Breakfast with Vultures!

Going out to a restaurant isn’t something we’ve been able to do a lot of recently, but today we were thrilled to be invited to an eatery with a difference!  The menu didn’t really appeal – we’re all for trying new things but offal, rotten eggs and cow dung are a bit too avant-garde even for our tastes!  The thrill of the invite came purely from the chance to rub shoulders with the celebrity guests…

For this beastly bistro has been set up with one purpose in mind – the conservation of the Endangered Egyptian Vulture – or Alimoche as they are known in Spain.

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Egyptian Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

With its starkly-contrasting wing pattern, wedge-shaped tail and yolk-coloured face, this gorgeous bird must surely be one of the most eye-catching scavengers in the world.  It is both sensitive and intelligent, using pebbles to break eggs, sticks to wind wool, and staying faithful to partners and nest sites over long periods. Incredible travellers, migrating birds can cover over 300 miles in a single day along the East Atlantic Flyway, until they reach the southern edge of the Sahara, as much as 3400 miles from their summer home.

Sadly, the same old story of human destruction applies to this species as to many others. Their numbers have declined dramatically – in Europe, over 50% have been lost in the last three generations. Throughout their nomadic year they face many dangers.  The disastrous effects of the terrible twins threats of habitat destruction and agricultural change are exacerbated by lead and pesticide accumulation, persecution, collisions with power lines, intentional and accidental poisoning.

Around our base, in the Campo de Gibraltar and La Janda area, we are lucky enough to host a small breeding population of this stunning bird – five of the remaining 1400 pairs in Europe.

But here they face the peril of our local windfarms.  Despite the fantastically successful work of our partners at Fundación Migres to reduce raptor collisions, in recent years there have been some strikes involving Egyptians from the local population.  The presence of ornithologist “spotters” on the farms – such a successful strategy for protecting Griffon Vultures and other species – is simply not enough for these birds.  The deaths were few, but with such a tiny population, any such losses are desperately significant, and pose a risk to the birds’ future in the area. It was clear a new approach was needed.

In 2018, Fundación Migres started piloting the creation of supplementary feeding points near to Egyptian Vulture territories. The idea was that if the birds could find “easy” food at strategic points near their nests, they would no longer take risks foraging near turbines.  Turbine strikes of foraging adults would be reduced or hopefully even eliminated.

Suitable sites for supplementary feeding have to be well-located – close to one or more Egyptian Vulture territories, with a clear route to the nest that avoids windfarms. They have to be easily accessible for the feeding team, yet be quiet, safe places, away from human disturbance. Experts at Fundación Migres identified several such sites and began feeding, eventually narrowing their efforts down to the two most successful locations.

Unlike Griffon Vultures, which have evolved to work together to rip open and devour large carrion items, Egyptian Vultures love to pick up the scraps!  For this reason, they get given the piltracos – small items of meat waste and offal collected from local butchers in the Tarifa area.

In one of life’s rare win-win situations, the butchers also save the money they would otherwise pay for a waste disposal service. The meat is transferred in authorized containers to the supplementary feeding points, where it is put out four times a week.

So this morning, we stood in a secluded field while our friend and colleague Alejandro dished up 90kg of waste meat, guts, bones and other unspeakable titbits, accompanied by soothing background music from Cirl Buntings, Turtle Doves and Common Nightingales!

As well as the main feast of meat scraps, the team also puts out attractive side dishes like eggs and cow dung! For an Egyptian Vulture, these accompaniments are simply to die for – they are rich in the carotene pigments they need to give them that gorgeous yolky-yellow face. 

To measure the success of the project, the sites are checked daily and activity is also monitored using camera-traps.  Many of the birds are tagged or ringed, so a detailed picture can be built up of which individuals or pairs come to the sites and how long they spend there.

At the same time, in the wind farms, the “spotters” collect information on any birds that fly nearby.  This means that the team can make a direct comparison between days when food is laid out or not, to see if it reduces the birds’ presence in or around the windfarms.

Preliminary results of the pilot are very promising. Since the trial began, there have been no deaths of local birds on the windfarms.  The supplementary feeding points have significantly reduced the number of birds recorded near wind farms, massively reducing the risk of collision. This is especially important while they have chicks are in the nest, and adult foraging is particularly intense.

The fringe benefits of the project have also been impressive!  It seems word has got around about the hottest table in town, and the team are recording non-local Egyptian vultures and many other species coming to the feeding sites, including Griffon Vultures, Cinereous Vultures, Black Kites, Common Buzzards, Northern Goshawks and more.

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Griffon Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

At the moment one of the area’s local celebrities is also putting in an appearance every day.  A stunning adult Rüppell’s Vulture – supposed to be in sub-Saharan Africa but currently hanging out with our local Griffon Vulture colony and attempting to mate. Earlier in the Spring other vagrant individuals were recorded too, as this species gradually gains a foothold in Europe.

The project is supervised by the Andalucían Government and is coordinated with their vulture conservation team.  It is currently financed by the wind power companies.  In academic terms the project is still in early days, and nothing will be published until data has been collected for several years and the effectiveness of the measure can be properly evaluated.

In the meantime, it may not have a Michelin star or serve many vegetarian options, but Café Alimoche is definitely our new favourite eatery!

Thanks to our conservation partners and colleagues at Fundación Migres for the invite and our continued partnership.

If you love Vultures, you´ll love our Ronda & The Straits trip, timed to coincide with the virtually unknown spectacle of the Griffon Vulture migration across The Straits of Gibraltar.  Check it out here and get in touch to find out more – we´re currently taking no-obligation provisional bookings for 2020.

 

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)