The European Union (EU) Andros LIFE+ Nature project was specially designed to improve the conservation status of four priority avian species in the EU registered Special Protection Area (SPA) of Andros Island in the Northern Cyclades, Greece, located in the Aegean Sea: Eleonora’s Falcon (Falco eleonorae), Bonelli’s Eagle (Aquila fasciata), Audouin’s Gull (Larus audouinii) and Mediterranean Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis desmarestii).
With an understanding of the interdependence, movements and fluid borders of many terrestrial and coastal wildlife ecosystem components in the project area, this EU LIFE+ Nature project has established a comprehensive set of aims and incorporated important conservation measures that address existing threats to the targeted species and are designed to confer long-term benefits on the birds as well as many of the flora and fauna species on which the birds rely in order to improve their population abundance, long term health and well-being.
Based on accumulated scientific data pointing to declines in the targeted species’ populations, the aims of the EU Andros LIFE+ Nature project are to (i) improve the conditions that will enhance the targeted species’ prospects of foraging and breeding success in the project area and (ii) develop as well as commence the implementation of an EU Special Protection Area (SPA) management framework in order to improve the species’ long term conservation status.
By capitalising on the island’s natural resources and improving the availability as well as sufficiency of the resources required for the targeted bird species to expand and strengthen their populations, the project endeavours to improve the birds’ foraging opportunities, nesting conditions, health, reproductive success, population abundance and resilience against stressful conditions. These adverse conditions include various threats that arise in conjunction with island development as well as certain natural threats which require management to mitigate or obviate deleterious ecosystem imbalances that can lead to reduced biodiversity.
To accomplish these aims during its four year duration, the project will be engaged in:
- the development and implementation of an economically viable and socially acceptable Andros Island SPA Management Plan for the project area that allows for the coordination of site activities by the competent authorities and the core management duties needed to achieve and maintain a favourable conservation status of the targeted priority species within the SPA;
- the implementation of conservation actions that will facilitate the natural nesting, foraging and roosting behaviour of the targeted species; improve breeding success; reduce the growing impact from certain anthropogenic activities on the targeted avifauna and the species as well as habitats on which the targeted bird species depend;
- the establishment of a Wildlife First-Aid Centre which focuses on the treatment of bird injuries and the care of orphaned chicks of targeted bird species;
- raising public, including stakeholder, awareness of the economic, environmental and intrinsic value of the targeted species, and provide recommendations to residents and visitors concerning ways to mitigate ecosystem damage and wildlife disturbance for the benefit of the targeted bird species; and
- the organisation and training of a local conservation group of stakeholder volunteers to continue the implementation of conservation actions and project area monitoring following the end of the LIFE+ Nature project.
Achieving these project aims will require collaborative efforts by the public and private sector, including the compliance of stakeholders and the Andros Municipality with existing EU environmental and waste management legislation in order to (a) mitigate the environmental damage that has already occurred on the island and (b) protect the long term conservation prospects of the island’s wildlife and finite natural resources.
Project Area Threats:
Although not readily visible to the casual observer on Andros Island amid an abundance of natural resources including a wide range of beautiful flora and fauna species , fresh water springs, dense woodlands with chestnut and poplar trees along with a preserved cultural identity including the presence of ancient water mills surrounded by an azure blue sea, there are nevertheless some natural threats and threats from anthropogenic activities associated with the island’s continuing growth that adversely impact the conservation status of the project’s targeted species.
These threats to the targeted species as well as the wildlife and habitats on which the targeted species crucially depend primarily consist of:
- the long-standing absence of adequate Andros Island Municipal waste management services and the unprotected exposure of Municipal waste;
- the construction of new roads and port facilities;
- coastal development;
- the installation of electricity and telephone cables, water and sewage pipes;
- wetland degradation;
- the abandonment of traditional crop cultivation and farming practices based on the island’s socio-economic development trends;
- disturbance of seabird breeding colonies and degradation of foraging habitats by (1) coastal and marine pollution which is exacerbated by the absence of adequate Andros Municipal waste management services and the exposure of unprotected Municipal waste; (2) boat anchoring; (3) dredging; (4) illegal as well as uncontrolled fishing practices such as (a) the loss or abandonment of derelict fishing gear into the marine environment which can result in the premature capture and death of seabirds as well as marine mammals and other marine species, (b) fishing with explosives, and (c) trawling in prohibited areas; (5) speed boating; (6) recreational fishing and hunting, (7) diving and (8) tourism; and
- climate change effects that result in prolonged heat waves, reduced rainfall and reduced water supply, the consequences of which are expected to particularly affect Eleonora’s falcons due to the anticipated abandonment of traditional crop cultivation, reduced farming, desertification of farmland, reduced plant biodiversity, reduced vegetation and insect abundance, loss of coastal wetlands, altered timing of bird migration and peak insect abundance, changes in areas used by insects and migratory birds and altered bird migration routes.
