LEARN­ING TO FLY

Bird Watching (UK) - - Parting Shot -

RAV­EL­LING THE WIND­ING coast road north from the Moroc­can city of Agadir, be­yond the surfer vil­lages, to­wards the buzzing souk of Im­mouzer, prom­ises prob­a­bly the best route in the world from which to dis­cover our quarry. The road can be slow, a pace of­ten set by pan­niered don­keys or the Ber­ber trucks piled im­pos­si­bly high with rugs, tents, live­stock and goods to trade. To the west is sea, clifftop and beach – with a scat­ter­ing of Au­douin’s Gulls among the Lesser Black-backeds. Most of the east side is semi-desert, home to goats, herds of camels and the oc­ca­sional Moussier’s Red­start. Clouds of dust rise into a blue sky as we leave the high­way and head to­ward the cliffs. To­day, we’ll con­tinue our search on foot. The bird we seek has long been a cul­tural icon: it was re­put­edly one of the first to be re­leased from the Ark by Noah. An­cient Egyp­tians revered them: the god Thoth was de­picted in hu­man-form but with the head of this bird, fea­tur­ing on thou­sands of Egyp­tian mon­u­ments. More than eight mil­lion of th­ese mum­mi­fied crea­tures have been re­cov­ered from Egyp­tian tombs. To­day, we know it as the Bald Ibis or North­ern Bald Ibis (there is a South­ern species), or Wal­drapp, one of the rarest birds in the world; and, af­ter weeks of re­search, our chal­lenge is to film it. The ibis has a recorded his­tory which be­gins in Europe, jour­neys to the Middle East and leads us to North Africa. In 1504, Leon­hard von Keutschach, Prince Arch­bishop of Salzburg, passed one of the first ever laws to pro­tect wild birds when he is­sued a de­cree for­bid­ding the hunt­ing of Wal­drapp (Ger­man for ‘for­est crow’). Ac­cord­ing to me­dieval records, the Wal­drapp makes ex­tremely good eat­ing, and was ea­gerly har­vested. One of the Arch­bishop’s favourite dishes was roast ibis chick. Many his­to­ri­ans be­lieve that Leon­hard con­trolled Wal­drapp hunt­ing, sim­ply be­cause he wanted to re­serve them for his own ta­ble. Later, in 1551, Kon­rad von Ges­ner, the renowned Swiss nat­u­ral­ist, pub­lished His­to­riae an­i­mal­ium, a nat­u­ral his­tory en­cy­clo­pe­dia which fea­tured the Wal­drapp, and he too praised the bird’s mar­vel­lous flavour. This is one pos­si­bil­ity why this species com­pletely dis­ap­pears from his­tory for nearly three cen­turies. Then, in 1854, a bird sim­i­lar to the ibis was dis­cov­ered in Syria. It was then be­lieved to be a species un­known to sci­ence. It wasn’t un­til 1906 that zo­ol­o­gists started to make the con­nec­tion be­tween the Syr­ian ibis and Ges­ner’s myth­i­cal bird. Few peo­ple be­lieved the link, ar­gu­ing that a species liv­ing in Syr­ian scrub­land could never have thrived in the Euro­pean Alps. Only when Wal­drapp bones were found in Switzer­land were the two species rec­on­ciled. Bald Ibis re­mains have since been dis­cov­ered in France, Ger­many and Spain, in­di­cat­ing that this was once a suc­cess­ful species rang­ing across much of south and cen­tral Europe. We climb out of our off-roader and scan the sand caves. The Pheas­ant-sized ibis are not shy birds, and feed in groups of up to 30 in­di­vid­u­als. If they are nearby, they shouldn’t be dif­fi­cult to find. The early spring sun­shine is hot and we find shade in the brush­wood and cloth tent of a young goatherd, Khalid. In our school­book French, and with the aid of pic­tures on our mo­biles, we ex­plain our mis­sion. Khalid makes a lazy cir­cle in the air with his hand: “All place”, he says. We set off along the head­land. To­day, the global wild pop­u­la­tion of the Wal­drapp is 600. Morocco holds 500 around the Agadir re­gion, and the re­main­ing birds cling to sur­vival in Syria and Turkey. Sadly, at the time of writ­ing, re­ports are com­ing from Syria that the rem­nant ibis have Since 2010, hand-reared North­ern Bald Ibises have been ‘taught’ to mi­grate once more

Hand-reared ibises were en­cour­aged to dis­cover win­ter feed­ing grounds in Tus­cany by fol­low­ing their hu­man foster par­ents fly­ing in mi­cro­light air­craft

In art, the an­cient Egyp­tian god Thoth was usu­ally de­picted with the head of an ibis

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