Vulture science, a call for joined up conservation

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Griffon Vultures © Inglorious Bustards

There is little doubt that Vultures are amazing, despite the completely unfounded bad press they sometimes receive  Here in the Straits we are blessed with them being a garden bird for us! Not only we do we get to witness their amazing antics and all important ecological functions, but twice yearly we watch as masses of them stream through the Straits in biblical proportions. This is the only place in the world where such an event occurs!  It is amazing!

Much of the conservation work of Vultures is to be lauded, as there has been a lot of work to recover numbers of these enigmatic birds and important eco-system service providers throughout Europe, but there is clearly much more needed to be done (such as the removal of the licencing of veterinary diclofenac within the EU).

Most of us will remember the outbreak of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), an animal disease at its peak between 1986 and 1990.  As well as being transmitted through the food chain, the disease could also be spread through the presence of dead infected cattle. Following the outbreak, in 2001 the EU prohibited the abandoment of livestock carcasses in the field. This action clearly would have an impact on scavenging Vultures, therefore was not applied mandatorially across EU member states.  This allowed for each member state to adopt their own regulations concerning livestock carcass disposal, allowing the issue to be dealt with at a local level, but consistent with the overriding principles to tackle the disease issues.

Spain is home to c. 95% of European Vultures and here farmers can leave some carcasses where Vultures occur. This obviously benefits the birds but also farmers and tax-payers too, saving time, money and environmental costs from incineration. In contrast to this approach, the Portugese government decided that removal of livestock carcasses is still required, save for a few specific licenced Vulture feeding stations.

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Griffon Vultures © Inglorious Bustards

The authors of a recently published paper in Biological Conservation (Volume 219, March 2018, Pages 46–52) observed that there was an abrupt decline in the number of Vulture locations across the Spanish-Portuguese border.  Modelling showed that this was unlikely to be related to differences in land cover or topography, but simply on differences in carrion resource availability, namely carcasses from extensive livestock husbandry.

Vultures are capable of exploiting huge areas in search of food, and often will perform transnational flights. Yet, despite broadly similar habitats and their abilty to transverse countries, both Griffon and Cinerous Vultures of Spanish origin were rarely located in Portugal as these maps of GPS tracked birds below show from the study.

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Locations recorded near the Spainish / Portugal border of GPS tracked a) Griffon Vultures and b) Cinereous Vultures.

Griffon Vultures were marked in two populations: 30 adult birds in the Ebro Valley, northern Spain, and 30 adult birds in Guadalquivir Valley, southern Spain. Cinereous Vultures (11 fledglings) were marked in Cabañeros National Park, central Spain.

One potential problem with this study was that the authors did not track Vultures from Portuguese breeding colonies, which are mainly located close to the border and thus might use the Portuguese areas more than individuals breeding in Spain. However, some previous although limited GPS tracking of both Cinereous and Griffon Vultures tagged in Portugal has shown that the individuals tend to cross the border to feed in Spain, which is line with the results of this study.

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Cinereous Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

Griffon and Cinereous Vultures are known to differ in food resources used. Griffon Vultures are very much dependent upon carcasses of domestic livestock, where the diet of Cinerous Vulture is broader, including the remains of smaller mammals and sometimes even live prey. This difference in feeding behaviour for us is demonstrated in the GPS maps, showing a much closer need for Griffon Vultures to stick to Spain whereas there are some broader transnational flights (although limited) by Cinerous Vultures.

The findings of this study are also unlikely to be influenced by habitat differences across borders as anyone who has visited both the areas Alentejo (Portugal) and Extremadura (Spain) will testify.  Dehesa habitat  – known to be good for both species – is relatively widespread across both the areas.

One thing is for certain – this study shows the need for continued research on vulnerable Vulture species and this should be extended to other species such as Egptian Vultures. Telemetry data is providing new insights into the movements of species and how they utilise the landscape and for highly mobile Vultures, this is invaluable information to form cross border conservation prorities and techniques.

