Category Archives: Birdlife of Spain

Bearded Vulture – Gypaetus barbatus – Quebrantahuesos

  • English: Bearded Vulture
  • Spanish: Quebrantahuesos
  • Alternative names / spellings: Lammergeier, Lammergeyer, Lammergeir.
  • Catalan: Trencalòs

The Bearded Vulture – Gypaetus barbatusQuebrantahuesos is one of the largest raptors in Spain and also the rarest. It has a wingspan of 2.8 m and length of around 1.10 m. The dark, narrow wings taper to a point while the tail is long and wedge shaped. The body, legs and head are a dirty white although they deliberately stain this to a dark orange colour using iron oxides contained in calcareous rock where available. They have dark feathers around the eyes and it is the long bristles draped beside the bill which leads to the English common name of Bearded Vulture.

Join in with the conversation about bearded vultures in Spain over at the Iberianature Forum: Bearded Vultures reintroduction in Spain – The Iberia Nature forum

Bearded Vulture - Gypaetus barbatus - Quebrantahuesos
Bearded Vulture – Gypaetus barbatus – Quebrantahuesos – appeared in an official Spanishpostage stamp

They only live in high mountainous areas, usually between 500 to 4000m, preferring ledges on steep cliffs. They can be seen soaring through valleys in search for food. This can be live prey, carrion or the better known habit of breaking bones by dropping them from a great height onto rocks. This exposes the nutrient rich marrow and splinters the bone into smaller pieces which are also eaten.

These birds are very territorial, defending from 200 to 400 km2 against the presence of other adults. Sexual maturity is reached at 5 to 6 years old for females and 8 to 9 years for males. Nesting begins from mid December to January. Normally there are 2 eggs laid but all being well, only one will fledge in the June or July. Disturbances during the initial reproduction period are especially problematic, resulting in failure to raise chicks that year.

Human interference has pushed these birds to near extinction in many areas. Poisoning, power line collision or electrocution, shooting and encroachment have greatly reduced their numbers. There are protection, education, breeding and release programs in place to help support their numbers.

The Bearded Vulture was widespread through the main mountain chains of Spain until the mid 20th century, persecution had almost eradicated this raptor from its western European stronghold.

Bearded vultures in Andalusia

As recently as 1986 the last specimen disappeared from Andalucia but a reintroduction program has returned this stuning bird to the mountains of eastern Andalusia.

From 2006 to 2019 of the 60 odd individuals released in Andalusia 23 are still alive and being tracked. 19 are dead and the rest have lost or their transmitors are broken . However, 19 of these individuals are confirmed alive and well from recent sightings.

The Guadalentin breeding centre in Cazorla is run by the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF)


VCF website here: https://4vultures.org/blog/achieving-a-world-record-guadalentin-centre-in-andalusia-hatched-the-highest-ever-number-of-bearded-vulture-chicks-produced-in-a-single-breeding-season/

In March 2021 6 pairs of bearded vultures had already nested and were sitting eggs. with 10 chicks already hatched….Great news!

Guinness the Bearded vulture chick
Guinness the Bearded vulture chick

The Junta de Andalucia official web page for this programme is here. (In Spanish) Plan de recuperación y conservación de aves necrófagas

There is an unoficial facebook page that has some English language updated information here. https://www.facebook.com/necrofagasandalucia/


Great news for bearded vultures in La Rioja

A pair of Bearded Vultures (Gypaetus barbatus), a species that had not reproduced in La Rioja since the 1950s, began breeding at the beginning of 2022 in the upper basin of the river Najerilla, specifically in the Sierra de Urbión, for the first time since the species’ extinction in the region. See here on the Iberianature Forum: Bearded Vulture pair lays an egg in La Rioja in 2022 – The Iberia Nature forum

Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture

This program has supplied food, mainly sheep limbs, during the winter months when chick survival is at a critical balance. In turn it has enabled the population to grow within the central Pyrenees and expand east and west into the provinces of Catalonia and Navarre. It is from these western populations that sub adults are once again expanding in search of new territories. They are reaching the Cantabrian mountains, especially the Picos de Europa, where projects are underway to prevent a repeat of the hunting / poisoning which eradicated them from here previously.

The “Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos” which translates to the Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture are continuing with their protection and education schemes to ensure the expansion of this species.

