Armenia is situated at the junction of two zoogeographical provinces. It is a mountainous country (elevations between 375 and 4090 meters above sea level), with contrast climatic conditions and a large range of habitats from dry semi-deserts to alpine meadows. Being located between Black and Caspian seas, Armenia is actually one of the bridges, connecting the temperate zone of Eurasia with Middle East and Africa. All those factors substantially determine the richness of birds in Armenia. At present there are 350 species of birds, recorded in Armenia, including 234 breeding and 116 migratory birds, with some additional species that still lack confirmed presence status. High species diversity in Armenia and in the whole Caucasus was one of the reasons to include the region into the list of 35 Global Biodiversity Hotspots. After collapse of Soviet Union and the following crisis, economy of Armenia started developing intensively in two main directions: mining and agriculture (including forest exploitation). Obviously, both industries significantly affect the habitats and avifauna. Today, the most actual threats for ornitofauna of Armenia belong to four large categories: biological resource use, pollution, agriculture and aquaculture, energy production and mining.
The information on the work and progress on the new European Atlas in Armenia was given by Karen Aghababyan, EBBA2 national coordinator in Armenia.
Q1. What was the development of bird studies in Armenia?
KA: The beginning of tradition of ornithological studies in Armenia can be considered as 1930-s, when the first book on bird fauna of Armenia was published by A. Lyaister and G. Sosnin. Later, in 1950-s the tradition of bird studies were continued by S. Dahl, and then in 1970-s by M. Adamian and G. Manucharyan. In that period the ornithological studies where conducted under state Institute of Zoology. Popularization of birds was initiated by Mr. Sargis Acopian, a benefactor from Pensillvania US, and was lead in Armenia by M. Adamian in 1990-s under American University of Armenia. The initiative has promoted younger generations to continue bird studies in the Republic.
Q2. Has your country already produced a national Breeding Bird Atlas and was Armenia included in the EBBA1?
KA: We have started to work on the National Breeding Bird Atlas in 2011 and are planning to release the first Atlas in 2018. That is why in 2012 we have been communicated by EBBA2 Team with the suggestion to join this great initiative. Armenia had not been included in EBBA1.
Q3. Why do you think that you were not been able to produce a national atlas before?
KA: From one side the reason is a general lack capacity, such as shortage of qualified counters, and lack of experience in development of such initiatives. The second thing that was missing was also a knowledgeable leader, who could begin to develop the concept, conduct fundraising, and communicate the idea to government and other agencies.
Q4. Have you made some specifical adjustments of EBBA2 methods for them to fit your country?
KA: We did not made any adjustments of the EBBA2 methodology, but we have adjusted our outdoor activities to fit the Atlas‘ methodology. So, for example, now when we do our Guided Birding Trips we plan the stops with birdwatchers not to be less than 1 hour long, so that we can perform standardised timed visits within each tour visit. Of course, we also collect huge amount of occasional observations, and currently are working on development of the mechanism for their use.
Q5. How many sqaures do you have in total and how many people are contributing to the atlas work?
KA: In total we have 27 squares 50x50km, and 374 squares 10x10km. After 2015 we had 8 people doing atlas work, four of them are working as birding guides (including 2 PhD students in ornithology), other four are bird enthusiasts and potential birding guides in the future.
Q6. What is the atitude towards ornithology in Armenia?
KA: If 15 years ago people appeared in the field with binoculars and photo-cameras, even rural people would think that we are spies. Now even military knows that we are just suspiciously looking crazy birders or scientists. So the attitude has changed a lot in regards towards ornithology and ornithologists.
Q7. What are the most problematic areas for mapping?
KA: There are four squares that are not covered by our efforts so far, because they require special permission from Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Armenia. We do plan to do bird counts in three of those squares in frames of EBBA2 in 2016 and 2017.
Q8. What do you see as the biggest issues currently?
KA: Currently, we do not have sufficient finances to make the Bird Monitoring Scheme (and EBBA- Bird Count Scheme as particular case) economically sustainable. We also lack the proper marketing of Armenia for foreign birders, scientists, and other nature enthusiasts.
Q9. Did you had any foreigners that helped you in mapping?
KA: Yes, there are number of people who have visited Armenia in the last two years and they provided great amount of data, that were already reported to EBBA2. We hope to increase the participation of the foreign birdwatchers and scientists in our atlas work.
Green are the priority squares for mapping in Armenia, red are the squares that should be avoided due to security reasons. Squares without any colour should be covered by national capacities, but any additional data is also welcomed. Please click on the square to see its UTM code and priority explanation. You can find more details on how to contribute as a foreign birdwatcher here.
Q10. What is the biggest challenge for you personally as a national coordinator?
KA: Well, this slightly vicious circle in which we lack the high-quality specialists on one side and on the other side we do not have enough time for helping people in developing these skills.
Q11. Would you like to produce your first national Atlas?
KA: Definitely yes. The plan for National Atlas „State of Breeding Birds in Armenia“ is to get it ready for publishing in 2018. The existing data (collected since 2011) will be significantly supplemented with the data collected in frames of EBBA2. We hope that our atlas would become a strong instrument especially for the needs of establishing and strenghtening the conservation of birds and habitats. Therefore we hope that the atlas would serve for: 1) determination of species‘ Conservation Status at National Level; 2) contribution in species‘ Conservation Status for IUCN SSC; 3) identification of level of success of implemented conservation measures; 4) development of network of National Protected Areas, and Emerald Sites (under Bern Convention); 5) decision making for various EIAs in business and industrial activities, as well as for ESIA; 6) decision making in improvement of Forestry policy, Land use policy, Water use policy; 7) identification of necessary conservation/management measures for species with declining population trend; 8) fundraising for conservation via marketing of particular threatened species; 9) developing of next generation of conservation biologists and activists.
Q12. Do you have any take home message for people reading this?
KA: In general, we have a well developed vision and strategy. We also have a good scheme of covering the country and current training system. So far, we have 5 experienced and 4 mid level counters / tour guides. What we do need is additional equipment, some financial assistance for our activities to become sustainable over long term period and consequently assistance in marketing of our activities. It would also be good to gain more training in data analysis and to develop an online platform for data collection. The rest we can handle.
Karen Aghababyan, together with his colleagues grew up during the initiative „Birds of Armenia“ and then continued the development of the field in directions of conservation research and education, and later towards development of birdwatching as an opportunity of sustainable community. Their project initiatives led to development of various groups, people, and resources: e.g. website on Birdwatching in Armenia, Birdlife partner in Armenia, and Facebook group „Birding Armenia“. One of the recent developments is a new initiative group Armenian Bird Census Council, which is responsible for bird monitoring, production of National Atlas, assessment of conservation status, and development of sustainable relations between bird habitats and the communities.
22.3.2016 Marina Kipson