World Migratory Bird Day is celebrated twice a year on the second Saturdays of May and October to mark the migration of birds at the beginning of the spring and autumn seasons.
It marks the cyclical nature of bird migration and different peak periods in the northern and southern hemispheres. Some 4,000 species of birds migrate twice a year in search of food, flying to warmer climates in the winter and returning home to breed when warmer weather returns.
According to the World Migratory Bird Day website, most migratory birds migrate at night since the night sky is usually calmer with fewer predators. However, the night sky is now under threat, as artificial lighting has spread around the world and is growing by at least two per cent every year. This is problematic for birds since light pollution emitted from homes, businesses, and other infrastructure attracts them and can cause collisions and other issues.
The increasing light pollution also impacts the birds during the breeding and winter seasons, disrupting feeding and other behaviours. Light pollution can also cause birds to alter their migration patterns, foraging behaviours, and vocal communication, leading to confusion and collisions that kills millions of birds each year.
World Migratory Bird Day dates back to 1993, when the Smithsonian Centre for Migratory Birds in the US established International Migratory Bird Day to focus public attention on the need for global cooperation in protecting birds and their habitats.
In 2007, the campaign in the Americas was coordinated by Environment of the Americas, which in 2017 collaborated with the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals and the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds and combined International Migratory Bird Day with World Migratory Bird Day, producing a joint campaign and a serious global effort involving hundreds of organisations.
Amy Fraenkel, executive secretary of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, has called for increased awareness on the issue of light pollution and its negative impact on migratory birds. She has also advocated for solutions to be found and encouraged decision-makers to adopt measures to address light pollution.
Jacques Trouvilliez, executive secretary of the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds, said many birds active at night suffer from the effects of light pollution. Many nocturnal migratory birds such as ducks, geese, plovers, sand birds and songbirds are affected by light pollution, which causes confusion and collisions, with deadly consequences.
In Egypt, the environment minister marked World Migratory Bird Day through the Migratory Soaring Birds (MSBs) project on a sailboat on the River Nile. The ceremony was attended by Ali Abu Senna, head of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), environmental expert Abdel-Massih Samaan, and representatives of the New and Renewable Energy Authority (NREA) and an entourage of environmental experts and sector leaders.
The minister said that this year’s celebration focused on highlighting the impact of light pollution on migratory birds and the steps that individuals, communities, and governments can take to reduce this impact on nocturnal flyers.
“Today, the night sky is under threat due to human activity and expanding artificial lighting worldwide,” she said. “World Migratory Bird Day is a real opportunity to promote bird-watching tourism, raise awareness about harmony and coexistence with nature, and enjoy the natural riches of rare and migratory birds without harming their unique biodiversity.”
She explained that the UN COP27 climate conference scheduled to be held in Sharm El-Sheikh in November will also discuss biodiversity and the impact of climate change on wildlife. It will examine its impacts on migratory birds and their annual flights in spring and autumn each year. She said that the environment is an integrated whole impacted by various factors and that people must unite to work on the protection and sustainability of natural resources.
Egypt has taken many steps on the national level to protect migratory birds, the minister said, most importantly integrating conservation programmes for MSBs with development sectors like energy and tourism. Egypt had won the Energy Globe Award in 2020, she said, highlighting its achievements in migratory bird conservation in energy projects in cooperation with sectors such as the NREA, the Regional Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (RCREEE), and the Egyptian Electricity Transmission Company (EETC).
It has implemented pioneering programmes for bird conservation during migration seasons, such as on-demand shutdowns at the state-owned wind farm in Gabal Al-Zayt, which protects soaring birds and reduces waste.
IMPORTANCE OF BIRDS
For Abu Senna, birds are global ambassadors of nature, connecting us and informing us about different environments and connecting people to nature during their annual migrations in search of the best environmental conditions and habitats for feeding and raising their young.
While these journeys are fraught with danger for birds, they help to maintain the ecological balance of the planet.
Ayman Hamada, head of the Central Department for Biodiversity, said Egypt was important for migratory birds because of the vital flyway corridors for bird migration and bottleneck corridors in the country. Some 1.2 million birds of prey, 500,000 white storks, and 66,000 pelicans pass through these flyways due to the diversity of wild and marine environments and the presence of wetlands, desert areas, and valleys.
The flyways cater for a wide diversity of birds and provide them with food and rest areas, he said.
