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Pelicans in Montenegro: Their regional link with Amvrakikos Gulf/ Mikri Prespa Lake (Greece) and Karavasta Lagoon / Narta Lagoon (Albania)

 

This Study Is financed by: UNPEP; Regional Activity Centre for Specially Protected Areas
Responsible of the study: Darko Saveljić, Borut Rubinić

 

The Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus is classified by IUCN as Vulnerable.
Species’ nesting population is local and confined to the SE Europe, Middle East and Central Asia. World population of Dalmatian Pelican is estimated to be stabilized between 10,400 and 13,900 (Birdlife International, Data zone). Newest estimates of nesting population are between 4031 and 5196 pairs. About 20 % of the population nests in the Mediterranean region: 15-20 pairs in Albania, 7 pairs in Montenegro, more than 1000 pairs at Mikri Prespa and up to 170 pairs in Amvrakikos Gulf in Greece. There are around 450 pairs in the Danube Delta and about 120 pairs in Turkey.
The Mediterranean population is however considered to be increasing – mostly due to great recovery of the Mikri Prespa and Amvrakikos colonies (which are direct results of the national AP implementation for the species!).

 

The Dalmatian Pelican is included in Appendix II of the Bern Convention, in Annex I of the EU Wild Birds Directive, In Appendix I of CITES, in Appendix II of the Bonn Convention and in the Agreement for the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AWEA) under the Bonn Convention.

In Montenegro the Dalmatian Pelican is included in the list of Strictly Protected Species. It has the same status also in Albania and Greece.

 

Dalmatian Pelicans in Montenegro

In Montenegro Dalmatian Pelicans occur more or less regularily on three localities: Skadar Lake, which is the only breeding site of the species in MN, Šasko Lake, feeding and resting place during migration and wintering and Ulcinj Salina, the most important wintering site in MN.
Of those three sites, Šasko Lake can be excluded of further analysis since pelicans only visit this place rarely and in small numbers. The same can probably be said for few other places where pelicans are irregular or accidental guests: Tivat Salina, Velika plaža by Ulcinj and Bojana river. Those sites must be taken in account in further analysis and properly evaluated but their importance for this report is negligible.
Since the two remaining sites, which bear the vast share of importance for the species in MN, are very different from each other, as are ecological conditions at each of them, they will be described in details separately.

 

Skadar Lake

Skadar Lake is situated in the very SE part of Montenegro. It is the biggest lake on the Balkan Peninsula with the size of water surface between 354 and 505.8 km2 according to the season and water level. It is 44 km long and 15 km wide. Its main water source is Morača river, which provides more than 60% of the lake’s water. Besides Morača there are many other smaller rivers and sublacustic springs flowing into the lake.

 

Dalmatian Pelicans on Skadar Lake

The presence of Dalmatian Pelicans at Skadar Lake were firstly recorded by Brusina (1891). In 1894 in Hum bay on Skadar Lake 29 pairs were recorded building nests (Führer 1894). As Führer explains he took eggs from 15 nests, leaving the eggs from remaining 14 nests untouched. Remaining 14 nests were later destroyed by flooding (Führer 1894). In 1896 Reiser & Führer (1896) recorded again a colony of 20 pairs. After Reiser and Führer till 1972 detailed research on the birds of Skadar lake is missing and records on pelican’s occurrence are lacking. Only in 1965, 42 pelicans were recorded in the mating season at the former breeding place (Ivanović 1970). The colony was disturbed by hunters then.  

Intensive research on Dalmatian Pelican has started 1972 (Vizi 1975). In May 1972 the colony was visited for the first time and 20 nests with 16 to 18 young birds were recorded. In subsequent years severe disturbances of the colony by predators and flooding was recorded (Vizi 1975). The original colony site, Panceva oka, was displaced because of human disturbance in 1975 to the other place, Crni žar, an area consisting of floating peat island and floating vegetation, situated about 1.5 km to the south (Vizi 1979). Until 1977, when the maximum of 52 pairs was reached, the number of nesting pelicans had been increasing. In 1978 the colony was once more destroyed by high water level (Vizi 1979). During the 80-ies pelicans were mainly nesting both on Crni žar as well as on Pančeva oka.

