Saturday, 28 February 2009

Kritou Terra

On Wednesday I went in the field with a friend from BirdLife Cyprus, to look at birds and landscapes on the way to Kritou Terra, where I have permission to use a visiting researcher's flat. Kritou Terra is a small village in the Paphos District on the West of the island (map), with 90 permanent residents and two shops. The place is quiet and cosy. But the flat has no heating. Hopefully I should have access to the internet though, so at least I won't be entirely cut off.

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On the way to Kritou Terra we did some birding. I can verify that many of my educated guesses at bird species turned out to be correct. Meadow pipits have thinner beaks than larks. The woodlark sounds like a flute and has a "headband" (a white eyebrow, or supercilium, that joins at the back of the head; pic), and perhaps that's the lark I saw last weekend. My little warbler was definitely a chiffchaff. It also has a pale supercilium, and it moves about busily, flicking its tail downwards all the time. I learnt how to tell Cyprus from Sardinian warblers apart: the Cyprus warbler has black speckles on its chest and also under the tail, while the Sardinian warbler doesn't. Apparently, Sardinian warblers' calls are more staccato as well. The further West on the island you go, the more likely you are to see Sardinian instead of Cyprus warblers. Sardinians seem to be spreading eastwards, displacing Cypriots. The reasons behind this are still unclear, but probably have to do with both climate change (that allows Sardinians to breed on the island) and land use change (which neatly falls into my doctoral remit). In any case, competition seems unlikely to be direct.

In some vineyards near Polis we saw a huge flock of serins. It was very impressive. And very loud. There were greenfinches and goldfinches and linnets (τσακροσγάρτιλο) in the flock as well, but mostly little yellow things (not a very good pic). They seemed to really like the weeds growing around the vines!

I learnt a new species as well: the fan tailed warbler, or zitting cisticola, which has a cute little rhythmic tzit-tzit-tzit song given in an undulating flight. So every time it reaches the top of one of its undulations, it tzits. Apparently it's the only cisticola in Europe - the rest live mostly in Africa. We also saw a couple of black redstarts, which was lovely. They're quite rare in Western Europe. Also, I actually recognised a Cetti's warbler call!

Monday, 23 February 2009


While in the fields on Sunday I actually caught a glimpse of a blackcap (αμπελοπούλλι). I could hear it clicking nearby but they tend to be so elusive that I didn't really expect to see it, and I just trusted my uncle's experience of its call. I saw a bird-shaped shadow among some reeds, but when you're looking for birds you see bird-shaped shadows everywhere that turn out to be leaves or clumps of vegetation, so I wasn't really expecting it to be a bird, but I focused my bins on it anyway. And it was the blackcap! I could hardly believe my luck!

Blackcaps are special in Cyprus. They cost €4 each in tavernas, pickled or boiled. A tasty delicacy. An illegal, unsustainable and horribly damaging delicacy.

As migrating birds pass through Cyprus in the Autumn on their way to Africa from Europe, they are "funnelled" through valleys in specific regions of the island because of the topography of the landscape. This makes these high density areas ideal for trapping the migrants. Traditionally, lime sticks (βερκά) are set up. These are metre-long twigs covered in a sticky resin. Birds that perch on lime sticks become more and more stuck as they struggle to free themselves, and are killed by the trapper when he arrives to collect his catch. Lets not get into the welfare aspect of this method of killing, which is clearly anything but humane.

Trapping birds with lime sticks used to be a way of supplementing a poor diet in the past. Now, with the high standard of living that we Cypriots take pride in, lime sticks are unnecessary. However, their use is lucrative, and mist nets are also being used now. The demand in restaurants is high, and trappers are now active year-round.

The major problem with trapping birds in this way is that it is completely indiscriminate. This means that many different species of birds are caught, not just blackcaps, and in large numbers as well. BirdLife Cyprus has so far listed 58 species that are of European conservation concern (SPEC) which have been found to be caught on lime sticks, including birds of prey caught in their attempts to get some easy pickings. European legislation, and by extension Cypriot legislation, bans lime sticks and mist nets and all activity related to these.

