Friday, February 16, 2007

Lesser White-fronted Goose at Samarra Dam

On Feb 4, the Russian group tracking the remaining two Lesser White Fronted Geese that are transmitting signals from their tags showed the bird that has spent much of the winter in Syria moving to the large wetland at Samarra in Iraq. The Samarra Dam Area on the Tigris River is a designated important bird area (IBA). The Samarra Barrage is composed of two dams, a flood control dam (also called the Tharthar dam locally) and a Hydroelectric generation dam. Samarra has great cultural significance and unfortunately was where the golden dome of the Al-Askari Mosque was severely damaged last year, precipitating a wave of violence. Samarra also has the famous Great Mosque with a unique spiral minaret. In a future more peaceful Iraq, Samarra would make a good place for a field station/ecotourism site.

Seeing that this goose had made its way to a area that has been a focus of violence was very symbolic for me. In the midst of violence something magical, a bird that has travelled over 3000 miles from Siberia and the fact we can see where its been.

The Tigris was dammed at Samarra in the early 1950's to control the flooding of Baghdad. A large wetland was created behind the dam. A canal diverts floodwaters to Lake Tharthar, a large artificial lake that was once a depression between Samarra on the Tigris River and Hit on the Euphrates.

According to Birdlife International 146 species have been recorded in the vicinity of the Samarra Dam including the globally endangered Sociable Lapwing and many species of waders and waterfowl. Breeding at the site is the near endemic Grey Hypocolius, the bird illustrated on the cover of the new Field Guide to the Birds of Iraq.

Waterfowl hunting was once common in the marshes near Samarra so hopefully the tagged LWFG will continue on his journey. If not, we may see a signal coming from a house in Samarra as was the case with one of the other tagged geese when it was taken by a hunter in Russia.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Field Guide to the Birds of Iraq - An important Milestone in Iraqi Conservation

Birdlife International and Nature Iraq announced the publication of the first Arabic language field guide to the country's 387 recorded bird species. In fact the Field Guide to the Birds of Iraq is the first comprehensive, fully illustrated guide to any Arabic speaking country. The book has been a collaborative effort by Nature Iraq (I know Mudhafar Salim worked hard on it as well as other biologists and field workers), Richard Porter, author of the Field Guide to the Birds of the Middle East (recently released in Arabic) and Birdlife International. Funding for the project was provided by The Canada-Iraq Marshlands Initiative, the Ornithological Society of the Middle-East, Avifauna and The World Bank.

Since I first heard of the project from my friend Mudhafar, I have felt that this would be an important and exciting step in increasing the Iraqi public's awareness of their natural treasures and giving added visibility to the country's environmental movement. With a field guide it becomes possible for large numbers of people to participate in studying the country's birds as the knowledge of identification is spread. Now we need an Iraqi eBird for large scale collection of observation data.

I naturally thought of my experience as a child looking through field guides and the spark it provided to my interest in nature. I also thought of my experience with children in Iraq when I visited schools to bring books and supplies. At the very least each school in Iraq should have a copy of this book. I imagine in the next few months and years, a child will crack open the Field Guide to the Birds of Iraq for the first time. First they will look for the familiar birds, the Laklak (White Stork), the Hudhud (Hoopoe) or the Wood Pigeon. They will come back to the book and see birds they never knew existed. For a few, the spark of curiosity will become a flame of a lifelong passion, perhaps when they realize these exotic creatures live, not in some far-off place, but in their own country. I fully expect that some of Iraq's next generation of naturalists and scientists will have started their journey when they discovered the world was larger and more wonderful than they had imagined when they opened this book.

I've discussed the idea of raising money to enable the widest distribution of this important book with a few people both here and in Iraq. I think it is a very important project and I'll follow up with some details as they are worked out.

Again, congratulations to all involved in the publication. I pray you reap a hundred-fold for your efforts.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Another Lesser White-Fronted Goose tracked from Siberia to Iraq

In 2004 a satellite tagged Lesser White-fronted Goose was tracked from its nesting grounds in Siberia to its wintering grounds in Iraq. For the first time the entire round trip migration of a single bird of this species was documented.

The LWFG is a globally threatened species that has experienced a significant population decline and is assessed to be a moderate to high risk of extinction due to habitat fragmentation and hunting pressures. Almost nothing is known about the population wintering in Iraq. Populations in Azerbaijan and Iran have seen dramatic decreases according to to waterfowl biologists.

In July of this year in the Putorana Plateau in the Ural Mountains of Russia, another group of this threatened species were tagged with satellite transmitters. The birds were captured by netting them from a boat on open water during the post-breeding moult, when they cannot fly for a number of weeks (see photo above) . Of the six birds, only 2 were still transmitting data as of December 2006.

Both birds had arrived at a reservoir on the Iran/Azerbaijan border near the Azerbaijani city of Nakhichevan in Early November. One bird had made its way to the Euphrates Valley in Syria by early December, just over the Iraq/Syria border. Currently this bird is spending its time in a wetland area about 50 km north of Al Qaim in Al Anbar Province. The bird has been tracked as close as 5 miles from the Iraqi border.

The second bird was still in Azerbaijan on December 25th. On December 29th the bird had moved 650 km south to Maysan province in Iraq very close or in the Birdlife International IBA of Haur Al Sa'adiyah. Much of the area appears to be agricultural land now. Surveys of the area in the 1960's and again in 1979 recorded large numbers of wintering waterfowl and shorebirds including Ruddy Shelduck, Pintail, Gadwall, Wigeon, Shoveler, Teal, Mallard, Greylag Goose and Greater Flamingo. In 1979 up to 2500 Common Cranes were wintering in the area.

On January 5th, 2007 the bird had moved about 60 km northwest to a rich agricultural area approximately 25 km east of the city of Kut in Wasit Province. It would be interesting to find out where this bird is feeding since Wasit Province reported a bumper crop of both Wheat and Barley this year. In some other countries, the government has paid farmers to leave some grain in the field for waterfowl.

This bird is visiting some of the same areas as the bird tracked from Siberia in 2004/2005. The surveys of the southern Marshes of the last several years have demonstrated that these wetlands remain an important wintering area for Eurasian waterfowl.