Bird ringing in Greece: volunteering with the Antikythira Bird Observatory

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by Rebecca Garlinger (@RD_Garlinger) and Holly Garrod (@hmg_ornithology)

After finishing up our Masters coursework in spring 2018 and our respective field seasons in summer 2018, we had an amazing opportunity to volunteer with the Antikythira Bird Observatory (ABO), part of the Hellenic Ornithological Society, in Greece! We spent two weeks on a small island called Antikythira, inhabited by more goats than people, where we got to ring European migrants (banding = ringing in Europe) and help with raptor counts and behavior studies as well!

The majority of our time on the island was spent at the banding table behind a small house on the north end of the island. We, along with other volunteers from the U.S., Greece, Spain, and Germany, woke each morning between 6am and 7am to open the 18 mist-nets arranged in lanes around the island. From then until ~ 1pm we were tasked with extracting (extracting = removing birds from the mist-nets) and ringing birds that flew into the nets. Ringing involved not only fitting each bird with a uniquely identifiable leg-band, but also measuring, aging, sexing (when possible), and photographing each bird. We got to learn the differences in techniques between the western hemisphere’s ‘banding’ vs. European ‘ringing’ and handled birds we’d never even seen before!  A few of our favorite European birds were (photos below, in order) Scops Owl (Otus scops), Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur), and Eurasian Wryneck (Jynx torquilla).

Part of the idea of bird ringing on Antikythira is to monitor migrating birds moving from Northern Europe to Africa, similar to the migrations our birds do here from Canada and the US down to South America and the Caribbean. For many birds, Antikythira represents an important stopover point on the way to Africa. During the bird ringing, one of the measurements we took gauged how much fat and muscle the birds had accumulated, an indicator of how they were using the habitat on Antikythira and how long they were spending stopping over. One of the target species ABO monitors is the Turtledove (see photo above), as the species is rapidly declining mostly due to over-hunting. In collaboration with scientists from Germany, the biologists at Antikythira have begun placing GPS trackers on the doves to live track their migration patterns!

One of the other ways Antikythira Bird Observatory monitors the migratory birds includes counting raptors flying over, similar to many hawk watches in the United States and Mexico. We had the opportunity to help out on some afternoons and learn how to identify Eurasian raptor species from afar, using cues like behavior and wing shape. These raptor counts help get a sense of how migration is progressing and what routes the birds are taking, based on the wind patterns.

In addition to raptor counts, Antikythira Bird Observatory monitors breeding populations of one specific species on the island, the Eleanora’s Falcons (Falco Eleanora). These fierce predators breed on Antikythira from late July through early October and nest on the island’s many cliffs. These birds are migrants that actually delay breeding and their subsequent migration south to Madagascar in order to hunt migrating songbirds to feed their young. ABO regularly monitors Eleanora’s nesting behavior on the island, and we got to help band one of the nestling raptors while we were on Antikythira! To the left is a nestling falcon after he or she had been ringed with the ring #76!

Eleanora’s Falcons also bathe in natural freshwater pools on the island’s cliffs, and some of the Greek Masters students working on Antikythira were studying social behavior at these bathing pools. As part of our volunteership, we took shifts throughout the two weeks to help study and record social interactions between these amazing birds! The photo shows a mix of dark/light morph and male/female Eleanora’s Falcons interacting at a bathing pool.

Overall, we had an incredible trip to Greece, and ringing on such a remote island was a once in a lifetime experience. We learned so much not only about ringing and European bird-processing methods, but also about many new species of birds. If you’re interested in volunteering with ABO on Antikythira, they accept both spring and fall ringing volunteers, and we would definitely recommend the experience! To learn more, check out the Hellenic Ornithological Society webpage, or follow ABO on twitter: @antikythirabird

Following our Masters work and this awesome experience ringing in Greece, we both have secured jobs that will allow us to continue working with avian species. Holly will be working with the Third Millennium Alliance as the head of the Jama-Coaque Bird Observatory in Ecuador where she will work with local biologists to run a banding program and help with conservation of local breeding birds such as King Vultures. Follow them on instagram or twitter (@tmalliance) for updates, and learn more about the conservation work they’re doing on their website. Becca will be working as a Wildlife Specialist in the Aviculture division for the White Oak Conservation Foundation in Yulee, Florida, where she’ll be working on captive breeding projects for endangered species such as the Blue-billed Currasow and the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. To learn more about White Oak, follow them on instagram or twitter (@whiteoakconserv) or check out their website!