Sunday, September 28, 2014

What is Birding? in Athens...

Birding with our dog Teemo. He is leashed to my belt so I don't lose him.

Birding is a kind of quirky observation-meditation activity that usually non-scientists do. But it is a scientific way of observing nature. Its a way of 'being imersed' in nature, very much like hunting perhaps.

I bird in a big city, in Athens.
All my life I have thought that birding in the middle of a city can only be a bit boring.
This is not true. Anyone can learn to appreciate birding in a city - its interesting to observe; good recreation. This is not exactly an easy thing to do in a city that is not green, nor very open, nor well-planned for nature. Also a very dry and hot city for at least five months of the year. Athens.

The zen of birding.
You stalk birds.
You go into a real trance and think of nothing else; you hunt passively. Real observation, focus.

What you see:
Once in a while you see birds, you focus on them up close with your expensive binoculars. You study birds more as individuals. Sometimes you take a camera to take pics - to impress others. Sometimes you just have a 'bad' day. No birds. Sometimes a surprising lack of anything interesting shows up. But more often than not, I get surprised. I see new things.

Thanks to birding. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Natura 2000 project: Surveying with P.S. Economidis

A.N. Economou, former Directer of IMBRIW- HCMR with P.S. Economidis (R): Two important ichthyologists under Mt Iti.
Sept 11th 2014

Panos S. Economidis, Professor Emeritus of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, a pioneering Greek ichthyologist. A foundation-scientist of Greek ichthyology, especially important in shaping our understanding of freshwater fishes, their systematics and biogeography. 

It was a real pleasure to be in the field again with this legend of fish systematics - a man who has been active in Greek ichthyology since the early 1960s. He continues to be active writing and participating in research; he is now 80 years old. 

He has done so much for Greek ichthyology yet most of this work is unknown by the wider public in Greece. No other ichthyologist has published so much and such important natural history aspects in this country. For me some of his most important achievements include: "Catalogue of the Fishes of Greece" (1973); the amazingly descriptive and interpretive PhD on freshwater fishes of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace (1974); his work on systematics of many endemic fishes (The goby family; Barbus, Cobitis and other genera); his biogeographical regionalization work (e.g. with Banarescu 1991); his "Checklist of the Freshwater Fishes of Greece" (1991) and his pioneering species conservation assessment work. He has also written widely on many issues in the popularized literature, both on freshwater and marine fishes. Economidis's career included many fruitful collaborations with foriegn big-name scientists who visited Greece to work with him on the taxonomy of fishes. He and his associates discovered several fishes new to science in our waters. Professor Peter J. Miller named an entire genus of fish in his honour: Economidichthys. And there are fishes honouring him with reference to his name: Salaria economidisi and Rutilus panosi. Under the tutelage of the Late Professor Antonis Kanellis, Economidis also pioneered carefully constructed common names and standardized them during his contributions in two National Red Data books. He coordinated the conservation assessment of threatened fishes in the latest National Red Data list in 2009. 

Economidis is a strict and hard scientist working in a country that is wonderfully chaotic but 'soft' about issues such as fish conservation. He has been out-spoken and often a confrontational conservation and fishery management critic. He has a beautiful command of the Greek language and has a photographic memory - going back many decades. I do not agree with all he says, but every time we meet I urge him to write more, especially the popularized aspects and the history of the science in Greece. I enjoy a good and long discussion with him, especially on the history of early fish research, on places and species systematics; and on famous and not-so-famous persona of our field. Three days with Economidis is not enough. 

Here I share some snapshots of our three-day survey trip from Sperchios to Mornos rivers. The legendary fish-man of Greece, Economidis, was accompanied by Vasiliki Chrysopolytou of the Greek Biotope and Wetland Center (EKBY), my personal mentor A.N. Economou, and our super field ichthyologist, Vassilis Tachos from HCMR. All this within the frame of our Natura 2000 fish survey project.

Economidis: In active discussion on the biogeography of freshwater fishes, Moschochori Village, Sperchios Delta.

Economidis and Zogaris:  I feel like 'standing on the shoulders of giants", a great privilege to learn from a legendary fish-man.
The Natura 2000 fish crew: Exploring reed-choked canals in the upper part of the Sperchios river delta. 
Keeping Protocol: Vasiliki Chrysopolitou from EKBY helps in the quality control aspects of the survey method.
View from the Sperchios marshes ditch. Where are the fish? (Only three species caught here). 
One of the upper Sperchios Delta's canals with cool spring waters and seven species of fish! 

