June 10, 2010 / 11:14 AM / 7 years ago

Neglected Milan canal basin turns bird haven

MILAN (Reuters Life!) - Birdwatchers ignoring thundering traffic peer into an abandoned canal basin that has blossomed into an unexpected wildlife refuge in one of Europe’s least-green cities.

A moorhen, heedless of the racket from rush-hour cars, motorcycles and bars gearing up for evening partygoers, swims placidly in the basin’s shallow water and then loses itself among a maze of reeds.

“Have you seen the jungle?” a passing female cyclist, hair flying, shouts at the handful of late-afternoon bird enthusiasts gazing into this haven in the heart of Milan.

Marking a rare respite for wildlife in Italy’s industrial heartland, more than 60 species of birds -- over one-tenth of all species in Italy -- have been sighted at the Darsena basin by bird protection group LIPU and the World Wildlife Fund.

LIPU volunteer Marco Fioratti said his most important sighting has been the mustached warbler.

“It’s a 10-cm (four-inch) thingie I first saw in Azerbaijan, thousands of kilometers (miles) away,” said Fioratti, who has visited the canal site every morning for the last two years to record every bird he saw.

“Then I saw it in Italy again. But seeing it in this spontaneous little garden near my home was truly a thrill.”

REFUGE THROUGH RED TAPE

The oasis arose when part of the 2,000-square-meter (half-acre) Darsena basin, once at the heart of a 152-km (94-mile) canal network, was blocked off and drained six years ago as part of plans for an underground parking garage.

Builders then stumbled on city walls dating back to the 16th century, stalling the project in a bureaucratic logjam.

The delay has allowed part of the drained section to refill with water and aquatic plants, creating a haven for birds to settle or to rest on migrations to and from Africa.

Migrating birds like the barn swallow and the great reed warbler, and homebodies like the kestrel and the blue tit are on Fioratti’s list, which was made public late in May.

Some Milan residents want to reflood the whole area and bring it back to its old form as part of Milan’s plans to host the 2015 Expo. LIPU wants to preserve its biodiversity.

But a compromise solution is gaining ground through the Darsena Pioniera, a committee of neighborhood residents and other Milanese that has been active in talks with the city.

“Something magic has happened, quite unusual for such a central city area. When a decision to bring back water is made, we would like to keep part of what nature created there,” said Darsena Pioniera member Alessandra Mauri.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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