The following text is a translation of the documentary produced by Top Channel 'Exclusive' about the International Waterbird Census 2018 in Albania. The video is available here.
Birdwatching can be done with a naked eye or by using binoculars and telescopes. When observing birds the sound is also very important, because many species are identified not only visually but also by sound, especially at the start. The early interest in observing birds for their aesthetic rather than utilitarian values is traced to the late 18th century. Initially, birdwatching was a hobby undertaken in developed countries such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom. During this time, people were interested not only to observe the birds but often to collect eggs, the skin and feathers, being the artifacts of interest at the time. Wealthy collectors made use of their contacts in colonies across their empires to obtain specimen from around the world.
In North America, identification of birds could only be done using gunshots, but eventually researchers started using guidelines during field identification. The first books with photos and illustrations were published, becoming best-sellers.
It was only in the late 19th century that the call for bird protection began, which lead to rising popularity of observing living birds. Different associations started to protect birds from the growing trade in feathers.
Many observers are passionate about birdwatching. Apart from their beauty, birdwatching offers valuable statistics about each species and the tendency to decrease or increase in certain populations. So birdwatchers can contribute to bird counting.
In Albania, the process started in the first years after the regime change. The first available data were registered in 1993. While in the last three years, the bird census was carried out with the support of the NaturAL project, financed by the European Union. The project aims to halt the loss of biodiversity in Albania through improving management of the protected areas in Albania.
Wetlands are the most important habitats for migratory birds. After passing the summer in Europe, they move during the winter to warmer areas in the south, through the Mediterranean Sea to Africa. Most of them stay in Albania and along the Adriatic coast towards Africa, creating the so-called Adriatic flyway.
The best time for birdwatching is early in the morning when the birds are more active and easily countable. A birdwatching tower is a good place to observe birds along the sea, river or lake.
“It’s been over 50 years since the start of this process around the world. In Albania it started in 1993, almost 25 years ago, with the support of foreign ornithologists”. – said Mr. Taulant Bino, Ornithologist Expert.
“Each place needs to have as much information as possible regarding its natural resources. Birds are part of the biological diversity that we have. Sometimes people see them as passengers or as flying species, but they are a tourism opportunity and part of the natural resources that Albania has. This gives a new input for Albania. On the other hand, keep in mind that some birds are subject to hunting, even though we are in a phase of preventing hunting in Albania. When the time is right, having in mind the state of bird species in Albania, we will inform the public about those species which could be hunted. These two elements are worthy enough to state that we have done a good work on birdwatching”. – said Mr. Zamir Dedej, Director of National Agency for Protected Areas in Albania.
According to environmental experts, Albania is ranked among the ten most interesting places in the world, in terms of nature tourism and adventure, with an incredible potential for increasing the number of visitors. For this reason, the European Union is strongly supporting nature protection initiatives in Albania, by creating visitor centers and trails in protected areas, which encourage tourism and community development in these regions. The NaturAL project is implemented by the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation, International Union for Conservation of Nature and Italian Botanical Society. Its representatives are assisting Albanian observers and giving them the necessary support in this process.
“This is a project developed and financed by the European Union, with focus on environment protection and especially biodiversity conservation. Albania is rich in biodiversity, which was particular value in comparison with other countries in Europe. Therefore it deserves special attention and direct protection, to better understand that between conservation and development there is a shared point of interest. The main attention is focused on protected areas conservation, their natural values and biodiversity. In Albania there are a lot of protected areas which have high natural values that needs better conservation and management. The NaturAL project takes care to provide appropriate guidelines to NAPA and RAPA staff. We as a project, have provided the means of transport and other technical equipment necessary to carry out this monitoring process, with the aim of strengthening institutional capacities for nature conservation and promotion”. – said Mrs. Caterina Carugati, Team Leader, Project NaturAL.
The census is carried out each year at the same period. This year, it took place from 11 – 14 January 2018, across 21 wetlands, with the participation of more than 70 Albanian observers and 10 Albanian and international experts.
“The census is carried out once a year in mid-January, leaving enough time for experts to count their data. In this way, the world's population of water birds is estimated. In addition, we monitor and provide data for other birds that are of national and international importance, such as predatory birds”. – said Mr. Bino.
Divjaka - Karavasta National Park is the top site for waterbirds with about 46,165 species. For this reason, we decided to follow the census process in this area.
“We have seen very interesting species in Karavasta, such as the presence of great spotted eagle which is an endangered and quite rare species, and thousands of ducks scattered all over the wetlands”. – said Mr. Bino.
Divjaka – Karavasta National Park is the home for the Curly Pelican and for more than 200 other wild birds.
“Albania has a lot of wetland sites, especially coastal ones, which have an extraordinary naturalness. The park has an endless water surface, under the dynamic influence of two rivers. It is a lagoon created in these last 15 years as a result of the Shkumbini River dynamic which often changes its course. This peculiar and uncontrolled phenomenon is appreciated because it affects the natural ecosystem. The Karavasta lagoon has this characteristic, unlike many areas in the world. ”. – said Mr. Bino.
