Tag Archives: Spain

Vultures

Vulture is the name given to two groups of scavenging birds: New World Vultures and the Old World Vultures. New World Vultures are found in North and South America; Old World Vultures are found in Europe, Africa and Asia, meaning that between the two groups, vultures are found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.

A particular characteristic of many vultures is a bald head, devoid of normal feathers. This helps to keep the head clean when feeding, yuck.

Whilst in the Pyrénées recently I encountered four species of vulture, but only managed to photography the Lammergeier (see last post) and the Griffon Vulture (see below).

Griffon Vulture

Like other vultures, the Griffon vulture it is a scavenger, feeding mostly from carcasses of dead animals which it finds by soaring over open areas, often moving in flocks. It establishes nesting colonies in cliffs that are undisturbed by humans while coverage of open areas and availability of dead animals within dozens of kilometers of these cliffs is high. It grunts and hisses at roosts or when feeding on carrion, something I encountered when visiting a private farm in the mountains, the hissing and grunting was unbelieveable, where there were some 100+ Griffon vultures fighting over a free meal.

In Spain, there are tens of thousands of birds, from a low of a few thousand around 1980. The Pyrenees population has apparently been affected by an EC ruling that due to danger of BSE transmission, no carcasses must be left on the fields for the time being. This has critically lowered food availability, and consequently, carrying capacity. Although the Griffon Vulture does not normally attack larger living prey, there are reports of Spanish Griffon Vultures killing weak, young or unhealthy living animals as they do not find enough carrion to eat. Last month (May 2013), a 52-year old woman who was hiking in the Pyrenees and had fallen off a cliff to her death was eaten by Griffon Vultures before rescue workers were able to recover her body, leaving only her clothes and a few of her bones. Due to her being the first human to be documented being eaten by Griffon Vultures, the story has brought worldwide attention to the Griffon Vulture.

Griffon Vulture

So the next time you hear of somebody climbing a mountain, or if you are lucky enough to go to the great plains of Africa and you see a “kettle” of vultures in the sky, then ask yourself who or what is the next victim of the dinner table!

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Little Bustard

What lengths will some guys go to?

In the bird world there are many “show offs”, birds of paradise come to mind, closer to home male black grouse and other game birds have their annual ritual to snare the hottest “chick”, no pun intended. So it is not surprising to also see in the latin world (Spain in this case), there is also a little macho action out there in the field.

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The Little Bustard (Tetrax tetrax) is a large member of the bustard family, breeding in southern Europe and in western and central Asia. Southernmost European birds are mainly resident, but other populations migrate further south in winter. The central European population once breeding in the grassland of Hungary went extinct several decades ago, unfortunately this has been the case for several other parts of Europe.

Like other bustards, the male Little Bustard has a flamboyant display with foot stamping and leaping in the air.

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Lammergeier – Bearded Vulture

The Lammergeier, also known as the Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), is classified as an Old World Vulture, however looking at the Lammergeier there is little resemblence to “real” Old World Vultures, e.g. like the Griffon Vulture (see in the next post). This is most evident with the lozenge-shaped head, and of course the beard. The only other vulture similar is the Egyptian Vulture.

They range from the high mountains in southern Europe, the Caucasus, parts of Africa, the Indian Subcontinent and Tibet. They feed predominantly on carrion, with a liking for bones and the marrow inside of bones. Living in the mountains the Lammergeier also needs to be tough, especially as they usually lay one or two eggs in mid-winter! Blimey!

During a day photographing vultures near the Spanish boarder with Andorra for ten hours I saw half-a-dozen of these majesties of the mountain skies.

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The Lammergeier is almost entirely associated with mountains and inselbergs with plentiful cliffs, crags, precipices, canyons and gorges. They are often found near alpine pastures and meadows, montane grassland and heath, steep-sided, rocky wadis, high steppe and are occasional around forests. So, places like the Pyrenees in Europe, Himalayas in Asia, Atlas Mountains in North Africa highlands of Sudan, and even as far south as the Drakensburg.

Not surprisingly, the Lammergeier seems to prefer lightly-populated areas where predators, who provide many bones, such as wolves and Golden Eagles, have healthy populations. Although they occasionally descend to lower elevations, circa 300-600 m, the Lammergeiers are rare below an elevation of 1,000 m and normally reside above 2,000 m in some parts of their range.

The Lammergeier is locally threatened. It naturally occurs at low densities, with anywhere from a dozen to 500 pairs now being found in each mountain range in Eurasia where the species breeds. The species is most common in Ethiopia, where an estimated 1,400 to 2,200 are believed to breed. Relatively large, healthy numbers seem to occur in some parts of the Himalayas as well.

The Lammergeier was largely wiped out in Europe by the beginning of the 20th century, but has been locally reintroduced and is beginning to re-establish itself in protected areas, e.g there have been successfull reintroductions in the Pyrenees of Spain and the Swiss and Italian Alps, both populations have spread themselves over into France. With these types of legendary birds, there is always myths, and the Lammergeier has it’s own myth. It was formerly persecuted in significant numbers because people feared (without justification) that it regularly carried off children and domestic animals. However, never proved (domestic animals of course).

Maybe two weeks in the Pyrenees for next summers vacation? After all the majestic Lammergeier allegedly likes naughty children.