There is an interesting Eco-museum / visitors centre at the Castle of Ainsa in the Aragon Pyrenees with information dedicated to these birds.

https://quebrantahuesos.org/the-eco-museum-visitor-centre-pyrenees-bird-center-of-the-ainsa-castle-huesca/?lang=en

If you see a bearded vulture and are lucky enough to also note the colors and position of any rings or wing tags then you can identify the bird on the website of Quebrantehuesos.org.

According to their website there are 135 tagged released birds. Some have radio tracking systems whilst others are ringed and/or wing tagged. Not all the birds are accounted for so your observation is important for the continuing success of the re-introduction system

https://quebrantahuesos.org/seguimiento-de-ejemplares-vivos-list/?lang=en

Some bearded vultures are mapped via gps and you can track their movements here…

https://quebrantahuesos.org/seguimiento-por-satelite/


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The Griffon Vultures of Grazalema (Gyps fulvus – Buitre Leonado)

Description

Visible all year in the natural park of Grazalema this bird is larger than an eagle, with a wingspan of up to 260 cm (8.53 Ft). In flight, their wings are broad, with the primaries (finger-like feathers) usually clearly visible; the tail is short, and the neck retracted. It has buff brown coloured plumage on the back, stomach and the anterior band of the wings, while the rest of the wing feathers and tail are dark brown. The head and long neck are covered with white down and there is a distinctive collar of long feathers.

On adults the bill is yellow and collar white, whilst on juveniles the bill is grey and collar pale brown. They feed on carrion, most of the time in a state of decay and at other times in an initial stage (especialy large mammals). The carcasses left out by farmers are also an important part of the diet of these birds.



They can often be seen in groups circling and rising higher on spiraling currents of hot air. The day is spent soaring at great heights, sometimes invisible to the naked eye, dropping from the sky with wings and feathers whistling when there is food available. The other vultures flying in the area see this manoeuvre with their extraordinary eyesight and very soon a large group of eager scavengers will gather near the corpse. On the ground, near the carcass, the vulture behaves very timidly. But once the feast has begun they engage in spectacular fights, some feasting well and others left hungry.

Habitat

The The Griffon Vultures of Grazalema (Gyps fulvus – Buitre Leonado) live in colonies on cliffs faces. At dawn they can be seen on ledges waiting for the sun to warm the air and for thermals to form on which they can soar. Thus the vulture can fly all day using little energy. At dusk they return to their shelters, small ledges located preferably under a roof of rock and protected from the winds, where they spend the night. These ledges also serve to build nests on and raise chicks.

Breeding habits

Breeding begins in December and finishes in April. When the nesting season approaches, the vulture pair will perform spectacular synchronised flights in which each individual will copy in absolute detail its pair’s movements. The Spanish term for the breeding colony cliff is ”buitreras”. Both sexes participate in nest building, making this from branches, straw and hair. The egg is laid in late January. Each pair has a single egg, incubation lasts about 52 days and is cared for by both parents. They take turns at intervals of 24 or 48 hours, never leaving it unattended. The young leave the nest in July or August. In the Iberian Peninsula the Griffon Vulture is a sedentary species that can be seen all year, but the juveniles sometimes migrate south for the winter and return in the spring.

A walk in the mountains at any time of year almost guarantees close up observation of the The Griffon Vultures of Grazalema (Gyps fulvus – Buitre Leonado)


The Grazalema Guide

The best way to see all our web projects in one place is over at the Grazalema Guide.

The Grazalema Guide – Tourist Information Portal for the Sierra de Grazalema, Wildside Holidays, The town of Ronda and the Caminito del Rey.

https://grazalemaguide.com/

Egyptian Vulture – Neophron percnopterus – Alimoche Común

  • English: Egyptian Vulture
  • Scientific name: Neophron percnopterus
  • Spanish: Alimoche Común
  • French: Vautour percnoptère
  • German: Schmutzgeier
  • Italian: Capovaccaio
  • Portuguese: Abutre-do-egito
  • Status: Summer visitor, breeding in rocky areas.
  • Conservation Status: EN Endangered (12,000 to 38,000 estimated left in the wild). 1500 to 1700 breeding pairs in Europe. (1000 pairs in Spain)
  • Distribution: Southwestern Europe and northern Africa to southern Asia.
  • Similar species: Hieraaetus pennatus (Booted Eagle) But the easy way to tell the difference in flight is the fan tail of the booted eagle and the wedged tail of the Egyptian vulture

Description

Adult Egyptian Vulture – Neophron percnopterus – Alimoche Común have a white body, white wings with black flight feathers and a white tail. The head and legs are yellow. In flight the distinctive white and black, with characteristic wedge-shaped tail are key points to note. The young are brown.

