protocols. I tallied a species of Mulberry living wild Morus sp. (Not seen before); I was surprised to see such an absence of alien species; nor any extensive Arundo (i.e. Great reed cane- otherwise a common Aegean stream invasive). Generally the riparian aspect of the island is very 'northern' and cool, Alnus is frequent (but dominated by Platanus).
  •  Found a new site with Terrapin Mauremys rivulata at Polypoudi in Alonia village.
  •  The island was rather bird-rich although we visited during the really quiet lag between breeding and the onset of Autumn migration; we did not really birdwatch. I tallied 35 species altogether. This included a migrating group of Chlidonias terns (50+) outside harbor on the 3rd of August. Many nesting Turtle doves, Bee-eaters; and, what I had not noticed last year: a flock of Lesser Kestrels in the fields around Agios Andreas lagoon (!!).  The island had its usual Stone-curlews nesting in the over-grazed steppes of the north shore and a group of Eleonora’s Falcons (5-6) near the Varades-Therma-Palaiopolis area. Lastly, we had wonderful views of Hobby Falcons near Lakoma on two occasions (this confirm regular breeding).

Finally a note about the people and conservation movement on Samothraki. We met the new Mayor, and the new deputy Mayor  and had a very good discussions on our mutual interests. And we met many locals, and were especially impressed with the ‘Sustainable Samothraki’ initiative and its members. We wish them all the best with this initiative. Also we wish the MAB UNESCO designation goes ahead and that the protected area development succeeds - the Austrian/ Academic connection is very important in this.

Some notes on nature conservation issues I perceived this time (my fourth visit for SNO*):
  • The north shore riparian and coastal Platanus woodland from Palaiopolis in the west, east to Platypotamos is an out-of-this world wonder, found nowhere else in the Greek islands. Coastal hygrophilous forest! It is the island’s major attraction for nature exploration (small wetlands, river mouths, leafy beaches shaded with Platanus!). (And two municipal camp sites exist within it). It is threatened primarily by immanent incremental development: building of any kind. Developmental sprawl for holiday homes, unchecked tourism sprawl. Fortunately due to Greece's economic depression this kind of building-up has stalled and slowed-down after 2008. The area needs a special study, special zonation, to protect it as a "landscape monument" within the wider protected area. It is within the wider Natura 2000 zone.
  •  Water over-exploitation and reckless water wasting are observed in many areas, particularly the north and west. This despite the island’s UNIQUE abundance of water! Although the island population is much smaller today (about 2800), the need for water is heightened due to summer tourism, summer irrigated small-agriculture, etc. Several streams have become “artificially intermittent” in their lower sections during the summer; we have not yet charted this phenomenon, but it is well known by observant locals.
  •  Local water pollution. Katsambas, Polypoudi (upper sections) and Lakoma streams have local pollution; this can probably be abated if point-source pollution is treated and enforced. Some areas of wetlands area also filled in and generally polluted (the small lagoon near Kamariotissa for example – typically “trashed”).
  •  Lots of people are complaining about overfishing; a rapid drop of fishery resources. There is a local interest in a protected area (since a part is also in the Natura 2000 network as a Special Protected Area). This issue need special study. The wild coastline on the southeast and parts of the north could be protected from spear-fishers, for example. Huge trawlers in Kamariotissa Harbor also need to be monitored. But the fisheries impact is definitely catastrophic; certainly unsustainable.
  • All of us talk a lot about “overgrazing” as a heavily destructive pressure on the island. Ok on Samathraki it is! More than 90 000 head of goats (this is an unvarified estimate, please wait for the up-coming 'paper'...). The issue of overgrazing has been challanged by the cultural landscape concept - see works by Rackham....As most terrestrial ecologists know, in many parts of Europe a LACK of grazing is a really problem – so this incongruous condition is interesting. I have had some experience with this down in Southern Euboea, so it is familiar ground, and I have studied the controversial approaches to restoration. Here on Samothraki, we need to act carefully and we need to understand the real conditions that promoted the recent increase in grazing (EU subsidies...). The grazing problem needs very careful study ASAP. However, my opinion is that other environmental problems are more severe at this point in time on Samothraki. The grazing issue is very sensitive and its a social issue as well (...we can easily f*ck up our protected area planning if we make planning mistakes here...). I recommend we focus BOTH on the 'grazing issue' and the 'Forest Protection Issue' they are related but in conservation applications very important distinct streams of actions. Forest conservation on Samothraki means protecting remnant stand from vegetational degeneration (i.e. stopping the overgrazing impact in order to induce natural regeneration) but also seeing where and how we can bring real woodland back (i.e. around remaining stands etc). The 'grazing issue' needs incentives and social work to support shepherds.
  •  What kind of ‘conservation area’ designation should we plan for on Samothraki? I have a feeling that in most European countries the degree of distinctiveness, wildness, awe-inspiring aesthetic qualities, biodiversity richness, rarity of features, etc etc would point to National Park status for most of the island. A MAB reserve proposal is being ‘processed’ so the statement for a conservation area has gone ‘international’. The local authorities want to support protected area designation but they are still not well versed in such things. It will take time, commitment, real engagement of the locals, is this worth it? Yes as I grow older, I want to see a ‘feasibility study’for conservation area designation planning; it is not easy to say what we can do and why we want such a “Park” for Samothraki. And making parks has become unfashionable now-a-days. So let’s keep thinking, studying and supporting Samothraki.
*Samothraki Nature Observatory/ Παρατηρητήριο Σαμοθράκης

(Note: for further information on inland water fishes of Samothraki please read:

Just outside of Hora: A 'ruined landscape'...professor Rackham you stand corrected!...However this is an extreme 'view' trust me. Its bad on Samothraki but this extreme state of  'bad' is localized.

Ano Karyotes riparian forest - Platanus dominated.
Lianas in 'warmer' lower elevation riparian forest in the lower Polypoudi stream riparian.
Ano Karyotes sampling site; note the naturists sun-bathing for scale.
'Agios Petros' streamlet near Kipos: new sampling site with perennial flow.
Varades stream, this year with perennial flow to the sea and small mugilids in the shallow streambed.
Stream pool, blocked by shingle beach at 'Agios Petros' after late spring-early summer rains. 
Polypotamos stream-mouth, temporary pooling water after unusual summer rains.
Polypoudi river-mouth now almost totally dry, a small pump-house provides a very small dripping water source.  No stranded fish found in the former pool, so no fish enter...
Selfie while electrofishing at upper Polypoudi: deep pools, huge bolders, Platanus roots: great Eel habitat, no Eels! Negative data is DATA!!!
Mauremys rivulata found in the polluted waters of Polypoudi near Alonia. Although the species is "pollution-tolerant" to some degree its insular populations are fragmented and vulnerable.
Perfect conditions for seine netting - fish are trapped in small muddy cove!
Collecting lagoon fishes, and lots of shrimp.
Anastasia and I with the fry-net at Agios Andreas Lagoon. Storm was coming.
'Almyri' Lagoon, just south of Agios Andreas. Great area of outstanding botanical and ornithological interest.
Storm coming from the West: An hour later we were totally drenched. (Not a Holiday beach environment...).
The "Mentha" micro-wetland at Varades, usually dry even in spring (see earlier posts); now with pools!!!

Agios Andreas Lagoon looking very Norwegian...(Thanks Robin for the aesthetic photo)
Immediately after a rainstorm, a sunset from Panayia Krimniotissa.
Perhaps and endemic plant; in the rain at Panayia Krimniotissa. Please correct me Mr. Biel.
Part of the team: Vasso, Anastasia, Nikos, Maria and Robin.