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Unusual appearance of thousands of storks
CYPRUS BORE witness to the rare arrival of thousands of white storks this week, some of which died when they smashed into the antenna installations at the British bases in Akrotiri.
According to Game and Wildlife Officer Nicos Kassinis, in the last three days, large flocks of ciconia ciconia (white stork), an estimated 2,000 to 3,000, have arrived unexpectedly in the Akrotiri area.
Game Fund officials were in the area monitoring their arrival and departure when they spotted a number of birds strike on the huge antenna spying installations, set up in the British bases to the great dissatisfaction of the local population.
“We have retrieved four birds so far that hit the antennas either while descending or leaving Akrotiri,” said Kassinis.
The wildlife officer explained that white storks are soaring migratory birds that glide for miles on upward draughts of air rising from the land. As a result, they usually avoid large expanses of sea, making such large sightings in Cyprus extremely rare.
“They usually fly over the Bosphorus, down to Israel and end up in sub-Saharan Africa. Due to weather changes perhaps, they came to Cyprus,” he said.
Martin Hellicar, a spokesman for conservationist organisation BirdLife Cyprus, said the “amazing appearance” of such a large number of white storks was an extremely “unusual event”.
“The last time we got this many was in 1998,” he said.
The deaths of at least four storks from the huge antenna installations highlighted “how important that area is and our concerns and fears about the installations”, said Hellicar.
“There’s been a lot of talk about doing something for years now. It needs action to mitigate the risk, investments have to be made,” he added.
Kassinis said the Akrotiri peninsular was a “very significant place for migratory birds and internationally important for the eastern Mediterranean”.
The masts that support the antenna are particularly dangerous for birds, especially when they come in at night. And not only to white storks, but other migratory birds that are more frequent visitors to Cyprus such as flamingos, waders and raptors, said Kassinis.
“There is a potential mortality factor, particularly during the migration period which is now until February and in the spring again,” he said, adding, “The antennae are in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Seemingly resigned to the fact that the antennae will not be removed anytime soon, Kassinis said the next best thing to do would be to “monitor the mortality rate and take mitigation and preventive measures” to reduce the damage.
Asked whether the Game Fund had statistics on the mortality rate at the bases, Kassinis replied that restricted access to the military zone made it near impossible to get real data.
“We regularly monitor birds migrating in the peninsular but not inside the fenced area,” he said.
If bird strikes are spotted, however, the bases let Game Fund officers in to collect the dead birds.
Kassinis argued that the bases could take certain steps to reduce the risks for migratory birds, including making the antennas more visible and increase monitoring of the situation.
As Hellicar noted though, if bird strikes are not spotted when they happen, then there was no real way of assessing the mortality rate as things currently stand.
“The key thing here is the mortality rate and to get that you need to get into the site regularly to check or else foxes mop up the dead birds and you don’t get a clear picture.
“However, radiation levels are high so to get in you have to close down the system. The bases argue they can’t switch off the antennas regularly for security reasons so you have no data and a vicious cycle,” he said.
According to Hellicar, the Council of Europe’s Bern Convention opened a file on the Akrotiri area in 2004, producing a number of recommendations for the British bases to implement on managing the area of the antennae installations.
“On the ground, basically, since 2004, the sum total of what’s happened is zero in terms of implementing steps to reduce the risk for birds,” he said.
The recommendation to monitor bird mortality was stuck in a “vicious cycle”, while the bases are still at the last stage of consultation for drawing up an “integrated management plan for the whole wetland complex of the salt lake and Fissouri marsh”.
“There have been some trials etc, but zero has been done in concrete terms to reduce the potential threat. They need to look at the studies done and decide what can be done to reduce the risks of these installations,” said Hellicar.
Asked to comment, bases spokesman Kristian Gray said: “From 2004, we have implemented every recommendation from the Bern Convention and we are currently commissioning an independent study to look at past studies we’ve done on how to develop a future plan of action.”