On the wings of Caucasian Black Grouse in Iran

August 7, 2016 - 19:8
By Farnaz Heidari, M.Sc. of environmental science engineering

“The Birds of Iran” is an important landmark and the best avian reference so far. Only 5,000 copies of the book were produced at the time (1975) and they had all sold out within six months!

“The Birds of Iran” is an important landmark and the best avian reference so far. Only 5,000 copies of the book were produced at the time (1975) and they had all sold out within six months!

Dr. Derek Scott and his counterpart, Ali Adhami in the Ornithology Unit of Department of the Environment were charged with the task of writing this book. They enlisted the help of Hussein Moravedj Hamadani, an Iranian ornithologist who was living in the U.K. and compiling a list of the birds of Iran based on the old literature and museum specimens.

The Tehran Times had an interview with Dr. Derek Scott as an honorable and great ornithologist who did his best in Iran. Dr. Scott was born in England in 1944 and educated at Bradford Grammar School and Oxford University. After completing his Ph.D. on the breeding biology of the Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus at the Edward Grey Institute in Oxford in 1970, he worked for six years at the Department of Environment in Iran, as head of the Department’s Ornithology Unit. Since then, he has worked as a consultant ornithologist and wetland specialist for international conservation bodies such as Wetlands International, BirdLife International, WWF and IUCN, as well as for the Ramsar Convention Bureau, World Bank, UNDP, FAO and various national agencies. He has been involved in conservation projects in Western Europe, North and East Africa, the Middle East, South and East Asia, Central and South America, the Caribbean and the Insular Pacific.

Below is the text of the interview:

Q: When did ornithology first spark your interest?

A: When I was about seven or eight years old, my father encouraged me to take an interest in nature. Together we began by collecting butterflies, but my interest soon switched to birds and this was reinforced when at the age of eleven I joined the local Natural History Society and started to go on day outings with experienced bird-watchers.

Q: Why did your investigations gear toward birds of Iran?

A: I first developed an interest in the bird fauna of the Middle East during two vacations from university in 1964. In 1965, I spent nine days in northern Iran on my way overland to India. I was greatly impressed with the beauty of the country and decided that I must return one day. Quite by chance, in the final year of my PhD in Ornithology at Oxford University, I was sharing an apartment with Dr. Lindon Cornwallis who had spent several years working as a lecturer at the University of Shiraz in Iran. In early 1970, the Iran Game & Fish Department contacted him and asked him if he knew of anyone who might be interested in working as advisor in ornithologist at the Department’s Division of Research and Development. Lindon asked me, I said yes, and on October 1, 1970, soon after finishing my PhD, I flew out to Tehran to start work at the Department. Initially my colleagues and I in the Ornithology Unit concentrated on waterfowl and game-birds, but by 1972, our activities had been broadened to include general avifaunal surveys throughout the country. 

Q: What was the brightest spot of avifaunal surveys in Iran?

A: Many of the bird surveys that we carried out in the 1970s took us on long camping expeditions to remote regions of the country, rarely if ever previously visited by ornithologists. The expeditions were very exciting and great fun. One of the highlights for me was my first visit to the mountain forests of northern Azarbaijan in November 1971, when we finally confirmed the presence of Caucasian Black Grouse in Iran. Other wonderful experiences included several trips to remote regions of Persian Baluchistan, a voyage by dhow to investigate the sea-birds breeding on islands in the southern Persian Gulf, and our annual excursions to Lake Urumiyeh to ring Greater Flamingo and Great White Pelican chicks.

Q: Please tell me about your experiences with Iranian biologists at that time.

A: One of my principal tasks as Advisor in Ornithology was to provide on the job training for Iranian counterparts and students in bird research and conservation. There were very few ornithologists in Iran when I arrived and most of the biology students that joined the Ornithology Unit had no special interest in birds. However, I was amazed at how quickly some of my students were able to pick up bird identification and undertake reliable counts of a wide range of species. It is very gratifying to know that several of my students in the 1970s have gone on to become serious ornithologists and have made a significant contribution to the study and conservation of birds in Iran.  

Q: What was the basic step for gathering avian information in the early 1970s?

A: Initially, we were primarily concerned with monitoring the numbers of wintering waterfowl in Iran by conducting annual mid-winter counts of ducks, geese, swans and coots at wetlands throughout the country. However, we soon broadened the scope of the counts to include all species of water birds and extended the surveys to include the breeding season and the spring and autumn migration seasons. Furthermore, as the Department of the Environment began to expand its network of protected areas to include representative examples of all the major ecosystems in Iran, we began to undertake general avifaunal surveys in all major habitat types with a view to identifying key areas for bird protection.

