Collared Pratincoles in Sicily
The Piana di Gela is one of the most important agricultural areas of Sicily. Named after the city of Gela (an ancient Greek settlement), it was famed for its wheat crop as the ‘Granary of Rome’. Today on the Piana di Gela, in the midst of farming activity ranging from wheat to artichokes and other vegetables, a small but important colony of Collared Pratincoles struggles to survive.
The Collared Pratincole (Glareola praticola / Pernice di mare) is a large-eyed, small billed, short-legged wader. Somewhere between a turnstone and lapwing in size, breeding adults have a rather striking black-bordered cream throat. In flight its pointed wings and forked tail recall to some a tern, to others a large swallow. Unusually for a wader, its feeding behaviour is akin to a hobby, hawking for large insects on the wing, often at dusk and dawn.
Ground nesting colonies are found in short, patchy vegetation on flat open areas usually near warm shallow water. As truly natural habitats have declined, it has bred increasingly in cropless fields. When undisturbed, up to 3 chicks may fledge, flying when 25-30 days old.
A very rare vagrant to the UK, the pratincole’s European population is concentrated around the Mediterranean and winters in Africa. Whilst not considered endangered across Europe by the IUCN, it appears to be in decline. In its main Spanish site (its European stronghold) the population crashed from 10,000 pairs to less than 1,500 pairs in the thirty years to 1990. In Italy, the species is classified as endangered and included on the Italian Red List. An estimated 121-156 pairs nest in the whole of Italy, 40-50 of which nest on the Gela Plain.
LIPU started to monitor the colony on the Piana di Gela in 2015. An alarming situation was uncovered; late spring ploughing in nesting areas was causing numerous breeding failures. There was some hope though; it seemed that a delay of only 10-15 days would permit successful breeding. Local farmers were approached through a door-to-door information and awareness campaign. In 2018 the first direct actions saved part of the colony and in spring 2019, all of the landowners agreed to postpone ploughing, saving the entire colony. Preliminary data for 2019 indicated some success with 14 fledged juveniles and 55-60 breeding pairs, an increase compared to the previous few years.
LIPU-UK’s trustees have agreed to provide a relatively small sum to support the project in the 2020 breeding season. This will allow LIPU to compensate local farmers for temporarily setting aside certain fields for the critical period. LIPU will continue to monitor and report on colony size and breeding success; this will be monitored by LIPU-UK’s trustees to assess the effectiveness of our funding. We are very hopeful that this beautiful bird will continue to grace the Piana di Gela.
Matt Hines, LIPU-UK trustee.