Interview with Ugo Mellone about the Mediterranean Raptor Migration Network

Date of the interview: 03 December 2009

In this interview, Ugo Mellone talks about raptor migration in Europe and the Mediterranean Raptor Migration Network.

Ugo Mellone

Ugo Mellone at Panarea, May 2006. © Rocco Tiberti

Markus Jais: What is the Mediterranean Raptor Migration Network (MEDRAPTORS) all about?
Ugo Mellone: MEDRAPTORS is a No-profit Association of ornithologists and birdwatchers, that has been working for several years studying raptor migration from islands, straits, promontories and other kinds of watchsites in the Mediterranean basin. We work to improve researches and protection of migrating birds of prey through specific projects and observation camps. MEDRAPTORS is glad to cooperate with other NGOs, associations, Universities and others researcher teams. Currently we are cooperating with both LIPU and HOS, Birdlife International partners for Italy and Greece, respectively. We don’t have a “real” membership, nor any enrol, just any person that wants to work with us is welcome.

Markus Jais: Where are the members of MEDRAPTORS working on?
Ugo Mellone: All of us are graduated in Nature Sciences, but currently working on different topics. For example I am doing a Ph.D. at the University of Alicante (Spain), studying Eleonora’s falcon migration by means of satellite telemetry, while Nicolantonio Agostini and Michele Panuccio are doing their Ph.D. at the University of Pavia (Italy) about migration and wintering of raptors in the Central-Eastern Mediterranean.

Markus Jais: What are the main research topics you are currently investing?
Ugo Mellone: Our interest is focused in particular on differences in migration strategies between species or age and sex groups of the same species. In particular we studied differences in navigation skills between adults and juveniles, the water crossing behaviour, and the influence of meteorological conditions. Due to its particular geography, the Italian peninsula is an ideal benchmark for this kind of research: I mean, raptors have to choose which route to take among different possibilities, it is note like in the Iberian peninsula where, since the geography is far more simple, almost all individuals funnel at the Strait of Gibraltar. This makes our watchsites less interesting for the amount of birds involved (at Gibraltar you can see within a day more birds than in an entire season on a Mediterranean island), but much more suitable for our research purposes.

Markus Jais: What are the most important results of the research so far?
Ugo Mellone: In the last two decades many new important bottle-necks have been discovered. For example the island of Marettimo, between Sicily and Tunisia (see Agostini’s papers of the late 90’s), where during the post-breeding migration is possible to observe thousands of raptors in a breathtaking scenario. In contrast, thanks to our methodology that especially focus on the water-crossing behaviour, we discovered also that the counts reported by other studies from several sites (like Cap Bon in Tunisia, but also many promontories in mainland Italy) were overestimated because of double counting of non-crossing birds. Anyway I think that the most interesting discoveries are due to the campaigns of simultaneous observations in different watch sites: without the cooperation of many ornithologists the circuitous migration of Short-toed eagles between Italy and Spain, or the age related patterns of post-breeding migration in the Honey buzzards, would have never been unravelled.

Adult Honey Buzzard

Adult Honey Buzzard. © Michele Panuccio

Markus Jais: What projects are you currently running?
Ugo Mellone: In the last years we shifted our attention to the Eastern Mediterranean: the peculiar geography of Greece, with lots of peninsulas and islands, makes it a very interesting area to compare migration strategies of different species. The next year we are planning on starting a study about the impact of a large wind-farm that unfortunately has been built just on the main migration corridor of migrating Honey buzzards in Southern Italy.

Markus Jais: What is still unknown about migrating raptors in the Mediterranean?
Ugo Mellone: Indeed in the last two decades the knowledge of raptor migration patterns of this region greatly improved. I think that it would be interesting to try new methodologies such as satellite tracking. Thus It could be possible to focus our attention to different population rather than only different species, and analyzing so intra-specific differences. With respect to visual observations, I think now it is the right time to concentrate our efforts on the two to three most important watchsites in order to establish long-term standardized counts for population monitoring. The Straits of Messina, for example, still doesn’t have a standardized protocol, and this is a pity because a great part of the Eastern Europe populations of Honey buzzards migrate past this site.

