Not many years ago, bird conservation in Spain was in its infancy and some of the country’s iconic species were declining dramatically to the point, almost, of extinction. That situation has happily changed, as Niki Williamson of Andalucian wildlife tour company, Inglorious Bustards, reveals.
It’s pretty obvious even with the naked eye that the bird perched on the pylon is BIG. This farmland area in southern Spain is full of wintering raptors – Hen Harriers, Marsh Harriers, Black-winged Kites, Peregrine Falcons and more – but this bird clearly isn’t one of those.
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As the commanding shape comes into focus in the scope, it’s impossible not to grin. White ermine splashes across its velvety brown shoulders confirm it to be a gorgeous adult Spanish Imperial Eagle.
Just 40 years ago this iconic eagle was on the brink of extinction with only 30 pairs left. Endemic to the Iberian Peninsula and considered by many to be Spain’s national bird, it was now one of the seven most endangered birds of prey in the world.
Saving the Spanish Imperial Eagle
Like other Iberian predators, the Spanish Imperial Eagle’s fate is bound to that of the European Rabbit, whose disease-decimated populations left a dearth of prey in the countryside. Breeding rates were pitiful, as chicks starved or killed each other in the nest. For those that did fledge, collision with powerlines and electrocution were major killers, accounting for 80% of mortality of first year birds in the 1980s. And as if the situation wasn’t desperate enough, hungry raptors feeding opportunistically on carrion were succumbing to illegally poisoned bait.
However, thanks to intensive threat management, awareness raising and reintroduction, bird conservation groups are turning around its decline.
Photo Credit: Spanish Imperial Eagle, Inglorious Bustards, Andalucía, Spain
Ambitious stewardship networks were established across the eagles’ whole distribution range in Spain. Mirrored in neighbouring Portugal, the raptor conservation was focused on habitat management for rabbits, combatting illegal poisoning and awareness-raising. Supplementary feeding programmes were set up and more than 14,000 dangerous electric pylons were identified and repaired.
The rocky, prey-rich hills and active local expertise in Cádiz province made it the perfect place to boost numbers through reintroduction. Five breeding pairs have now become established in the area, providing a new population nucleus. Birds originating from here are known to have bred in Portugal, Castilla-La Mancha, Sierra Morena and Coto Doñana.
Now the population numbers over 300 pairs. That famous regal silhouette commands the air in Spain’s protected areas, from the crags of Extremadura to the treetops of Coto Doñana, and the bird is a major draw for visitors. Even better, it’s now possible to see these magnificent eagles roving across the farmlands of Andalucía and beyond, where they are once again becoming a familiar sight.
The fate of Egyptian Vultures improved
It seems this practical, solution-based approach to bird conservation is paying dividends for other species too, including complicated migratory conservation challenges like the Egyptian Vulture.
With its starkly contrasting wing pattern and yolk-coloured face, it must surely be one of the world’s most eye-catching scavengers. It is both sensitive and intelligent, using pebbles to break eggs and sticks to wind wool, and staying faithful to partners and nest sites over long periods.
Photo credit: Egyptian Vulture – Menorca Walking Birds, Menorca, Spain
Sadly, the same story of human destruction applies here – in Europe over 50% have been lost in the last three generations. Throughout their nomadic year, Egyptian Vultures face many dangers. The disastrous effects of habitat destruction and agricultural change are exacerbated by lead and pesticide accumulation, persecution, collisions with power lines, intentional and accidental poisoning.
While across most of its Eurasian breeding range numbers continue to fall, the latest SEO/Birdlife census shows a population increase in Spain from 1,200 pairs in 2008 to 1,500 in 2018 – a hopeful 25% rise. The picture is complex and the bird’s fortunes vary from region to region, but it seems the country’s serious vulture conservation efforts are starting to pay off.
Navigating The Straits
There is another consideration here besides nesting success. Every autumn, around 3,300 Egyptian Vultures migrate across The Strait of Gibraltar, where Africa is just nine miles away over the sea. This spectacular gathering represents almost the entire western European population, including the year’s successfully fledged birds – the future of the species.
Their safe passage is paramount, but before they face The Strait, they must first navigate the whirring blades of the area’s wind energy industry. In their early years these windfarms – located at the biggest raptor migration bottleneck in western Europe – were amongst the deadliest in the world.
Thankfully, since 2003, the birds have help. Trained ornithologist “spotters” work on the windfarms 365 days a year, throughout daylight hours. When a soaring bird is near, they simply stop the turbines. They use an app to turn them off individually, within seconds vastly reducing avian mortality while minimising loss of power generation.
The rise of Northern Bald Ibis
This windy wilderness area also offers hope for species once common but now lost. When the global population of the Northern Bald Ibis dwindled to just 59 pairs in 1996, it was one of the world’s most endangered birds and one could be forgiven for thinking that we had seen the last of the Mohicans.
This quirky, charismatic creature disappeared from Europe just 300 years ago. However, film footage from 1970s Morocco shows them still nesting on village rooftops. A continent apart but just a few miles away, the wild coastal crags and extensively grazed clifftop pastures of southern Spain were identified as the perfect place to bring them back.
Photo credit: Northern Bald Ibis – Wild Doñana, Andalucía, Spain
Proyecto Eremita reintroductions began in 2004, on remote military land around the Cape of Trafalgar. Since the first successful breeding attempt in 2008 the Ibis colony has grown to around 80 birds.
The colony is thriving and small groups are now regularly seen setting off to explore, looking for new places to breed. Happily for the visiting birder, one of these groups has successfully colonised rocky ledges right next to a local café! Last year a group headed north – will they one day repopulate the cliffs of Extremadura and beyond?
Fighting for Spanish nature
The fight for biodiversity protection is a difficult and complicated one, but nature is winning many small battles in Spain. It is advancing from a firm stronghold. Well over a quarter of this beautiful and diverse countryside is part of a protected area system, making it the European country that contributes most to the Natura 2000 network.
When Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced his plans to re-open the country for post-pandemic tourism, there was a strong emphasis not just on health security but on sustainability. Spain is aiming high. As Sanchez puts it, he wants travellers to see the country as “the safest and most environmentally sustainable tourist destination in the world”.
With newfound momentum towards ecotourism in a protected, rejuvenated countryside, the draw of that iconic eagle on its farmland perch could well be an economic boon for rural Spain. With so much at stake, nature tourism has never been more important.
Want to see the effects of bird conservation in Spain?
For more information, contact one of the local wildlife specialists based in Spain to book your next wildlife holiday directly.
Author Niki Williamson is co-owner and partner in wildlife tour operator, Inglorious Bustards, located in the village of Facinas near The Straits of Gibraltar, Spain. She is a keen supporter of conservation projects in Spain and around the world.
Author: Niki Williamson
Sponsored by the Tourist Office of Spain in New York
Originally Published: 15th December 2020