Award-winning photographer battles to save Poland’s birdlife from foreign predators

Talking to TFN, Piotr Chara tells how he is now devoting his life to protecting and educating others about the bird species of the Lower Oder Valley. Piotr Chara

An award-winning wildlife photographer who built eight floating nesting islands to protect wetland birds from invading predators has told TFN he will continue his fight to save them. 

Piotr Chara whose image of cranes on the wetlands of the Oder Valley was among the award winners of the Bird Photographer of the Year in London in 2017, is now devoting his life to protecting and educating others about the bird species of the Lower Oder Valley.

Chara first visited the eastern side of the Lower Oder river valley in 2001 and was struck by the rich variety of birdlife he found, but was also saw the difficulties the birds found in breeding as a result of American mink and racoons which began encroaching on the area.

Piotr Chara

Piotr Chara

Chara first visited the eastern side of the Lower Oder river valley in 2001 and was struck by the rich variety of birdlife he found, but was also saw the difficulties the birds found in breeding as a result of American mink and racoons which began encroaching on the area.Piotr Chara

Chara told TFN: "Many times, I was a witness to dramatic events. My passion for photography allowed me to visit many precious places where threatened bird species were trying to nest.

“Submerged in the water, pretending to be a clump of algae, I witnessed a situation were for nine years in a row, birds had been trying to raise chicks, but were unable to. Most often, they were losing them after a week of incubation.

“These were most often birds which traditionally laid eggs on sandy islands. This habitat disappeared from the European landscape when people began converting rivers into waterways for the transport of goods."

Chara told TFN: “Many times, I was a witness to dramatic events. My passion for photography allowed me to visit many precious places where threatened bird species were trying to nest.”Piotr Chara

Once full of sandy islands where thousands of waterbirds nested, between the 18th and 19th century, when the Lower Oder was part of Germany, levees were built along much of the river to stop flooding and allow ships to transport goods.

This destroyed the original islands. However, Chara found the abundance of birdlife he is now helping to protect, in the third of the Lower Oder which remained levee free on the east side and is now in part of Poland.

He said: "In my local area, the bird species returned when an alternative habitat appeared, which reminded them of the original sand islands, but in the meantime, people introduced invasive predatory species: American mink and racoons, which have no natural predators, and are ravaging the wetlands on an unprecedented scale.

Submerged in the water, pretending to be a clump of algae, Chara witnessed a situation were for nine years in a row, birds had been trying to raise chicks, but were unable to. Most often, they were losing them after a week of incubation.Piotr Chara

“In front of my eyes, for half of my life I saw these birds living without offspring, so I knew that if nothing changed, there would be no younger generation of birds to replace them and the process would end in them dying out."

Chara was able to observe first-hand the extent of the predators' destructive impact on Oder birdlife, recalling how in 2002 he saw just one American mink killing hundreds of gulls over just a few days. "Our birds are not adapted to deal with such a predator".

A few years later, Chara observed raccoons move into the area, with similarly destructive impacts which saw one raccoon killing all 180 chicks and eggs in one colony.

Chara saw first-hand the extent of the predators' destructive impact on Oder birdlife, recalling how in 2002 he saw just one American mink killing hundreds of gulls over just a few days. McPHOTO/PAP/DPA

Chara told TFN: "The plight of these birds didn't allow me to rest. I admired their beauty, their grace, their mating dances. I was eventually able to recognise individual birds, to become familiar with their temperament and personal habits. I felt honoured. It was all the more painful, then, to see their dramatic situation. I knew it was imperative to find the time, find a solution and resources to help them."

Deeply affected by years of seeing birds trying to raise their chicks, a few years ago, Chara realised there was a way he could help, by building artificial nesting islands that the raccoons and mink couldn't easily access.

He said: "I started some research on the internet in 2013, looking for the experience of other organisations in Europe who have had success in similar situations, but I found that none of them were able to protect against the biggest threat, namely predators.

Deeply affected by years of seeing birds trying to raise their chicks, a few years ago, Chara realised there was a way he could help, by building artificial nesting islands that the raccoons and mink couldn't easily access.Piotr Chara

“On the internet I managed to find large floating steel ,military rafts, whose shape after some alterations gave hope for creating artificial floating islands which could protect nesting sites from danger."

Getting hold of some of the flat-bottomed military surplus boats he had found online, whose smooth metal sides meant that the raccoons and mink couldn't easily climb onto them, Chara piled them with sand, and created the first artificial nesting island in 2015.

Already in the first year of the islands appearing, in 2015, birds began nesting on them, leading to the hatching of over 100 chicks. Chara said: "It was a stunning event, particularly when considering that before, for nearly a decade, there hadn't been a single chick.”

Getting hold of some of the flat-bottomed military surplus boats he had found online, whose smooth metal sides meant that the raccoons and mink couldn't easily climb onto them, Chara piled them with sand, and created the first artificial nesting island in 2015.Piotr Chara

With the nesting of pairs of oyster-catchers, gulls and terns that year proving the island’s success, Chara added two more islands that same year and five more in 2017.

When building in 2017, to improve the islands’ design and make them even more effective at repelling predators, Chara employed a welder to help connect thick metal sheets to create a slanted base.

Now with a total of eight islands, which Chara cleans and prepares every autumn in preparation for new spring nesting, each of the islands is inhabited each year by a variety of bird species including common and little terns, oystercatchers, common ringed plovers and black-headed gulls.

Now with a total of eight islands, which Chara cleans and prepares every autumn in preparation for new spring nesting, each of the islands is inhabited each year by a variety of bird species including common and little terns, oystercatchers, common ringed plovers and black-headed gulls.Piotr Chara

This has resulted in every season seeing around 25 chicks from six species, fly the nest.

In the nesting season, Chara visits the islands sometimes even two or three times a day to keep an eye on the development of events.

Each year, he also provides an update on the birds nesting on the islands on the social media of Fundacja Zielonej Doliny Odry i Warty (The Foundation of the Green valley of the Oder and Warta) and one of the islands even offers a webcam during nesting season.

This has resulted in every season seeing around 25 chicks from six species, fly the nest.Piotr Chara

In the nesting season, Chara visits the islands sometimes even two or three times a day to keep an eye on the development of events. Piotr Chara

Since building the islands, Chara now travels around Poland and give talks and appears at conferences speaking about the plight of wetland birds. His platforms have also inspired others in Poland.

He said: “There are quite a few places in Poland itself, which are similar to our safe nesting platforms and are already having positive effects on the local wildlfe.

“Despite growing awareness, as a species, we humans still behave very irresponsibly. We mainly see ourselves and our own desires…On the relatively natural meadows near me, 40 years ago, blacktails, curlews and ruffs nested, today there is not a single pair of these species.

Since building the islands, Chara now travels around Poland and give talks and appears at conferences speaking about the plight of wetland birds. His platforms have also inspired others in Poland.Piotr Chara

 “Species like the red-shanks, lapwings, corncrakes are on the precipice of dying out... we should be critical in relations to our politicians, join civil society organisations and support ways of preserving biodiversity, a clean environement and natural landscape, which are the common goods of society”.

Chara said that although he is sometimes saddened by people’s actions towards the environment, he is full of hope and has also been moved by seeing many examples of people’s sacrifice and concern for the natural world and its wildlife.

Aside from the islands, which he continues to support, Chara is currently working on other projects designed to preserve wildlife including actions designed to help stop the degradation of the Lower Oder wetlands caused by the hunting of birds.