BirdLife Cyprus’ new publication ‘Important Bird Areas of Cyprus’ reveals the best places to see some of the country’s most important natural treasures, our birds. Here, the organisation’s Natura 2000 Officer Vasiliki Anastasi reveals more…If you are observant and learn to look for signs in nature, left in peace and serenity you will notice that birds announce to us the dawn and dusk, remind us that the seasons come and go, and let us try to balance in our minds their dramatic demonstration of evolution and migration.
Our island is a place that offers opportunities to anyone who wants to experience the magic of nature, hiding winged treasures, some of which you cannot find anywhere else in the world. Although some birds can be seen everywhere in Cyprus, important species are gathered in greater numbers in some areas of outstanding importance.
Such areas are the 34 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in Cyprus, including forests, wetlands, coastal and farmland areas.
The IBAs are sites recognised by BirdLife International in accordance with internationally recognised scientific criteria for their importance for birds. That is why they all have been designated as Natura 2000 sites in Cyprus, for those that fall under the effective control of the Republic of Cyprus, and their protection is a government obligation.
Here is a taste of some of them. Leaving Nicosia behind us heading to Troodos, we cross the ‘Atsas – Ayios Theodoros Area’ IBA between Astromeritis and Evrychou. The pine forest to our left, forecasting the Troodos Mountains, is one of the five most important areas in Cyprus for the Woodlark (Lullula arborea), and is also important for the endemic Cyprus Wheatear (Oenanthe cypriaca) and Cyprus Warbler (Sylvia melanothorax).
It is also important for the Cretzschmar’s Bunting (Emberiza caesia) and Masked Shrike (Lanius nubicus) nesting in the trees of the forest each spring.
From the bales of hay, every spring one can hear the distinctive call of the male Black Francolin (Francolinus francolinus). Reaching Kakopetria and entering the ‘Troodos Forest’ IBA veiled in Black Pine, along with the running water and the rustling of the trees, the songs of the forest species are often the only sounds that break the silence. But here we can also enjoy two endemic subspecies of Cyprus, the Coal Tit (Parus ater cypriotes) and the Short-toed Treecreeper (Certhia brachydactyla dorothea).
The entire Cypriot population of the Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) is also found in this forest. To the east of the Troodos Forest three other major forest IBAs can be visited.
The ‘Xylourikos Valley’, the ‘Adelphoi Forest – Papoutsa’ and the ‘Mahairas Forest – Tzionia’ IBA. While all three are very important for the common forest species of Cyprus, each one is unique.
The ‘Xylourikos Valley’ IBA, with its agricultural landscape giving way to the forested hills is one of the most important areas in Cyprus for the Black-headed Bunting (Emberiza melanocephala) nesting there every spring, while the hidden ‘Adelphoi Forest – Papoutsa’, in the heart of the Pitsilia, where pine forests alternate with oak, is one of the best locations in Cyprus for the Long-legged Buzzard (Buteo rufinus). If one pays an evening visit to the ‘Mahairas Forest – Tzionia’ IBA, they will be welcomed by the delicate Scops Owl (Otus scops cyprius).
To the west, of the Troodos Forest, and moving towards Stavros tis Psokas, one can enjoy the most remote and unspoiled mountain area of Cyprus and the largest IBA, the ‘Paphos Forest’. Besides its great importance for all the common forest species of Cyprus, the largest population of the only nesting eagle in Cyprus, the Bonelli’s Eagle (Aquila fasciata), is found there.
The only other area chosen by so many nesting Bonelli’s Eagles is the ‘Pentadaktylos Mountains’ IBA.
The steep slopes of Pentadaktylos, with its impressive cliffs and sparse vegetation are the last place in Cyprus where the Raven (Corvus corax) is still breeding in Cyprus.
Adelphoi Forest Papoutsa
But forests are not the only valuable areas for birds in Cyprus. Although everyone knows the two major salt-lakes, more for their pink winter visitors, the Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus), most people do not know that the salt-marshes are valuable for many bird species, and also that they are not the only wetlands on the island but only two out of seven, each special in its own way. The ‘Akrotiri Peninsula – Episkopi Cliffs’ IBA and the ‘Larnaca Salt Lake’ IBA are wetlands of international importance for waterbird congregations. Over 40,000 birds of many species spend the winter in these marshes. The ‘Larnaca Salt Lake’ hides a great rarity. It is the only place in Cyprus apart from the ‘Mia Milia Sewage Treatment Plant’ IBA, where a species of global conservation concern, the rare White-headed Duck (Oxyura leucocephala), finds refuge each winter.
