Volunteering Day with the Macedonian Ecological Society

I arrived in the Republic of North Macedonia at the beginning of May this year, to work as an intern at the Faculty of Agriculture. I was initially supposed to stay in Skopje for only two months. In the end, I have stayed four. 

Besides my main occupation, I had planned on finding volunteer work on environmental projects in the country. I wanted to keep myself busy, connect more with locals, and having a background environmental science myself, I wanted to learn more about the current issues in Macedonia. A few weeks later, after some research, I came across the website of the Macedonian Ecological Society (MES), an organization dedicated to nature protection which is currently running several ecological projects all around Macedonia, from education and public awareness to wildlife and ecosystem conservation. All I did was write an e-mail, and I was kindly invited to their office. There, I have met with some of MES´ employees, who were happy to give me an introduction to their organization, and tried to connect their projects with my personal interests. By the end of my visit, I felt welcome to join them on one of their field trips. That, however, took a little longer than I expected. Not because I was short of invitations, but it seemed as if there was always some conflict of schedules from my side.

It was a pleasant surprise when we finally made it happen, a few weeks prior to my departure, in the peak heat of August. The fieldwork in question was related to a bird protection program in Ovche Pole, a rather arid, plain area in the central part of the country, consisting, in large part, of agricultural fields. A beautiful landscape, nonetheless. There, many high and medium-voltage pylon lines are installed across the fields. Although the pylon lines are used as nesting and perching structures in the tree-scarce areas, those pose a risk to the many bird species in that zone as they may collide with the pylons on their flight, and even get fatally electrocuted. Therefore, one of MES’s current projects focuses on monitoring bird electrocution in the region and on working with several stakeholders to implement preventive measures. 

I had been in touch with Danka Uzunova, ecologist and member of MES responsible for the project in Ovche Pole, who took me with her on one of her monitoring visits. The research period usually starts in April and lasts until the end of August. In order to escape the heat, we had to be – pun intended – early birds. We set the time for my pick-up to 4 a.m., which gave us plenty of time to gather all the necessary material, food supplies and make the journey from Skopje to Ovche Pole. In less than one hour, we were on location and ready to start. Danka explained to me the details of the data collection sheet. We were supposed to collect detailed information about the weather conditions, pylon types, the number of dead birds, and best of all, the species spotted in the area. I had no previous knowledge of observing and identifying birds, so Danka had to take me under her wing – last pun, I promise – and explain everything to me. We started by learning how to use the binocular, from the proper way of holding it, to properly adjusting it to my poor vision. Secondly, I have learned the basics of how to identify birds. Size, body characteristics, colors, flying patterns, season and habitat type all count. Is the bird the size of a sparrow or the size of a raptor? Does it have an elongated figure or does it resemble a pigeon? And so, with the help of a guide book, I could identify my very first bird on the first guess: a White Stork. It was an exciting moment for me. This was just the start, however, and my beginner´s luck did not last long. With a lot of help, I could observe and identify other stunning species, like the colorful European bee-eater, the Lesser Grey Shrike, and later that day, the European Roller. 

White Storks.
Photo by Rodrigo Rodriguez on Unsplash.

Although amusing, this was only part of the work for that day. We still had three electricity line transects to track for possible deaths by electrocution. To account for any animals in the area that may be feeding on the dead birds, food samples are thrown along the lines, and we must check for any remainings. Luckily, there was no sign of electrocuted birds. However, since there was also no sign of the food samples, the possibility of carcasses disappearing due to feeding animals exists. 

Investigating the pylons was no walk in the park. It is a dry area, the sun was hot, and we have encountered some impeding plantations and ditches along the way. But the conditions are compensated by being able to watch those beautiful creatures, softly gliding in the sky. In a remarkable moment, we stopped the car in between pylon lines to observe the birds, and it felt as if they were all just waiting for us there. Some larger species were present: two Egyptian Vultures, one Imperial Eagle, one Short-toed Eagle, Common and Long-legged Buzzards. There were groups of birds resting at the sun and on the trees, while others were flying solo, and even chasing one another. Some are resident birds, and some will soon migrate to other regions of the planet. As a beginner, it can be difficult to keep track of them in flight while using the binoculars, and so I have missed a bit of the show. Still, it was very special to see Danka in bliss, admiring those species together, using her specialist knowledge, and even identifying birds solely by their sound. I was happy to be able to witness someone in love with their job like that. 

European Bee-Eater.
Photo by Hans van Tol on Unsplash.

One more pylon line to go and the sun was high and burning. We attract a few curious people along the way, wanting to know our purpose. As we walk, we hear several gunshots. There are hunters nearby, after birds. Oddly enough, since it was the breeding season. When we finally finished, Danka was nice to take me to enjoy a meze and main course meal, in true hospitable Macedonian tradition. She tells me I have passed the hardcore test. I arrive home, dusty and tired, but wondering where I could get myself a decent pair of binoculars.

All the above-mentioned birds, with the exception of the Bee-Eater and the Common Buzzard, have been considered threatened on the Birds Directive of the European Commission. They are listed on the Annex I of this directive, which includes species that are at risk of extinction or deserve special attention due to their small population or habitat issues. Some of the birds I had the pleasure of seeing are truly rare.

Check out the work of the Macedonian Ecological Society here.

Also, if you are skeptical about why should we care about birds, maybe this EC document will help.

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