One of the smaller vulture species, they measure 55-65 (21- inches), with a wingspan of 1.7 meters (5 feet 6 inches).

Egyptian Vulture - Neophron percnopterus - Alimoche Común
Egyptian Vulture – Neophron percnopterus – Alimoche Común – Note the wedged tail that helps to tell it apart from the pale phase booted eagle

Habits

Egyptian vultures normally fly solo or with their partner, but can sometimes be observed thermalling with other vulture species (Gyps fulvus). They begin to arrive in Spain in late February and during March set about finding a site for a nest, sometimes using the same as the previous year.

This vulture is usually one of the last animals to arrive at the carrion from which it feeds. When other larger species have already eaten most of the meat, the Egyptian vulture cleans the scraps from between the bones. Supplementing their diet with insects and small animals as well as all kinds of waste, even animal faeces.

Egyptian Vulture - Neophron percnopterus - Alimoche Común
Egyptian Vulture – Neophron percnopterus – Alimoche Común – Facial features

They nests in cliffs and caves in the mountains. The clutch consists of one or two eggs, incubation takes about 42 days and is carried out by both parents. The juveniles will fly to (and remain in Africa) for several years, usually until reaching reproductive maturity, when they will normally return to their countries of origin.

Migratory adults spend the winter in sub-Saharan Africa returning via the Strait of Gibraltar in early March and leaving by the same route in late September.

Threats

This species is in decline for several reasons:

  • The intensive use of pesticides can reduce the brood to a single egg, as has occurred in several areas of Spain and Portugal.
  • The use of the NSAID Diclofenac (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) on domestic animals which ultimately die and become food for a variety of creatures, this has caused a drastic loss of Gyps species of vultures in India and is now a problem in Africa too.
  • Mortality from powerlines, pollution and poisoning, especially the illegal and indiscriminate use of prohibited poisons.
Egyptian Vulture - Neophron percnopterus - Alimoche Común

Sub species

There are three widely recognised subspecies of the Egyptian vulture. The nominate subspecies, Neophron percnopterus percnopterus, has the largest range, occurring in southern Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the north-west of India. Populations breeding in the temperate zone migrate south during winter. It has a dark grey bill.

A small population that is found only in the eastern Canary Islands was found to be genetically distinct and identified as a new subspecies is Neophron percnopterus majorensis in 2002. Known locally as the guirre they are genetically more distant from Neophron percnopterus percnopterus. Unlike neighbouring populations in Africa and southern Europe, it is non-migratory and consistently larger in size.

The Indian subcontinent is the range of subspecies Neophron percnopterus ginginianus, the smallest of the three subspecies, which is identifiable by a pale yellow bill.

Further reading

More information about the globally endangered Egyptian vulture (and other vulture species) can be found on the fantastic website of the Vulture Conservancy Foundation
https://4vultures.org/vultures/egyptian-vulture/

Wikipedia has an excellent and updated page about the Egyptian vulture
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_vulture


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Tetrao urogallus cantabricus – Cantabrian capercaillie – Urogallo cantábrico

  • The western capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) is the largest member of the grouse family and the heaviest-known specimen, recorded in captivity, had a weight of 7.2 kilograms (16 pounds). The species is found across Europe and the Palearctic, is primarily-ground-dwelling and is renowned for its elaborate courtship displays. (Males are also nearly twice the size of the females). The global population of Tetrao urogallus is listed as “least concern” under the IUCN.

There are, however, sad signs that some of the sub species are threatened, especially the Spanish Tetrao urogallus cantabricus – Cantabrian capercaillie – Urogallo cantábrico.

