Tuesday, 11 October 2016

A summer of Transylvanian bird ringing surveys

This summer I was fortunate enough to be part of Operation Wallacea's survey team on their annual expedition to the Transylvania region of Romania. For the last four years, the organisation has spent eight weeks each summer in this amazing corner of Europe, where they have been surveying all manner of flora and fauna around a number of rural villages.

Opwall's expeditions across the world (it operates in 14 countries) are fuelled by participating students and researchers. Groups of students from A levels through to Under-graduate and Post-grad levels join on the expedition for differing time periods. Those joining from A level and Undergraduate levels are able to take part in the plethora of different biodiversity surveys being carried out, so as to learn the different techniques used, intricacies of identification and generally the scientific methods used in studying the wildlife of the region. Post-grad and Master students also take part by pursuing their own specific projects - this in turn helps contribute to Operation Wallacea's global publication of a number of papers in peer-reviewed journals across the World.

You can find out more about Opwall and their work here: http://opwall.com/

the view of Daia's impressive spire from the meadows nearby

The primary goal of Opwall's expedition to Romania is to conduct standardised long-term monitoring of the wildlife in each of the villages visited - this will hopefully provide data to illustrate how important it is that traditional farming practices continue; will keep a pulse on any changes in the biodiversity of these areas over the years; and also will add a wealth of information and data to the distribution of important threatened species in the area.

Data and information collected by the surveys is shared with an in-country organisation called Fundatia ADEPT are doing some fantastic work to conserve the biodiversity of this incredibly rich landscape - helping to introduce subsidies and incentives for farmers to essentially not wreck the landscape like we've done here in the UK!

Take a look at Fundatia Adept's website to find out more about the area and their work: http://fundatia-adept.org/

Betony (Stachys officinalis) amongst the grassland at sunrise in Richis (the first village we visited)

I will go into a bit more detail about the awesome landscape and habitats of the Târnava Mare region in another blog post, but here are a few facts to give you a broad picture:
- the Târnava Mare region of Transylvania is essentially 85, 000 hactares of rich flower meadows and woodland
- it is home to around 5,000 families, who are spread out into 30-odd idyllic Saxon villages
- the low-intensity agriculture has fostered an abundant floral community which receives recognition at national and international levels
- It is hailed as harbouring the most extensive area of flower-rich grasslands remaining in lowland Europe
- the area has remained largely unchanged since the arrival of the Saxon communities in the 12th and 13th centuries
- however, a mass exodus of much of the Saxon community in the early 1990s has left the area threatened by intensification, land abandonment and changes to land-use
- 1100 plant species can be found here, which is roughly 30% of the Romanian flora; 87 of these are protected species
- the area is a patchwork mosaic of habitats: roughly 50% hay meadows, 25% pastureland, 10% arable land and between 20-40% forest

The village of Malancrav, nestled in the bottom of a valley bordered by woodland on one side, and a mix of orchards and meadows on the other

So what was my role in the expedition's survey team? 
I was acting as the bird ringing surveyor, the details of which I will expand upon a little later on in the post. Essentially, the ringing surveys have been an on-going part of the survey effort since mid-Wales ringer Paul Leafe helped set them up three years ago. As the team moves from village to village, the ringing survey involves setting up mist nets at a site nearby, which is run for six days to get a taste of the birds present. I was taking over from Paul for this year's trip...

yours truly with a handsome beast: a juvenile Hawfinch

A personal highlight: Bee-eater! 

Where were we based for the seven weeks? I have highlighted the superb Transylvania region of Romania in the map below, and included markers for the six different villages that we visited. These were Richis, Nou Sasesc, Mesendorf, Viscri, Malancrav and Apold. You can check out the locations below...

Each village had its own unique character - and yet they all shared similarities: the pretty saxon-style outlay, the brick-red roofs, colourful line-up of houses along a 'main street', each house having a barn for its personal milking cow and horses for carting around goods. Each village did, however, vary subtly in the surrounding habitats, topography, management and diversity of species. 

The basic rhythm of the expedition ran on a weekly basis beginning on Wednesday: move day. Since all 50-70 of us were staying in tents throughout most of the trip, we would pack up every single one each Wednesday morning, load all our kit and belongings onto a truck and trailer, and then move on to the next village. On arrival, we would repeat the process in reverse, setting up all the tents and kit ready for another week of surveys. 

Since the expedition has been running for several years now, all the sites for monitoring the various different animals and plants are all set out on GPS, with marked points and transects in each village allowing repeatability for the surveys. Ringing sites were slightly less 'fixed', as the habitat can change on a year-to-year basis (e.g. a previously brilliant scrub site might have been razed to the ground...)

camp for the first week, in the village of Richis

a rather romantic setting: the village's herd of communal cattle are herded out for a day's grazing in the surrounding pastures


Anyway, enough waffle. You can just skip to all the pretty pictures of the birds I trapped and ringed during the surveys, but I will also try to describe something of the process involved on a day-to-day basis... 

