Binoculars and Bodyguards - Looking for Iraq's Birds
In recent years, many people have been struggling to survive in Iraq. Even now the country's far from safe. However, since 2005 Nature Iraq (BirdLife Partner) staff have been doggedly surveying the rich biodiversity found within their country, taking them to some of the most dangerous spots in search of elusive species like Critically Endangered Sociable Lapwing Vanellus gregarius.
"We received fresh sightings and GPS co-ordinates which indicated a Sociable Lapwing was sitting in an area near Haditha which is an extremely dangerous place", said Nature Iraq's Omar Fadil.
Omar is part of a team from Nature Iraq who conduct annual winter surveys of Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) across the country. "It took us about 6 hours to drive from our base in Tikrit to where the bird was sitting".
“I was impressed that the Iraqi army understood what we were doing” —Omar Fadil, Nature Iraq
In order to visit the area safely, Omar convinced a group of Iraqi army bodyguards to join his quest. "I was impressed that the Iraqi army understood what we were doing, and supplied me with three patrols with five armed soldiers in each of them. All of us were looking for the Sociable Lapwing, which was an amazing experience".
Sadly, despite their best efforts, the team could not locate the bird. "However, we now have a better understanding of the habitat, the feeding resource and the migratory places that the lapwing are looking for in Iraq".
Nature Iraq's KBA project has sought to locate and assess potential areas of biological diversity, and to install a programme of monitoring. Omar's team have been working in the centre and western desserts of Iraq. In 2010, they recorded raptor migrations including over 450 Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni [Vulnerable], and mixed flocks of Black Kite Milvus migrans and Black-eared Kite Milvus lineatus up to 500 strong. Furthermore, they recorded the first breeding Mourning Wheatear in the country.
This year's winter KBA surveys outlined again the global importance of the Mesopotamian Marshes in the south of Iraq for wintering waterbirds. "We observed around 41,000 Vulnerable Marbled Duck Marmaronetta angustirostris this winter", remarked Mudhafar Salim - leader of Nature Iraq's KBA surveys in the marshes and birding section leader.
The world's population of Marbled Duck is estimated to be between 14,000 and 26,000. Consequently, when Nature Iraq's Chief Executive - Azzam Alwash - heard about the counts, he was keen to check them himself.
“… we were very happy to see huge 'dark clouds' of Marbled Duck” —Mudhafar Salim, Nature Iraq
"Azzam insisted to go there to see them, and asked 'where are your Marbled Duck?'", noted Mudhafar. "When we arrived at the spot, we were very happy to see huge 'dark clouds' of Marbled Duck. Yes, the figure we wrote was correct".
In Kurdistan, Northern Iraq , ten areas were surveyed by Korsh Ararat and his team who recorded over 72,000 birds of 125 species. "Of these 19 are Globally Threatened", noted Korsh. "For example, we observed around 3% of the world's population of Vulnerable Lesser White-fronted Geese Anser erythropus".
Sadly, the three teams recorded a number of threats during their work. Omar reports seeing hunting of Houbara Bustard Chlamydotis undulata [Vulnerable] and trapping of Saker Falcon Falco cherrug [Endangered]. Mudhafar observed wildly fluctuating water levels in the marshes, and Korsh reported poisoning, hunting and habitat destruction incidents in Kurdistan. The Nature Iraq teams continue to work in extremely difficult circumstances to tackle threats to biodiversity throughout the country.
From the 4-25 July Nature Iraq and BirdLife International are hosting an exhibition entitled 'The Nature of Iraq - from Marshes to Mountains' at the BIRDscapes Gallery, Glandford in North Norfolk , England . There will be a sale of prints, greeting cards and other items in support of Nature Iraq . There will also be a sale of specially commissioned artwork on the wildlife of Iraq.