Across Europe, billions of migratory birds are now setting off on their long journey south to Africa. Their numbers are dropping though, as they face threats to their habitat both at home and en route.
The Ljubljana marsh is a grassland reserve on a large floodplain in central Slovenia. It’s a mosaic of meadows, fields, woodlands and hedges. Although only one percent of the country’s territory, it is the breeding site of half of all Slovenia’s bird species.
It is also home to some of the most threatened bird species in Europe, including the Corn Crake. The bird is a chestnut colored speckled bird about 30 centimeters (11.81 inches) long, which breeds on the grassland and migrates each winter to southern Africa. It’s known for a distinctive call which the male repeats about 10,000 times each night.
"The corn crake lives and breeds on the ground," explains Damijan Denac an ornithologist and Director of the Slovene bird conservation society. "This makes it susceptible to farming activities. This bird is a threatened species and it acts basically as an indicator for the number of preserved natural meadows, which in central Europe are quite rare."
Across the continent, the main problem for the corn crake, and many other migratory birds, is the loss of habitat. As a result in the last 30 years, millions of migratory birds have disappeared from European forests, meadows and backyards. Some rates of decline amongst some species have been as high as 80 percent.
“This is happening because the human population is still spreading and turning habitats into what they want," says Davorin Tome, an ecologist with the National Institute for Biology in Slovenia. If the habitats disappear, the nesting opportunities also dry up, Tome adds.
Overseas habitats also threatened
But the problem of habitat loss for birds isn’t just an issue in Europe. Migratory birds are dependent on stop-over sites where they can feed and rest while they are migrating. They are basically the gas stations and hotels of the bird world.
For example, the marshland around Lake Hula in northern Israel was a major stop-over site for millions of birds migrating from Europe to Africa. In the 1950s the marshland was drained, which had a devastating impact on a number of bird species.
And there are other problems too. Hunters in Malta, Greece, the Balkans and the Middle East kill millions of migratory birds. The environmental organisation, Birdlife International, estimates that 500 million birds are still killed this way each year.
Many hunting groups in Europe support sustainable hunting practices. The real problem is illegal hunting. In Cyprus, up to 1 million birds are killed for the traditional delicacy ambelopoulia, even though these birds are protected under EU law.
Part of a wider problem
But how important is it to protect these birds? And why does it matter if one species becomes extinct? Sergey Dereliev from the United Nations Environment Program says that allowing the further extinctions of species takes us down a dangerous road.
Pelicans make a stop in Turkey as they migrate south
"An ecosystem is like a machine and if you start taking out bolts out of the machine, sooner or later it will collapse. So, if we are losing species, we are making our system much more susceptible to a collapse.”
Dereliev’s believes that as humans themselves depend on ecosystems for food and their wellbeing, the extinction of other animal species actually undermines our future too.
A long journey
Back at the Ljubljana marshland, a stream babbles next to lush meadows, while the hawthorn hedges sway in the breeze. Just beside the meadows, industrial farms and corn rows line up into the distance. Young biologist, Tania Sumrada, says that habitats like the Ljubljana marshes need to be protected.
"This is one of the last preserved fragments of the wet grasslands. Here you can see the grassland that the breeding Corn Crakes need. It is really important for the wildlife to have a refuge like this, somewhere they can run and hide."
As the birds start their voyage to Africa, Sumrada hopes they arrive safely at their destination. "I wish these beautiful and small birds a safe journey. For us humans it is hard to imagine what a dangerous road they are going on right now."
However, the question for many European migrating birds is whether they will have a proper habitat to return to at all next year.