Numbers of successfully fledged young pelicans are continously low, although disturbances were not recorded. In 1990 21 pairs were recorded on Crni žar but all the eggs and a young bird were later distroyed by hail. During 1991 and 1992 colony was situated on a stone island Grmožur. Continuous disturbance by tourists resulted in complete abandonment of the colony in subsequent years (Vizi 1995a). In the period from 1993 to 2001 nesting of Dalmatian Pelican has not been recorded on Skadar lake.
Recent record of nesting pelicans on Skadar lake has been confirmed on 11th of July 2002 when 5 pairs leading 2 fledged youngs were seen while flying with a small airplane on the hight of 900 feet over the hardly accessible colony in Pančeva oka.  
On the same place in 2003 during two visits 7 pairs with 10 successfully fledged youngs were recorded only 20 m away from nesting rafts set there by the recommendation of MedWet (Perennou et al. 2001).
In the period between 2003 and 2006 the nesting of pelicans was mostly unsucessful, the main reasons being human disturbance and nest destruction by water level oscillations.
In 2007 7 to 15 breeding pairs have produced 13 to 16 fledged youngs. In 2008 nesting was again unsuccessful. 7 pairs started nesting in February but soon after storms destroyed nests. Nesting was repeted in a short while but again with no success.

Dalmatian Pelicans have bred on three ecologically different places on Skadar Lake.
First and most frequented nesting locality is Pančeva oka. Pančeva oka (meaning “Pelican’s pools” in local language) is a vast complex of dead and live flooding vegetation a base of which is formed by up to 11 m deep layers of Sphagnum peat-moss. Pančeva oka is a complex of hardly-accessible floating peat island, freshwater pools and thick Salix vegetation. Among other vegeatation Salix alba, S.fragilis, Typha angustifolia, T.latifolia are found there. Pelican’s colony is situated on a floating island of peat on the southern edge of the Pančeva oka complex and is surrounded by big colonies of Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo, Pygmy Cormorant P.pygmeus, Little Egret Egretta garzetta and Squacco Heron Ardeola ralloides. The Pelican’s colony is on the edge of a bigger pool and not far from open water. 

Second locality where pelicans’ nests were found is Crni žar. This area covers a few km2 and lies south to the Pančeva oka. It is a complex of mostly live floating vegetation most of which is formed by Nuphar luteum, Nymphea alba, Phragmites australis and Trapa natans. Numerous small islands are formed by dead vegetation and peat. On the islands S.alba and S.fragilis are growing. Pelican’s colony was situated on an island of dead vegetation, surrounded with the colony of Common Sterna hirundo and Wiskered Terns Chlidonias hybrida and a few other non-colony nesting species of waterbirds.

Third locality where pelicans were found nesting in the years 1991 and 1992 is Grmožur island. The rocky island is found close to the NW coast of the lake, between Virpazar and Seoca settlements. The island is not more than a few hectares big, mostly bare. Vegetation, present mostly on highest points of the island, consists of a few Ficus carica, Punica granatum and Vitex agnus-castis. Pelicans’ nests were situated close to the water, only a few meters from the coast.

 

Limiting factors of Dalmatian Pelican population survival on Skadar Lake

Factors which effect pelican population on Skadar lake in negative way can be divided into two groups – anthropogenic and natural:

Anthropogenic factors

Disturbance is probably main limiting factor for the DP population on Skadar lake. One of main causes of human disturbance still remains hunting. Although officially banned in 2001, hunting continues on Skadar lake as an illegal activity. This is still apparent even in ornithological reserves where pelicans nest.
Lack of zonation in the very National Park (zonation actions at Skadar lake are proposed as part of AP) results in nest colonies, feeding and resting areas of DP to be under constant pressure by fishermen, which are main users of this space.  

