BEARS, wolves, lynx, and boar: wildlife in Slovakia is usually associated with sharp-toothed quadrupeds such as these, the kind that populate fairy tales and folklore as well as the country’s eastern forests. But Slovakia’s terrain also hosts a fascinating variety of birdlife in a diverse range of habitats, and there is a growing interest in birdwatching as an alternative form of engagement with the country’s natural world. In Bratislava, two young ornithologists recently established the first travel agency in Slovakia to focus on birdwatching.
“We wanted to start a birdwatching travel agency based on respect for nature and the independent existence of wildlife,” explains Katarína Slabeyová, who was approached by her friend Ján Dobšovič with the idea. Together, they began working on the project in November 2010, and by July 2011 had established an official travel agency, calling it watching.sk.
Nestled in Slovakia’s landscape, in the well-preserved forests to the east and snowcapped mountains to the north, are a distinctive array of species that Slabeyová hopes will attract western birdwatchers.
“We have birds of prey, buzzards, eagles – the lesser-spotted eagle is a good sight,” Slabeyová told The Slovak Spectator. “We have ten species of owl, then forest species – we have ten species of woodpecker. In the east of Slovakia, black storks live in the forests, and corncrakes in the meadows.”
So far, the most popular trips in the agency’s brief life have been day or half-day excursions from Bratislava.
“Quite a lot of people come here for a few days, for business, and they may have a little free time and would like to get out and see something of the wildlife,” says Slabeyová.
These trips focus more on waterbirds, with the large water reservoir the Hrušovská Zdrž a short drive from the city’s outskirts. On the water you can see many ducks, “the largest number of goldeneyes in central Europe, tufted ducks, pochards, mallards,” details Slabeyová. As well as such common sightings the reservoir is home to a scattering of species which are difficult to find further west: pygmy cormorants, western great egrets, and citrine wagtails, among others.
Birds and eco-tourism
Slabeyová and Dobšovič, however, hope to do more than simply combine their interest in birds with a commercial enterprise. Their background is in environmental protection rather than tourism, and they both volunteered with BirdlifeSlovakia, Slovakia’s non-profit ornithological society, for five years before starting watching.sk. Dobšovič describes how he came to see eco-tourism as an effective method of encouraging people and organisations to respect nature and put resources into conservation.
“Five years ago, in the Bavarian forests in Germany, I saw a group of people on a birdwatching trip,” he recalls. “I thought, these people pay to watch wildlife, which makes the regional authority think ‘if we protect nature, if we preserve as many species as possible – rather than encouraging logging or hunting – then we can get money from tourists.’”
Slabeyová suggests that making people see the importance of environmental conservation is a struggle in Slovakia, for a number of reasons.
“The main thing is the change of the regime,” Slabeyová told The Slovak Spectator. “Under Communism you could hardly do anything, and when it changed, suddenly you could do everything - you could own, you could build, you could develop. This means people think, I am free, I’ll do what I want and you can’t tell me not to. And the problem is that the Slovak Republic does not own the land in conservation areas, so it is a fight between the land management, the owners, and those interested in protecting nature.”
Environmentalists clash with other interest groups and lobbyists, she continues. As in many European countries over the last decade, Slovak fishermen have fought for the right to shoot fish-eating birds. They were allowed to shoot great cormorants, an abundant species in central Europe, while environmentalists succeeded in protecting less secure species such as the pygmy cormorant.
Slabeyová also describes a continuous battle with the hunting lobby.
“Hunting is very popular because it is a sport for rich people,” she explained. “Rich people work in parliament, so it is a very strong lobby – for example, our President is a hunter.”
Targeting Western Europe
In the early stages of their venture, Slabeyová and Dobšovič primarily aim to draw western birdwatchers to their agency.
“For now we’re appealing mainly to western European clientele,” says Slabeyová, suggesting that birdwatching is not yet a distinctive interest in Slovakia: “It’s not a hobby like in Britain, absolutely not.”
Despite this, they have been surprised by the level of interest from Slovaks, and hope to build on this in the future.
“In the summer we arranged a trip to Hungary for Slovaks, and although we only had one advertisement in Vtáky [BirdlifeSlovakia’s magazine] we got a bus-full of people, and they really liked it. So that is promising,” said Slabeyová.
While their attempts to market themselves to westerners have been constrained by limited finances, the little they have been able to pursue has been focused on the UK.
“We put an advert in a British birdwatching magazine, and took part in a bird fair there this August,” says Slabeyová. “Britain is well-known as a centre of birdwatching, I don’t really know why.”
Birdwatching in the UK
The UK clearly has a strong affinity with its avian inhabitants. The country’s equivalent of Birdlife Slovakia, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), has over a million members and annual charitable resources of 95 million pounds. There are several UK-based services which provide immediate updates on rare bird sightings, such as rarebirdalert.co.uk, which promises that “experienced birders man the RBA office 15 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year”.
