Saturday, 27 June 2009

Aquatic warblers and Europe's best remaining wetlands

The Aquatic Warbler… the subject of countless dossiers at the United Nations, Millions of hours of research and conservation effort… and yes, it’s a little brown jobbie… so why all the fuss? It turns out that these birds are very choosy, selecting only the very best wetland mires to breed in. Mires are one of the most threatened habitats in the world and so Aquatic Warblers are being used as an indicator species to show us which mires need to receive the most urgent and complete protection NOW. Belarus holds 46% of all breeding aquatic warblers in the world because of its fantastic Mires. One reason the mires here are so good is because people have traditionally cut the sedges annually for making hay. This is really good for mires because trees and other plants like phragmites reeds are always trying to grow in the mire which eventually dries the mire out and turns it into woodland. People in other parts of the world have long since abandoned the practice of cutting sedges from the mire but in Belarus the practice been continued… unfortunately cutting the sedges for haymaking is now becoming rare here too and this represents a great threat to one of the world’s last truly wild places. APB, RSPB and BirdLife are monitoring the warblers in Belarus and have been inventing ways to promote hay making – including the popular hay making championships where people race in teams to cut an area of the mire.

The next photos are of our week long survey trip to the Zvanets Mire, a patch of 23,000 ha in the very south of Belarus, near the border with Ukraine. This is one of the wildest places we have ever been. The mire is thick and almost impenetrable but the reeds are full of male Aquatic Warblers singing to attract the ladies (Our friend Olga Lukshyts took this picture). Zvanets is a Ramsar site, offering it a high degree of protection… but this will count for nothing if ways cannot be found to prevent trees and reeds spreading into the mire… the clock is really ticking and we saw many areas with young birch trees… in 10-15 years these areas will be lost if nothing can be done.

Here is a patch of mire. The tall reeds show that the area has not been cut for some years and there are also some birch saplings creeping in. The sedges are the finer grass-like ones at the bottom and the orchids are marsh orchids. This area was a beautiful quiet corner of the mire with wildflowers, red-bellied frogs and cranes singing their mournful song. If nothing is done it will not be here in ten years…. Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

A red bellied frog. Makes a mellow hooping noise.

The surveys are done by counting the number of males which can be heard singing loudly and continuously as the sun sets. The reeds are often over the top your head and the water is often over the top of your waders… and after your survey you have to find your way back to civilisation in the dark without bumping into an angry moose (elk).

We joined up with a great group of people from Germany who had come to see the mire and take part in surveys. We were not lucky with the weather… can you guess the nationality by the rain gear?!

We stayed on a small farm – 2 cows (which respond to their names and bring themselves home after a long day grazing), 2 pigs (and piglets), 2 geese (and goslings), cats (and kittens), chickens, guinea fowl and a dog.

The farm was a very peaceful place

By day he was a superhero… by night a guinea fowl.

The local Newspaper came to ask us why we were interested in their Mire. We said that what they have here has been lost from most of Europe and that it was special.

Camp food was spiced up with strawberries bought from a wee lady on the side of the road. We didn’t hear a word from Simion for quite some minutes!

The strawbs tasted better than the home-made schnapps…

… at seventy-something % proof…. It made people do strange things:

…like play cricket

…and balance crawfish in dangerous places.

This is a postcard which was on the wall in the farmhouse. It is a play on a poster that was produced by the government to say that strong men can also say no to vodka, except the text has been changed to say something along the lines of “first you deny vodka and then you deny your motherland….?”. Crikey and I thought Scots took Whiskey seriously!

Some sights ofrom Zvanets and around:

A penduline tit (pause for laughter if necessary) making his basket nest in a bush from rush fluff.

A red-data book spider species. Found crawling on my leg..., in the dark..., deep in the mire… aaaahhhhhh.

Eyed Hawkmoth

One of the trillion mosquitoes proving it was too tough to be dissuaded by insect repellent.

Frog (Rana Viridis) getting all puffed up for making the farty noises the ladies find so attractive.

A rare field of poppies. Rare because poppies are illegal in Belarus.

One of many abandoned houses. Villages are dying here (one reason that there are fewer people cutting sedge on the mire). You can see when a village is dying because the shop closes and the mobile shop van comes round – it is known as the harbinger of a dying village.

This lady lives in a dying village… she is one of many babooshka you will see out and about. They sit and pass the time with friends on benches outside their houses, always deep in conversation, always wearing colourful head scarves and always interested in what you are doing.

This babooshka has walked a long way with a young horse which she is bringingclose to home before a huge rainstorm.

The old gentlemen prefer to talk fish.

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