NEWS

Biologist spent 45 days on island tracking habits of a rare seabird

Biologist Giorgos Katsadorakis recently spent 45 days in a lighthouse on the remote island of Psathoura in order to study the Mediterranean shag and its migration pattern. The northernmost island of the Sporades group is indeed remote. There are no ferryboats and only caiques transport tourists in the summer to beautiful Mandraki Beach in the south of the island. The landscape of the western part consists of black rocks and this is where the small jetty of Skalaki is located. In order to disembark from the caique, you have to jump onto the rocks. Katsadorakis met us there and we climbed up to the lighthouse. Believed to have been built in 1895 by Skopeliote artisans, the lighthouse is 25 meters tall and made entirely of stone. There are two bedrooms, a kitchen and toilet on the ground floor. From the top of the lighthouse, there is a breathtaking view of the entire island. The lighthouse operates on photovoltaic panels which provide the necessary electricity to recharge the laptop and mobile phone, Katsadorakis’s only means of communication with the outside world. He has also installed an electronic satellite dish to obtain an Internet connection. He keeps a blog to explain the sort of work he is doing in the ornithological domain. «Many people believe our work involves going on trips and observing birds through the telescope. But this is only a small part of our work. I have so much work that there is not enough time to do it. My aim is to inform and raise people’s awareness about protected areas and in particular about the Alonnissos National Park in the Northern Sporades. I would also like to motivate young people to study biology and go on field trips.» The 48-year-old researcher has studied biology at Athens University and has a PhD in ornithology. He is a scientific consultant for WWF Greece and cooperates with the Greek Ornithological Society (of which he is a founding member) and the Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal (MOm). The Mediterranean shag is a protected species in the European Union but little is known about it in Greece. «A few years ago, we discovered there was a colony of these birds here. I wanted to study them – in Greece there are about 1,200 pairs – and environmental organizations were willing to help. I came here to conduct research but also to do what I love: to be in the wild.» How did he turn his love of nature into a profession? «In 1974, I watched a documentary series on the environment. The Prespes Lakes were shown in one of the episodes and I couldn’t believe it was Greece. I saw cormorants, eagles and pelicans. I was so astounded that I was determined to visit the place.» The opportunity arose during his last year at university when he spotted an advertisement for a student to help a French ornithologist on a project in Prespes. «I was the first to respond and my dreams became a reality. Two years later I was back in Prespes to study the habitats of small birds for my doctoral thesis. I stayed there for 15 years.» I haven’t lived in Athens since then. I spent two years in Zagori, another two in Crete and the last five years in Dadia with my wife and 27-month-old son.» For his research in Prespes he was awarded, along with Myrsini Malakou, the Goldman Prize in 2001, the most important prize in the world for ecological action. He donated all the prize money ($125,000) to the Society for the Protection of Prespes. He has also written seven books, three of which have been translated into English. The shag feeds mainly by pursuit diving. When the seagulls, which do not dive, see them, they accompany them so that they can take advantage of the catch. «There are many questions regarding the shag: What sort of fish do they feed on? How deep can they dive for prey? What times do they feed and how far from the shore? We know that to travel from one end of the island to the other they never fly overland but along the shore.» Katsadorakis watches the birds through his telescope at different times during the day. He makes a note of the time, the azimuth bearing, the distance from the shore, their number, other birds they are with and what they do together, weather conditions and the strength and direction of the wind. On completion of his mission, all the data will be collected and analyzed. «I shall put the positions of the shag on a map with a special software program and, together with other analyses, I shall obtain the information I am seeking. I also register any other birds I see.» After observing the birds with the telescope he examines the nests. Although the island is only 0.771 square kilometers, this fieldwork takes a long time as the nests are not very accessible (in crevices and caves) and often involves climbing the rocks with a torch and mirror to count the eggs and chicks. The dense and prickly scrub that covers the island makes this task all the more difficult. He also sets up nets to catch the birds in order to mark them. «On the small ones, as well as the metal ring, we also attach a ring with different colors as we cannot discern the number on the metal ring through the telescope due to their small size.» According to Katsadorakis: «Ecology means linking everything together. The challenge that I face upon completing the research is to compile a story with a beginning, middle and end about the island.» He added: «Somebody once said that protecting nature is the highest expression of civilization. I absolutely agree. From this point of view, we are a little uncivilized here in Greece.» Katsadorakis does not feel isolated, as there are many unexpected visitors to the lighthouse on the days when the wind does not blow, that is, all kinds of species of birds. He describes the sight as captivating on his blog. Those that write back often congratulate him, encourage him with his work and thank him for «the sea breeze he sends with his vivid descriptions.» (For more information, log on to www.lifeatfaros.blogspot.com.) (1) This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s color supplement, K, on April 15, 2007.