Migration massacres on route to Pidwa

It is the 26th of September and so far we have recorded the return of 3 migratory bird species to Pidwa. First (as is always the case) were the lesser striped swallows. Next, came the Wahlberg’s eagles (this week a sighting of a pale and brown morph together) and then most recently, the call of a Klass’ cuckoo was heard in the Askari garden. Over 130 bird species in southern Africa are migrants, some undertaking massive journeys from Europe and Asia (Palaearctic-African migrants) while others migrate from within Africa itself (Intra-African migrants). The word migrate is derived from the Latin word ‘migrare’ which means to ‘move from one place to another’. It is normally associated with a predictable journey that takes birds from their breeding area to a non-breeding area and all the way back again.

For us, the arrival of migrants signals the start of spring and the hope that some summer rains may soon be on the way. But in fact it should symbolise something even more…..a sheer miracle that they have even made it at all! Flying such long distances is a risky endeavour with many challenges along the way. Natural obstacles include weather conditions, exhaustion and shortages of food……but wait, we haven’t even started with the humans yet. ‘Stop-over’ sites are vital on route, providing essential refuelling stations for energy and food. Many bird species have historical stop-over sites, known to be a reliable source of food and it is believed that their locations are passed on from generation to generation.

Today however these birds face a new threat. As if their migration was not dangerous enough already, human destruction is now having a serious impact on the habitat and integrity of the stop-over sites and consequentially, the millions of birds that rely on them.

August sees millions of birds leaving their European breeding areas for their wintering ground in Africa. The flight path for many takes them across the eastern Mediterranean www-middleeasteye-nettowards Egypt where the Nile valley is a significant water and insect source for travelling birds and a way to avoid the desert. On arrival however they are faced with a high chance of death as hundreds of kilometres of coast are lined with nets up to 20 feet high. On one stretch of coast the nets are unbroken for 70 kilometres with military bases and towns being the only safe passage for birds.

It is estimated that 140 million birds die in nets across Europe and northern Africa every year. While particular species are targeted for trapping, the nets are indiscriminate and kill 1 in 20 of the birds arriving on the coastline. Even more dangerous than Egypt is Italy, where an estimated 5.6 million birds are killed every year. More than 150 species of bird are losing individuals in significant numbers.

Species targeted include chaffinch, black caps, quails and thrushes. Cranes, storks and large raptors are also desired including charismatic species such as the Egyptian vulture, Pallid harrier and Peregrine falcon. The falcons are sold at high cost to Arabian sheikhs who use them for hunting. What used to be subsistence killing is now increasing at a dramatic and alarming rate…..recreation, profit and even medicinal uses are now on the agenda. European golden orioles are believed to be a ‘natural viagra’ and sold in the Arab states. Our very own ‘Red-backed shrike’ which we see on the plains of Pidwa can be found on an Egyptian menu on the Nile coast. While the Cypriots target warblers, the French prefer a bunting on their plate.

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Malta is the only country in the EU who still carry out recreational spring hunting. Although forbidden by the EU’s bird directive, their government allows the annual spring bird shoot which kills 11,000 turtle doves and 5000 quail EVERY YEAR. The turtle dove has shown a dramatic decline in Britain, with populations decreasing by 96% since 1970. It is classified as ‘Near-threatened’ on the EU red list and also now features on the IUCN global red list yet still, the hunt continues. Hunters wait at every tree, or walk through the bush with rifles and torches by night. Shade nets are used to trap those weary migrators looking for some shade. Glue, tar and lime-coated sticks cause huge suffering as a bird becomes stuck, flapping for hours before eventually dying of exhaustion or heat. While laws are in place in Egypt against the illegal netting, they are not enforced. Malta have recently wriggled out of an appeal at the EU against the legality of their spring hunt.

So next time you see a migratory bird species, whether it be here on Pidwa or maybe back in Europe, just take an extra moment to appreciate it. Appreciate what that individual has been through; the human gauntlet it has survived to have completed, what must be, the most dangerous journey in the world.< MIGRATION FACTS AND FIGURES Why migrate? Migration is characteristic of insect-eating birds who follow their food supply between hemispheres. As winter moves in with extreme weather conditions and food shortages, birds migrate to warmer climates where their invertebrate prey are more numerous. The longest migrators Arctic terns hold this title without a doubt. They migrate from their Arctic breeding ground down to the Antarctic pack ice and back again. This takes them 50,000 km and with a lifespan of up to 25 years they could travel one million kilometres in their lifetime! How high do they fly? This varies depending on the species but between about 2000 and 6000 metres above sea level. The record however goes to a Ruppell’s Vulture who was hit by an aeroplane at 11,300 metres!!!! roller

How fast do they fly?

Bar-tailed godwits are known to make the quickest migration on their non-stop journey from the Alaskan Tundra to New Zealand’s north island in just 6 days. That’s an average of 80 kilometres per hour.

Nature or nurture?

It is believed that both the inclination to migrate, as well as the route to follow is inherited rather than learned. Some young birds leave even before their parents do so don’t appear to have to have them lead the way. < References:

Birds: The Inside Story – Rael  & Helene Loon

The Guardian newspaper – www.theguardian.com › Environment › Birds

The BBC – www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-32274233

www.chrispackham.co.uk/category/news/blog/malta-massacre-on-migration

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