Migration, the en masse movement of animals from one part of the world to another and back again, is one of the wonders of the natural world. Birds do it, but so do butterflies, fish and mammals. Birds, however, are the masters of long-distance migration and about one quarter of all bird species are migratory.
Migratory behaviour evolved around 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, when the vast glaciers that covered Europe began to retreat and new tracts of land became available to be inhabited by animals from Africa. Today, migratory birds move seasonally between the two continents, taking advantage of the lush summertime in the north and the rainy season in the savannahs of the south.
These mass seasonal movements were of course noticed by people since ancient times, but we didn’t always know where the birds were going. Aristotle had a few theories, including transmutation. For example, he believed that redstarts, which breed in some parts of Greece and leave for the south in the autumn, turn into robins, which actually arrive in Greece and Cyprus in the autumn and spend the winter there. Right up to the 16th century, people used to think that swallows hibernated in riverbeds.
Now, of course, we know better. Through bird ringing and, more recently, through the use of remote sensing with GPS tags and geolocators, our knowledge of bird movements around the globe has increased exponentially. And yet, many questions still remain and migratory birds are some of the most threatened species in Europe and indeed the world.
In Cyprus, the majority of bird species are migrants. Some arrive in spring and spend the summer in Cyprus to breed, some winter here and many more are passage migrants, stopping in Cyprus briefly to rest and refuel before continuing on their journey. Cyprus lies on one of the four major migration flyways between Europe and Africa and millions of birds pass through our island every autumn and spring.
Autumn in Cyprus is the best time of year to see large soaring birds on migration and indeed it is the time of year when BirdLife Cyprus volunteers are active in the field carrying out our annual raptor migration counts. The BirdLife Cyprus autumn raptor counts take place every year from late August to early November at key “bottleneck” sites across Cyprus, such as the Akrotiri Peninsula. In addition to birds of prey, volunteer observers count other soaring birds, including herons, storks and cranes, as well as some smaller species, like bee-eaters.
Keep your eyes (and ears) open in the coming weeks for migrating bee-eaters, demoiselle and common cranes, little egrets, grey and purple herons, pelicans, white storks, honey-buzzards, red-footed falcons, black kites and harriers. Although summertime and the vacation period are drawing to a close, there is plenty of bird activity to look forward to this autumn.