The look of a vul­ture

Bird Watching (UK) - - Parting Shot -

dis­ap­peared dur­ing the civil war – it seems likely this pop­u­la­tion is now ex­tinct. We ex­plore the sand caves. Sud­denly, our con­cen­tra­tion is bro­ken by Khalid’s calls. We look up and out to sea. From our left comes a group of eight ibis soar­ing high over our heads, cir­cling as we film. Then, as quickly as they ap­peared, the birds drop below the cliff and van­ish from view. Wal­drapps thrive and breed well in cap­tiv­ity. There are al­most 2,000 in zoos around the world, and num­bers are grow­ing. Cu­ra­tors op­er­ate an ex­change sys­tem, en­sur­ing healthy new genes are reg­u­larly in­tro­duced into breed­ing pop­u­la­tions. In 2003, in south-west Spain, 30 cap­tive-bred ibises were re­leased, more were added over the next five years and, to­day, there is a small breed­ing colony of about 10 pairs near Ve­jer de la Fron­tera. There are now sev­eral Euro­pean rein­tro­duc­tion pro­grammes, in Bavaria and Aus­tria, where cap­tive-bred birds are free to mi­grate. How­ever, as there had been no nat­u­ral mi­gra­tion for 400 years, the birds needed help to find a route south. In 2010, hand-reared ibises were en­cour­aged to dis­cover win­ter feed­ing grounds in Tus­cany by fol­low­ing their hu­man foster par­ents fly­ing in mi­cro­light air­craft. At first, the birds were taken on short flights over just a few kilo­me­tres and soon fol­lowed their air­borne hu­man guides around the east­ern edge of the Alps and into Italy. While ini­tial at­tempts at self-guided mi­gra­tion proved un­pre­dictable, some suc­ceeded and, once the route was es­tab­lished, young birds fol­lowed the adults. We leave Khalid and his noisy goats to travel fur­ther north to the reedbeds of the Tamri es­tu­ary. We walk onto the shore, past the Ber­ber fam­ily load­ing drift­wood onto their don­key and be­yond the sleep­ing beach dogs. We scan the sky, then fo­cus our lenses on the as­sorted birds near the rolling surf. This is good hunt­ing ground for the Wal­drapp. Their diet con­sists mainly of in­ver­te­brates. Ibises find food by del­i­cately prob­ing the ground: they like soft for­ag­ing ar­eas with lit­tle dense veg­e­ta­tion and never stray far from wa­ter. Tripods and back­packs aban­doned, we sit for a while and drink a lit­tle of the lo­cal mint tea. We now have our footage of flight, but noth­ing to show group be­hav­iour or dy­nam­ics. Sud­denly, both of us look sky­wards again. At first heard rather than seen, a flock of about 100 ibis float over to land just a few steps away. Male and fe­male ibis have iden­ti­cal plumage, but males are slightly larger with a longer beak. The males with the long­est beaks have the most suc­cess in at­tract­ing mates. Geron­ti­cus, the birds’ sci­en­tific name, is Greek for old man. It refers to the birds’ dis­tinc­tive bald, wrin­kled head that makes them look like vul­tures. At first glance, their plumage ap­pears black, but the slight­est sun­light re­veals tints of iri­des­cence. The an­cient Egyp­tian word for ibis was akh, which means ‘to shine’, which is ex­actly what they do un­der the in­tense sun. The flock be­gins to drink. In a month or so they’ll com­mence courtship and re­turn south of Oued Tamri to a range of dunes, pop­u­lar with Moroc­can pic­nick­ers, tourists and quad bik­ers. The birds breed on ledges in a sand­stone cliff that can be clearly seen but not eas­ily reached from the dunes. Dur­ing nest­ing, a war­den safe­guards the ibises, but the birds will visit the site at any time of year, mak­ing it an ex­cel­lent start­ing point for a search. Cap­tive breed­ing projects of­fer hope for the Euro­pean pop­u­la­tion, but it is here on the fringes of the Sa­hara that the fu­ture of the species re­sides. Bald faces mean fa­cial skin colours can be used for dis­play.


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