There are two sub species in Spain

  • Tetrao urogallus cantabricus (Cantabrian capercaillie) can be found in northwestern Spain
  • Tetrao urogallus aquitanicus can be found in the Pyrenees of Spain (and France)
Tetrao urogallus cantabricus - Cantabrian capercaillie - Urogallo cantábrico
Tetrao urogallus cantabricus – Western capercaillie – Urogallo cantábrico – The males are much larger than the females

Imminent extinction for the Cantabrian capercaillie

Having been declared in danger of extinction in 2018, the latest survey reveals that there are less than 300 individuals left in the Cantabrian mountains and very few of these are reproductive males. This brings the number below the minimum for a viable population for the survival of the subspecies which has already disapeared from Galicia and Cantabria. The remaining bulk of the surviving birds are located in León with a few also still present in Asturias.

The cause for the decline in numbers has various factors such as the impact of human activities, infrastructure, forest fires, illegal hunting, crashes with power lines and habitat fragmentation. Added to this, in breeding, a low birth rate and also a high mortality rate of hatchlings can be pointed out.

However, one must not forget that this species was hunted legally up to the 1980’s and then heavily poached pretty much up to present day. The male, due to his size was coveted by hunters and the results of this indiscriminate hunting are now plain to see.

Tetrao urogallus cantabricus - Western capercaillie - Urogallo cantábrico
Tetrao urogallus cantabricus – Western capercaillie – Urogallo cantábrico – The females are almost half the size of the males

Secrecy and mixed messages surrounds the Asturian captive breeding programme

As early as 2007, a captive breeding programme was set up in the Asturian locality of Sobrecobio but since that date very few Cantabrian capercaile have been released into the wild. Even volunteers from various ecological groups such as SEO/BIRDLIFE have been blocked from entering of finding out what the project entails and the methods being used. In 2020 records published showed that just 13 eggs were produced by the captive individuals with only 4 hatchlings that went on to die within the first weeks of life.

Something is obviously not right when one looks at the Scottish successes of captive breeding and re introduction and most people are pointing the finger at the bad management practices at the centre.

Un undated (maybe 2017?) report on the official website of the The Life + Cantabrian Grouse program publishes that 5 female birds were released into the wild with four dying quite quickly and the 5th losing transmitter signal so its fate is unknown. The overall message of the report is positive and no mention is made of the project failing either now or in the future. You can read the report in English here: https://lifeurogallo.es/en/content/results

The situation in Castilla y León

The news is slightly more positive in Castilla y León where there is a new recovery project being developed to adapt power lines in capercaille habitat and also there are plans for a new captive breeding center for in Valsemana (León). However, although announced at the beginning of 2021 the breeding centre still has not been created so time will tell what the fate of the Cantabrian capercaillie will be here.

The future

Tetrao urogallus cantabricus – Cantabrian capercaillie – Urogallo cantábrico thrives in places where humans do not go and that can be demonstrated by the habitat where the species is more abundant across Europe. They really need the zero presence of humans, cattle and deer; the lack of forest or livestock tracks, other infrastructures and especially power lines.

One of the big debates has been whether or not to introduce males into the Cantabrian Mountains from the Pyrenees where there are more than 3,000 individuals at the last census ( in France the species is abundant and still classified as a hunt species). Of course if males of the other Spanish subspecies Tetrao urogallus aquitanicus are introduced, this will of course be another nail in the coffin for Tetrao urogallus cantabricus.

Strong criticism has also come from many sectors about the money spent in recent years on actions to try to recover the population of the species, especially in the Life + Cantabrian Grouse program where over 6 million euros has been invested. Without doubt full transparency and cooperation with experienced organisations will be needed if this project continues. Right now though, the future looks pretty bleak for the Cantabrian grouse.

There is an official video from the The Life + Cantabrian Grouse program official website but I always find it suspicious when comments are not enabled. I suppose they don’t want any negative comments posted. 🙂


Further reading

Wikipedia has a pretty good information page here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantabrian_capercaillie

The Life + Cantabrian Grouse program oficial website is here: https://lifeurogallo.es/en (mostly Spanish with some English information)

In Spanish, SEO/BirdLife also has an information page: https://seo.org/ave/urogallo-comun/


Feel free to leave any comments or join in with the conversation about the Cantabrian capercaillie over at the Iberia Nature Forum: https://iberianatureforum.com/forums/topic/future-not-good-for-the-cantabrian-capercaillie/