OSME Summer Meeting 2011, Saturday 16 July 2011

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Speakers at the 2011 Summer Meeting, left to right: Geoff Welch, Phil Cannings, Guy Kirwan, Sal Cooke, Jeff Gordon and Andrew Lassey (Ian Harrison/OSME)

Speakers at the 2011 Summer Meeting, left to right: Geoff Welch, Phil Cannings, Guy Kirwan, Sal Cooke, Jeff Gordon and Andrew Lassey (Ian Harrison/OSME) After last year’s Middle Eastern weather, things were ‘back to normal’ for this year’s Summer Meeting and AGM with overcast skies and torrential downpours! However the programme of talks took the audience of 44 members and guests to the four corners of the OSME region. The first speaker was Phil Cannings who gave an overview of his work advising on the development of a protected areas network in northern Cyprus. This has involved everything from identifying sites and developing the relevant legislation to preparing management plans and increasing local capacity through training staff and providing facilities and equipment. Seven priority sites have been identified and six are now officially protected. All bar one are coastal areas, the exception being the Kyrenia Mountains site which is important for breeding raptors and is the only site in the EU where Egyptian Fruit Bat Rousettus aegyptiacus is found. Compared with most other coastal areas in the Mediterranean, the beaches of northern Cyprus are still little developed and so most are very rich botanically and three of the selected sites are important turtle nesting areas. Because of its location, northern Cyprus is very important for migrating birds, especially in autumn, and the island has two endemic species Cyprus Warbler and Cyprus Wheatear, both of which are relatively common and widespread. Phil’s work is ongoing with the next stages being the recruitment and training of additional staff, implementation of management plans and legislation and the integration of the plans into the wider planning process to ensure that Cyprus’s important species and habitats are protected for future generations to enjoy. From the Mediterranean, the focus shifted to the north with a talk by Jeff Gordon on the Manych Wetlands and Caucasus area of Russia. Technically speaking, the Manych Wetlands are just outside the OSME region but the area is of outstanding importance as a migration stop over site and wintering area for many birds either breeding or passing through the region. The wetlands are best known as an important stopover over site for Sociable Lapwings, with over 2,000 birds recorded in 2009. However, Jeff also gave the audience a taste of the many other species using the site. Wintering wildfowl include 30,000 Greater White-fronted and 1,000 Red-breasted Geese, 4,000 Scaup and up to 5,000 White-headed Ducks, while breeding species include 2,000 pairs of Red-crested Pochard, 200 pairs of Demoiselle Crane, Little Bustard, Pallas’s, Slender-billed and Mediterranean Gulls (20,000+) and over 100,000 Rose-coloured Starlings! Very large numbers of waders pass through in spring and autumn and Black-winged Pratincole can be very numerous with, on one occasion, a flock of 22,000 birds. In contrast to the wetlands, Jeff also spoke briefly about the Caucasus region which includes the Elbruz Mountains, the highest in Europe. Specialities of the region include Caucasian Grouse, Caspian and Caucasian Snowcocks, Guldenstadt’s Redstart and Red-fronted Serin. Four species of vulture and five of eagle breed and the area is important for raptor migration. For the visiting birdwatcher, accessing the high tops is relatively straightforward thanks to a ski lift which takes you to over 3,000 m. The first speaker of the afternoon was Guy Kirwan who gave a fascinating presentation on the taxonomy of Socotran birds. Because of its extreme age, over 37 million years, Socotra has a very high level on endemism, with almost 50% of the island’s 825 species of plant being unique, and its avifauna has a pronounced Afro-tropical influence. Prior to the OSME expedition to the island in 1993, Socotra was little known and, of its birds, 6 species and 12, possibly 13, sub-species were considered endemic with the status of the Socotran Buzzard unclear. Nowadays, thanks to a combination of studies looking at morphology, vocalisations and genetics, it is accepted that Socotra has at least 10 endemic species and 4 endemic sub-species. The major changes as the result of these studies are that Socotra Buzzard, Socotra Scops Owl, Socotra Golden-winged Grosbeak and Abd al Kuri Sparrow are all now confirmed as valid species. The precise taxonomy of Socotra