The Research Center on Bird Migration opened in 2002 on the Island of Ponza, situated in the Tyrrhenian sea on the west coast of Italy. The Center is currently involved in the 'Small Island Project' and also conducts research in collaboration with the University of Veterinary Medicine of Vienna (Austria), the University of Ferrara (Italy), the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology (Germany) and the Department of Ecological and Biological Sciences of the University "La Tuscia" of Viterbo (Italy). The ringing activities are conducted according to scientific research purposes on the ecophysiology and phenology of bird migration. The data are used also for monitoring the status and trends of European migrating bird populations and to evaluate the impact of climate change on bird migration.
The Research Center is even used as platform for the communication and diffusion of the basic principles of nature conservation. The qualified personnel of the Center also offer training and teaching activities for visiting primary and secondary school children, as well as for university students from several countries. The lectures include a practical demonstration of the bird ringing activity and theoretical lectures concerning the importance of conservation and research. The activities of the Center are 90% based on volunteers and most of the costs are covered by donations.
THE SMALL ISLAND PROJECT
The 'Small Islands Project' 'Progetto Piccole Isole', PPI) has been launched in the 1988 by Dr. Fernando Spina and the National Wildlife Institute, which become in 2008 the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, ISPRA (Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale). The Project, coordinated by ISPRA, which provides the rings for the bird tagging, aims to assess the different patterns of the spring migration through the Mediterranean Sea, which represents a wide ecological barrier between Africa and Europe for migratory birds. Began as an Italian initiative, it soon involved several small isles and coastal sites widespread mostly in the west-central part of the Mediterranean basin. The main scope of the PPI is tracking the migratory paths and the phenology of the seasonal movements of different species (mainly passerines), focusing on the long distance migrants, which spend the winter in areas south of the Sahara desert. Moreover, the Project also aims to investigate the functional role of the small Mediterranean islands for the birds which stop there. This can be understood studying the physiologic conditions of the birds during the different phases of their long flight towards European nesting areas.
A more detailed description of the monitoring activities are included in the Small Island Project handbook.
THE RINGING ACTIVITY
The study about the birds' migration made big progresses during the last century thanks to the ringing practice. The data issued by this activity, in fact, are useful both for research and management purposes. The monitoring of single birds supports the studies on dispersion and migration, behavior and social structure, longevity and surviving rates, reproductive success and demographic growth.
The ringing activity consists of tagging each bird caught with an aluminum ring, which contains the identification number and the address of the central reference institute of the issuing country. This implies that if a dead ringed bird is found, the ring should be sent to the written address, specifying the date and place of retrieving. The analysis of the recapture/retrieving of rings provides important information about itineraries, areas of overwintering, migration speed and maximum age reached of migratory birds.
Birds are caught with a system of standardized mist-nets. The nets are operative from the dawn until the sunset and they are checked every hour or more often, depending on the weather conditions. Each bird receives a ring parameters like age, sex, biometric measures and physiologic conditions, as fat deposit and muscle, are also collected. All the data are registered in a database implemented by ISPRA.
UNIVERSITY RESEARCH... IN A NUTSHELL
The Ponza Research Station has been active since 2006, studying bird migration in strict collaboration with the Ponza Ringing Station. Several partner institutions support the Ponza Research Station: the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology and the Department of Cognitive Biology of Vienna (Austria), the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology of Seewiesen (Germany) and the University of Ferrara (Italy).
Avian migration is still one of the less understood phenomena of nature. Just before departure, birds increase enormously their body mass to face long migratory flights over ecological barriers such as the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea. These flights lead to rapid depletion of the energy reserves, and migratory birds spend about 80% of the migration period at stopover sites to replenish their energy reserves and recover from the fatigue of the flight. Hence, studying stopover behavior is fundamental to understand bird migration.
Ponza is an important stopover site for trans-Mediterranean migratory passerines, and our Station catches more than 20,000 birds every spring. Hence, researchers can rely on very large sample sizes throughout the migratory season. Working with wild migrating birds provides a unique opportunity to study internal factors that are involved in stopover strategies, and allows the exploration of metabolic and physiological mechanisms occurring in migrants. To date, the internal mechanisms underlying bird migration are still scarcely known.
So far, our research activity in Ponza has strongly contributed to expand knowledge on migration in birds, with several publications in scientific journals.