OSME Summer Meeting 6 July 2013

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Geoff Welch, handing over to new Chairman, Rob Sheldon

Outgoing OSME Chairman, Geoff Welch, handing over to new Chairman, Rob Sheldon at the Summer Meeting/AGM.

This year’s Summer Meeting, themed around monitoring bird populations in the OSME region, was again held at the BTO headquarters in Thetford and was attended by 55 members and guests.

Paul Stancliffe from the BTO opened the day by providing a brief update on the ongoing satellite tracking study of Common Cuckoos Cuculus canorus. Paul talked at last year’s meeting and within a matter of days the first ever UK Cuckoo turned up in the OSME region! This ongoing study shows that a small number of UK Common Cuckoos regularly pass through Egypt en route to wintering areas in the Congo. Importantly, the study also shows that many birds follow the same route each year and use the same staging and wintering areas. Using the same developing technologies for the study of globally threatened species provides an invaluable tool for conservationists struggling to protect some of the world’s most endangered species.

The second speaker of the day was Marcus Kohler from BirdLife International who gave an overview of the UNDP/BirdLife Migratory Soaring Birds project which focuses on the Rift Valley/Red Sea flyway which runs through the western half of the OSME region. The project, covering 11 countries, focuses on 37 species of soaring bird and is looking to find ways of mainstreaming (integrating) their conservation into five main development sectors – agriculture; energy; hunting; waste management and tourism. The pressures from uncontrolled and unsustainable hunting of birds, not just soaring birds, throughout the flyway is well known and organisations such as SPNL in Lebanon and RSCN in Jordan are devoting a great deal of effort into improving and enforcing legislation, training hunters and raising awareness but there is still a great deal to be done. An increasing problem and one which Marcus talked about in particular is energy production, especially the rapid increase in the number of wind farms being constructed along the flyway. Unfortunately, the ideal locations for wind farms are often also those most favoured by migrating soaring birds so the risk of conflict is very high. Collision with turbines is just one of the risks, others include electrocution, collision with transmission lines and other associated infrastructure, habitat loss, disturbance and barrier effects. The project’s approach is to engage actively with the energy companies and, importantly, the major investment and development banks, in order to find practical solutions such as preparing guidance materials for the siting and operation of wind farms. An additional invaluable tool that is still under development is a sensitivity mapping tool which aims to bring together bird, weather and topographical data to identify those areas of greatest potential conflict so that the planning of future developments can be undertaken to minimise conflicts which will benefit both the energy companies and conservationists. More information on the project is available at - www.migratorysoaringbirds.undp.birdlife.org.

The final speaker of the morning was Wouter Vansteelant who talked about the ground-breaking monitoring and conservation study of migrating raptors at Batumi in Georgia. Although north-east Turkey was known to be important for migrating raptors following studies in the 1970s, it wasn’t until work started at Batumi in 2008 that the scale of the movement and the importance of the eastern Black Sea bottleneck became apparent – 800,000 birds were recorded in the first season and over 1 million birds in 2012! Ten species have been recorded in numbers exceeding 1% of the estimated global population. What sets the Batumi project apart from many other migration studies is that from the start equal emphasis has been given to involving local community members – households, school children, hunters – to build interest and awareness of the importance of the migration and to find ways of delivering tangible benefits from conserving rather than killing birds. Activities have included educational activities for school children, bird guide training courses, promotion of home stays by visiting birders and the launch of the 1st Batumi Bird Festival in 2012 which attracted international media attention and looks set to become an annual event. OSME is proud to have provided support for some of this work previously.

