Which Egyptian Vulture won the race back to the Balkans?

Over the last month we have had reports from Spain, Portugal and France of the return of Egyptian Vultures all along the Western Flyway, making the epic 3,000km journey from western Africa. At the same time the population of Egyptian Vultures on the Balkan Peninsula have traveled from their wintering ground in sub-Saharan Africa across eight countries ahead of the breeding season and our colleagues at the Egyptian Vulture New LIFE project have been tracking their progress. But who made it back first? 

 

Monitoring Egyptian Vultures

 

Egyptian Vulture Aoos being fitted with a GPS transmitter by the team from the Hellenic Ornithological Society/ Birdlife Greece in 2015
Egyptian Vulture Aoos being fitted with a GPS transmitter by the team from the Hellenic Ornithological Society/ Birdlife Greece in 2015

The Egyptian Vulture New LIFE team have fitted wild and captive-bred and released birds with solar powered GPS transmitter each weighing around 20-30g that are able to send the location data of the bird over the mobile communications network. 

 

Boris,  Aoos, Jenny and Iliaz

 

Egyptian Vulture Boris photographed back in his summer breeding grounds
Egyptian Vulture Boris photographed back in his summer breeding grounds

The wild birds the team fitted with transmitters departed on their winter migration back in September and October and have been enjoying the warmer climate in sub-Saharan Africa. 

 

Since they began monitoring the birds it has been Boris who has been the first to depart and this year he left his wintering grounds in Ethiopia on 23 February and travelled over 5,000km in 23 days, making him the first to arrive back in Bulgaria. 

 

This year Aoos left central Chad at the beginning of March and on his journey made a detour and visited Iraq and took around 42 days to reach his breeding grounds in Albania, a journey of around 6,000km. 

 

The female birds Jenny and Iliaz were the last to leave on their spring migration from Chad and the race between them back to the Balkans was tight and thrilling to track.  Jenny started her travels on 10 March, with Iliaz departing two days later, giving Jenny a headstart in the race back to the Balkans. But Iliaz proved to be more skillful and was covering longer daily distances and quickly compensated the accumulated delay. Jenny’s advantage was melting sharply and both almost met in south Lybia. Harsh weather conditions in Sahara with probably strong north winds and sand storms forced them to change the initial direction of flight and make a huge detour in southern direction. Jenny decided to reach Nile and then follow the easy route north along the river while Iliaz was determined to continue through the desert and he made it – in Israel he was already two days ahead of Jenny. But nothing is lost until the last minute. Iliaz made a wrong step by passing through the mountains of central Turkey while Jenny sneaked in through western Anatolia. 

 

Map showing the journey of Egyptian Vultures Jenny and Iliaz
Map showing the journey of Egyptian Vultures Jenny and Iliaz

At the beginning of April both birds were just 600 km away from their respective breeding territories. On the early morning of the next day they both headed to the final stage of their epic race. Iliaz decided to avoid any sea crossing and passed through the Bosphorus while Jenny took the challenge and preferred to try crossing the sea over the Dardanelles. She got the better strategy and a bit of good luck with tailwinds over the sea and 6000 km after the start she finally won the race with only a few hours difference. 

 

Captive-bred birds

In 2018 we were part of an experiment to test the different strategies to release captive-bred birds, an experiment we are participating in again this year and are currently finalising preparations for. 

 

One of the captive-bred Egyptian Vultures in Bulgaria ahead of their first migration in summer 2018
One of the captive-bred Egyptian Vultures in Bulgaria ahead of their first migration in summer 2018

As the birds released are young the birds, those that survived the migration south are still in their wintering grounds, and they will usually stay there for their first 2-3 years. 

 

Akaga spent the winter in Afar, Ethiopia where is the biggest congregation of wintering Egyptian Vultures in Africa with over 1600 individuals counted in January 2019. However, she hasn’t sent any new data in the last 2 months and might be in area with no GSM coverage. 

 

Polya has settled in central Sudan, not far away from the capital Khartoum. She is still stationary and doesn’t think to go back home any time soon.

 

Boyana is still in Chad near the lake Fitri. She is regularly roosting on acacia trees and foraging over the dry savannah. Her movements are restricted to an area wide about 200 square km.

 

Panteley is still on Crete where he found some new friends - Bearded and Griffon Vultures. We are looking forward to see if he will remain on the island for the whole summer or will join the spring migration of other raptors towards the mainland.

 

The achivement for Europe’s smallest vulture is truly astounding with the birds along the Eastern Flyway travelling over 5,000km over eight different countries  Chad, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Greece. Despite making this journey, these birds still face a great threat in their summer range, illegal wildlife poisoning. We urge our colleagues to remain vigilant over the coming months to ensure these bird remain safe and can breed successfully.  

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