The reproductive success of the targeted species has also been adversely affected by natural wildlife threats such as predation on the eggs and nestlings of Eleonora falcons, Audouin’s gulls and Mediterranean Shags by the invasive alien Black rat (Rattus rattus) species which also reduces vegetation cover used to shelter nest sites thereby reducing available nesting habitats. The populous Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis) preys on the eggs and chicks of Audouin’s gulls and Mediterranean Shags and also competes for limited food resources and nesting habitats with Audouin’s gulls. If left unchecked, these wildlife impacts would undermine the ability of the targeted priority bird species to achieve or maintain a favourable conservation status in the island Special Protection Area (SPA) in the absence of a long term SPA Management Plan.
The absence of any management planning and management authority devoted to the conservation of the Andros project area SPA permit many of these threats to continue and, in some cases, grow. For example, the lack of protection and management of Bonelli’s eagle foraging areas have resulted in a reduction of sufficient, available prey such as Chukar partridges and pigeons on which these birds depend for their survival. Wetland degradation adversely affects Eleonora’s falcons by reducing insect and migratory bird prey as well as critical water sources for them. Climate change is an increasing threat to the food availability and foraging habitat quality of the island’s Bonelli’s eagles as well as Eleonora falcons. The continuing expansion of island development has resulted in avian habitat loss and fragmentation which are reflected in the recent decline in suitable nesting habitats for island nesting birds including the targeted bird species such as Eleonora falcons which are being relegated to nest in densely populated colonies that hamper reproductive success in crowded conditions.
As the island’s customs and economic enterprises have evolved over the years, traditional Aegean island agricultural practices on terraces have waned and, in some cases, been completely abandoned. This, along with a degradation of coastal wetlands from pollution and building construction, has resulted in a loss of Eleonora Falcon foraging habitat including a reduction in the availability of the falcons’ customary insect prey and seasonal autumnal bird prey.
Natural conditions on which seabirds have customarily relied have also been adversely affected by island changes. A case in point is the increase in coastal development and visiting pleasure boats which have caused the degradation of many primary inshore seabird foraging areas from activities such as dredging, underwater cable installations and boat anchoring thereby reducing the diversity and abundance of seabird prey species. A reduction in seabird prey species, which is also attributed to poorly managed and unsustainable fisheries, requires the seabirds to travel farther and invest more energy in a greater effort to reach suitable foraging grounds to find sufficient natural prey. Decreased food availability for seabirds during breeding season causes the adults to spend less time at the nest to protect it and more time at sea with the risk of catching fewer prey for themselves and their nestlings. This adversely affects the adult birds’ physical fitness and capability of caring for their young and contributes to the premature mortality of nestlings from malnutrition which, in turn, impact their overall breeding success and, ultimately, the conservation status of the targeted species.
The EU LIFE+ Nature project aims to mitigate many of these threats for the population rehabilitation and long term conservation of the targeted bird species that grace Andros Island. And, as history has proven the effectiveness of raising people’s awareness about the measures that can be easily implemented for the benefit of the wildlife that drive the productivity of our indispensable ecosystems among which we live, the project is also expected to reach out to stakeholders and engage local volunteers to join in these worthwhile activities that will protect our natural European heritage for future generations.
As the project endeavours to enhance the prospects of the foraging and breeding behaviour of the four targeted priority bird species and to provide for the long term management of the Andros Island SPA in order to improve the targeted species’ long term conservation status, certain key conservation measures have been designed within the scope of the project. These actions principally focus on direct assistance to the birds to improve foraging and breeding success, the dissemination of information to the public that will benefit avian conservation, and the establishment of a socially acceptable and economically viable SPA Management Plan created with the consultation and participation of stakeholders that will balance and sustain the long term needs of island inhabitants, visitors and wildlife.
