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Migratory Bird Day: Remember the Arctic!

Arctic terns in Ny Alesund, Svalbard

This weekend, bird and nature-lovers around the world will be marking “World Migratory Bird Day“. This is a relatively new annual event in the global calendar of “special days”. It has only been celebrated since 2006. You may well be sceptical about the value of yet another day of “xyz”, quite simply because of the sheer number of them. This one was the brainchild of, amongst others, Bert Lenten, who is currently deputy-head of CMS, the Convention on Migratory Species. I have interviewed him on bird-related issues a few times in recent years. CMS, which is part of UNEP, has its headquarters here in Bonn, close to my Deutsche Welle office. The CMS agreement is also known as the Bonn Convention.

When I talked to Bert this week, he told me the idea of having a World Migratory Bird Day came up when bird flu first hit Europe in 2005. There was such a lot of panic and so many negative reactions to migratory birds, wrongly suspected of being a main cause of the outbreak, that Bert and some colleagues had the idea of reminding people once a year that birds are actually something positive.

At Zackenberg, Greenland

Tern chasing off ice blogger, Svalbard!

Migratory birds, from large albatrosses, storks or geese to smaller terns, swallows or tiny sanderlings cover huge distances between their winter quarters and their breeding grounds every year. The Arctic is home to thousands of them every summer, when they fly up to breed. The Arctic tern is actually thought to hold the record for long-distance migration, flying between the Antarctic and the Arctic. I remember being attacked several times on Svalbard in spring when I advertently got too close to some of their nesting sites. No harm done, I hasten to add. I enjoyed watching their antics.

Now, with climate change affecting the Arctic much more drastically than the rest of the world, birds are finding conditions very different from they used to be. Ferdinand Spina is head of Science at Italy’s National Institute for Wildlife Protection and Research ISPRA, in Bologna, Italy. He is also in charge of the Italian bird ringing centre, and currently also Chair of the Scientific Council of CMS. I talked to him last week and he stressed that climate change is becoming one of the greatest threats to migratory birds. The Arctic is one of the most obvious illustrations.

“Birds are a very important component of wildlife in the Arctic. There are different species breeding in the Arctic. The Arctic is subject to huge risks due to global warming. It is crucially important that we conserve such a unique ecosystem in the world. Birds have adapted to living in the Arctic over millions of years of evolution, and it’s a unique physiological and feeding adaptation. And it is our duty to conserve the Arctic as one of the few if not the only ecosystems which is still relatively intact in the world. This is a major duty we have from all possible perspectives, including an ethical and moral duty, ” he says.

Listen to Fernando Spina

I couldn’t agree more, Fernando. We talked about the seasonal mismatch, when birds arrive too early or too late to find the insects they expect to encounter and need to feed their young. When I visited Zackenberg station in eastern Greenland in 2009, Lars Holst Hansen, the deputy station leader, told me the long-tailed skuas were not breeding because they rely on lemmings as prey. The lemmings were scarce because of changes in the snow cover.

Lars Holst Hansen is back in Zackenberg right now. He also takes some great wildlife photos, so I am happy to recommend a look at his site.

Jeroen Reneerkens is another regular visitor to Zackenberg, as he tracks the migration of Sanderlings between Africa and Greenland. A great project and an informative website!

Jeroen with sanderlings at Zackenberg

 Morten Rasch from the Arctic Environment Dept of Aarhus University in Denmark is the coordinator of one of the most ambitious ecological monitoring programmes in the Arctic. The Greenland Environment Monitoring Programme includes 2 stations, Zackenberg, which is in the High Arctic region and Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, in the “Lower” Arctic. Hansen and other members of Rasch’s teams monitor 3,500 different parameters in a cross-disciplinary project, combining biology, geology, glaciology, all aspects of research into the fragile eco-systems of the Arctic. At that time, he told me during an interview,  ten years of monitoring had already come up with worrying results:

“We have experienced that temperature is increasing, we have experienced an increasing amount of extreme flooding events in the river, we have experienced that phenology of different species at the start-up of their growing season or the appearance of different  insects for instance now comes at least 14 days earlier than when we started. And for some species, even one month earlier. And that’s a lot.  You have to realise the entire growing season in these areas is only 3 months. When we start up at Zackenberg in late May, or the beginning of June, the ecosystem is completely covered in snow and more or less frozen, and when we leave, in normal years – or BEFORE climate change took over – then we left around 1st September and the ecosystem actually started to freeze up.  So the entire biological ecosystem only has 3 months to reproduce and so on. And in relation to that, a movement in the start of the system between 14 days and one month – that’s a lot.”

I can’t write about birds and climate change in the Arctic without mentioning George Divoky,  an ornithologist whose bird-monitoring has actually turned into climate-change monitoring on Cooper Island, off the coast of Barrow, Alaska. George looks after a colony of Black Guillemots and spends his summer on the island. In recent years, he has taken to putting up bear-proof nest boxes for the birds, because polar bears increasingly come to visit, as the melting of the sea ice has reduced their hunting options. He has also observed the presence of new types of birds which die not previously come this far north. His website is well worth following.

So, friends of the Arctic. Spare a thought for our feathered friends this weekend. They pollinate plants, control pests and insect populations – and give us that happy feeling of springtime we are enjoying in Bonn this weekend. I am reminded of a young “climate ambassador” in Alaska, flabbergasted to see that the glaciers we had come to observe were no longer visible from the Visitors’ Centre built for that purpose just a few years before. “Everything’s connected”, was his simple statement. Presumably that is why he has spent so much time developing low-carbon solutions for companies around the globe.

Date

May 10, 2013 | 1:46 pm

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