Cisticola, and the sub-species (?) of Somali Starling and Southern Grey Shrike on the island have still to be finalised. Many questions remain to be answered though. For instance what are the precise affinities of the scops owl? It sounds very similar to Oriental Scops Owl from India but genetically is close to Seychelles Scops Owl. The fourth speaker of the day was Geoff Welch who stood in at very short notice for Rob Sheldon who was unable to attend. Geoff gave a brief account of the work of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL) in promoting the hima protected area concept as a viable alternative to official protected areas. The hima approach is based around sustainable management of natural resources by local communities. The approach dates back more than 1,500 years and was widespread in the Arabian Peninsula and lands bordering the Red Sea. SPNL is promoting the hima approach at six Important Bird Areas (IBAs) covering a range of habitats from mountain forests to marine areas. An important element of the approach is the direct involvement of local community members throughout the process, from planning to implementation. Because community members have a direct stake in the site and receive direct benefits from successful management, protection and management should be sustainable. As the resources for the management of official protected areas become scarcer, it is important that conservationists develop alternative means of financing and managing sites and the hima approach has great potential for achieving this. The final presentation of the day was a double act by Sal Cooke and Andrew Lassey on ornithological research in Kazakhstan. Andrew gave a resume of ornithology in the country and the important role played by the Institute of Zoology in Almaty. Many of the great names associated with species found in the region worked there – Peter Simon Pallas (gull, sandgrouse, warbler), E A Eversmann (redstart, pale-backed pigeon), Nikolai Zarudny (numerous sub-species) and N A Severtzov (tit warbler) to name but a few. In 1946 over 300 scientists were employed in the Zoological Section of the Institute, today there are less than 10 many of whom are working in a voluntary capacity as there is no money to pay them and facilities are either totally lacking or extremely basic. The skins collection is in a particularly poor condition with no suitable storage facilities. Despite these hardships, research is continuing and the skins collection has played a key role in unravelling the Turkestan/ Daurian Shrike complex, splitting Booted Warbler into two species, separating Pale Martin from Sand Martin and ongoing studies of the Lesser Whitethroat and Asian Short-toed Lark complexes. OSME has recently coordinated an international effort to provide the Institute with suitable specimen boxes which were surplus to requirements at the Natural History Museum, Tring, a small but significant start to safeguarding this unique resource. Sal then took over a gave a characteristically enthusiastic and humorous account of the practicalities of participating in an ornithological expedition to Kazakhstan. The hardships – a bed, privacy, ensuite facilities - dream on! The opportunity to see and compare Phylloscopus warblers such as Greenish and Hume’s side by side. The stunning – Himalayan Rubythroat (makes Siberian look dull!) But most importantly, the breathtaking landscapes, the sheer number of birds at some sites and the camaraderie and dedication of the other expedition members. During the AGM, held immediately after lunch, the following changes to the Society’s Council were noted and approved. Richard Prior and Chris Lamsdell ended their terms of office and Richard Bonser resigned during the year due to pressure of work. All were thanked for their contributions to the running of OSME. After being co-opted in February, Helen Demopoulos was elected on to Council. OSME would like to thank the British Trust for Ornithology, and especially staff members Dawn Balmer and Nick Moran, for allowing the Society use of the facilities of The Nunnery for the day’s meeting. The social dinner after the meeting was a great success and OSME seemed to have taken over the Dolphin for the evening. It was good to see so many people there taking the opportunity of renewing old friendships and making new ones. Nick Moran’s bird walk on the following day, Sunday, was a new departure and again was very successful. Those who participated had good views of Stone Curlew and Woodlark, both Brecklnad specialities, although the weather was a little too windy to get good views of Firecrest.