There is a need to evaluate the potential ecological consequences of the implementation of restrictive husbandry and sanitary policies, especially when they affect highly mobile, endangered species such as Vultures. It also serves the point that conservation should not observe borders and that joined-up conservation implementation – especially for endangered Vulture species – is required and that is something that the EU has within its gift to pursue.

 

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The observation of an Egyptian Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

 

Invisible barriers: Differential sanitary regulations constrain vulture movements across country borders

Eneko Arrondoa,⁎, Marcos Moleóna,b, Ainara Cortés-Avizandaa,g, José Jiménezc, Pedro Bejad,e, José A. Sánchez-Zapataf, José A. Donázara

Biological Conservation (Volume 219, March 2018, Pages 46–52)

 

 

 

 

 

New Year, New Patch

After a particularly rock and roll New Years Eve, consisting of Toy Story 3, slippers and a bottle of Limoncello, we blew off the old cobwebs this week by exploring our new patch in the bright 2018 sunshine.

We’ve recently moved to the village of Facinas, just along the coast from our accommodation partners at Huerta Grande ecolodge, where we’ve spent a most enjoyable year being log cabin dwellers!  Our new base is a pretty pueblo blancowith cobbled streets, which spills down the side of a rocky outcrop and overlooks the wetlands and low intensity farmland of La Janda.

Wandering up through the pastureland, passing the occasional herd of free-roving goats, sheep, cattle and donkeys beneath the shade of a mature Cork Oak tree, we also passed Cattle Egrets, Black Redstarts, Corn and Cirl Buntings, Sardinian Warblers and dozens of wintering Common Chiffchaffs.

About 20 minutes up the hill from our home, a spring, known locally as ´El Chorrito´, gushes out of the mountain.  There´s almost always somebody there filling bottles with the pure water, and we took the chance to stop for a freshen-up there, watch the local Grey Wagtail and see Short-toed Treecreepers and Hawfinches moving through the trees.

As the Cork Oak forest became denser, we were in Los Alcornacales Parque Natural proper, and numerous Firecrests, Crested Tits and enthusiastically drumming Great Spotted Woodpeckers joined the avifauna.  We could see Griffon Vultures circling overhead, having left their roosts on the rocks just up the hill.  Even from this height we could hear the bubbling calls of the many thousands of Common Cranes wintering on the rice paddies of La Janda.

Another half hour up and we were watching European Nuthatch in the trees and Dartford Warblers darting through the scrubby clearings.  And then, calling loudly, four Rock Buntings in the Stone Pines! Superb!

As we reached the very top of our bir of Monte Facinas, some 400m above sea level, there, sat on top of the very highest rocky pinnacle like a little blue glacé cherry on top of a celebratory New Year´s cake, was a male Blue Rock Thush singing its heart out to welcome in 2018!

It was a great start to the year, not only for the engaging selection of resident and wintering birds we saw, but also for the promise of those to come – in a few weeks this hillside will be stuffed with Western Bonelli´s Warblers, Iberian Chiffchaffs, Nightingales and Golden Orioles, and the skies full of Black Kites, Short-toed and Booted Eagles making their way north to populate Europe!

2018? Bring it on, please!

Let us show you our home!  We still have a couple of places left for our Spring migration tour in March – please do contact us for more info or sign up to our free enewsletter to keep up to date with news from the Straits!

What a year!

Sitting atop the cliffs outside of Tarifa today, we happily wiled away the final daylight hours of 2017 pretty much as we began, gazing out over the narrow stretch of water that separates Europe from Africa, at the epicentre of the East Atlantic Flyway!

We were there in the hope of grabbing an extra couple of species to add to our Spanish year list, but between waves of Balearic Shearwaters and Northern Gannets, we also grabbed the time to reflect on a truly brilliant birding year!

Here, in no particular order, are our highlights! Were you there..? If not, why not?!

