What I like most about the observation of birds is how fruitfully people co-create each others’ experiences. Simply by sharing and discussing their discoveries related to local birds, people enrich the experiences of many. This post shows how to organize the process by joining the citizen science movement and applying digital tools.
The importance of symbolic birds
Urban birding is now becoming popular in many places. It is due to its ability to ensure safe distance and entertainment at the same time.
Usually, birding is associated with long trips and particular spots that are difficult to reach. Urban birding, in contrast, allows you to explore the wonderful bird world around you while walking in the park or observing from the window.
‘Urban areas represent probably the most important ecosystems in the world, – says Vladimir Mladenov, an ecologist of the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB). – These artificially created and the most recent setups emerged about 2000 years ago. In contrast, natural ecosystems – the sea, the desert, and mountains – have been in existence for million years. The urban ecosystem is too dynamic and stressful for birds. Some species are unwilling to adapt to new conditions and disappear, while others modify their behaviours’.
How can we facilitate the coexistence with birds? Why are some species are not where they’re supposed to be? Where is actually ‘their’ territory, and where’s ours? Some people actually never raise these questions and frequently get irritated with some troublesome feathered or fur neighbours.
They think that birds should only beautify their reality. And it’s amazing how those perceptions shape traditions and urban myths. Let’s take two emblematic Bulgarian birds: the Stork and the Caspian gull.
Stork: a herald of spring
Synonymous with revival, fertility and family happiness, storks are the most anticipated bird in Bulgaria. Many myths in Bulgaria culture, all with positive connotations, highlight and strengthen the importance of storks. According to many beliefs, storks nesting on the roof is a good sign of luck and prosperity.
Every spring, storks have a special welcome with Martenitsa – a pair of dolls or a bracelet made of twinned white and red threads.
On the 1st March, Bulgarians exchange and wear Martenitsa on the hand. When they see the first stork, they tie Martenitsas on blossoming trees. This tradition is a mix of pagan believes and cultural customs, its origin is not clear and have different versions.
The tradition reflects the link between storks’ come back and agricultural practices.
The returning from migration storks have a welcoming reception and extensive media coverage. The birds gather in flocks up to 20000 species, and their appearance in the sky is an impressive show. April is the best time of migration, and the best period storks can be seen in the Burgas region, the second-largest bird-migratory route in Europe.
The birds’ diet includes rodents, reptiles and insects, which they hunt in fields or rivers. An adult stork can consume about 25 mice and four frogs a day. Thanks to their diet, storks control the rodents and insects’ populations, which is very important for crops.
Some storks are particularly special and famous across the country. One such pair for several decades has been nestling on the bell tower in Bansko.
In ancient times, people attributed to storks such human traits as wisdom and sensibility. Some legends even hold that in the past, storks were humans.
Caspian gull: Bold statement of Burgas
The Caspian gull is another emblematic bird for Bulgarian culture. It’s the main symbol of Burgas, and people call the birds glaruses. Known for their noisy behaviour and the habit of seizing up whatever comes to their beaks, the growing gull population is a constant source of irritation for many people. Some call them a scourge.
People from other Bulgarian regions intending to offend somebody from the Burgas region name him ‘Hungry Burgas glarus‘, ridiculing bad manners and a lack of education.
Very few people know about the outstanding contribution of seagulls to cleaning Bulgarian landfills. It’s a very expensive activity, especially for resorts which population rises twofold during the high season.
An adult seagull consumes about 300 grams of food daily, about 20% of its weight. They are
omnivorous and willing to regurgitate things they cannot digest.
In Bulgaria, live about ten different kinds of seagulls. Many of them can be seen as far from the sea as on Sofia’s landfills, about 400 km from Burgas.
‘We never should forget – before seagulls invaded our environment, we had taken theirs, – points out Vladimir Mladenov, BSPD ecologist. – The only natural habitat left for seagulls in Bulgaria is the Islands of Saint Ivan, Peter and Toma; it’s less than in any European country.
And the list of the displaced species can be continued because the innovation and reconstruction never stop.
Now, it’s a good time for taking up new hobbies, like urban birding. They help see beauty in the mundane and encourage us to reconsider some beliefs by doing usual things – photographing, sharing and discussing it using special tools.
Find out which other birds you can see in Burgas in my YouTube video 11 Birds on Atanasavsko Lake.
Useful tools for birding
The main facilitators of birding are social media communities and digital tools like iNaturalist, Black Sea Watch and SmartBirds. They are akin to field diaries for observing wildlife. Birdwatchers may use data to see which birds they can encounter in certain areas.
How do these tools work? The principle is intuitive – fill in the data and upload the forms.
I’ve been a keen iNaturalist user for seven months, and I’ve uploaded 62 images of animals, birds, butterflies, plants and shells from 8 countries. The results were quite interesting.
Half of them have got the Research Grade – the identification given by experts. And my most dramatic image of a dead snake turned out to be useful for an important international project – Global Roadkill Observations. By gathering data with the help of citizen scientists, they aim to reduce the number of roadkill.
It was especially interesting for me to learn about the species labelled by iNaturalist ‘arrived in the region via anthropogenic means’, namely, actions caused by humans or their activities. Among such species were Indian Fig Opuntia, a type of cactus, captured in Tunisia, Canada goose spotted in New Castle and Eastern grey squirrel in London (England), and Veined Rapa Whelk in Pomorie (Bulgaria).
SmartBirds, the platform and app developed by BSPD, in contrast, is a new tool for me. It makes part a bird ID course that I’m doing with BSPD, and I’ve been using it for only one week.
I have already recorded over 50 bird species, primarily seagulls. For every observation, you need to fill in a form. It has quite a lot of fields, some of which are a bit unclear. Fortunately, you may skip ones you don’t understand. The form looks complex because it’s intended for professional ornithologists and amateur birdwatchers and citizen scientists.
I especially like their realistic approach to making the form. It considered the level of some citizen scientists and included the Sure/Unsure option. For instance, I can identify cormorants for sure, but I don’t differentiate between Little and Great cormorants. So, filling in the form, I choose Not sure, and the final result is Unidentified cormorant.
For people who study the birds or simply want to come to see them, it’s very important to see adequate information.
Two more my favourite resources for bird watching in Bulgaria represent practical tool kits where one can check the local birds’ lists, find interesting routes and discuss any related matters with knowledgeable birdwatchers:
- Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds, the biggest ecological organization in Bulgaria. The BSPD has a good social media presence with active Facebook, Instagram and YouTube accounts.
BSPD experts often share interesting facts in interviews, reportages and live stream. The latter is an incredibly positive experience. Every day, you can watch the daily life of two storks Drago and Draga, nested in the village of Dragushinovo. I do it every day:)
- The award-winning website Birds in Bulgaria and an affiliated Facebook group entirely devoted to species present in Bulgaria. With over 400 bird species, the website offers tones of useful information in three languages, Bulgarian, English and Spanish. It has photos, video, recordings of birds singing, birding spots and contacts of people who can provide more information.
The common features of these resources are friendly and non-competitive environments. Many birdwatchers belong to all the groups. They are as knowledgeable as some experts and frequently initiate meaningful discussions.
By developing an interest in birding together with different communities, we engage in a mutually beneficial process – learn to spot wonderful moments in life and connect with interesting people.
Stay safe and curious, and share this post if you find it interesting/useful! Thanks for reading:)