Q: Is it true that the priority of Department of Environment was devoted to species of interest to the sport hunter?

A: Back in the 1950s and 1960s, there were rather few naturalists who loved wildlife for its own sake and were concerned about its welfare, even in Western Europe and North America. However, there were large numbers of sport hunters. Many of these hunters realized that the populations of game animals and waterfowl were decreasing rapidly, partly in response to uncontrolled hunting but mainly because of the rapid degradation and destruction of natural habitats. It was largely thanks to these concerned hunters in Iran, as in North America, that the first steps were taken to conserve wildlife populations and their habitats. The Game & Fish Departments in Iran and the USA were not established to protect game species and fishes from hunters, but to conserve and manage populations of game animals and fishes on a sustainable basis for the enjoyment of sport hunters and the public in general. It was the interests of influential sport hunters that led to the establishment of the Iran Game & Fish Department in the 1960s and paved the way for the creation of the Department of the Environment in 1972.

Q: What was your plan for recording more and more species?

A: In 1972, the Ornithology Unit’s activities were expanded to include avifaunal surveys in all major habitat types in Iran. This program of bird surveys gradually evolved into an atlas project in which we attempted to map bird distributions throughout the country. We developed our own 25x25 km grid system covering the whole of Iran, and attempted to visit as many as possible of the 2,746 grid squares at least once during the breeding season and, whenever possible, at least once during winter. In each square visited, we would record all the species that we saw, with numbers whenever possible. By the end of 1975, we had visited over 1,250 squares and were able to produce a series of up-to-date bird distribution maps that were a great advance on the hitherto very sketchy maps compiled largely on the basis of old specimen records and the results of a few expeditions by visiting ornithologists from abroad.

Q: Which ecosystems brought remarkable and rare information to light?

A: Apart from the pioneering work of Zarudny in eastern Iran in the late 19th century, almost all of the ornithological investigations carried out in Iran prior to my arrival in 1970 had been in the Tehran area, Alborz Mountains, south Caspian region, Azarbaijan and central Fars. Surveys in just about any other part of the country came up with new discoveries. In my first winter in Iran, we carried out the first ever mid-winter water bird counts in the wetlands of Khuzestan and made some remarkable finds, notably a concentration of some 20,000 Marled Teal – a globally threatened species. The Department had its own light aircraft and with this we were able to carry out comprehensive aerial surveys of the vast wetland ecosystems of the Urumiyeh basin, Khuzestan, central Fars and the Sistan basin, as well as the entire south coast of Iran from the Iraq border to the Pakistan border.

These aerial surveys produced some staggering counts of wintering water birds – far higher than would ever have been possible from ground surveys. Our surveys of the vast rolling uplands of southern Azarbaijan, Kordestan, Kermanshah and Hamadan in western Iran confirmed the existence of a healthy population of Great Bustards, while our surveys of desert ecosystems in Iran’s central plateau added greatly to our knowledge of the status and distribution of the Houbara Bustard and Iran’s one and only endemic bird species, Pleske’s Ground Jay. Of all Iran’s ecosystems, the one that had been neglected the most was perhaps the mangrove ecosystem along the southern coast of the Persian Gulf and Persian Baluchistan. We carried out a number of surveys of this habitat from the air, from the ground and by boat and made a number of exciting finds, including the discovery of a small breeding population of Goliath Herons.

Q: Please tell me about the number of your personal records and also about material and methods of observation at that time.

A: During my five and a half years with the Department of the Environment, I managed to see a total of 475 species of birds in Iran, out of the grand total of about 500 species ever recorded at that time. I kept a detailed record of all my observations which in total number over 65,000. Much of our fieldwork in winter involved undertaking water bird counts, especially during the month of January. This was simply a matter of counting all the water birds present at each wetland visited, but because of the vast size of many of the wetlands and often limited access, this was not always easy. We invariably travelled around in small teams and used nothing more sophisticated than binoculars and telescopes. Most of our fieldwork in spring and summer involved carrying out a rapid assessment of bird diversity in each of Iran’s natural ecosystems with a view to identifying areas appropriate for the establishment of additional protected areas. These surveys often took us to very remote, poorly known regions and usually involved camping. Because of the huge size of the country, the surveys were of necessity very rapid and we seldom had time to do more than record which species were present and whether or not they were likely to be breeding. Very occasionally we used nets to trap birds to confirm their identity. We took some photographs, but unfortunately the wonders of digital photography were not available to us at that time. Our cameras were large and unwieldy, our telephoto lenses were poor by today’s standards and photographic film was expensive.