Akrotiri Peninsula Episkopi cliffs
The ‘Akrotiri Peninsula – Episkopi Cliffs’ also has its rarities. It is the only place in Cyprus visited by the Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), a species of global conservation concern, on its long journey. Other raptor species also visit the Peninsula during their long journeys every autumn. The Episkopi Cliffs, west of the Salt Lake, is the last place where one can see a Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) colony in Cyprus. Except from being a winter resort for waterbirds and a refuge of ornithological treasures, this site provides breeding areas for many other species such as the elegant Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus). For the nesting of this species, however, the ‘Oroklini Lake’ IBA has nothing to envy, as each spring it hosts the largest population of breeding Black-winged Stilts as well as Spur-winged Plovers and the loud Spur-winged Lapwing (Vanellus spinosus) on the island.
The ‘Paralimni Lake’ and ‘Famagusta Lakes’ IBAs are also very important for the Spur-winged Plover. The latter is the only place in Cyprus where nesting of Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) has been observed. Of course another wetland of importance is the ‘Achna Dam’ IBA, an important area for the Red-footed Falcon (Falco vespertinus), a species of global conservation concern.
The most dominant element of Cypriot nature however is neither the pine forest nor the wetlands, but the rural landscape and the scrubland; areas with Cypriot phrygana, shrubs, herbs and other fragrances that remind us of the Cypriot countryside. The most glaring example of such areas are the four parallel valleys running from the Troodos Mountains and which reach the sea between Limassol and Paphos. These are the ‘Ezousa Valley and Cliffs’, the ‘Diarizos Valley’, the ‘Xeros Valley and Hanoutaris Cliffs’ and the ‘Ha Potami River’ IBAs. Each one is unique, but all cause the same awe to the visitor. Open valleys, streams flowing in the spring, almond, olive and carob trees and scents of thyme and oregano. Breeding farmland birds call all these valleys home, but each site has its specialty.
At ‘Ezousa Valley and Cliffs’ one can enjoy every spring the spectacle of the beautiful blue Roller (Coracias garrulus), a species of global conservation concern, while at the ‘Diarizos Valley’ one can find the Little Owl (Athene noctua). At the ‘Xeros Valley and Hanoutaris Cliffs’ the Red-footed Falcon gives its presence each autumn while the ‘Ha Potami River’ is visited by the Griffon Vulture in search for food. Other valleys ideal for farmland birds are the ‘Pentaschinos River’, the ‘Panayia Stazousa’, the ‘Limnatis Valley’, the ‘Saramas Valley’ and the ‘Vouni Panayias’ IBAs.
At the ‘Paramali River and Plateau’ IBA the Demoiselle Cranes (Grus virgo) that use the plateau during their migration are a beautiful sight.
But valleys always end up in plains and the ‘Paphos Plain’, the ‘Koshi-Pallourokampos and Troulloi Plain’ and the ‘Mesaoria Plain’, with their flat dry land sown with cereals, are a refuge for the Stone Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus), and the singing Calandra Larks (Melanocorypha calandra) and Crested Larks (Galerida cristata).
All the splendour of the Cypriot nature is surrounded by the blue waters of the Mediterranean, creating some very important coastal areas, excellent for important birds. From the north-eastern end of Cyprus, where the ‘Karpasia Peninsula – Kleides Islands’ IBA hosts the only colony of Audouin’s Gulls (Larus audouinii) in Cyprus, a species of global conservation concern, to the north-eastern tip of Cyprus, where the ‘Kormakitis Peninsula’ IBA provides an important station for migratory Little Egrets (Egretta garzetta) each autumn; and from the western tip of Cyprus where the ‘Akamas Peninsula and ‘Ayia Aikaterini – Ayia Paraskevi Gorges’ IBA provide resting places for the wandering Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) to the west at ‘Cape Greco’ which becomes a spectacle every autumn when migratory raptors fill heaven; and in the southern front the ‘Ayia Thekla – Liopetri River’ IBA, the only place in Cyprus except the ‘Kato Paphos Lighthouse Area’ where the Greater Sand Plover (Charadrius leschenaultii) finds shelter during the winter, to ‘Cape Aspro’ where nesting the Eleonora’s Falcons (Falco eleonorae) nest. The coastal areas of Cyprus have much more than sandy beaches and sun to share with the visitor.
In an increasingly simplified landscape, vulnerable to disturbances or abandonment by man, habitats such as lakes, valleys, forests, farmlands and plains act as islands of high biodiversity value and ecological complexity.
These habitats are very important parts of our ecosystems which provide us with services without which life wouldn’t be possible. Such services include the provision of clean air and clean drinking water and processes like crop pollination and waste decomposition.
When monetised, these ecosystem services provide great returns. Studies from several European countries have shown that investments in the Natura 2000 site network can generate ecosystem services worth seven times the amount spent or more.
It is therefore our duty to protect them, but first we need to know and love them. One often thinks that Cyprus is small, but when one starts to explore and pay attention to the details that hide in the Cypriot nature, then the island takes another dimension.
All one needs is to get away from the towns, carry a bottle of water, and have their eyes and ears open to enjoy these sites to the fullest. (By Vasiliki Anastasi)