Birds, Bee-eaters, Devastation, Conservation, Tourism

Published in Highlights

Hvar's natural environment is its greatest asset, for those who live on the island and its visitors.

Bee-eater Bee-eater Photo: John Ball

There is every reason to preserve it with care. Birds are a valuable part of Hvar Island's natural riches, as indeed they are in Dalmatia as a whole. But do we appreciate them enough? Are we doing enough to protect them? There are many people who observe and care about them, but sadly there are plenty of reasons for concern. Climate change is having a significant effect on bird species biodiversity, for instance in the seagulls, kingfishers and songbirds to be seen on Hvar. While it's difficult for individuals to have a visible impact on climate change, human activities which could be controlled are a major factor in altering our immediate surroundings. For instance with due care for Hvar's ponds and freshwater sources, one might see more of the kingfishers and wetland birds such as garganeys, ruffs, reed buntings, dunlins, cormorants, black-winged stilts, herons and others.

Dunlins might be more common with better care of Hvar's natural pools. Photo: Steve Jones

The famed golden eagle lives mainly in the northern parts of Croatia, but Hvar does have its share of fine birds of prey, including hen harriers, kestrels, buzzards, owls, Scops owls, goshawks and sparrowhawks. Birds are a real draw for the numerous tourists who love nature, and many birdwatching enthusiasts come to Hvar to see the species which are not to be found in their home countries. Steve Jones, an Englishman who lives in Dol and has been observing Hvar's birdlife for many years, has been producing a valuable record of bird behaviour on Hvar. For instance, robins and black redstarts have been seen to over-winter on the island, whereas in other countries and even other parts of Croatia their wintering habits are different.

Black Redstarts have over-wintered on Hvar. Photo: Steve Jones

Most of all, birdwatchers from other countries are atracted by the goldfinches, firecrests, goldcrests, hoopoes, golden orioles and bee-eaters. Bee-eaters, for instance, visit the  environs of Jelsa every year, usually arriving in April. They always establish their nests in sandy ground in the same place, year on year, and spend the summer catching insects until the time comes to depart at the endof the season. 'Eco Hvar' often receives inquiries as to the best place to see these exquisite birds, especially from the United Kingdom, and quite often the inquiries are followed up by visits.

Bee-eater in flight. Photo: John Ball

John Ball, a highly experienced birdwatcher from the UK was delighted, reporting after his visit to Jelsa that this first viewing of the bee-eaters was extra special: ".. these beautiful birds, a first time for me and an adrenaline surge experience." He went on to add:  "My wife and I enjoyed our second visit to Hvar [in 2018] and will undoubtedly return and the third visit cannot come quickly enough." However, the possibility of a visit in 2020 was ruled out because of Covid-19 restrictions.

Bee-eater: a powerful draw for birdwatchers. Photo: John Ball

Keen birdwatchers Will Rose and Eugénie Dunsten, also from the UK, reported in like vein after a visit in 2017: "We keep talking about that Bee-Eater site. What a way to see them for the first time. You'll have a great time studying them in that spot. ...Hvar did prove the best island for spots [bird sightings]. In Jegodna we saw a good few red-backed shrikes and Turtle doves. I've decided it was a Caspian tern that was fishing by our beach. A great spot was a Short-toed Eagle flying high over the ridge. I saw it in the binoculars and its pale underside and dark head were clearly visible. We also took a walk along the cliff path from Jegodna to Sveta Nedilja. We had a great seafood lunch at the marina and on the way back up to the road we had wonderful views of a pair of golden orioles. I got a dodgy pic, but we really did see them very well in the pines. Was so pleased to get a good sighting....We definitely would love to return again next year. Will aim for May when the birds are booming and the tourists aren't in full swing!"

Will and Eugenie birdwatching with Steve, July 2017. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

In 2020, when Covid-19 restrictions made travel from the UK all but impossible, Will and Eugénie regretted not being able to come to Hvar: "...what a great place Hvar is for wildlife...Hope you have some bee eaters and orioles to look at. I expect we won’t see any for quite some time so do enjoy them for us!"

Golden Oriole. Photo: Steve Jones

So where are the Goldfinches, Eurasian Siskins, Serins, Linnets, Greenfinches, Red Crossbills?