Hamada said that the greatest threat to birds was the destruction of their natural habitats, such as cutting down or burning trees and drying up swamps. Birds cannot easily adapt to new environments, and without their habitats they soon die. Humans also eliminate large numbers of birds by hunting them using nets and rifles. Some birds die of poisoning from pesticides or colliding with high-voltage electric cables. Pollution from oil is also a threat to birds, because oil sticks to their feathers and prevents them from flying or swimming, causing them to die of starvation, he said.
In addition to problems due to climate change, urban development, pollution, wind farms such as Gabal Al-Zayt, Zaafarana, and Koraymat, and high-voltage power lines, communication towers, solid and liquid waste, and overfishing also pose dangers to birds.
Hamada said that the law allows the hunting of only 21 out of the 520 species of migratory birds that fly across Egypt on their journeys. “We have 150 species of native birds living in Egypt, and the rest are migratory birds,” he said, adding that the ministry was actively combating poaching and the illegal trade in wildlife and birds.
Last year, there were 12 campaigns to catch falcon hunters, for example, he said.
Hamada said that it cannot be denied that wetlands are a source of livelihood for some people in Egypt, but that this must be within the limitations set down by law and according to specific controls and periods decided by ministerial decree in August each year with a view to preserving habitats, regulating hunting, and protecting living creatures.
He added that bird-watching tourism was a vital form of tourism that generates foreign currency for Egypt. The country has not yet optimised this potential, even though 255 species of Eurasian and African waterbirds pass through it each year.
Osama Al-Gibali, director of the Ministry of Environment’s MSBs project, explained that “soaring birds” mean birds that use rising hot air currents to ascend upwards and then cross water bodies without flapping their wings.
The bird-migration route along the coast of the Red Sea and the African Rift Valley is the second most important flyway of MSBs (raptors, storks, pelicans, and ibises) worldwide. More than 1.5 million birds representing 37 bird species migrate annually on this route between their breeding grounds in Europe and West Asia and winter stays in Africa. Five of these species are endangered.
Al-Gibali said that the ministry’s MSBs project aimed to integrate the flight route with development sectors along the Red Sea coast and Rift Valley, where there are serious threats to the safety of migratory birds from hunting, electricity and energy, agriculture, and waste management. The project also aims to encourage activities that can take advantage of this flight route, such as eco-tourism.
He added that the ministry was developing operational plans to reduce the threats facing resident and migratory birds. It removes solid waste and treats oxidation in lakes where birds gather. It also preserves natural habitats and rehabilitates those that have been damaged.
It coordinates with the NREA during the planning of wind farms in flyway areas to reduce their impact on birds. It regulates hunting, combats poaching, arrests violators, and releases seized birds. Currently, the ministry is involved in a project to protect MSBs. The project is GEF funded, managed by Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency, Birdlife International and United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
The project focuses on integrating protections for MSBs with development sectors through the ministries of electricity and energy, tourism, and agriculture and the National Organisation for Potable Water and Sanitary Drainage (NOPWASD) to raise awareness about the importance of migratory birds and how to protect them.
Through its nature preservation sector, the ministry is involved in programmes that monitor migratory birds, raise environmental awareness, and implement annual action plans. Adel Suleiman, an environmental expert and consultant to the MSBs project, said there was ongoing cooperation with the ministries of tourism and antiquities to promote and develop bird-watching tourism, known as “high-value, low-impact tourism” and of considerable value to Egypt.
Suleiman said that the tourism sector was a main target of the conservation project, which is responsible for increasing the number of people interested in bird-watching tourism through raising awareness about ecotourism. Already, 110 tour guides have been trained in bird-watching tourism in Sharm El-Sheikh based on the project’s training guide and the guide for hotels friendly to MSBs.
He added that Egypt’s unique geographical location serves as a bridge between the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, which is why millions of migratory birds flock to this region each year. Every year in spring and autumn, millions of migratory birds cross over Egypt from their lands of origin, especially the Scandinavian countries, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Siberia and Central Asia, on their way to and from eastern and southern Africa.
MSBs such as white pelicans, white storks, and large birds of prey have clear flyways using warm rising currents, but when these are not formed over water bodies, birds search for short crossings over water. The Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea are barriers for migratory birds, which is why many MSBs are concentrated in Sinai since it is a landmass that connects Europe, Asia, and Africa.
In winter, Egypt hosts large numbers of birds, especially waterfowl. The lakes in the northern Delta are a main refuge for many species of duck and wading water birds that spend the winter around the Mediterranean Sea.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.