As more particularly described in Improving Foraging Success, Improving Breeding Success, Creating a SPA Management Plan and Engaging the Public, the project actions include:
- Yellow-legged gull population control and Black rat eradication at important target species breeding colonies;
- Increasing available nesting sites through the provision of artificial nests and plantation of endemic vegetation;
- the revitalisation of traditional crop cultivation;
- enhancement of Chukar partridge and pigeon populations;
- the restoration of coastal wetlands to increase the amount, open water surface area and duration of fresh water inundation in the wetlands and the creation of off-stream wildlife ponds to further supplement fresh water supplies;
- the installation of mooring buoys to mitigate seagrass and other marine habitat degradation thereby improving targeted seabird foraging areas;
- the development and implementation of an Andros Island SPA Management Plan; and
- raising public awareness of the intrinsic value and importance of the targeted species to Andros Island and its SPA and recommending ways to conduct activities in a manner that will be impact-neutral or less harmful to the environment for the long term benefit of the targeted species.
Improving Foraging Success:
Improving the foraging success of the targeted avian species is one of the project priorities. To enhance the foraging prospects of Eleonora’s falcons, island agricultural fields are being revitalised to increase the abundance of their insect prey and autumnal season migratory bird prey. Cultivation of traditional cereal crops does not impose a demand on irrigation water as it is exclusively dependent on local rainfall. These local crop cultivations along with the project’s revitalisation of traditional island pigeon lofts will also benefit the foraging prospects of Bonelli’s eagles that prey on pigeons (Columba spp.) as well as Chukar partridges (Alectoris chukar).
To improve: (i) the water availability to prey species of the targeted falcons and eagles as well as to improve the water supply for Eleonora’s falcons’ drinking and bathing, (ii) the habitat quality and (iii) the insect as well as bird prey abundance for the benefit of the Eleonora’s falcons and Bonelli’s eagles, the project is creating small ponds and enhancing coastal wetland habitats from which many other wildlife species will also greatly benefit.
In support of Audouin’s gulls and Mediterranean Shags which depend on coastal and inshore waters as well as Posidonia seagrass (Posidonia oceanica) beds on which the marine birds’ natural prey rely, the birds’ principal marine foraging habitats are being protected and managed as, for example, by the installation of seagrass-friendly mooring buoys to avoid marine habitat damage caused by boat anchoring.
Improving Breeding Success:
The project is also focused on improving the breeding prospects and reproductive success of the targeted priority bird species.
The ability of Eleonora’s falcons, Audouin’s gulls and Mediterranean Shags to nest and raise their young in the project area has been hampered by certain persistent wildlife threats, such as predation on their eggs and chicks by invasive alien Black rat predators which also reduce the vegetation cover that protects nest sites. The growing population of Yellow-legged gulls is a threat to the maintenance of coastal ecosystem balances as these gulls compete with Audouin’s gulls for food and nesting sites, and they also reduce the Audouin’s gulls’ breeding success by preying on Audouin’s gull eggs and chicks. The project is designed to mitigate these natural threats by controlling the Yellow Legged Gull population to improve Audouin’s gull and Mediterranean Shag breeding as well as foraging prospects and eradicating the Black rat populations in selected Eleonora’s falcon, Audouin’s gull and Mediterranean Shag colonies to improve their breeding success.
As an additional measure to improve the breeding performance of the targeted bird species at colony sites, the project is enhancing the thickets of native shrubs and bushes, such as the Caper Bush (Capparis spinosa) which is a perennial, winter-deciduous species that is best known for its edible bud and fruit (caper berry) but is also valuable for its use in the manufacture of medicines as well as cosmetics. This drought-tolerant bush is especially appropriate for Aegean islands and islets because it adapts well to poor soils, rocky habitats and semi-arid climates. The project plantations will also include the evergreen Mastic (Pistacia lentiscus) known for its aromatic, ivory coloured resin that is harvested as a spice, particularly from cultivated mastic trees grown in the south of the Greek island of Chios in the Aegean Sea where the product is used to flavour spirits, liquors, chewing gum, pastries, cakes and other desserts. These plantations will be conducted at selected breeding sites in order to provide shelter from excessive sun and wind exposure as well as to reduce nest visibility by predators. The Mediterranean Shags which require overhead cover of their nesting sites favour the Mastic shrub as one of their major breeding habitats and will therefore particularly benefit from these plantations. Over the years, livestock grazing and human interventions, such as building construction and the intentional setting of fires that is intended to facilitate the emergence of wild grasses for livestock but also destroys valuable trees and shrubs in the process, have reduced the number of island shrubs and trees which, in turn, has caused a fragmentation and reduction in the availability of suitable habitats including nesting sites. To remedy this situation, the project is expected to restore certain native vegetation in limited areas for the benefit of the targeted species during the non-breeding portions of autumn to early spring seasons to avoid breeding disturbance and when rainfall and cooler temperatures can support the plants’ nascent growth.
