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2018-01-15 Back to list

Meet Kaunas, the Flying Ambassador of Lithuania

The ornithologists at the Kaunas Tadas Ivanauskas Zoological Museum came up with a kaunastic way to mark the Centennial of the new Lithuania.

One can interpret the term “Kaunasian” in many ways. First of all it’s of course a person who’s residing in Kaunas. Then it’s the people who grew up in Kaunas but are now residing far away, and those who came here for longer periods of time, not forgetting those who have links to Kaunasian culture or the people living here. This Kaunasian, however, is an exceptional one. He doesn’t live in Kaunas, because he loves his vibrant life in Kaišiadorys district, where he spends his summers, taking a trip south when the weather turns colder. He travels by air, avoiding flying over open waters. Allow us to introduce a lesser spotted eagle named Kaunas. His wife Metida too, and Nemunas as well, possibly a distant relative.

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That's nor Kaunas neither Metida, but this is how a lesser spotted eagle looks like. Photo by Vytautas Knyva

Unfortunately, we couldn’t meet them eye-to-eye since these birds celebrated New Year’s Eve in Zimbabwe or perhaps Zambia after making a 10,000 km-long journey. Their route was attentively monitored by ornithologists, two of which are the godfathers of this eagle trio and the initiators of the project “Paukščiai – Lietuvos ambasadoriai” [“Birds – Lithuanian ambassadors”], Saulius Rumbutis and Deivis Dementavičius. We talked to them in their office at the Kaunas Tadas Ivanauskas Zoological Museum, which the eagle Kaunas was named in respect of. Metida was named after a law agency Žabolienė & Partners METIDA, while Nemunas got his name because he was ringed close to the delta of Nemunas (the biggest river in Lithuania).

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Saulius Rumbutis and Deivis Dementavičius. Photo by Kęstutis Lingys

“We’re ringing birds in Lithuania for many decades, that’s how they become ambassadors of our country. In time for the Centennial celebrations, we also wanted to raise awareness about bird protection in Lithuania,” S. Rumbutis – who has over 40 years of experience in this field – tells us how the idea of the mentioned project came about.

Most people know the ornithological station of Ventės Ragas, established in 1929 following the initiative of professor Tadas Ivanauskas. 80,000-100,000 birds get ringed here each year, but these are migrants. “Lithuanian birds” have to be ringed where they nest and hatch, and that’s a process requiring a lot of time, complex knowledge and attention. That’s why not many professionals can do it, hence the lower numbers of ringed birds. By the way, only around 2 % of the metal rings provide the needed information, usually when the birds are caught or found dead: “Even if we ring hundreds of birds, we get a relatively small amount of information on their migration routes or what they eat, where they spend their winters and so forth. There are lots of questions, and every species is valuable from a scientific perspective”.

Larger birds have special coloured rings with bigger digits, easy to identify with a telephoto lens, telescope or good binoculars. Up to 20 % of these give ornithologists the needed information. Kaunas, Metida and Nemunas all have GPS trackers powered with solar batteries – these are put on the birds’ backs and are sending the data in real time. Obviously, this is far from cheap: one tracker costs around €1,200, that’s why we have only three “accredited” birds instead of a hundred. You also have to pay for the connection to transfer the data and the logistics.

“In other countries, telecommunication companies usually become partners/sponsors of such projects like ours,” S. Rumbutis notes. He’s glad that the Facebook page of this initiative is getting more and more attention – some interested readers even donate money for the project.

“We, as employees of the museum, specialise in the monitoring and protection of rarer predatory birds, that’s what we want the society to know more about,” S. Rumbutis gives the reasons why these lesser spotted eagles were chosen for the project. He and his colleague D. Dementavičius “know” hundreds of birds like that in Lithuania, so our question is how are these eagles similar to Lithuanians?

