The look of a vulture
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.