In 2009, a poetry anthology titled The Poetry of Birds was published, edited by one of the UK’s foremost living poets, Simon Armitage. Over 350 pages Armitage gathers together his favourite poems about birds in the English language. The collection swoops through eras and voices – from the thrilled early 19th Century romanticism of Percy Bysshe Shelley in ‘To a Skylark’:
In the golden light'ning
Of the sunken sun,
O'er which clouds are bright'ning,
Thou dost float and run,
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.
To the rather more quotidian description of flight found in Paul Harley’s ‘The Heron’:
One of the most begrudging avian take-offs
is the heron's 'fucking hell, all right, all right,
I'll go to the garage for your flaming fags'
David Callahan, a writer with the UK magazine Birdwatch, suggested to The Slovak Spectator that a number of influences have coalesced to place the UK “at the forefront of interest in birdwatching”.
“Britain has a prolonged history of landed gentry and professional ornithologists, as well as people with an interest in natural science and specimen collecting,” Callahan comments.
“Despite the amount of development in Britain, there are still a decent number of breeding species to be seen here. But perhaps most important is the UK’s geographical position as a north-easterly archipelago, between the North and Atlantic seas, which draws in birds from America and as far away as Siberia. This makes it an attractive and common destination for migrant birds, and hunting down rare and scarce birds that fly here by accident is a very popular draw. There are 200 breeding birds here, but a chance of seeing over 500 species.”
A final enabling factor, Callahan continues, is the level of disposable income available to many people living in the UK.
“In Britain, more people today have the disposable income to birdwatch – they can afford field guides, binoculars, and to travel to particular conservation sites,” he said. “This could certainly happen as disposable income grows in a country like Slovakia.”
The environmental benefits of birdwatching
The disposable income birdwatchers spend can bring a number of benefits to an area, Callahan continues.
“Birders will spend their money, often in the local communities of more deprived areas,” comments Callahan. “They can also support a burgeoning optics and publishing industry. In Britain birders support two monthly magazines and many more specialist journals, field guides, and so on.”
Mirroring Jan’s insight, he argues that the money birders bring can encourage local authorities to take notice of the economic advantages of caring for nature and biodiversity.
“For some reason people particularly interested in birds – as opposed to other forms of wildlife, mammals or reptiles for example - tend to be especially forthright in expressing their keenness and passion,” he says. “It is often birders who argue for the establishment of a nature reserve, and birdwatchers tend to be the most numerous visitors to conservation areas – which makes nature conservation not only environmentally desirable but also economically viable, and good for local economies. Local authorities in the UK often take this into account when making decisions on development projects.”
“If birdwatching takes off in a country like Slovakia it will certainly increase the popularity of nature reserves and conservation areas, and make their creation more popular,” he predicts. “Birders will fund such places almost single-handedly.”
A great bustard case study
One particular species that demonstrates the benefits caring for birds can bring to nature conservation more broadly is the great bustard, or drop as it is known in Slovakia.
The great bustard is an iconic creature: the world’s heaviest flying bird, it can reach more than 1m tall with a wingspan of 2.4m. Projects to protect or re-introduce the great bustard are currently underway in both Slovakia and the UK. Funding for both projects comes from the same source, the LIFE programme, the EU’s financial instrument to support environmental and nature conservation projects in the EU and neighboring countries.
In Slovakia, Slabeyová says, the project has been very successful. “The great bustard nearly became extinct, but last winter we observed 280 in Slovakia,” she explains. “In recent years we have observed more of the nesting birds, which was great – we were sure it’s back and it’s not only wintering here, but nesting too.”
One of the two sites in which the project is implemented is the protected bird sanctuary Sysľovské polia, located about 10km south of Bratislava. Slabeyová and Dobšovič offer half-day trips to the site, which has the only regular presence of the bird in Slovakia.
“The great bustard is a flagship species,” comments Slabeyová. “You can make a big fuss about the great bustard, protect some site, and it’s good for all the other species as well.”
This is seen in the history of Sysľovské polia. Investors wanted to build a golf course on the site, and Katarina recalls “a big fight” between the developers and environmentalists. For once, the environmentalists won, an unusual event in Slovakia she admits.
“If there is a plan to build a golf course and no one knows why we shouldn’t do that, everyone will agree to it. But if you explain to them that there are some charismatic birds here which you can admire, then perhaps people will agree that it should be built somewhere else,” she explains.
In the UK, 2009 saw the first great bustard chicks hatch in the wild for 177 years. The project is sited on the Salisbury Plain, in Wiltshire, southern England. David Callahan, however, is not convinced that the project will prove as successful in the UK as it has in Slovakia.
“A lot of birdwatchers here are ambivalent about the project,” he notes. “They are not sure Britain is the right habitat for a self-supporting great bustard population to establish itself. The country could be too developed now. The birds were last here in the nineteenth century, when there was much less enclosure, far more open farmland and undisturbed natural habitat for them to make a home in.”
For Slabeyová and Dobšovič, the first half of 2012 will be crucial. Whether it is seasoned twitchers from western Europe, or newly-fledged local enthusiasts, they hope that spring will bring the first flock of paying birdwatchers to their agency, and to Slovakia.
2. Jan 2012 at 6:00 | Tobias Hill