War in Ukraine threatens the survival of the Aquatic Warblers

Meldinė nendrinukė. Žymanto Morkvėno nuotr.
Aquatic Warbler. Žymantas Morkvėnas photo.

This week’s International Naturalists’ Meeting on the Conservation of the Aquatic Warbler discussed the status of the species and planned conservation actions in both Europe and Africa. The war in Ukraine could have a major impact on the survival of the species. According to the conservationists, the uncertain situation in the two most important countries for the species – Ukraine and Belarus – could lead to a drastic decline of the species, and increase the importance of conservation action in war-free Lithuania, Poland, and other countries. 

Žymantas Morkvėnas
Žymantas Morkvėnas

„Ukraine and Belarus are home to two-thirds of the world’s aquatic warblers. Although the war in Ukraine has not physically destroyed the warbler’s habitat, some of it is mined and inaccessible to scientists and farmers. It is clear that proper management of these habitats will not be a priority for a long time to come, and this may eventually lead to the decline of these birds in abandoned habitats. Meanwhile, Belarus, as an aggressor country, has been cut off from virtually all support for nature conservation, which has played a key role in the protection of not only the warbler but also biodiversity as a whole.“ – Žymantas Morkvėnas, Director of the Baltic Environment Forum Lithuania, comments on the situation.


„It should be celebrated that in recent years a lot of work has been done in both Poland and Lithuania to create the best possible conditions for aquatic warblers. Thanks to LIFE projects, many wetlands have been restored and compensation schemes have been set up for farmers protecting the birds. Of particular importance is our successful experience of the world’s first translocation of these birds. In such a drastic situation, this donation-like approach will help to revive threatened or endangered populations faster. It is very good that this method was tried before the war,“ continues Ž. Morkvėnas.

The conservationist says that a repeat translocation is planned in the near future together with Polish and German colleagues. Using young birds from a stable population in the Biebrza marshes, the aim is to re-establish a rapidly declining population on the Polish-German border in the Pomerania region. International experts from 14 countries who met this week agreed that, in a situation of war, the use of translocation is one of the priorities to strengthen the population of globally threatened birds in the EU. It is also necessary to focus efforts on the recovery of swamps, not only in breeding areas but also in countries where the birds pass through during their migration. It will also look at ways to protect these winged birds on their wintering grounds in Africa.

Dynamics of Aquatic Warbler population in Lithuania. Singing males are counted.POPULATION IN LITHUANIA REMAINS STABLE

Although the Lithuanian population of aquatic warblers remains stable, the count has been slightly lower in the last few years. This year, the annual aquatic warbler count was 208 male songbirds, compared to 243 last year.

„Although international experts are positive about the situation in Lithuania, the declining numbers show that more efforts are needed from farmers and conservationists to protect the bird. We must not forget that changes in Ukraine and Belarus may eventually affect Lithuania too.“ says Ž. Morkvėnas.

Vytautas Eigirdas with Aquatic Warbler
Vytautas Eigirdas with Aquatic Warbler

„The decline of the aquatic warbler can be attributed to unfavourable farming practices in some of its most important breeding sites. For example, during the surveys in Alka Polder, we noticed that a large part of the area we monitored was intensively grazed, which had not been the case before. Birds should have been concentrated in a much smaller area. It is likely that some of them flew to the adjacent Tyrai marsh. Perhaps another part flew even further away – to other areas of the Nemunas delta, perhaps to Russia,“ says Vytautas Eigirdas, an ornithologist from the Ventė Ornithological Station, who was conducting surveys in the Alka polder.

According to conservationists, observations in recent years show that in unfavourable conditions, warblers can migrate quite long distances. For example, in the Žuvintas Biosphere Reserve, ringed birds have been found singing in the Tyrai (200 km away) and Biebrza (110 km away) marshes. Another possible reason for the decline is very unfavourable water level fluctuations caused by changing climatic conditions or inadequate water level regulation in the polders of the Nemunas delta. In such situations, the aquatic warblers can simply decide not to breed, which harms the survival of the species.