THESSALONIKI – Over 500,000 birds winter every year in Greece’s wetlands after flying in from northern Europe, Russia and Southeast Asia, according to the Hellenic Ornithological Society. Since the bird flu scare broke out, migrating birds have been the focus of public attention and their age-old wintering sanctuaries have been under close scrutiny by scientists seeking signs of the disease among migrating flocks. Greece is on one of the main migration routes for birds from Northern Europe and Asia to Africa (and in the opposite direction); it is also one of the largest refuges in Europe for all kinds of feathered creatures. Premature concern Recent concerns over water birds – potential carriers of the disease – proved premature. The period during which these birds migrate to Greece for winter depends greatly on weather conditions, society members say. When the winters are harsh in northern countries, more water birds travel even further south. When the winters are mild, many of them stay closer to their nesting grounds in Northern Europe and Asia. Ornithologists say birds usually begin flying south in September and then their numbers gradually increase, peaking in January. During February, most of them begin to fly north again toward their nesting grounds. Only a small number of water birds have arrived in Greece so far this year. Their numbers are expected to increase as of this month. Water birds from northern countries often settle in the major wetlands in northern Greece, particularly Macedonia and Thrace, usually following large rivers such as the Evros, Nestos, Axios and Strymon. Large numbers of water birds collect in the wetlands of western Greece along the Ionian coast. Although wild birds are losing their habitats throughout Europe and viruses are one of the greatest threats to them, the greatest damage has been to birds living in Europe’s agricultural ecosystems, mainly because of the intensification of farming methods. According to BirdLife International, although Greece implements environmental farm programs over less than 2 percent of its cultivated areas (as much as Belgium and the Netherlands), it has 192 Important Bird Areas (IBAs). Of these, 90 percent include a greater percentage of cultivated land than any other country in Europe. Barren earth Apart from the intensification of farming methods, the abandonment of farming practices is seen as the greatest threat to birds in 609 IBAs, since important features of the ecosystems in these areas that favor the maintenance of a high biodiversity are lost. Parts of the country where intensive farming has not yet exhausted the soil, where land is left fallow and crop rotation is practiced, are protective havens for birds. So is scrubland, uncultivated land, cultivated fields, rocky islets, wind barriers and even low drystone walls on the island where reptiles, small mammals and insects live. Fallow land and meadows provide food in autumn for many seed and insect-eating migratory species (chaffinch, goldfinch, serin, greenfinch, rock bunting and cirl bunting, among others). Cultivated terraces with vines, olive trees, and fruit trees are winter feeding grounds for robins, blackcaps, rock buntings and fieldfares. Larger olive groves are home to blackbirds, tits, hawks and the common scops owl.