Q: What are some of your published and non-published documents? 

A: It was a requirement of all personnel in the Division of Research and Development in the Department of the Environment that they produce a ‘Project Completion Report’ after each field trip and before they could get travel authorization for their next trip. This was an excellent requirement, as it meant that we all had to write up the results of our field trips as soon as possible so that we could get out into the field again. Thus during my time at the Department, I produced about 40 reports ranging in length from a few pages to over 50. However, at that time we seldom published anything in the international scientific literature. Raw data from the mid-winter water bird counts were submitted to the headquarters of the International Water bird Census, at that time at IWRB in the U.K., and much of our information on the wetlands and water birds of Iran was incorporated in the reports of the Department of the Environment to international conferences on wetlands and water birds and the Ramsar Convention Bureau.

The only papers that I wrote for international journals in the 1970s were on the status of the Greater Flamingo in Iran, the discovery of the Caucasian Black Grouse in Iran, and pheasant conservation in Iran.  After leaving Iran in 1976, my life took quite a different turn as I embarked on a series of wetland inventories in Europe, South and Central America, southern and eastern Asia, and the island nations of the Pacific. It was not until early 1992 that I was able to return to Iran on a Ramsar Monitoring Procedure Mission and to get back into the field with some of my old colleagues from the 1970s.  Soon after, I began work on an inventory of important wetlands in the Middle East for IUCN, IWRB, WWF and BirdLife International. The final report of this project, A Directory of Wetlands in the Middle East, was published in 1995 and includes a lengthy chapter on the wetlands of Iran. This was based on the information that we had obtained during the 1970s updated by personnel of the Natural Environment Bureau at the Department of the Environment and with an introduction by Mr. Jamshid Mansouri (one of my students in the Ornithology Unit in the 1970s and now one of the leading ornithologists in Iran).

In June 1997, I was able to return to Iran again, this time as an advisor to a BBC Natural History Film Unit making a film of the wildlife of Iran, and then in 1998 and 2001, I led two very enjoyable bird-watching tours to Iran for Birdquest Ltd., a bird tour company based in the U.K. By now my interest in the birds of Iran had been reignited, and as I had some time on my hands, I began to consider writing up and publishing more of my data from the 1970s. I received strong encouragement from Mr. Abolqasem Khaleqizadeh, editor of the Iranian bird journal Podoces and a long-time friend through e-mail correspondence. Thus, in the last few years I have published several papers on the birds of Iran, including an updated checklist of the birds of Iran (with Ali Adhami in 2006), an account of the birds of the Latian Dam and Lashgarak area near Tehran (2007), a review of the status of the breeding water birds in Iran in the 1970s (2007), and a report on the rare birds in Iran in the late 1960s and 1970s (2008). 

At present I am working on a paper on bird migration seasons in Iran in the 1970s, as this could provide valuable baseline material in any future assessment of how bird migration in Iran might be changing in response to climate change. There are, of course, several other papers on the birds of Iran that I hope to be able to write sometime, but whether or not I will ever find the time is another matter.

Q: What was the most memorable experience in your journey to Iran?

A: This is a difficult one! I can say without hesitation that my five and a half years in Iran were amongst the most enjoyable years of my life, full of wonderful journeys and remarkable experiences. If I have to choose, I suppose it must be travelling with my wife Joanna on horseback through the Kalibar Mountains in Azarbaijan and seeing Caucasian Black Grouse, Brown Bears and Wolves for the first time, against a backdrop of the snow-covered peaks of the Caucasus Mountains. This was also our honeymoon – Joanna and I were married at the British Embassy in Tehran only two days before we set out for Azarbaijan.

Q: Are you still connected with Iranian ornithologists?

A: Very much so. Thanks to the wonderful medium of e-mail, I have been able to keep in contact with some of my old colleagues from the 1970s and have made many new acquaintances amongst the new generation of keen ornithologists and bird-watchers that is springing up in Iran. I like very much to be kept abreast of developments in the birding world in Iran and exchange e-mails on a regular basis with several exceptional birders.

Q: Now, some other important details you would like to add.

A: My PhD in Ornithology at Oxford University was on ‘The Breeding Biology of the Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus’ – a North Atlantic sea-bird which breeds only on small islands off the coast of Western Europe and spends most of its life at sea. I have to admit that this was scarcely relevant to my research on the birds of Iran!

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