The afternoon’s talks kicked off with Chris Bowden from the RSPB, and Chair of the International Advisory Group for Northern Bald Ibis (IAGNBI), who gave a sobering overview of the fortunes of the eastern Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita population. This population was thought to have become extinct in the wild in 1989/90 when the remaining birds at Birecik in Turkey were taken into captivity but a tiny population of just seven birds was then discovered breeding in Syria in 2002. Despite the declaration of the breeding and feeding areas of these birds as a protected area in 2004 and intensive monitoring and protection work by both Syrian and international conservationists since their rediscovery, the population has gradually declined and this spring only one bird returned from the wintering grounds in Ethiopia. Satellite tracking has identified the migration route and stopover sites for the species and also revealed the many hazards they face, most notably illegal shooting. However, there are two glimmers of hope for conserving this population – four birds were seen on the Ethiopian wintering grounds in 2012/13 so there may still be immature (?) wild birds which may return in 2014; and the Birecik population is doing well and provides a potential source of birds for reintroduction to Syria. Indeed two Turkish juveniles were released in Syria in late summer 2010 and, much to many people’s surprise, successfully migrated as far as southern Saudi Arabia. There are also several projects in Europe aimed at re-establishing the central European population which became extinct several hundred years ago. The Konrad Lorenz Institute has developed a technique for teaching captive bred ibis to migrate between Austria and Tuscany in Italy and a sedentary breeding population has been established in Andalucia, Spain. An International Working Group on the species was established in 2012 and an updated Species Action Plan has been produced. The situation remains dire for the eastern population but the story is far from over.

Rob Sheldon, new OSME Chairman, then gave a fascinating talk about the importance of Central Asia for the endangered White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala – the species for which OSME raised over £1,400 from last year’s raffle and painting auction. White-headed Ducks have four main populations – in Spain, Algeria and Tunisia, Pakistan and Central Asia with the Central Asian population being by far the largest. Significant breeding populations occur in four countries in the OSME region and six OSME region countries are important for passage and wintering birds. The species faces a range of threats including hybridisation with introduced North American Ruddy Duck O. jamaicensis (primarily in western Europe); climate change/drought; and loss of habitat through groundwater abstraction, infrastructure development and increased arable farming. Illegal hunting is also a major problem at some sites. The OSME funds are being used to support research work in central Kazakhstan by the national BirdLife Affiliate, the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK). In a pilot area, research is being carried out to determine breeding numbers and distribution, identify important habitat characteristics, study food availability and sample lead in lake sediments and initial results are expected in November 2013. It is hoped that the work will be expanded next year to include satellite tagging and, hopefully, also to include important sites in neighbouring Uzbekistan.

The final speaker of the day was Maxim Koshkin from Kazakhstan who presented preliminary results of his PhD research project on numbers and distribution of Macqueen’s Bustard Chlamydotis macqueenii in the Kyzylkum Desert of Uzbekistan. Maxim is based at the University of East Anglia and his work is supported by the Emirates Breeding Birds Conservation Centre. Macqueen’s Bustard is highly revered among Arab falconers but numbers have declined dramatically across the species’ range due, especially, to unsustainable hunting. Through a combination of transect surveys, point counts, habitat sampling and monitoring of land use, Maxim is studying the ecology of the species in the Kyzylkum Desert and investigating links with land use such as sheep grazing. Ultimately it is hoped that it will be possible to develop habitat management recommendations and guidelines for sustainable hunting.

The formal part of the day’s proceedings, the 35th Annual General Meeting, saw major changes to OSME Council with the retirement of Mike Blair, Ian Harrison and Geoff Welch. Christine Booth and Chris Lamsdell also stood down as co-opted members of Council. All were thanked for the enormous amount of work they have contributed to the running of OSME. Tristan Reid and Matthew White were elected as new Council members and Rob Sheldon took over from Geoff as the new Chairman of Council. Nabegh Ghazal Aswad, Chairman of the Syrian Society for the Conservation of Wildlife (SSCW) was elected as a new Vice-President. Three important announcements were made at the end of the AGM – Khaled Irani, President of RSCN in Jordan and new Chairman of BirdLife International, sent a personal message expressing a wish to work closely with OSME in the future; at the recent BirdLife World Congress in Ottawa, Richard Porter was appointed a Member of Honour in recognition of his work in promoting conservation throughout the Middle East, especially on Socotra and, more recently, in Iraq; and Ahmad Aidek from Syria became the first recipient of the new OSME Certificate of Recognition as the author of A Guide to the Biodiversity of Deir ez-Zoor Area – see Sandgrouse 35 (2): 167.

Geoff Welch