  1. Migration, migration, migration!
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Short-toed Eagle © Inglorious Bustards

As a destination to see the sky dark with many thousands of soaring birds, The Straits of Gibraltar is hard to beat!  The movement never really stops, but twice a year we get to enjoy this spectacle at its peak, and share it with you!  Here‘s how we got on this year! And if that whets your appetite, we still have a couple of places left for our Spring migration tour

2.  Wallcreepers, Lammergeiers and more in the Pyrenees.

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Wallcreeper © Inglorious Bustards

A fabulous trip, exploring the wintery Spanish Pyrenees for some truly breath-taking mountain birding and a whole bunch of laughs!  This tour will feature as part of our new Brassic Birding range, for adventurous birders on a budget – watch this space and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date!

3.  Birding on Two Continents!

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Moussier’s Redstart © Inglorious Bustards

With only 14km between us and Africa, it’d be rude not to go now and again!  This Spring we showed some lovely folk the best of migration from both sides of the Straits, as well as superb resident species like Northern Bald Ibis, Moussier’s Redstart and Moroccan Marsh Owl.  Read our adventures here, and check out the dates and itinerary for 2018 here!

4.  Field Trip fun

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We love catering for large field trip groups, because the conservationists of the future deserve a field trip somewhere both fascinating and sunny!  This year was no exception and we had a great time with the excellent students of Bangor Uni and the University of South Wales.  If you are looking for a well-organised good value trip for a large group, please contact us!

5.  Vulture extravaganza

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Rüppell’s Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

Our group was treated to fabulous scenery, top notch cuisine by an award-winning chef, and star birds like Black Wheatear, Rock Bunting and Alpine Accentor, against a backdrop of thousands of migrating Griffon Vultures – just wow! More here! And check out the plan for next year’s trip here!

6.  Birdfair

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Conservation hero and giver of geat hugs, Mark Avery stopped by

Always lovely to catch up with friends old and new at the UK’s annual ‘Birder’s Glastonbury’! Here‘s how we got on!

7.  Dovestep 3

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We were proud to host Turtle Dove conservation warrior and legend Jonny Rankin and his crew in The Straits in February, as he embarked on his third epic journey, walking across Spain – more here

8.  Eleonoras Falcons, Cream-coloured Coursers and more in Northern Morocco

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Eleonora’s Falcon © Inglorious Bustards

Taking wildlife photography artist Tony Mills around Essaouira and Oualidia in search of some star Moroccan species was a great adventure, full of wildlife, culture and food!  Read about our adventure here, and check out the tour itinerary for next June!

9.  The Gambia

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Egyptian Plover © Inglorious Bustards

Another of our favourite places on Earth, this year we got to travel the whole length of the Gambia river, bringing our clients up close and personal with such delights as Egyptian Plover, Bearded Barbet, Adamawa Turtle Dove, Carmine Bee-eater and a rainbow of other species!  Have a look at our exploits here, and remember there’s still chance to join us in February and avoid those winter blues!

To all our friends old and new, we’d like to wish you a very happy new year, and we hope to see you in person at the centre of the world in 2018!

 

You wait all morning then 9,000 turn up at once!

Rush hour for the East Atlantic Flyway started late yesterday, but Blimey, was it a busy one!

It was a dank start, with cloudy raptor-less skies that were more like England than southern Spain! Indeed, as we looked over to the Rock of Gibraltar, it was actually raining in the UK!

We were volunteering again today, helping Fundacion Migres with their long-running migration monitoring programme.

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A European Honey Buzzard descends through the cloud layer © Inglorious Bustards

The sullen morning gave us chance to appreciate another aspect of migration – the wild olive scrub around El Algorrobo watchpoint was hosting loads of migrant passerines like Common Redstart, Spotted Flycatchers, Golden Orioles and many Phylloscopus warblers, resting on their way south.  The morning rush hour saw dozens of Hirundines, Common, Pallid and Alpine Swift racing through.

But it was 11.45am that the climatic traffic lights turned green for raptors! The sky was suddenly full of Honey Buzzards, kettling in their hundreds and barging south along the now congested flyway.

