Experts at TA confab say improving habitats for migrating birds is crucial to their survival

Germany’s Franz Bairlein: There’s been a dramatic decrease in fowl heading to the trans-Saharan region.

September 3, 2015 04:18
3 minute read.

STARLINGS FLY in formation near Rahat in the Negev last winter.. (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)

Ensuring that wintering and “stopover” birds have access to habitats they require is critical to the future of Mediterranean migration, experts agreed on Wednesday.

“We need to preserve and to restore habitats, because otherwise we will not be able to help these birds,” said Prof. Franz Bairlein of the Institute of Avian Research in Wilhelmshaven, Germany.

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Bairlein was addressing participants in the “2nd German-Israeli Climate Talks,” a three-day event focusing on the impact of climate change on bird migration and on the Dead Sea region. Organized by Tel Aviv University Prof. Yossi Leshem in collaboration with the German Foreign Affairs Ministry and other partners, the convention featured a variety of Israeli, German and Jordanian ornithology and climate experts, as well as government officials.

Experts shared their knowledge in a series of lectures on Tuesday at the university’s Porter School for Environmental Studies, touring relevant sites in the Dead Sea region that evening and the next day. The talks served as a follow-up to a similar convention in December.

Presenting studies that he and his colleagues conducted, Bairlein explained that birds residing in or migrating through Europe “are doing quite well.” In contrast, the numbers of those migrating through the Mediterranean to the trans-Saharan region “are decreasing dramatically.”

“To be able to cope with the desert, these birds need energy,” Bairlein continued, and must accumulate huge amounts of fat as energy storage. “Being fat these serves both the energy and water requirements of these birds. That fueling happens in particular around the Mediterranean.”

Unfortunately, the habitats that these birds rely on are contracting, according to Bairlein, and therefore the food supply is decreasing. Bairlein presented pictures of expansive land plots in Spain covered in plastic for crop growth, identified shrinking space due to aquaculture, and highlighted problems that plant pesticide treatment causes to birds.

“Loss of habitat is basically due to agriculture and human usage, but of course there’s climate change on top of that,” he said.

Examples of climate change include decreased rainfall, storms and late rainy periods. Examining data since the 1980s, Bairlein demonstrated a correlation between dwindling rains and population changes of migratory birds.

“If birds come to stopover, they rely precisely on this area,” he stressed, worried about how Mediterranean lands are at risk of changing very rapidly over next few years.

Leshem expressed similar concerns to The Jerusalem Post prior to the convention. Significant changes have impacted migration patterns, with some bird populations stopping in Israel earlier and others later than their historical arrival dates, exacerbating the problem of available food supply.

Whether changes in migration patterns are influenced by human action or climate change, Bairlein warns that it is crucial to take action in the Mediterranean region. Research with tracking devices and linking the data with ecology can enable scientists to better understand how to proceed.

While researchers have generated significant findings, Prof. Noga Kronfeld-Schor, chairwoman of Tel Aviv University’s zoology department, stressed that “the indications of this disruption are just beginning to be revealed. This field needs much more research and we have to invest much more money and resources to understand the consequences,” she said.

The post-convention vision is to launch a comprehensive international study on the impact of climate change on bird migration, according to Leshem. Partners in such a study are likely to include the German federal government, Tel Aviv University, SPNI, Israel’s Science and Technology Ministry, Israel’s Regional Cooperation Ministry, the Amman Center for Peace and Development and the Palestine Wildlife Society.

Leshem has a long history of conducting research with colleagues in Germany, a country whose birds typically migrate through Israel and the surrounding area. He has also collaborated for years on regional projects with Jordanian and Palestinian partners.

Regional Cooperation Deputy Minister Ayoub Kara expressed optimism on Wednesday that the existing and developing partnerships in the ornithology sector would lead to additional collaboration in the region.

“I hope one day we find ourselves with no borders – like the birds, we could move everywhere,” Kara said. “It’s important for me to find solutions, to make the relationship between us and our neighbors better.”

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