Sadly, every year there are fewer and fewer birds to be seen on Hvar. Steve Jones has reported this year after year, and Jelsan Ivica Drinković confirms this tragic truth from his own experience. As a youngster in Jelsa he was aware of great flocks of birds overhead. Later, he went to Germany for work, and when he returned nine years later in 2005, he was immediately conscious that there were substantially fewer birds. Some species have even disappeared. Ivica spends much of his free time hiking in the countryside around Jelsa, and reports that the following species are increasingly rarely to be seen, some of them not at all: Goldfinches (grdelin in dialect, carduelis carduelis), Eurasian Siskins (lugarin in dialect, carduelis spinus), Serins (frzelin in dialect, serinus serinus), Common Linnets (faganel in dialect, acanthis cannabina), Greenfinches (verdun in dialect, chloris chloris), and Red Crossbills (Croatian krstokljun, loxia crvirostra).

Goldfinch. Photo: Steve Jones

The reasons for this decline are complex. Some factors are very hard to influence, notably climate change. But there are many which we can indeed control, prevent and reverse. On Hvar there was a long-standing tradition of trapping songbirds, especially goldfinches, during their migration, and locking them in tiny cages to sing their hearts out from sadness. Eco Hvar receives complaints, written and verbal, from foreign visitors who notice and are shocked to see these poor birds cooped up in this inhumane way. The practice of trapping wild birds has been outlawed in the last few years, but, tragically, some unprincipled islanders continue the practice even in 2020.

Trapped in a tiny cage.

Many birds, especially the bee-eaters, have lost their habitats. Just outside Jelsa there were two large sandy areas where bee-eaters nested happily for years, but they were excavated for building materials and the number of bee-eaters to be seen around Jelsa has declined dramatically as a result.

Bee-eaters' former home devastated. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

The most significant factor in the decline of Hvar's birds is undoubteedly the massive use of pesticides of all kinds. Eco Hvar has been warning for years about the dangers of pesticides for birds and other wildlife. Herbicides can poison ground-nesting birds, both directly and by poisoning the worms and other soil organisms that are their main food source. Insecticides obviously kill the insects which many birds live on. The larvicides used on many of Hvar's natural pools poison the food sources for the water birds. Fungicides too, which are used in great quantities during vegetation, especially of the vines, also have highly damaging effects on birds. Local farmers and gardeners are not the only pesticide users, as local authorities also use herbicides and inseciticdes as well as rodenticides. For instance, 3 hectares of woodland around Hvar Town have been routinely sprayed every year with Bti, an insecticide which is known to affect reproduction in birds. Also, in all the local Council areas insecticides are sprayed along all the streets at least three times during the summer season. The pyrethroid insecticides used are not only poisonous to insects of all kinds (not just the target mosquitoes), but also to cats and dogs. And substances have been used which are not authorized in the EU or in Croatia, for instance Cypermethrin-based poisons in 2020. Unbelievable.

An alluring Kingfisher. Photo: Steve Jones

The combined and cumulative effects of all these poisons year after year are creating an ever-increasing environmental crisis.

Proud Kestrel. Photo: Steve Jones

In the past, the needs of birds have been respected. Miljenko Smoje, a well-regarded journalist from Split, described in his book 'Dalmatinska pisma' (p.117) how "houses built in Split in older times used to leave crevices in the walls... on the grounds that a house where birds don't want to live is cursed!" Individuals today also take care of the birds - and worry about their declining numbers - but much more awareness is needed. If we do nothing to halt the decline, we will lose an invaluable part of the natural chain, as every bird has an important part to play. The saddest comment on the situation came to Eco Hvar in 2019 from an experienced birdwatcher, who said it was no longer possible to recommend Hvar to birdwatchers, as there was now relatively little for them to see. Following the lead of those of our forebears who respected and loved birds, as well as nature in general, we need to do all we can to bring back the rich diversity of birds and other wildlife which once existed on Hvar, as in other parts of Dalmatia. With the return of these natural beautiful assets, Hvar will become once again a destination of choice for discerning, nature-loving visitors.

© Mirko Crnčević / Dobra Kob 2020

This article is based on a piece by Mirko Crnčević, published in Dobra Kob, July 2020 under the title '„Pernati“ Turizam Hvarske pčelarice privlače Engleze', translated by Vivian Grisogono

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