 

Male European Honey Buzzard © Wader World
Honey Buzzards descend from the grey! © Inglorious Bustards

The chirpiest of the travelers were the European Bee-eaters. So many passed over, quipping like kids on a school bus, and some buzzed right over and around our group, prompting so many ‘Ooooh’s and ‘Aaaah’s that we almost forgot to count them!

 

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European Bee-eaters quipping noisily straight passed us, I forgot to take a photo until they were on their way! © Inglorious Bustards

But it was the last couple hours of the count that really blew our minds! Late arrivals finally getting past bad weather in the Pyrenees were racing over in their hundreds, seemingly experiencing flyway rage, desperate to reach Africa before sundown. At around 3pm, after a busy but relaxed days counting, our group was suddenly silent except for whirring clickers and the barking of things like “10 Milanos Negros!”, “234 Abejeiros!”, “Aguila Calzada! Aguila Calzada!”

All in all we counted 9,081 birds commuting to Africa in just one day, at just one watch point, a mere fraction of the 250,000+ raptors and 400,000 Swifts that will pass through here this season.

Fundacion Migres have been carrying out this exceptional monitoring programme since 1997, making it one of the greatest sustained efforts in Europe. Today we were privileged to count alongside Alejandro, Migres’s Flyway Veteran.  He has been with the programme since the beginning, and now leads it.

They are keen for volunteers to help with the counts – people like Alberto – a professional musician and birder from Madrid who was with us yesterday.  He will be with Migres for the minimum placement of 1 week, during which he can stay at their accommodation at the Centro Internacional de Migracion de Aves near Tarifa and receive full training.

Fancy gazing at a bit of mega migration? Don’t worry, this was only the beginning! Find out about volunteering with Fundacion Migres here. Or come see #FlywayBirding in action with us next Spring or Autumn!

Raptors before the eyes

It’s a disconcerting feeling when you shut your eyes and you can still see hundreds of raptor silhouettes passing in front of them!

We’ve spent the day volunteering with Fundacion Migres as part of their long-standing migration monitoring programne – we reckon this must be a common side effect!

Marina, Martina and the Inglorious Bustards

With very little wind, but heavy low cloud to start with, it’s been a strange day for movement. Early doors saw dozens of hundreds of assorted raptors forming in large lazy kettles and rolling up and down the coast.
Simon spies on Gibraltar

It gave us a while to find our feet in terms of monitoring protocol, and to find even deeper admiration for Migres staff Marina and Martina, their quick eyes, organised approach and the intense, almost telepathic communication between them!
Enthusiastic and skilled teachers, they were chatty and friendly yet never missing a bird.

As the day wore on, many Short-toed Eagles continued to mooch around the valleys, giving stunning views, sunlit from the south against a black sky.

Egyptian Vultures, Sparrowhawks, quipping Bee-eaters and some dapper Montagu’s Harriers provided further highlights.

Black Kites and Booted Eagles were passing over us in droves but today, The Honey Buzzard was king – they streamed over all day in groups of 30 or more, and by 3.30 we were receiving reports from Morocco that they were arriving at the the iconic rock monolith of the Jebel Musa.

The pace was constant but relaxed – we even found time to have bit of fun with an Egyptian Mantis determined to learn the salient ID features of a Honey Buzzard!

Fundacion Migres have been carrying out this exceptional monitoring programme since 1997, making it one of the greatest sustained efforts in Europe.  It has generated much important research and conservation protocols for migrating soaring birds and the challenges they face.

We were happy to help (at least we hope we were helpful!) and to add our numbers to today’s count, which we’ll hopefully hear the results of soon! Sure we’ll see most of them again when we close our eyes to sleep!

Fancy gazing at a bit of mega-migration?! Migres welcome seasonal volunteers, who can stay at their Centro Internacional de Migracion de Aves near Tarifa. Or come see #FlywayBirding in action with us next Spring or Autumn!