Category Archives: Birdlife of Spain

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


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.


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.

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


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


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.


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

Wikipedia has an excellent and updated page about the 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:

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:

The Life + Cantabrian Grouse program oficial website is here: (mostly Spanish with some English information)

In Spanish, SEO/BirdLife also has an information page:

Feel free to leave any comments or join in with the conversation about the Cantabrian capercaillie over at the Iberia Nature Forum:

Eight bearded vultures released in Andalucia in 2021

The Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF) have announced a very successful release season for bearded vultures in Andalucia this year with 8 individuals hacked back to the wild. Two of the birds were released in the Sierra de Castril Natural Park in Granada and the remaining six in the Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas Natural Park.

One of the released birds was a rescue from a wild nest in the Catalan Pyrenees after one parent died and the remaining parent abandoned the nest.

The European cooperation for this re introduction project is impressive as this time the released birds originated from different facilities. One from Liberec Zoo (Czech Republic), one from Berlin Zoo, two from Tallinn Zoo (Estonia) and three from the Bearded Vulture Captive Breeding Centre of Guadalentín (Spain).

Ahead of the releases all the birds were fitted with identification rings and fitted with GPS transmitters

The released birds were named Brinzal, Fapas, Grefa, Quercus, Depana, Adenex, Panda and SEO after various Spanish conservation organisations that have contributed over the years to making Andalusia’s fauna one of the richest in Europe.

Read more about bearded vultures in Spain here:

See the VCF origial article on their website here:

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Reintroduction of the extinct (in Spain) white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla)

The GREFA project continues its work with the reintroduction of the extinct (in Spain) white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla). Over the last few years many conservation programs in Europe have successfully brought back this historically persecuted eagle to stable population numbers and the equally successful breeding and reintroduction program in Norway has now sent nine young birds to be cared for in a hacking enclosure in Pimiango, Ribadedeva (Asturias).

As ever there are critics and supporters of this project. Mainly, the critics are stating the the white tailed eagle was never a breeding, resident species in the Iberian Peninsular…..Join in on the conversation about this at the Iberia nature Forum:

Initial experimental phase

The young birds have been fitted with radio transmitters and will hopefully be released in the Autumn (2021).

The first two years of the project have been conceived as an experimental phase in which new reintroduction techniques based on GREFA’s long experience in the recovery of large birds of prey will be tested. After this phase, an assessment will be made of the results obtained in relation to the adaptation and integration of the birds released into the ecosystem.

Reintroduction to Spain of the extinct white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla)
Reintroduction to Spain of the extinct white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) – Photo GREFA

If the experimental phase reaches a positive evaluation, the Pigargo Project will continue with the annual release of up to twenty specimens for at least five more years, in order to establish a future breeding population of the species in Spain.

For further reading on the white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) there is an incredibly informative and in depth article at wikipedia:

And, the original press release article at GREFA (In Spanish) here:

GREFA have worked closely with the reintroduction of the bearded vulture in Spain.:

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Eleven Bonellis eagle chicks reared in 2021

Fantastic to see that the GREFA projects working with the AQUILA a-LIFE project have announced that they have hatched and reared 11 chicks this year (2021) in the two breeding centres. The birds have already been moved to various temporary holding sites across Europe for release in the future.

Eleven Bonellis eagle chicks reared in 2021
Bonellis eagle (Aquila fasciata) in its assisted release area –

AQUILA a-LIFE wants to contribute to increasing the extent of the presence of the Bonelli’s eagle in the western Mediterranean and to reverse its regressive population trend, to help restore the ecosystems where it once lived. The project aims to work towards the recovery of the species over a large geographic (Europe) area at the meta-population scale (not at the scale of small local populations).

Full article in Spanish here:

GREFA (Grupo de Rehabilitación de la Fauna Autóctona y su Hábitat)

GREFA (Group for the Rehabilitation of Native Fauna and its Habitat) is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that was founded in 1981 as an association for the study and conservation of nature. Since its creation, GREFA has maintained constant growth both in the development of its activities and projects and in means and resources. (In Spanish)