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22nd census of the Stelvio National Park: 14 bearded vultures & 66 golden eagles counted

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The annual census of golden eagles and bearded vultures in Stelvio National Park took place last 14th of March, for the 11th year in a row. The attendance was very high with almost 200 observers, who covered a 1200 km² area over four Italian districts in the Central Eastern Alps. During the 5.5 hours census period, a total of 400 observations of 80 individual birds could be recorded.

The Stelvio National Park prides itself to be the first Italian region to have hosted the first breeding pair of bearded vulture and to have seen the first wild-born chick (1998) since their reintroduction in the Alps. With 22 census organized over the last 11 years, this Italian national park is also, without doubt, one of the regions with the longest tradition of simultaneous and integrated monitoring of this species.

The 22nd bearded vulture (and golden eagle) census took place on the 14th of March under good weather conditions, and covered an area of 1200 km². The 195 observers, mostly experienced volunteers coming from all over Italy, were placed in pairs in 99 strategically-chosen observation points. The survey started at 9:00 and ended at 14:30. During this time a total of 316 golden eagle and 95 bearded vulture observations were recorded. Later analysis of the results, made with the help of a geographical information program (comparing age classes, time of observations and flight directions) estimated that a minimum of 66 golden eagles and up to 14 bearded vultures were seen.

Many of the volunteers had arrived already on Friday night in Bormio for the traditional dinner with regional food specialties. The highlights of the evening were the announcement of the names for this year’s bearded vulture chicks, which were drawn among the names of the volunteers by Franziska Lörcher and Dominique Waldvogel, visiting representatives of the Vulture Conservation Foundation and the International Bearded Vulture Monitoring (IBM), and the donation of the money collected for the dinner to support a project on the monitoring of the Bonelli’s eagle (Aquila fasciata) nests in Sicily, which are threatened by robbery of the eggs and chicks by falconers.

The observation weekend ended on Sunday with a guided excursion in the National Park. During the outing, Enrico Bassi, coordinator of the census and scientific consultant of the Stelvio National Park, gave some information on the history and biology of bearded vultures and guided the participants to a few spectacular sightings of the bearded vultures Heinz and Felice on the path called “The bearded vulture’s valley”.

Simultaneous surveys are a very useful tool for wildlife professionals. In fact, in contrast to the regular and continuous field observations, contemporary surveys allow the collection of additional information like whole-flight trajectories of territorial birds, helping the identification of new nests and roosting places, as well as helping with the detection of random and unpredictable, non-territorial birds, the so-called “floaters”.

Spring surveys are made easier by the breeding behavior of the adult birds. These spend a lot of time in the nest brooding and are thus easier to trace. This data is of high importance for the correct estimation of the total population size and for the characterization of the population dynamics during territory colonization. Nevertheless, as bearded vulture numbers grow, the overall bird identification becomes more confuse and simultaneous surveys constitute an increasing challenge for field workers. The precise work of scientists and of skilled observers becomes therefore of even greater importance.

We encourage all field workers in the future to continue with their exceptional effort and meticulous work surveying birds all over the Alps also with simultaneous surveys, which, in addition to the scientific outputs, offer also the perfect ground for socializing and for sensitizing the participants to the conservation plight of the species and, on a wider scale, to biodiversity conservation.

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