“We are doing the WaterBird Census in this very important area in Albania such as the Karavasta Lagoon, that holds a high diversity of birds. We find ducks and a lot of other birds from which the most important is the Curly Pelican, found also in the surrounding wetlands. The WaterBird Census is done in this period of winter because the birds stay in those specific areas for about a month and in mid-January we count all the birds present in the area. This method is followed for each individual, or when they are grouped the counting is done by 10, 20 or 100 individuals. This process is carried out all over the world especially in Europe, in the Mediterranean (Albania, Italy, France) but the WaterBird Census includes also countries of north Europe” – said Marco Gustin, Ornithologist, BirdLife Italy.
The census is done for wintering water birds that come to our areas to pass the winter, but also for those which are present all the time, a trend that is seen also during the nesting period.
“Last year the temperature was lower and because of that there were more birds present in comparison to a year ago. But if we compare it starting from the first year when the Waterbird Census started from 1993 – 2018, the trend of waterbirds has decreased. The highest count was 250 000, whereas in the last year there were 165 000 birds, showing a significant decrease. Numbers show that ducks are the most numerous, followed by the Eurasian coot and the black headed gull. There are approximately 70 waterbird species which have been identified, which make the community of 165 000 birds, according to the 2017 count” – Taulant Bino, Ornithologist, National Coordinator for the Census
The census is carried out according to a certain procedure. The first step is to observe the birds from certain points in order to have an exact and comparable reference, which allows for specific comparison of the data from one year to another. Changing the counting points would make the counting false, making the data difficult for comparison and consequently to understand the trend.
“This phase is important because in this way we can give a result of population trend of the species, to understand if a population has increased, if it is stable or is decreasing” – said Marco Gustin, Ornithologist, BirdLife Italy.
After counting the birds through binoculars from each counting point, the next step is to observe the water surface, in order to check where the birds are more concentrated and to define the duties of each group. One group counts the herons, one group the flamingos, one group the ducks and so on. In those cases when a group of birds is large, the experts do a specific division of 2 – 4 groups in one area so that the error margin is as low as possible.
“Sometimes the birds move, but this happens only when the populations are highly disturbed. And for those counting points which are close to each other, we try to follow the counting process at the same time. For example this time we are divided into two groups in the whole lagoon and we are covering different water surfaces in order not to double count. We have avoided this by focusing on specific monitoring points. And when birds are moving from a water body to another, the ornithologists notify each other that this group is coming over, and that it was already counted, so to avoid double counting. There will always be an error, but if we use the same counting method, the error will be the same from one year to another. So it is very important to have the same counting method and the same error, so when you compare the data from one year to another, the error is not important in order to understand the population trend. We are more interested in the population trend than in their numbers” – Taulant Bino, Ornithologist, National Coordinator for the Census.
At the end of the process the data are collected, elaborated and presented to the authorities by giving information on the numbers of bird present in the area, population trends, especially emphasizing the presence of new species, or lower trend of a specific species.
“If we take into account the data until January 2017, it seems that the waterbirds population trend is decreasing. It is not a high decrease but anyway a decrease is present. With all the efforts put those years to protect the wetlands, it seems that the general trend is decreasing and this depends on many factors. One of the crucial factors is climate change. Warmer temperatures allow birds to find food in the north, with no need to come to the south. While in cold periods, such as last year, birds migrate to the south. For example, last year in Albania we had a higher number compared with the general average, with about 166 000 birds in all our wetlands. Only in Karavasta Lagoon the number was 45 000, a double increase compared to the last year”. – said Mr. Bino.
Beside climate change, there are some other influencing factors which are strongly connected with human impact and presence. The use of bird habitats has changed. Most of the wetlands have dried up. Food reserves for animals are lower and human impact is related more with uncontrolled use of agricultural land or other territories once available to birds.
Wetland area managers do the counting and after collecting the data, the respective experts compile a common report and analyze the species to better understand which are the endangered species and which not, which area is the most important and which has the highest biodiversity. These data are compared with the ones of the previous years and then shared with the respective suggestions to the authorities.
The perennial average during the 25 years of water bird counting is 164 000 individuals. This year the number is lower than the average, with 139 000 individuals. However during the last years, in some areas the situation seems to have improved with an increased number of birds such as in Divjake – Karavasta National Park, and Kune – Vain Nature Park.
“Last year we raised the alarm that the population of birds was decreasing, by emphasizing not only the climate change factor, but also the use of territory by humans. These areas are mostly affected by touristic infrastructure development, which directly affect the bird’s habitats. Consequently the population decreases. This is what has always happened in Albania, and it will be a disaster if we continue like this, all whilst we are in the process of EU integration with appreciation of our biodiversity heritage by the European community”. - Taulant Bino, Ornithologist, National Coordinator for the Census.
“During these 3 years of the existence of the National Agency of Protected Areas, we have conducted and participated in three waterbird censuses. The number of participants has increased, as have the capacities of the monitoring staff. And I am proud to say that next year it will be a kind of a test for us, as we will carry out the census without the support of foreign projects. We have started the work and we have collected the data. This is an indicator which we are not so proud of, but it is normal in a counting situation with many challenges. In some areas, bird numbers have decreased because of the weather so birds do not need to migrate. However we notice that their diversity has increased, a lot of new species are present in Albania, the number of predators has increased and this means that there is enough food for some species that have not visited Albania before. This indicator makes us realise that we can have varying numbers of birds, but the idea is that the diversity of species has increased meaning that Albania is becoming a comfortable place for birds”. – said Zamir Dedej, Director of National Agency of Protected Areas
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