Sunday, 18 January 2009

Birding Cyprus

Having travelled to Cyprus on a birdwatching holiday, I thought people might be interested in some of my observations of the natural history, and especially the birdlife, of the island. The Greek islands are of course well known to holidaymakers, but perhaps less known is that prior to the arrival of human hunters and farmers about 9,000 years ago many, especially the larger islands, were home to animals as strange as you might find on Madagascar or South East Asia today. All the larger animals are now extinct, but some of the birds and reptiles, and many of the plants and insects, can still be found if you know what and where to look.

Geologically, Cyprus is a piece of deep sea floor which has been thrust up above sea level by the collision of the African and European tectonic plates. It is separated by a considerable distance from the mainland, at least today, and as a result colonisation by terrestrial plants and animals is difficult. Changes in sea level and what was at some time presumably a brief land collection have allowed colonisation by oaks and some other plants which are unlikely to disperse far by sea.

The isolation has resulted in a large percentage, nearly 10%, of the flora being endemic, often with connections to what are now widely dispersed floral elements. One species of berry-bearing bush for example has its closest relatives in the Canary Islands and Nepal.

I did not have much time to study the insects, but there is one species of endemic butterfly, the Paphos Blue, which is widely seen around the island. Other butterflies have as might be expected connections in the Middle East or Greece, although there are some also found in North Africa.

Most of the endemic mammals once found on the island are unfortunately extinct. The most spectacular was a pigmy hippopotamus, about the size of ours but not closely related, which seems to have been more adapted to a terrestrial life. Standing water is very scarce on Cyprus, and the oak forest which once covered most of the island would have provided ample cover.

There are only two endemic mammals remaining, the fairly widespread Cyprus Long-Eared Hedgehog and the only recently discovered Cyprus Mouse. The Cyprus Spiny Mouse, similar to the Turkish Spiny Mouse we have here at Bristol, has not been seen since 1980 and is believed to be extinct. The other mammals on the island, including the local form of the Mouflon, are almost certainly the result of early human introductions.

There are a range of reptiles and 3 amphibians on the island. As amphibians cannot cross the sea easily, they may have also been human introductions, whether accidental or deliberate. One of the reptiles is endemic, the Cyprus Whipsnake, and several others have distinct local subspecies.

However, my main focus was on the birds. I managed to see such endemic species as the Cyprus Warbler, Cyprus Wheatear, and Cyprus Scops Owl, and also several local subspecies of more widely spread birds, at least one of which, The Cyprus Coal Tit, is very distinctive in call and appearance and is probably best considered a separate species. The total bird list for my group came to 140 species, and Cyprus as a whole has a list of over 300, most being migrants passing through from Africa.

The Cyprus Wheatear is particularly interesting, as it shows a divergence in habitat from its close relatives. Wheatears are a group of mainly Mediterranean small songbirds similar to Stonechats, and are almost always found in open country. Only a single species reaches the UK, where it breeds in grassland and moors. The Cyprus Wheatear on the other hand is if anything commoner in woods than in the open fields, and behaves more like a Redstart or flycatcher.

Wildlife in Cyprus is fairly easy to find, but the conservation status of the island needs a lot of work. Especially along the coasts, holiday development threatens to destroy a lot of the remaining space for wildlife, and pollution and introduced species of animals and plants threaten to overrun many areas. Unfortunately, hunting is also widespread and many migrant birds are killed each year.

To sum up, if you are thinking of travelling to Cyprus on holiday, don’t forget your binoculars and please help any environmental bodies you meet – they need all the help they can get

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