Sperchios canal was full with Marathon Minnows and many amphipods.
Top: Three-spined Stickleback; Bottom: Greek Stickleback. The latter one of the rarest fishes in Europe!

Sampling with the seine net in the river-mouth of the Achinos Stream near Karavomylos (Maliakos Gulf).
Grey mullets are typical transients in small river mouths such as the Achinos.
An unexpected catch: A huge marine prawn (Penaeidae) had entered the river mouth at the Achinos river.
Vassilis electrofishing in a spring-fed canal in the Mornos Delta. Super hot-spot for rare fishes....but hard to catch.
Vassilis Tachos HCMR's super field ichthyologist checking and re-checking the habitat and pressures protocol, on site at Mornos Delta. 
The freshwater blenny, Salaria fluviatilis, one of my favorite inland waters fishes - in the spring fed canals of Mornos.
Beach seine netting for estuarine fishes in the Mornos Delta. 

Unidentified and uncaptured fish, biggish bottom feeders: potentially Albanian Barbels Luciobarbus albanicus.

Economou and Chrysopolitou: Taking careful notes of fishes caught during the electrofishing survey.

Super-clear cold spring waters extremely important for endemic fishes: This area that is just beyond the boundaries of the local Mornos Delta Natura 2000 protected area: Boundaries should change...

Thursday, September 4, 2014

What's this minnow worth?

An unknown species of Minnow Phoxinus from a spring in Eastern Thrace
(image provided by Serdar DÜŞEN & Gürçay Kıvanç Akyıldız).
What is this minnow worth?

Some ways to answer, in all honesty:

1) The value of a single species should be accounted for not by money but by time. Evolutionary time and more!

I was sent this photo of a little minnow (...a Phoxinus minnow, still unclassified, unidentified...). It lives in a cold water spring in the headwaters east of the Ergene river, NW Turkey (Trakya). It has probably been there for thousands of years, surviving in the special cool-water springs. If they dry-up or become polluted the minnow will vanish.

2) Each species is part of our natural heritage. Do you know so little about your history, your natural heritage? Do you appreciate any other values - other than monetary?  Biodiversity loss is a desecration of heritage.

3) Extinction is a loss of a treasure of natural selection. The loss of genetic adaptation, of ecological relationships within an ecosystems. It has taken millenia to develop these natural networks; do we have any right to exterminate a product of evolution?

3) This small fish is a rarity. For this reason alone its value far outweighs many commonplace human achievements (e.g. irrigation networks). The fish lives in a tiny bit of paradise - which is also a rarity in the landscape (the cool-water spring). Some people will ask "How much is a spring ecosystem worth?" But people will drink it up and exploit it if someone doesn't speak out. The fish is one of many reasons to speak out!

4) In scientific terms, the fish can recite a biology, a history, a geography, a cultural relationship. It is a wider indicator of climatic, geologic and hydrological conditions and resources. Its sanctuary, the natural spring, is a part of a "bio-geo-historical monument". And the fish is only a small part of the ecosystem it lives in. Saving the fish, saves a whole ecosystem. The scientists - naturalists can describe the spring in detail (just like archeologists describe a historical monument). Trust the scientists: they spend their lives exploring species, connections and places. And laws that protect this fish and its place are built on this scientific understanding.

5) A spring without its minnows loses half its fascination. Knowing about the fish, observing it in its waters offers sensations and emotions so deep that they give value....and quality to life. Without the fish, its native habitat would seem half dead.

6) Someone needs to speak for the fish....And I for one feel it is my privilege to participate. To confront the question: what is it worth?
What a shallow and sterile economistic view of life on Earth!

I feel there is an intrinsic value here that we must appreciate more than any monetary values. It is part of the cultural ecosystem services provided by nature to humans. The naturally evolving brilliance of wildness; the uniqueness of life-forms. This is the major incentive in acting to defend the fish and this little paradise that sustains it. And yes, nature conservation is a cultural act. Without cultural development no one can understand intrinsic values. Without understanding you cannot see the beauty, or the spirit of the meaning; or to feel love for a place. A major incentive should be love; that is why we work for conservation.

A famous Turkish spring, the "Aulocrene" of classical literature, near the Anatolian town of Dinar; it is now called Karakuyu Gölü. Its waters are crystal clear and cold! Places like this are hot spots for aquatic biodiversity. 

#1. I thank Dr. Serdar DÜŞEN and Dr. Gürçay Kıvanç Akyıldız for 
supplying me with the minnow photo - it is one of many such photos I recieve for idntification. 
#2. I dedicate this note to all the people in the countryside in all Mediterranean countries who have asked 
the question "what it is worth" aiming to find amunition to "same places". You will succeed!