OSME Summer Meeting 2010

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Azzam Alwash, Chief Executive of Nature Iraq and an OSME Vice-President.
The 2010 Summer Meeting and AGM, held at the BTO headquarters in Thetford on Saturday 10 July, was bathed in glorious sunshine and temperatures which created a genuine Middle Eastern atmosphere. The 42 members and guests that attended were treated to an outstanding programme of talks starting with Simon Busuttil giving an account of three weeks fieldwork at two sites – Banda Mar and Ajar – in north central Afghanistan in 2008. Despite much of the country being off-limits for visiting birders, Simon showed that there is still a great deal of research and conservation work going on, much of it coordinated by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Two strong messages came out of Simon’s talk which were echoed in other presentations later in the day. Firstly, there is a serious lack of data for many areas in Afghanistan (and elsewhere in the OSME region) but reliable data are essential for developing effective conservation strategies, both for lobbying governments to declare protected areas and for compiling practical management recommendations. And secondly, even the remotest sites are coming under increasing human pressure and therefore it is essential that the needs of local communities are fully integrated into future management plans for sites so that management and protection are sustainable.

The second speaker was Raffael Ayé speaking both for himself and his co-investigator Manuel Schweizer who was unfortunately unable to make the meeting. His description of the discovery of the hitherto unknown breeding grounds of the Large-billed Reed Warbler Acrocephalus orinus in the Badakhshan region of Tajikistan was a real story of detective work. Following the ‘rediscovery’ of the species in 2006 after a bird was trapped in Thailand and later analysis of the handful of museum specimens, Raffael suspected that the ‘reed’ warblers he had observed in the eastern river valleys of Tajikistan could possibly be Large-billed Reed Warbler rather than Blyth’s Reed Warbler A. dumetorum as he had originally thought. He therefore made field visits to potential areas of habitat and found ‘reed’ warblers singing at three sites. He was able to trap eight birds at three riverine woodland sites but the biometrics, especially bill length, were all at the upper limit of those reported for Blyth’s Reed and the lower limit for Large-billed. However, all of the birds trapped were consistently at this upper limit which seemed strange so hopes that they were Large-billed were rekindled. This identification was confirmed by subsequent mitochondrial DNA analysis of feather samples conducted by Manuel Schweizer. Raffael pointed out that even among individuals sampled at the same locality, genetic diversity was surprisingly high and interpreted this as the result of secondary contact between previously isolated or fragmented populations. Two recently fledged young were also observed at one site. Recordings of singing birds were made but these have yet to be analysed to look for consistent patterns which will, hopefully, allow reliable identification of the species in the field. The breeding range of the large-billed reed warbler is likely small and the species’ habitat is under intense pressure from the collection of firewood and fodder. Consequently, the Large-billed Reed Warbler remains of considerable conservation concern. More fieldwork is required to determine where else the species may breed – the records suggest that it could be present in Kyrgyzstan and possibly Kazakhstan.

The first speaker of the afternoon was Azzam Alwash, Chief Executive of Nature Iraq and an OSME Vice-President, who gave a spell-binding talk about the loss and subsequent restoration of the marshes of southern Iraq. His graphic account of the systematic drainage and destruction of these huge wetlands by the former Iraqi regime, together with the displacement of the indigenous Marsh Arabs, was heart-breaking but this was tempered by his explanation of how the marshes are being restored, despite ongoing political and practical difficulties. The speed at which the reedbeds and wildlife are returning is amazing and recent fieldwork has shown that the marshes already once again support phenomenal numbers of wintering wildfowl, including 46,000 Marbled Teal Marmaronetta angustirostris - more than the previous total world population estimate! OSME Chairman, Geoff Welch, summed up Azzam’s talk in just three words – humorous, passionate and inspirational – and it is hoped that Azzam will be able to return in a few years to give a further update on the restoration of this globally important wetland. A documentary on the marshes is being prepared by the BBC and will be screened in the UK and America in late 2010.

The fourth talk of the day was a photo safari by Graham Lobley which took the audience on a mouth-watering journey from the shores and coastal mangroves of the Saudi Arabian Red Sea coast to the summits of the inland Asir mountains via the Tihamah plain. Each of the main habitat zones lying between the coast and the mountains has a distinctive flora and fauna which was illustrated by a selection of Graham’s stunning photographs. Typical Arabian species that can be found include Little Green Bee-eater Merops orientalis, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse Pterocles exustus and Pharaoh Eagle Owl Bubo ascalaphus. Nine of the ten South-west Arabian endemics including Arabian Wheatear Oenanthe lugentoides, Yemen Warbler Sylvia buryi and Yemen Linnet Carduelis yemenensis together with several Afro-tropical species such as Bruce’s Green Pigeon Treron waalia and African Rock Bunting Emberiza tahapisi. can be found there. In addition to the birds, Graham also highlighted a variety of other wildlife that can be observed including many endemic plants, several spectacular butterflies such as Plain Tiger and mammals such as Ruppell’s Fox.

The final talk was by Geoff Welch who gave an overview of the Central Asia Important Bird Areas project which has identified 219 sites covering a staggering 21 million hectares in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In additional to explaining how the sites were identified and giving a taste of the bird riches they support, Geoff explained how the project has already been able to influence national legislation in Kazakhstan to improve the protection and management of protected areas, not just IBAs; has established 11 bird clubs across the three countries which is helping to develop the next generation of birdwatchers and researchers; facilitated the growth of the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan (ACBK) from one member of staff in 2004 to over 20 in 2010; and allowed the formation of the Uzbekistan Society for the Protection of Birds (UzSPB), the first bird conservation NGO in the country. Both ACBK and UzSPB have applied to become Partners of BirdLife International.

In addition to the usual administrative and financial items at the Annual General Meeting, Melis Charalambides (Chairman of BirdLife Cyprus) was elected as a new Vice-President and Nick Moran of the BTO and lately of the United Arab Emirates as a new Council member. Colin Richardson and Sharif Al Jabour retired from Council at the end of their five year terms and were thanked for their valuable contributions towards the running of OSME. The other major item on the agenda was the updated Constitution which was adopted unanimously. This has now been accepted by the UK Charity Commission and is thus OSME’s official governing document.