Balkan alliance for birds

THESSALONIKI – Volunteers have joined forces with experts in a serious attempt to disprove forecasts that our planet is likely to lose many of its animal and plant species in the next 50 years. While climatic changes are making it impossible to save some species, there is hope for many others providing there is a concerted effort and cooperation. Four Balkan countries are working together to save two species of birds that are threatened with extinction, the pygmy cormorant (Phalacrocorax pygmeus) and the white-headed duck (Oxyura leucocephala). Volunteers and scientists from non-governmental organizations in Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania have been working together for two years to study and protect populations of these two species that reproduce and winter in 22 wetlands over these four countries. They are also taking joint action to protect other species: the lesser white-fronted goose (Anser erythropus) and the ferruginous duck or white-eyed pochard (Aythya nyroca). Ornithological societies and other environmental groups in these countries, all members of Birdlife International, have since 2001 been laying the foundations, for the first time ever, for a more permanent form of cooperation which knows no borders and wants to care for birdlife and the environment irrespective of national boundaries. The issue goes beyond the narrow framework of «closer relations and an exchange of views» since the DAC program implemented to register, observe and protect these two species indicated there could also be diplomatic benefits. In the town of Burdur, Turkey, where the white-headed duck winters, the authorities and environmental organizations gave an enthusiastic reception to the program, which was funded entirely by Greece’s Environment and Public Works Ministry. The bird has become the region’s trademark (it appears on publications and packaging material), and at a recent conference representatives of environmental organizations and the municipal authority observed that they had much to learn from Greece’s experience in handling environmental crises, since their lake, although much larger than Lake Koroneia in Thessaloniki, faces similar problems of pollution from dye factories and overexploitation of its water resources. The program was coordinated by the Greek Ornithological Society, Thessaloniki University’s School of Zoology, the Prespa Protection Society and the information centers of Aliakmonas, Kerkini and Evros. The pygmy cormorant is the smallest type of cormorant and its world distribution is restricted to the shores of the Adriatic, the northern Aegean, the Black Sea, Caspian Sea and Iraq. Its population numbers no more than 16,000 pairs. Human activities and the destruction of riverside forests are the main reasons it has stopped nesting in many areas. During the program another colony was found in the Danube delta, where one of the biggest single reed beds in the Balkans was mapped. The white-headed duck is today one of the rarest varieties of duck in the world, with a population of under 13,000 individuals, down from over 100,000 a century ago. In the eastern Mediterranean, it mostly reproduces in Turkey. In Greece, Lake Vistonida in Thrace is one of the most important wetlands in which it spends the winter. Although the program has largely been completed, the Environment and Public Works Ministry has not yet covered all costs, which has delayed the publication of an illustrated children’s book on the pygmy cormorant, published in the languages of the four participating countries.

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