My basic daily routine:

4.00am - alarm goes off...
I would drag another unfortunate sole (usually an accompanying lecturer and biologist from the states called Jonny Wilson) with me to the ringing site, which was often sited some 30 minutes out of the village. Once on site, we would set about erecting five or six mist nets in strategic positions within the scrub, ready for the morning's activities
5.40am - having set off at a more respectable time of half five from camp, my group of students for the morning would arrive with a Romanian translator ready for the first net round. I would set up a rudimentary 'camp' with the use of a plastic sheet where we'd base ourselves for the morning. Heavy dew most nights (or thunderous rain storms) often rendered the grass and meadows drenched with dampness
6.00am-10.30am - Students would accompany me to check the mist nets regularly throughout the morning, and I would explain the whole process of bird ringing: why we do it, how it should be carried out safely, and what techniques are best to use to age, sex, and take measurements on the birds. Releasing the birds was often a favourite part with most students, as I would show them how to correctly hold a bird for release - and it is always great to see the reaction of the students when they release their first bird!
10.40am - after the last net round, by which time bird activity would have died down due to the mounting heat, I would take down all the nets with the help of the students. We would store the poles and string in a well-hidden spot beside our ringing site to save on lugging the equipment to and from the site every morning.
11.30am - we would typically arrive back at camp sometime before midday, depending on how busy a session it had been, and also on the distance to the ringing site. After stowing away the kit and perhaps treating myself to a shower, I'd usually find out how the other morning surveys had gone: small mammal trapping, surveys for bats and bird point counts were all carried out from dawn to late morning, so it was exciting to hear about any interesting sightings.
1.00pm - lunchtime was always a welcome point during the day, with local hosts being employed in each village to cook the expedition's food requirements (rather extensive when you have over 50 hungry biologists!)
2.00-6.00pm - my afternoons would vary on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes I would go through the previous night's moth trap with students, although we usually only set the Robinson trap out two or three times a week due to the sheer volume of lepidoptera attracted to a bright light in area with such little light pollution.
Aside moth trapping, I'd often carry out some afternoon ringing to target specific species or flocks, such as Tree Sparrows dust-bathing on a track, or a Swallow roost in a nearby reed bed. 
Or I might collapse and spend the heat of the day cocooned in a comfy hammock...
7.00pm - dinnertime: a great time to catch up with how the day's surveys had gone, and catch up with the team and students alike, answer questions or just plan for the next day's survey.
8.00-22.00 - there would usually be evening surveys taking place that I would sometimes join onto, such as bat roost surveys, carrying out transects to monitor the corncrake populations, or setting small mammal traps for the night.

A summary of the typical ringing procedure in pictures...

The students were shown the whole process behind the ringing of birds, from capture to release...

Mist net set and ready to catch. This site was in an orchard in the fourth village, Malancrav

A Maltese group of A-level students being shown the ways to safely extract birds from a mist net; often one of the trickier parts of the ringing process

Our usual 'ringing station' was a tarpaulin laid out on the grass, with a nearby tree used to support the bags of birds awaiting ringing. 

Ringing an adult female Red-backed Shrike

a surprise one morning was coming across a net full of a flock of Hawfinches, most of which were bright juveniles (on the left in this image), with a couple of adult female birds (on the right), and one adult male

one of the great things of ringing with the students and showing them the process was allowing them to release some of the birds. Seeing their reaction when releasing a bird for the first is always pretty special! A compilation of videos of these releases...

The Results
All-in-all I managed to ring just over 1000 birds in the seven weeks, which included some cracking species. The most numerous species were Tree Sparrows (just under 180 ringed), followed closely by the finger-snipping Red-backed Shrikes (139) and Common Whitethroat (127). I have included a selection of the tallies in a table below, although this isn't the complete list.

In addition to new birds, it was brilliant to retrap birds in each village which had been ringed in either of the previous years. Particular highlights included a Lesser Whitethroat which I retrapped on the exact date it had been trapped on the previous year, having initially been ringed in 2014; a female Great Reed Warbler with a brood patch which had been ringed in 2015 as an adult; several Tree Sparrows which had been ringed in either 2014 or 2015.

a selection of species from the ringing totals

Here is a visual representative of some of the above!
Points for guessing them all correct!

Some more images from the ringing activities
Juvenile Red-backed Shrike - no less feisty than their elder counterparts...

Although the bills of adult Red-backed Shrikes (such as this male) tend to be far sharper and much more painfully targeted at the nail bed. James O'neill, a fellow Next Generation Birder, was initially acting as the butterfly survey leader on the expedition

a fresh juvenile Marsh Warbler on the left compared to a more worn-looking adult bird on the right

Golden Oriole! a superb bird to catch, and one whose melodious warbling tune would be resounding around many of the villages towards the beginning of the summer 

Hawfinches: juvenile (left) and adult female (right)

River Warbler (apologies to the birders out there for not picturing the undertail coverts...you'll have to use your imaginations)


So overall it was a superb experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed carrying out the surveys and showing the students all that is involved with the ringing process

And it wasn't just about the birds! I'll be following up on this post with further blogs on the insects and other wildlife we saw whilst out there...

Mullein standing tall amongst the wild carrot above the village of Malancrav

overhanging Beech trees at Richis

The fortified citadel of Apold's church

Marbled White (watch this space for my next post...on the inverts from the trip)

Tree Sparrow release

Some of the four-week students, survey team, translators and hosts at the village of Malancrav

No comments:

Post a Comment