Bird trapping has been illegal in Cyprus for the last 30 years. Despite this, it is estimated that more than 1 million birds are trapped every year. In the 1990s, the estimate was 10 million. Even if there has been such a significant decline in the last decade due to better enforcement of the ban, one million birds is scary to say the least. And, according to BirdLife Cyprus (who monitor trapping under cover), it's on the rise.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Πέρτικα Κακκαριστή

I was supposed to be working on my project proposal today, but my uncle turned up in the morning looking for company to go to his fields at Lefkara to do some work. Weekend farming is very popular in Cyprus. It's usually people who originate from villages and move to the city and keep the family land and tend it over the weekends. I quite like the system. It keeps people close to the land and the traditions.

While my uncle was sorting out his fertiliser, I went out looking for birds. I enjoyed myself. There were many finches, mostly chaffinches (σπίνος) and goldfinches (σγαρτίλι), as well as song thrushes (τζίκλα). There were quite a few chukars (pic; πέρδικα), paired up ready for breeding. We heard a black francolin (φραγκολίνα) calling and I actually got quite close to it at one point, but it must've skulked away before I could've seen it. There were many stonechats (παπαθκιά) as well, also paired up. I also got to see a Cyprus warbler (τρυπομάζης). I couldn't tell you for sure it wasn't Sardinian warbler, though. We saw quite a few birds that may have been meadow pipits - I still need to verify this. My uncle said they weren't larks , and he was sure there were also larks around. I saw one bird that could've been a lark, but I can't tell you what sort of lark it was (my best guess is greater short-toed lark (τρασιηλούδα)). I also managed to watch a little warbler, after looking for it for ages. I suppose the best bet as to what it was would be chiffchaff (μουγιαννούδι), but again I wouldn't swear by it. If I ever find out what these birds actually were, I'll let you know. I also saw a great tit (τσαγκαρούδι). I'm sure of that!

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Shopping therapy?

It's colder here than I expected. I guess I'm too used to coming to Cyprus when it's hot. When I came in November it was t-shirt weather! Well, I've had to invest in a couple of new turtle neck jumpers, especially because I've managed to get a chest infection. I imported it from London.

I've been making a few contacts here and there, and so far it's all been quite positive. The only reason I have hope for the civil service in Cyprus is the fact that young educated people are coming into it, and some of them won't be drowned by the system. Also, I'd like to flaunt the fact that Cyprus has one of the best land registers in the world.

I went birding for a bit yesterday afternoon at Athalassa Park. There's water in the lake now, thanks to the rain, so there were plenty of coots (καραπαττάς) arguing and setting up territories. There were a few moorhens, little grebes (νεροβούττης), a cormorant, mallards and teal, and also ferruginous ducks (ασπρομμάτα). Ferruginous ducks (pic) apparently are quite rare in the rest of Europe and only started coming to Cyprus in the last few years.

Also got to see a Cetti's warbler (pic; ψευταηδόνι), although if I wasn't with company that could recognise the species, I'd have no idea what sort of warbler it was. It's call is very distinctive. At least, it will be once I can recognise it. I could hear chaffinches (σπίνος), chiffchaffs (μουγιαννούδι), goldfinches (σγαρτίλι), a serin (μπασταρτοκανάρινο), a greenfinch (φλώρος) and a robin. A blackbird (μαυρόπουλλος) flew over my head. There were lots of woodpigeons (φάσσα) and hooded crows (κοράζινος), of course. Also learnt how to distinguish swallows from house martins and swifts. Swifts are bigger and have a very short forked tail and fly high looking like a half-moon. House martins are all white underneath and have a slighty longer forked tail. Swallows have the longest forked tail and a red chin. It's easy, until other Hirundinidae turn up and confuse the situation.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

It's raining in Cyprus

I am now back in Cyprus; here to stay for the longest continuous period of time since before moving to London for university. I haven't seen Cyprus in early Spring in years. It's actually a bit green. And it's raining, which is wonderful!