Similar happens also by other user groups, such as turists and accidental visitors. Even completelly unintentional disturbance can cause much damage in pelican population and can be a key limiting factor for the reproductivity success. Lack of zonation enables turist boats to reach important and fragile parts of DP habitat at the lake without any control. With more than 20.000 visitors that are recorded annually (NP Skadar Lake Management data, unpubl.) to visit the lake cruising over the lake on turist boats and hundreds of small registered fishing boats, this is an important and increasing threat for DP population.

Unfortunatelly one of the disturbing factors for DP population at this site is also unsustainable research of DP nesting and too frequent and not conscious enough visits of breeding colony. Besides monitoring or research activities also filming of DP are a threat for their nesting success. Cases when national and numerous private TV companies have entered DP colony in the midst of the nesting period trying to film the life cicle of DP when DP are most susceptible for disturbance are not rare. Often it was documented in this cases DP left the nests and during their absence nest got destroyed by crows and magpyes – Corvidae. Similar problems were frequent at Mikri Prespa lake untill AP implementation considered zonation to core areas and complete prohibition of entrance to breeding colonies untill July. This measure had emense positive effect for the breeding success of DP at Mikri Prespa.

Natural factors

It was already mentioned that 60% of the lake’s water is provided by river Morača. River is 98 km long and gets majority of its water from the high mountains of Montenegro. The river’s character is swift and mountainious and regular floods are annual. River’s weekly water level variations in its middle current can be more than 6 m in floody spring period. This effects considerably to water level variation of the lake during DP reproductive period and can result in nest end eggs destruction. Beggining of nesting period of DP namely coincides with the snow melting period in higher mountains of MN and higher precipitation values in MN submediterranean regions (where Skadar lake is situated). 

Stronger precipitations, storms and hail are frequent in spring in MN and can be an important factor for pelican’s breeding success, specially on breeding islets where erosion is another limiting factor (mainly pit or reed islets) which is usually the case at Skadar lake.

Animal predation, such as nest predation by Corvidae can be another limiting factor of DP breeding success at Skadar lake, although the last is usually connected with human interference (see above).

 

Ulcinj Salina

Ulcinj Salina or Ulcinj salt pans are one of the biggest salt pans of the Adriatic coast. They are situated at the very SW end of Montenegro. The area’s value is even greater due to the marshy habitats and to the vicinity of the sea. It is completely anthropogenic guided ecosystem, where all factors significant for the birds are controlled by man. The salt-pans originated in the area of the former Zoganj Mud, a 25 km2 large marshy area with brackish water. The oldest salt-pan basins were built in the period from 1926 to 1934. From the mid 20th century the salt-pans gradually grew in size; in the beginning of the 1980s they were enlarged by 60% of their total territory and today cover 14.5 km2

Pelicans on Ulcinj Salina

First data about the Dalmatian Pelicans from the Ulcinj Salina are from the end of 19th century (Führer 1895). Führer had found 39 Pelican nests, mainly with one egg, in the area of former Zogaj Mud during March 1894. Two years later more than 20 nesting pairs were found in the same area (Reiser & Führer 1896).

From 1924 until 1936 the hydro-melioration works were conducted and the part of the swamp has been transformed into the salt pans. There is no data in the literature covering the period of the time from the end of 19th century (Reiser & Führer 1896) until late seventies (Vasić 1979), when, in July of 1975,  ‘few’ Dalmatian Pelicans had been registered. Additional one young Dalmatian Pelican was observed resting on one of the salt pans basins in 1984 (Ham 1986). Pelicans resisted and remained to be regular guests in the salina although hunting pressure in the pools of salina grew very high in late nineties and continued since at least 2003. In 1999 an intensive monitoring of Ulcinj salina took place and a maximum of 56 birds have been observed in 2003. After 2004 hunting has been effectively banned in the Salina and thus disturbance of pelicans has been significantly reduced. In 2004 the maximum number of observed pelicans raised to 96 birds (Saveljić 2004) which represents about 3% of the biogeographical population (Black Sean and Mediterranean population) of the species (Schneider et al. 2006, Wetlands International 2002). The other effect of lesser disturbance was that pelicans were rarely shy after 2004 and could be usually observed from not more than 50-100 m of distance.

