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)

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