Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Migration Hazards in the Mediterranean

Cyprus: A whitethroat, en route to winter grounds in Africa, is caught on a lime stick. © David Guttenfelder/National Geographic See more at the link.
Long-distance migrants pose complex problems for conservation. Such birds have far-flung breeding and wintering grounds and use multiple places to rest and refuel during migration. They may cross national, even continental, boundaries. A rapidly disappearing species may face threats at any or all of the places it visits. These threats may not all be of the same variety, and it may not be immediately clear which place poses the greatest hazard. In North America, we are familiar with the plight of the Red Knot, whose population is severely threatened because of two decades of overharvesting horseshoe crabs at migratory stopover points but which also might be affected by climate change on its breeding grounds. Loss of stopover habitat in eastern Asia may also explain the disappearance of most of the world's Spoon-billed Sandpiper population.

It seems that a similar situation has taken hold in the Mediterranean. Many birds breed in Europe and spend the rest of the year in Africa. While passing between those two areas, they must stop at multiple points around the Mediterranean. There danger lurks in the form of nearly unrestricted hunting, as Jonathan Franzen reports in the July issue of National Geographic:
Italian hunters and poachers are the most notorious; for much of the year, the woods and wetlands of rural Italy crackle with gunfire and songbird traps. The food-loving French continue to eat ortolan buntings illegally, and France’s singularly long list of huntable birds includes many struggling species of shorebirds. Songbird trapping is still widespread in parts of Spain; Maltese hunters, frustrated by a lack of native quarry, blast migrating raptors out of the sky; Cypriots harvest warblers on an industrial scale and consume them by the plateful, in defiance of the law.

In the European Union, however, there are at least theoretical constraints on the killing of migratory birds. Public opinion in the EU tends to favor conservation, and a variety of nature-protection groups are helping governments enforce the law. (In Sicily, formerly a hot spot for raptor killing, poaching has been all but eliminated, and some of the former poachers have even become bird-watchers.) Where the situation for migrants is not improving is in the non-EU Mediterranean. In fact, when I visited Albania and Egypt last year, I found that it’s becoming dramatically worse.
This is not simply subsistence hunting. The most sophisticated operations capture hundreds or thousands of birds to sell at market. Captured falcons may retail for tens of thousands of dollars. Some hunt birds as a form of recreation, but without the bag limits that restrain recreational hunting in North America. Bag totals have gone up thanks to technological improvements:
Even as quail are becoming very difficult to find in much of Europe, the take in Egypt is increasing, due to the burgeoning use of playback technology. The best system, Bird Sound, whose digital chip holds high-quality recordings of a hundred different bird sounds, is illegal to use for hunting purposes in the EU but is nevertheless sold in stores with no questions asked. In Alexandria, I spoke with a sport hunter, Wael Karawia, who claimed to have introduced Bird Sound to Egypt in 2009. Karawia said he now feels “very bad, very regretful” about it. Normally, perhaps three-quarters of incoming quail fly over the mist nets, but hunters using Bird Sound can attract the higher flying ones as well; already all the mist netters in north Sinai are doing it, some of them in spring as well as fall. Hunters on Egypt’s large lakes have also begun to use Bird Sound to capture entire flocks of ducks at night.
Both mist nets and bird sound recordings are useful for conservation. Bird banders use mist nets to capture, record, and release birds as a part of long-term population monitoring. Bird recordings help birders and ornithologists learn to identify bird sounds, and playback can be used for scientific surveys, particularly of nocturnal species. Like other tools, though, they can be used for good or ill, and in this article we see their darker side.

Hunting around the Mediterranean is not the only threat to these birds. On their European breeding grounds, they face habitat degradation and pressure from poachers and egg collectors. Climate change may disrupt food availability. As Franzen's report shows, the solutions for protecting long-distance migrants will not be simple or easy.

Read the full article.