 

The status of Dalmatian Pelican population in Greece

Colour ringing records of DP which are registered regularily in Montenegro on wintering show that birds come to MN on regular basis from the Amvrakikos Gulf in Greece and from Karavasta Lagoon in Albania. In continuation state of population of DP at those sites will be described. Special focus is assigned also to Mikri Prespa lake in Greece, largest colony of DP in the World, possible origination site for at least some wintering birds in MN and best example of AP implementation for the whole region.

Most of the data was collected by the special questionnaire which was designet for- and later on filled up- by contact points met during the field trip.

Mikri Prespa

Mikri Prespa is a mountainous lake which lies 849 m a.s.l. and has a surface of 54 km2 and average depth of 6.7 m. It is closely linked to a bigger Megali Prespa lake and as such presents a unique IBA and protected area in Greece. About 90% of surface area of the lake belongs to Greek territory and the rest to Albania. Megali Prespa (259 km2) is shared between Greece, Macedonia and Albania.

 

Dalmatian Pelicans on Mikri Prespa

First data on DP nesting at Mikri Prespa date from 1968 (Terrasse et al. 1969).
Until active protection of DP took place, main conservation problems at this site which also heavily influenced breeding success of the species were disturbance, especially by fishermen and tourists together with erosion and human destruction of reed islets on which DP nest. If we add disturbance by hunters to the above list, we could presume Montenegro with Skadar lake as the only breeding place of DP had a very similar starting position as Mikri Prespa lake when considering the protection of species’ population. 

In whole of the Greece DP population in 1990 was 500-550 pairs which were limited to two main colonies (Mikri Prespa and Amvrakikos Gulf) (Crivelli et al, 2000). Active protection of the species at Mikri Prespa resulted nesting pair numbers rise from 100 breeding pairs in 1988 to more than 1000 BP in 2008. Protective measures included disturbance reduction, strict approach prohibition to the core nesting areas during nesting period and zonation of the lake, particularly for fishermen and visitors, management of the colonies and establishment of water level control. Soon after those measures were undertaken Mikri Prespa became the biggest colony of DP in the World In 1983-1988 period (before active measures took place) number of DP BP rose from 114 BP to 165 BP. In early nineties rapid population increase started (following active protection) – from 201 BP in 1990 to 650 BP in 2000 and finally to more than 1000 pairs in last years (2003-2008)(Figure 1).

One of main measures, as mentioned a couple of times, was the complete prohibition of entrance to the breeding colonies during the breeding period. This measure has also been beneficial to another pelican species, the White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus with a colony which rose to more than 400 BP after the Greek ornithologists took those strict measures.

 

The status of Dalmatian Pelican population in Albania

For the use of protection of DP in Albania an Action Plan has been proposed but implementation did not start until now (Bino 2000).

There are two most important sites for Dalmatian Pelican in Albania: Karavasta and Narta lagoons.

Karavasta

Karavasta is the largest wetland in Albania with the Karavasta lagoon forming the largest part of the complex. The lagoon is shielded from the sea by a sandy bar (Divjaka) covered with pine forest dominated by Pinus pinaster and P. pinea. Karavasta comprises a shallow inner lagoon, and a smaller outer lagoon. The inner lagoon has many peninsulas and small, low islands with muddy shores and some areas of bare sand. A sandy bar covered by pines separates the two lagoons. In the inner lagoon only artisanal fishery is practiced, but in the outer one there are more intensive fisheries (BirdLife International 2008).