“Well, they’re stable and steady. Much like Lithuanian emigrants, these birds travel great distances yet they feel the longing for their homeland. If they survive, they come back to the same exact spots and nest with the same partners. Affectionate, sedentary – just like us. Peaceful up to a point: if two males hatch, the older one shoves the youngster away from food, even attacks him, so it’s rare for two males to grow up together. A Lithuanian can also fight his brother for land, so we’re not that far off,” S. Rumbutis laughs. “If we’re talking about Lithuanian birds overall, we’d have to mention the white stork, black stork and these lesser spotted eagles. Lithuania is a small country, and around 15 % of the world’s population of these three species live here since the conditions are almost perfect: many locations are damp and full of amphibians, small rodents”. Interestingly, the lesser spotted eagles look for similar conditions in Africa and prey on the calorific and easy-to-catch locusts there, even following their colonies.

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The ambassador route. Blue's for Nemunas, red's for Metida and green's for Kaunas.

Let’s get to know Kaunas, Metida and Nemunas, who went to Africa in September and are expected to return home in April. S. Rumbutis explains: “We’ve caught the couple next to their nest in Kaišiadoriai district; they had quite a big youngling together and were protecting it from predators. We brought a taxidermy of a white-tailed eagle and we played a recording of its voice – this made the couple attack the bate. That’s how we captured them, measured, weighted them, put the trackers on them and let them roam free”. The fact that we’ve successfully caught and ringed two partners is an uncommon achievement. Usually it’s only the males that protect the nest, so the females stay behind and therefore aren’t ringed.

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It seems that Kaunas and Metida are having the times of their lives in Zambia and Zimbabwe

Nemunas is an exceptional bird, a hybrid of the lesser spotted and the greater spotted eagle. The latter bird is a rare one so it’s difficult for it to find a partner. Both these species are genetically close to each other and their offspring are fertile – that doesn’t happen often in nature. The migration routes of these two species differ: greater spotted eagles travel close to the edge of Western Europe through the Strait of Gibraltar (or stay in Spain for the winter), whereas the lesser spotted ones pass Belarus, Ukraine, Turkey and Israel on their way to Africa. “Nemunas took the greater spotted eagle’s route first but later changed to the one of a lesser spotted eagle,” S. Rumbutis says while showing the data of the tracker on a computer screen.

D. Dementavičius admits that there’s a certain risk of putting such rings on birds – let’s say a bird might stumble upon something because of the ring and experience physical trauma, but that’s an extremely rare incident. Essentially, the rings don’t have any influence on the eagle’s survival: “Lithuania’s oldest ringed white-tailed eagle is 19.5 years old”.

Initiators of the project tell us they’d be very interested to see for themselves how these predatory ambassadors – and their future generations – are doing in Africa, however that depends entirely on the budget. Some time ago, when the trackers were even more expensive, Estonian colleagues used to follow the birds not only for the scientific purpose but also to retrieve the tracker if the bird would die. The statistics, unfortunately, aren’t that glamorous: around 70-80 % of lesser spotted eagles don’t make their initial trip.

In 2017, these two ornithologists have ringed 149 birds – black storks, white-tailed eagles, lesser spotted eagles, red and black kites, ospreys. One ringed member of the ambassador squad – the black stork – was photographed in Hungary in September.

So far, apart from the GPS tracker data, there’s not much else we can hear of the “accredited” trio – Kaunas, Nemunas and Metida. But the Centennial project has just started: “We put a tracker on another hybrid eagle like Nemunas in 2015, and Spanish ornithologists were very interested in it – they took pictures of the bird and sent them to us”. S. Rumbutis and D. Dementavičius note that the attention in foreign press would be great for their cause. They’re not after the first pages of Zimbabwean newspapers since monitoring the birds basically ends in Israel: “We have some photos of our birds there – German scientists stay close to the fishery ponds that Lithuanian black storks stop to visit”. Photographers love white-tailed eagles which don’t usually travel a lot of miles – their pictures are sent to Lithuania from Hungary, Poland or Germany.


The article by Kotryna Lingienė and Kęstutis Lingys was originally published in the January 2018 issue of Kaunas Full of Culture magazine (available on ISSUU).

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