In addition to these plantations which will increase the number of suitable nesting sites if sufficiently watered during initial stages of growth, the project’s provision of artificial nest boxes for Eleonora’s falcons will provide sufficient sunlight for the birds during the morning hours but at the same time protect the nests from the intense Mediterranean heat and sunlight as well as the strong northern meltemi winds that sweep through the Aegean from spring to late summer. The establishment of nest boxes aims to alleviate many of the avian pressures associated with densely populated breeding colonies that become over-concentrated as a result of habitat loss and fragmentation, such as that which has occurred on Andros. The provision of these nest boxes and the plantation of endemic, drought-tolerant shrubs are designed to meet the birds’ short term needs and intended to mitigate the long term climate change effects with which they are being increasingly confronted.
Creating a SPA Management Plan:
In order to ensure that the benefits of the project actions and any future conservation actions in the project area endure over time, the EU LIFE+ Nature project requires the development of an Andros SPA Management Plan in consultation with stakeholders, governmental authorities and environmental organisations. As an essential tool for the future conservation of the island SPA, its bird species and their habitats, the Management Plan will set forth SPA management aims, priorities and activities which facilitate the development of SPA scientific data, technical expertise, systematic avian monitoring and surveillance, financial resources and stakeholder support to allow the area’s targeted wildlife and their essential habitats to thrive and endure over time.
The SPA Management Plan will include the LIFE+ Nature project conservation actions and feature a Monitoring Plan, Surveillance Plan, Dissemination Plan, Sensitivity Maps and Species Action Plans for the long term benefit of the targeted species.
Sensitivity maps reflect significant mortality threats to the targeted species as well as habitat degradation threats to important breeding, foraging and roosting sites (such as threats from tourism, coastal development, hunting, power lines, invasive and competitive species). This valuable data is intended to guide sustainable land use and future conservation actions.
Species Action Plans are particularly important as they consist of (i) baseline information for each species including distribution, population and ecology, (ii) assessment of threats and limiting factors, (iii) aims with regard to policies and legislation, target species and their habitat conservation, monitoring activities and public awareness, and (iv) a cohesive plan of actions required to achieve favourable conservation status of the targeted species and their critical habitats.
Favourable Reference Values will be established for the species and their critical habitats on the basis of ornithological, telemetry and mapping surveys in order to assess the results of management actions with the aim of enhancing the breeding, foraging and roosting success necessary for the species to achieve a favourable conservation status. In addition, the SPA Management Plan will contain a GIS-based Andros SPA Geodatabase with all relevant SPA and target species information to facilitate future planning, implementation and monitoring of management activities.
In this way, the future management and conservation of the Andros SPA will continue to develop on the foundation built by the EU LIFE+ Nature project which is demonstrating the well known principle that natural resources are capital assets that can provide stakeholders with many pecuniary as well as non-pecuniary benefits.
Global investment in the preservation of our irreplaceable natural resources ensures their continuing provision of benefits to our communities. This investment is especially important for the socio-economic well-being of communities that rely heavily on the components and products of natural ecosystems. Growing awareness of this proven principle is motivating an increasing number of communities to protect wildlife species and habitats for the enormous economic value provided by ecotourism, coastal recreation and related industries on which many municipalities, such as Andros, depend.
Engaging the Public:
Through the project’s environmental education activities, special publications, a documentary, an Andros Island photographic and narrative exhibition, stakeholder meetings, project area information signs, networking among scientific experts and project promotion through local, regional, national and international media including the internet, the project partners are expected to share their progress, their discoveries and their knowledge about the extraordinary avian species that were selected by the project.
To the extent disseminated, this information enables the public, especially including stakeholders and students, to learn more about the four targeted species along with other regional priority birds, such as the Yelkouan or Mediterranean Shearwater (Puffinus yelkouan) and Cory’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea) and their collective value to the Hellenic natural heritage and economy. Through this awareness, the engagement of environmental conservation volunteers grows and the general public becomes more familiar with suggested means by which they can continue to enjoy the countryside and coast while reducing their ecological footprint no matter where they live, as these suggestions can usually be applied to many locations around the world.
In this manner, the EU LIFE+ Nature project represents a socio-economic, educational and natural resource investment with short term as well as long term benefits for future generations of Europeans and our irreplaceable wildlife.
Contact: Constantine Alexander
copyright © 2012 Constantine Alexander