The Egyptian Vultures of the Douro Valley on the Spain-Portugal border began the migration to their wintering ground in sub-Saharan Africa back in September, an epic journey of 3,300km. Now, with winter coming to an end they are beginning their journey back,
Each year, at the end breeding season, between August and September, Europe’s smallest vultures leave Europe and head to their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa. In Europe the majority of the population in of Egyptian vultures are found on the Iberian Peninsula and primarily Spain, an estimated 1,300 - 1,500 pairs and crossed from Europe to Africa via the Straits of Gibraltar a route they will use as they return.
Following Egyptian Vultures
As part of the LIFE Rupis project Egyptian Vultures have been fitted with GPS transmitters weighing around 20-30g that send location data of the birds via the mobile communications network.
Douro and Huebra
These two breeding adults have been in the Western Sahara over the winter months, after a long period in areas with little mobile network coverage, which prevented us from monitoring their locations in real time, their transmitters began sending data on 12 February. Both birds left their wintering grounds on almost exactly the same date as they did in 2018. Huebra left southern Mauritania on 8 February compared to the 9 February in 2018; whereas Douro departed from Mali on the 5 February, two days later than in 2018.
From the data we received we know the two birds spent their winter around the similar areas they did in 2017-18. Douro initially spent several weeks in southern Mauritania in September before moving south to the Mali-Mauritania border in mid-October where it remained until starting to migrate. Huebra remained in southern Mauritania until mid-November when it moved south to the Senegal-Mali border in an area that has recently been identified as a potentially important wintering area for the species (see this recent article which is available on request).
If their migration continues in a similar way to 2018 these two birds are expected to cross the Strait of Gibraltar between the 22nd and 24th February.
The sub-adult Rupis, which has been tracked since 2016, remains in its favoured area in the Boucle du Baoulé National Park area of southern Mali, where it spent most of its time in the previous two winters. Based on previous years Rupis is expected to depart the winter range later than the adults, having started the spring migration on the 6 April in 2017 and 20 March in 2018. This year could be the year Rupis attempts to breed for the first time, and that breeding instinct might see Rupis leave earlier for the breeding grounds.
Data for the breeding adult Batuecas A has been inconsistent in recent weeks. Initially this vulture spent October in southern Mauritania before travelling >250 km south to the Senegal-Mali border for only two days at the beginning of November before returning again. The bird remained in Mauritania until moving south again at the start of December, after which the data become patchy. We know that Batuecas A travelled >370 km east to the Boucle de Baoulé National Park in southern Mali, not far from Rupis, on the 25 January, and returned to the Senegal-Mali border on the 2 February, but we do not have data for the intervening period.
Unfortunately we have not received any data from the remaining breeding adult, Faia, since the migration on 6 September when the bird was in northern Algeria. We remain hopeful that this bird has spent the winter period in an area of poor coverage and will transmit data during the return migration.
While Egyptian Vultures are migratory some populations don’t make the long intercontinental journey, choosing to stay in one location. We fitted one young bird Batuecas P with a transmitter in 2017. The bird has spent the winter period in the same area as the 2017-2018 winter, south of Coria in Extremadura, which is known as an area favoured by the over-wintering population due to an abundant food supply.
Understanding Egyptian Vulture behaviour
Egyptian Vultures are classified as endangered and is the only species of Europe’s four vulture species that has a declining population. To help understand what measures can be implemented to help protect Egyptian Vultures this tracking data is vital to help understand how they move across the whole of the migratory flyway to identify any risks they may encounter.
The data from all of the tracked birds illustrate the high degree of “site fidelity” for certain locations, which is a characteristic of the species. In contrast to Egyptian Vultures that have been tracked in the Middle East and the eastern Sahel, the birds from the Douro do not visit landfills in their winter ranges but tend to prefer to forage in more natural Sahelian-savannah type habitats rather than human-modified landscapes.
Unfortunately the conflict and insecurity in the region make it difficult to conduct fieldwork to better understand the behaviour of the vultures during the winter, and the threats that they face, and the ongoing work of local stakeholders such as the Boundou Community Reserve in Senegal continues to provide valuable information.
The tracking data continue to reveal interesting aspects of the Douro Egyptian Vultures’ annual cycle and will inform the implementation of conservation actions throughout their range following the “flyway approach” that has been pioneered in the east of the range. We look forward to the return of the rest of the vultures in the coming months when the LIFE Rupis project partners will continue their important work to conserve this important population on the Spain-Portugal border.
The LIFE Rupis conservation project, led by Portuguese wildlife organisation Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves (SPEA), and funded by the European Union's LIFE Fund and the MAVA Foundation, is working in the cross-border Douro region of Spain and Portugal to protect and strengthen the populations of Egyptian vultures and Bonelli´s eagle. With around 135 breeding pairs, the region has one of the largest population of Egyptian vultures in Europe. Creating a network of feeding stations, improving habitat and nesting sites as well as tackling the major threats of electrocution from electricity pylons and illegal wildlife poisoning, the LIFE Rupis project will strengthen the population and improve breeding rates.
The LIFE RUPIS project is implemented by the Vulture Conservation Foundation and partners, including SPEA (BirdLife in Portugal), ATN and Palombar (regional conservation organisations in NE Portugal), the Junta de Castilla y Leon & the Fundación Patrimonio Natural de Castilla Y León, the Portuguese electricity distributor EDP-D, the Portuguese statutory conservation agency ICNF and the Portuguese environmental police force (GNR), and is co-funded by the MAVA Foundation.
Acknowledgements: We thank all of the LIFE Rupis project partners and everyone involved in the deployment of the transmitters and monitoring of the birds. We also thank Saloro SLU for generously contributing the tracking data from four individuals (Batuecas A, Huebra, Batuecas P and Camaces) to the LIFE Rupis project.