Markus Jais: What species of migrating raptors are the most common one in your study area?
Ugo Mellone: Generally, the Honey buzzard is the most abundant migrant, followed by the Marsh harrier and the Black kite, according to the watchsite. In some sites also the Short-toed eagle is quite abundant. Other species we got good data of are Montagu’s and Pallid harrier, especially during spring migration. The Egyptian vulture is unfortunately strongly declining, but some tens of non-breeding birds are observed each year at Marettimo island. In the last years, after the anomalous movements from Spain of the autumn 2004, the Booted eagle is becoming more common. As you noticed we are dealing almost exclusively with Accipitriformes: Falconiformes could be very abundant in some years (e.g. the Red-footed falcon in spring), but their habit to migrate on a broad front doesn’t make them an ideal model to perform researches by means of visual observation.

Markus Jais: What are the main threats to migration raptors in the Mediterranean?
Ugo Mellone: Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of WWF and LIPU that started in the early 80’s, poaching is not a big problem anymore at the Straits of Messina, although the situation is not so good in other places, especially islands like Malta and Cyprus. At the moment a big threat is the building of large windfarms on the migration route. Some of them have been already built in Southern Italy and Sicily, while I heard that a new one is planned to be built on one of the wildest stretches of Mediterranean coast, in Albania, just in the area where raptors crossing the Otranto channel during spring migration are supposed to reach the Balkans.

Short-toed Eagle

Juvenile Short-toed Eagle. © Michele Panuccio

Markus Jais: How many birds are shot and what species are mostly affected by this?
Ugo Mellone: The main problems are in Malta, where in September concentrate hundreds of Marsh harriers and juveniles Honey buzzards. I don’t have first-hand data but I suppose that each year still tens if not hundreds of birds are killed.

Markus Jais: Is there data available on how many birds are killed by electrocution?
Ugo Mellone: No, we didn’t collect this kind of data but I believe this is not an important issue in our study areas during migration. Instead, it is well known that this is a problem in the breeding and wintering grounds.

Markus Jais: Wind farms can have a negative impact on migration raptors? But the impact is different for every species. How large is the risk of collision for the various species?
Ugo Mellone: We yet have not begun to collect this kind of data, but unfortunately I believe this may represent a problem for the most abundant species, the Honey buzzard, rather than for other species like harriers, that have a better flight manoeuvrability. Anyway, we still have to investigate this issue.

Markus Jais: How do migration raptors react to new wind farms? Will they avoid them and take a detour around them? Can this lead to a higher energy use for the birds, maybe resulting in an increased mortality later during migration?
Ugo Mellone: It is very difficult to test this hypothesis but I don’t think it is likely to happen. The main source of mortality should be the direct killing of the birds.

Markus Jais: Does habitat destruction threaten migration raptors?
Ugo Mellone: Habitat destruction *en route* could be an issue for those species foraging during migration, for example wetland drainage could be a great problem for Marsh harriers. But the worst effects are expected to be due to destruction of breeding and wintering grounds, especially for species that fast during migration, like for example the Honey buzzard. Still, we don’t know what it will happen with the expected shift of habitat due to global warming, I mean, especially in Sub-Sahara Africa. Moreover the man-induced land use changes in these areas could have serious population consequences for Palaearctic-African migrants.


Stromboli island, Italy. © Ugo Mellone

Markus Jais: What needs to be done to protect migrating raptors in Mediterranean?
Ugo Mellone: Unfortunately poaching is still a problem, especially in islands such as Malta. Anyway the conservation of migratory species is a matter of mixed efforts that should focus on the migration flyways as well as on breeding and wintering grounds.

Markus Jais: Who can join MEDRAPTORS? Can bird watchers also help with data?
Ugo Mellone: Every birdwatcher/ornithologist is welcome to cooperate with us. Probably the most important characteristic is... patience! I know many raptor enthusiasts but just a few of them are willing to spend two-three weeks, when no more, staying alone on an island, searching for days the sky for raptors that sometimes concentrate their passage in just a few hours!

Markus Jais: What was your most amazing experience with field research about raptor migration?
Ugo Mellone: Good question. Probably the observations on the islands of Marettimo and Panarea, in Sicily. Studying migration there is a very exciting experience, especially the possibility to observe hundreds of raptors flying against the sea. On Marettimo you can see hundreds of Black kites and Honey buzzards circling for hours before starting the long water crossing towards Africa, as well as tens of Egyptian vultures in mixed age flocks. But I will never forget the observation of a lonely, and probably lost, adult Egyptian vulture flying towards the volcanic island of Stromboli, I am still wondering if he found the way to its breeding site!

Markus Jais: Ugo, thank you very much for the interview

Further Information Lots of papers to download and the latest news about studies done by the Mediterranean Raptor Migration Network.