In January 2016 the Armenian Society for the Protection of Birds marked the 50th anniversary of the International Waterbird Census by holding the national waterbird counts in Armenia for the 14th year.
First organized in January 1967, the IWC, which is coordinated by Wetlands International, is recognized as a unique source of information which helps to protect and manage wetlands and the waterbirds that depend on them.
Over the long term, ASPB recorded myriads of waterbirds and used the IWC count data to estimate population sizes of waterbirds, identify changes in their numbers and distribution, and assess the importance of wetland habitats for waterbirds.
All days of the counts were favored by good weather conditions which made it possible to organize counts within the scheduled timeframes.
Like in the previous years, the counts were held in the Lake Sevan basin (capturing the entire water body), in the territory of Armash fish farming ponds and across the Metsamor River System. In addition, it was decided to include in the census also the Yerevan Lake located within the Yerevan City.
Participants included ASPB staff members, volunteers and Lake Sevan IBA Caretaker.
During the counts the weather at Lake Sevan was stable, frosty, mostly sunny and windless. The wind could occasionally reach the speed of 3-6 meters per second, which did not hinder our observation process. Various motorboats catching crayfish and fish were the main disturbing factor. From the early morning they cruised along both the coastal parts of the lake flushing the bird, so they constantly had to move away. Among positive factors accompanying the winter counts, which should be mentioned, is the lack of ice cover along the entire shoreline which was due to rather warm weather in preceding days of the census, as well as the absence of fishermen in the river estuaries, where they usually install their fishing trap.
All of the above factors have determined the number of recorded waterbirds on the lake. A very high number of Common Coots (42,250) was observed. The latter is the highest number of Common Coots registered during winter censuses since 2003. In comparison with the previous year, a slight increase in the number of Red-crested and Common Pochards, and a slight change in the number of Mallard occurred. Most unusual observation during the midwinter counts was an absolute absence of Great White Egret and Grey Heron, although in early January more than hundreds of these birds were observed here. A very minimal number of recorded Great Cormorants (3 individuals) was also a big surprise. Over the past several years, their number in the Lake Sevan basin has been steadily growing, both during winter and breeding periods. Smew, Slender-billed Gull and Grey Goose were among interesting observations. A sighting of four individuals of Greater Scaup is of particular interest. During the last years, single individuals of this species appeared in mixed flocks with Red-crested Pochard and Tufted Duck during late fall and winter periods. Like in the previous years, no Ruddy Shelduck was observed.
The counts held on the territory of almost frozen Armash fisheries confirmed again that the availability of birds is totally dependent on the amount of frozen water surfaces. According to the decision taken by the Armenian Government, many artesian springs have been eliminated in the Araks Valley due to sharp decline in the level of underground water supply. This fate did not bypass Armash fishery either. If in the previous years, owing to the artesian springs some water spaces in frozen ponds remained open, this year such surfaces were nearly absent, apart from the sites where water feeds the channels. Altogether a total of 2,148 individuals from 30 species have been observed on the territory of fish-farming ponds. Among all recorded species, Pygmy Cormorants were the most abundant (750 individuals). The second abundant species were Mallards (208 individuals), followed by Great White Egrets (166 individuals). The complete absence of any grebes was a full surprise. Interesting records included four Common Mergansers, which are quite rare for the Araks River Valley and the Lesser Black-backed Gull, which is quite rare for avifauna of Armenia.
The surveys carried out on the territory of Metsamor River System, like in the previous years, gave a very sad picture. As we have already mentioned before, this territory has lost its value as a “wintering ground for a wide diversity of waterbird fauna”. 80% of the territory suitable for their habitation was found frozen. Of the total number of birds (2,225) recorded during current census, 970 individuals were White Storks, 489 of which were observed in the vicinity of the poultry farm. From 515 Armenian Gulls, 475 were observed at the municipal waste disposal site of Masis Town. Observations from this territory included 430 Pygmy Cormorants as well which were observed along the Hrazdan and Sevjur Rivers, as well as along several unfrozen irrigation channels.
For the first time Lake Yerevan was included in the mid-winter counts this year. As a result, 989 individuals of 13 species were observed. The highest number of birds observed here were Armenian Gulls. The next abundant group was Common Coots. A sighting of Mediterranean Gull – a rare species for Armenia - is especially worthwhile.
Summarizing the results of the winter counts, it can be stated that the number of birds recorded in all sites of Armenia totaled 64,007 individuals belonging to 41 species. 91.6% of observed birds (26 species) have been counted in the basin of Lake Sevan. Only 3.6% of total number of birds counted was observed at Armash fisheries. The species diversity observed here included 30 species. 3.5% of total number of birds composed of 14 species was counted on the territory of Metsamor River System. And, finally, Lake Yerevan produced 1.5% of all counted birds (13 species).
Common Coot was the most abundant bird species observed during this census - 42,723 individuals. It is then followed by Red-crested Pochard totaling 5,065 individuals.
Armenian Gull had the highest number among all gull species - 1,364 individuals. Great White Egret (166 individuals) was the most abundant within the group of egrets/herons, while waders list was clearly topped by Common Redshank which had the greatest number - 66 individuals.
Celebrating the 50th IWC counts in Armenia was a great opportunity and we wish to extend our thanks to Wetlands International for awarding ASPB with the Certificate of Recognition for extended volunteer contribution to the national monitoring scheme.
We look forward to the next year to make it count again!