When I left Albania in 2012, the thought of wildlife biology and conservation as a career had never crossed my mind. As a matter of fact, it took me four years of living in the city where American ornithology was born – Philadelphia, USA – to realize the immense opportunities, and need for immediate action for younger generations to join the fight across the world. Until 2018, I remained ignorant of the fact that pioneers like AOS and Dr. Taulant Bino joined such battle in my own country years ago. Between a news report I found on YouTube and the famous National Geographic article “Last Song for Migrating Birds”, both of which featured the works of AOS and Dr. Taulant Bino, I decided it was my time to contribute to their cause.
After having received a formal training at the oldest scientific institution on the western hemisphere, I did not have much expectations; a younger, more arrogant version of myself had just found out ornithology was a thing in Albania so how advanced could AOS be? To my surprise, I was welcomed by a group of uplifted, positive, and motivated people who made me feel at home. Equipped with razor-sharp ears and Swarovski scopes (the best equipment for birdwatching), Dr. Bino and project coordinator Erald Xeka would identify birds in a fraction of a second. To my amazement, and their annoyance I am sure, they identified every bird by its common English names because I was not familiar Latin and Albanian names! (example: Moustached Warbler / Acrocephalus melanopogon). From conversations with the group I learned that their largest challenge – as is the case with most NGOs from smaller countries – was the lack of available field assistants. AOS had grand plans in mind, and certainly the intellectual power and network to do it, yet field hands, something that organizations take for granted in the United States, were the scarcest resource to come around. I certainly could help.
Around early November 2019, we loaded up the car and headed toward Tale, Lezhe, the site of an ongoing investigation into the arrival of Moustached Warbler in collaboration with AOS’s Hungarian partners, the very same project I had seen on YouTube a year ago! We cleared 72 meters of corridors in a reed swamp, set up the nets and BOOM, the birds started rolling in. However, it was not the birds that impressed me the most, but the level of effort displayed by AOS to fund such project. Here I was, living with three people I did not know two days ago, hanging out on the beach for 14+ hours a day, talking, joking, listening to music, singing traditional music, and trading stories. I felt like I had known Erald, Klea, and Admir for a lifetime. Most importantly to me, we were Albanians doing much-needed science in our own country. In my head, we made Albania a better place that week.
E.O. Wilson, one of the greatest scientists of our times, suggests that every living organism is perfectly suited to answer a specific question. To take this concept a step further, my mentor and friend Matthew R. Halley, has taught me that every human being is perfectly suited to solve a specific problem. Over time I have grown convinced that the crew at AOS are the group of human beings perfectly suited to tackle the issue of bird conservation in Albania. I returned from Tale impressed with what I had seen. AOS had certainly shattered by expectations and they continue to do so. AOS is actively engaged in education of the youth and raising awareness, one of the most important facets of conservation. It is easy to set up some nets and place rings on them. But organizing education and research campaigns on wildlife poisoning? Dangerous patrols against illegal hunting at night? Taking young children out to teach about the importance of conservation? Fighting against urban development projects in UNESCO-recognized habitats? That is when the true face of AOS emerges: an ornithological organization that goes beyond placing rings with numbers of the legs of birds or counting them on trees. These people are literally sacrificing their own time and comfort, sometimes even their life, to make sure that Albanian people as well as Albanian birds live up to the same life standards as other developed countries that we have admired for so long. One thing for sure, AOS has reconnected me to my Albanian roots and made me proud to call myself an Albanian biologist. I hope my story inspires other young Albanians immigrants from any professional field to return home, even temporarily, to give back in any way they can and share their blessings with those who are not so fortune. Our story has just begun!