 

Dalmatian Pelicans in Karavasta

In 2002 19 BP of Dalmatian Pelicans have breed in Karavasta lagoon. Since then no published records exist on DP nesting population data at this locality. Tour de Valat biological station has ceased color ringing program in 2002 due to intensive disturbance by hunters and life threats to the researchers conducting the ringing program.
During our visit on September 27th 33 pelicans have been registered of which one was feeding not more than 50 m away from a fishing boat. Irrespective to that it was obvious even during our short visit that disturbance is a big problem in Karavasta. We have noticed a large number of fishermen, hunting activity was obvious by the big number of empty hunting cartridges found on the ground  and by a number of gun shots we have heard during our visit.

Karavasta is also an important resting and non breeding site for DP. In 1996 up to 62 resident birds have been counted and in the same year up to 171 birds have been counted wintering in the lagoon (BirdLife International 2008).

 

Narta lagoon/Vlora Salina

Narta lagoon and Vlora salt pans are a uniform system of brackish lagoon close to the SW Albanian coastal town of Vlorë. This marshland is second in size in Albania, similar in size and habitats with Karavasta lagoon which lies only some 30 km to the North. One half of the lagoon is transformed into salt pans which is still active. Salina is filled by the sea water which is spread over salina pools.

 

Dalmatian Pelicans in Narta lagoon and Vlora salina

There is very little data about birds from this site. The lagoon, salt-pans complex is known to hold significant breeding shorebird and seabird populations. Pelicans of both species (Dalmatian and white) are thought to occur on Narta/ Vlore salina regularly (Mima et al. 2003, Bino pers. com.). During our visit 32 pelicans have been observed, of which 2 white and 30 Dalmatian.

Pelicans we observed seemed quite vary and flew away when approached to not less than 200 m. After they were being flushed, the flock of pelicans remained in thermals, circling above lagoon, for about half an hour and subsequently landed on salina again. Presence of fishermen and hunters which we saw during the visit, together with vary pelican behavior suggested that disturbance might be an important issue at the very site.

Links between Dalmatian Pelicans in Montenegro with populations in the region

Untill first color ringing reading results in 2005 the origin of birds occurring at Ulcinj salina in winter months remained completely unclear. Where do up to 100 birds occurring in a single day in salina come from, is the colony at Skadar lake mixing with birds from other sites in the region, where do large flocks of DP that come to salina frightened by hunter’s gun shots from Velipoja come from since there are only up to 19 BP nesting in Karavasta, the only Albanian colony? Some of the questions like those were answered after a single colour ringing reading of a flock of pelicans resting in Ulcinj salina in October 2005 took place by the authors of this text. 9 rings were read and data was sent to the IUCN’s Committee for pelicans chairman, Dr Alain Crivelli, who coordinates the whole DP color ringing programme.

The very results which indicated that the DP originated from Karavasta and Amvrakikos were responsible to encourage the authors of AP and this text to start with intensive networking of all the existing experts and DP important sites in the region to get a more complete knowledge about the population condition of the species and their movements through the region.

Due to the lack of sufficient analysis it remains largely speculative that Skadar lake DP population rarely mixes with other populations in the region. Lack of ringing programme in past decades as an example of monitoring method for this species disables in great deal any serious analysis of their movements through the region. It is obvious that due to the very low breeding success in past years the colony of DP on Skadar lake acts as a sink population and we could assume that the population will remain to struggle at the edge of the existence or even stop existing if AP implementation does not start. 
Ulcinj Salina is a wintering site and a resting stopover after breeding period for DP in region. Figures from past few IWC (International waterbird census) confirm that Ulcinj salina is the most important wintering site for the species in E part of Adriatic. Still more, facts that DP nested in what is now Ulcinj salina and that a very place in a wintering site for many DP from the region encourages us to think of a possibility that species could once again become a breeder of this extensive wetland. AP should stimulate this possibility through certain activities such as artificial nesting site building and increase the possibility that increase of the closely linked populations from Amvrakikos (and possibly Mikri Prespa) might in near future result in new breeding site for DP in Montenegro.

 

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