What's not wonderful is my mindset. I had a big meeting with both my supervisors on Friday afternoon, which went on for twice as long as it should have, and during which I completely broke down. It was bad. It was very bad. All these negative feelings just took over. The project proposal that my main supervisor told me was pretty good turned out to be useless, after consultation with my other supervisor. They decided I basically have to re-write it. Also, the fact that I can't for the life of me think like an ecologist, despite having practically studied the subject at uni, has been rubbed into my face. It was horrible. I must've just cried continuously for hours after that. And I missed my train to London.

And on that note I begin my first field season.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Happy 200th Birthday, Charles R. Darwin

I had a long meeting with my supervisor yesterday evening and left from it feeling a good deal better about this whole fieldwork thing. And about other things as well.

We spoke about the two people in the research group who thought my PhD was about re-inventing the wheel. My supervisor thinks that they just didn't get it. It's a problem with these "lab-chats", because there's not enough time to explain things properly, so questions are posed pre-supposing knowledge of the project detail. This basically results in feedback and suggestions that aren't particularly useful. So, basically, what the two sceptics pointed out was not related to shortcomings of the concept for the project, but rather to the deficiency in my explanation. So, I guess I need to learn to explain my PhD succinctly - I'll try that on this blog a bit later.

I owned up to essentially wasting my time with GIS. Needless to say, he wasn't particularly impressed. We put that down to stubborness, perfectionism, and a touch of pride. Most of the time, these character traits of mine do result in something positive, as I tend to get obsessed with things and in the end come out of it with a better understanding and a good piece of work. But they also make me stressed out and getting things done takes five times as long as it should. In this case, the output was minimal as well. So effort was wasted. I won't be doing that again... Actually I probably will, but I'll try to learn not to!

Because I got pre-occupied with GIS, that document of bird survey methods wasn't done. Again, he was not impressed. But I tried to make it better by offering to tell him everything there and then. He seemed very happy with the information I gave him and he was satisfied that I've done a sh*tload of reading. I still have to write it up though.

Finally, about site selection. He gave me a few ideas to think about, and we'll be meeting again, along with my second supervisor, on Friday afternoon to talk about this in much more detail.

So I guess it's not all bad. Tonight I'm going for drinks with a few friends to celebrate the start of my fieldwork and Darwin's 200th. And tomorrow, I pack and head to London for the weekend, before flying back home on Monday morning.

P.S. I saw my first jay a couple of days ago.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Still playing with maps

I'm not feeling very good about myself at the moment. Haven't really been feeling pleased with myself and my progress at all since my supervisor left for Cambodia three weeks ago. He's back now and bumping into him on Friday afternoon has triggerred some self-guilt-tripping. I probably deserve it.

As you may have realised, my struggles with GIS eventually led to abandonment of effort. While talking with my mum last night on the phone, I realised that essentially, I've wasted a ridiculous amount of time. What I've always needed is someone to come sit next to me in front of the computer and show me how things are done. Instead of investing some effort in finding someone to do this for me, I've been trying on my own in vain and finally gave up. This is mainly because I don't like asking people for help. It's not like I suffered in silence: I told others in my research group that I was having problems, but no one offered to help. And now I find myself with three days left at the office and no chance of getting anywhere with this.

This realisation made me go back to the program and try a few new things out. But all I have at the moment are some new numbers that don't add up, and a simplistic - and probably all wrong - map of land use diversity in Cyprus (yellow is low and blue is high).

The other thing I realised over the weekend was that I've completely ignored the question of site selection. I've spent a huge amount of time reading about bird survey methods (and completely failed to write any of it up), but I didn't even think of where I ought to carry out the surveys! What sort of sample will I use? Will it be stratified random? How will I stratify? According to habitat or landscape type or crop type or what? I will be working on multiple spatial scales. How does that affect my sampling design?

I feel like an idiot. I've been doing so little these last two weeks and left so many unanswered questions at a point when I should be ready to go out and start working. What's my excuse?

Thursday, 5 February 2009

My strangle

I have just returned from that lab-chat I mentioned yesterday and have taken a moment to gather my thoughts but they are all over the place.

