Sitting proudly on a nest made of twigs, old wet wipes and what appears to be a leopard-print thong, the bird blinks at the downdraft of a passing truck, shakes the irridescent mohawk sprouting haphazardly out of the back of its raw-looking bald head, and returns to the task of tending its extraordinary metallic green and purple-brown plumage with what genuinely looks like pride.
With less than 500 birds remaining in the wild, the Northern Bald Ibis is a bird on the brink. But with a successful reintroduction underway right here in Andalusia, it seems punk really isn’t dead…
For the sixth year running, a small group of Northern Bald Ibises are doing well at Barca de la Vejer in Cadiz province. Bizarrely nesting right beside an ‘A’ road next to a car park and a couple of ventas, this is perhaps not the most picturesque of locations for one of the world’s most endangered birds, but it’s almost certainly the most viewable.
With their nest site so urban and public, their confiding behaviour when feeding on nearby pastureland, and their seeming air of slightly baffled contentment, it’s easy to forget just how fragile their existence actually is, and how much work has gone into ensuring their successful establishment as a breeding bird in Andalusia.
Declared extinct in Syria 70 years ago, a small breeding population was traced near Palmyra in 2002 thanks to local knowledge of Bedouin tribesmen, only to be declared extinct again in 2016 after the one remaining female failed to return from migration.
In Turkey, numbers crashed from 400 to just 10 birds between 1982 and 1986. The fact that this population long outlasted the species in the rest of Europe (it had vanished from its heartlands in the mountains of Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Spain by the 17th Century) is connected with celebration of this bird’s religious significance, endowed as it is with the role of guiding Haji pilgrims to Mecca. How ironic that, to prevent its complete disappearance from Turkey, they are now taken into captivity at the end of the breeding season for safety, to prevent their Mecca-bound migration.
In Morocco the population of this strange, punk-like creature is split between colonies around Souss-Massa National Park and the Oued Tamri north of Agadir. These birds number only 500 between them and are the only remnant wild population left.
The reasons for their decline are all tragically familiar – reduction of food availability through agricultural intensification, pesticide and rodenticide poisoning, hunting pressure and nest-robbing have all played their part. This sociable cliff-nester has seemingly scuppered itself due to its attraction to human habitation, which nowadays tends to expand quickly and swallow up potential breeding grounds.
Hope for the future of the Northern Bald Ibis comes in the form of reintroduction programmes, such as Andalusia’s Proyecto Eremita, the one that has resulted in the above roadside bird with a penchant for leopard-print!
The project is a partnership between the Junta de Andalusia, the Spanish Ministry of Defence, and the Zoobotánico de Jeréz, with the assistance of the Doñana Biological Station, Spanish research council CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas) and volunteers from the Cádiz Natural History Society.
Unlike other reintroduction programmes in Europe, which have tried to create migratory populations (The Scharnstein Project in Austria attempted to teach a migration route to Tuscany by training the birds to follow ultralight planes!), the aims of Proyecto Eremita are more down-to-earth.
It seeks to create a sedentary population of birds, self-sustaining in number, without the need for supplementary feeding. The original phase of the project from 2003-2012 also aimed to learn about the best methods of chick rearing and release, to inform the intended future expansion of the programme.
Chicks were hand-reared from eggs originated from various zoos across Europe. After extensive field habitat evaluations, the first 30 birds were released on military land in La Janda district in 2004 and a further 160 boosted their numbers over the next five years until 2009.
First success came when a pair laid two eggs in 2008. Since then the colony has been steadily growing, from 9 breeding pairs in 2011, 10 in 2012 and 15 in 2013 to 23 breeding pairs in 2014, which successfully raised 25 chicks.
In 2014 the total population was 78 wild birds, distributed between two colonies, five breeding pairs having split from the original one along the cliffs of the Atlantic coast to form the quirky roadside extravaganza at La Barca de Vejer.
But they’re not out of the woods – or indeed the car park – just yet. With a death rate slightly too high and reproductive success slightly too low, population modelling carried out on 2012 figures shows that, without the ongoing addition of 20-30 released birds each year, the population would gradually dwindle to extinction in around 20 years.
With a population this small, chance can play a large part in survival. In the early years of the project, around 50% of deaths were caused by fatal encounters with power lines. Work to repair and improve the lines and their supports was undertaken in high risk areas, and if this continues to be successful a sustainable population will be well within reach.
As of June 2016, the wild population was holding steady at around 80 birds and the exceptional recent breeding season means hopes are high for the future of the species. Some interesting movements have also been observed, with up to six birds being seen crossing the Straits to explore Morocco, where, who knows, they may be rebelliously building another colony next to some other roadside café.
Here at The Inglorious Bustards camp, we’ve been lucky enough to visit these birds frequently as the 2018 breeding season progresses. It’s easy to endow these characterful birds with human emotions, and we never tire of bringing people here to watch them.
We love to see their joyous interactions with their mates on receipt of yet another bit of detritus to be built in to the nest, their intense irritation at the jackdaws dodging their unwieldy bills as they steal morsels of nesting material, and their unmistakeable tenderness towards their growing chicks, which only a mother could love, resembling as they do badly-plucked miniature turkeys.
As well for as their antics, they’re well worth a view to show solidarity with Vejer’s locals and their justified pride in this bizarrely-located nesting colony. As birds go, not a lot about the Northern Bald Ibis makes sense, but they’ve chosen it, they’re rocking it, and it looks like they’re here to stay.
You have to see these incredible birds to believe them! We still have a limited amount of spaces available on our Autumn Migration and Cetaceans tour, during which we´ll visit the avian kings and queens of punk at their colony, as well as taking our place in the moshpit for the greatest avian migration show on earth!
This is an abridged version of our article that previously appeared in the journal of the Andalusia Bird Society, ‘Birds of Andalucìa’, vol 6 issue 3, Summer 2017.