We call these meetings "strangles" because of an inside joke that I'm too new to understand, but I am told it has more to do with figs that with imposed asphyxiation. Whatever. I felt out of breath and panicky the whole time!

Normally the topics of these meetings centre around a question, usually data-driven and with associated hypotheses: basically there's a problem and several potential solutions are discussed. In my case there was no data. I haven't even started yet. My issues don't lend themselves particularly well to group discussion. They'd be better dealt with in a one-to-one "explain to me what this button does" sessions. So, I decided to take a more general approach and talk the group through a certain aspect of my project, and ask them their opinions about how I would go about locating my survey sites.

I got a couple of very useful suggestions about things to consider, people to approach and thoughts to explore. At the end I was approached by two people, a post-doctoral researcher and a lecturer/supervisor, who wanted a few clarifications of what exactly I was trying to achieve. They basically wanted to know what's so original about what I'm trying to do. All this has been done before. The only original thing about it is that it's in Cyprus. What's your big question?

I wish my supervisor was with me. How do you answer that?

And you know the worst bit about this: I feel disappointed in myself more for letting my supervisor down than for letting myself down.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009


As I mentioned in my previous post, the university requires all new (and continuing) PhD students to take a range of training courses, aimed at our development as well-rounded researchers with many transferable skills.

The concept sounds lovely, but as you can imagine, they're all a bit naff once you get down to it. You spend about 3 hours listening to someone tell you things that you are already aware of and are made to do silly group exercises that you'd rather not have to. Whether or not these courses are enjoyable largely depends on the person directing them. A lot of them end up being a waste of time, except for the free coffee and biscuits.

I suppose though that they do bring up views that you hadn't considered before, and give you ideas for where to look for more information, and you get to meet and interact with other people with different backgrounds. It can be a stimulating experience.

Today's courses weren't that exciting. I don't feel I've learnt how to manage my time or how to plan my project effectively. But I guess I was given ways of looking at things differently. Like, for example, dividing up tasks according to their urgency and importance, so that you have enough time to deal with important tasks without getting swamped by less important urgent tasks (such as preparing for a lab-chat only a few hours before having to present it). Also, I have confirmed that in terms of what drives my work I am a perfectionist, and also a bit too emotional for my own good.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a course on "kick-starting your career". One of the interesting things that came out of that one was making a life plan. I'm too scared to actually make a plan for the future, but it is informative to look at what has led up to this PhD and where I am now. I produced the following timeline. It was a good exercise. The next step is to find the courage to project this into the future, but there are so many possibilities that could arise as well as limitations and constraints that I wouldn't know where to start. Perhaps I'll make a few different scenarios at some point.

Snow and ice

The last few days we've been having freak weather. Sadly, the snow didn't last. Nevertheless, I walked into uni at -4 degrees C this morning and everything was iced over.

It doesn't seem to stop the birds from singing though - encouraging signs that Spring is near. I can hear dunnocks, goldfinches, greenfinches and chaffinches and tits (great and blue - I'm not at all confident that I can tell their songs apart but at least I can tell the genus, Parus). There are lots of pied wagtails (pic) around as well. Many more than before - it probably has something to do with the weather. Have been seeing house sparrows about as well actually. And of course the ever-present robins and starlings and blackbirds.

At the office it has been very slow going with my bird survey methods review. My supervisor is coming back on Friday so I am hoping to produce a completed document by then. I've managed to put myself in a position where I'm stressing out again because of a self-imposed deadline. But this time it's entirely my fault, because, really, I've had three weeks to do this, which would've been more than enough time.

Today I have a full day of courses on time management and project planning. These training and skills courses that they make us take are a bit hit and miss, so I'm hoping that today isn't a total waste of time. I also have a "lab-chat" to prepare for tomorrow afternoon. These are weekly informal discussion meetings that the spatial and conservation ecologists attend. Each week someone is nominated to present for discussion a topic relevant to their research, and it's my turn now. A little bit intimidating, but they're a friendly enough bunch, so perhaps it won't be too bad.