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Bearded Vulture vagrancy: leaving the mountains to explore the North of France

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Bearded Vulture in Normandy © Sandrine Blondet

Young Bearded Vultures have done it again — they left their mountain ranges and headed north, exploring unusual corners of France, and surprising nature lovers who enjoyed unlikely encounters with the species. Bearded Vulture vagrancy usually occurs during spring, when young individuals leave their mountain habitats and disperse, sometimes even breaking records like the time an individual visited the UK, which was the first-ever record of the species there. This May, unmarked individuals were photographed in Nieppe, Normandy and near Tours in France! All the Bearded Vultures observed are in their second calendar year (therefore hatched in 2019).

Bearded Vulture in Nieppe

The first observation was of a young Bearded Vulture in Nieppe. In the evening of 12 May, Daniel Haubreux rejoiced at the sight of a Bearded Vulture above the forest of Nieppe in the extreme north of France, after 55 days of lockdown. Daniel states, “Very high in the azure blue, I saw a bird of prey hovering. It seemed impressive considering the altitude. I took back the binoculars, and I observed a large raptor with a pale belly, a dark head and a clearly wedge-shaped and very dark tail. I seemed to recognize a Bearded Vulture. I did not have my 400mm because I came for a simple ride. With the help of my wife Agnes, I managed to take some photos and filmed the vulture. It was past 7:00 p.m. The bird then left our sight and headed northeast. What a pleasure it was to find a Bearded Vulture in ‘our’ forest.”

Bearded Vulture in Normandy

A few days later, there was another observation by the coast near Nez de Jobourg. On Friday 15 May, around 3:30 p.m., Sandrine Blondet took magnificent photographs of another young Bearded Vulture against the crystal blue waters. According to reports by birdwatchers, the Bearded Vulture remained in the area until 18 May.

Update 21/05/2020

On 20 May at midday, the bird was flying along the southern cliffs of the Alderney island. Later on, some lucky locals observed the vulture circling very high in the sky and heading north towards England. But, it seems the young individual remained on the island as today 21 May at midday, the Bearded Vulture reappeared and was spotted over the Alderney Bird Observatory. At first, it headed north and passed over the Mannez lighthouse before turning Southwest towards the French coastline and Guernsey. We hope that the Bearded Vulture will safely find its way back to the mountains soon. 

Bearded Vulture in Indre-et-Loire

The Bearded Vulture rescued by Marc Grellier in Sorigny © Jules Catala

Another immature individual, perhaps the same one observed in Nieppe, was also photographed in Tours. Then on Friday 15 May, a citizen found the bird harassed by crows, and unable to fly anymore at Sorigny. The citizen alerted the authorities, and some agents from the environmental police of Montbazon recovered the bird and transferred it to Hegalaldia wildlife rehabilitation center. The vet team there detected a piece of metal in its stomachThe team is now treating the vulture to nurse it back to health. The VCF collaborates with the team from Hegalaldia and will receive a blood sample. Genetic analysis of the blood sample will show where the bird originates, if it’s from the Alpine or the Pyrenean population.  

Update 02/06/2020

Once the vulture entered the Hegalaldia Centre, the team realised that it was suffering from advanced hypothermia, and treated the bird accordingly until it was in a stable condition again. X-rays detected foreign materials in the bird’s digestive system, including pieces of wire. Thankfully, the vulture naturally regurgitated these materials in the following days. The vulture is now under the constant care of the team at the Centre, as it still needs to regain a healthy weight and to build up a muscle, to be able to take off again.

This means there were at least two immature young bearded vultures flying across Northern France in the last few weeks. The Normandy bird was photographed and seen while another bird was photographed and then picked up weakened in the Loire region.

Why do Bearded Vultures wander around?

Bearded Vultures live in the mountainous regions of Europe, Asia and Africa. There they find the perfect conditions for flying, steep walls for breeding and open landscapes to search for food. In this case, these birds either came from the Alps or the Pyrenees. We can only find out if we acquire a feather or a blood sample for analysis, which we will try to get from the bird in recovery.

It is normal for Bearded Vultures to travel vast distances and explore new areas. For example, a recent study in the Pyrenees estimates that young individuals have a range of up to 10,000 km². Throughout the years, we have observed immature Bearded Vultures dispersing from the mountains every year, usually in spring, both released and wild-hatched birds. 

The first dispersal movements of Bearded Vultures start in spring from their second calendar year. Typically, after some days or weeks they return to their mountainous habitats, but sometimes they need to be rescued, like in the case of Bearded Vulture Schils. Some special observations could be made from birds released in Andalusia in southern of Spain where individuals have dispersed more than once. For example, Bearded Vulture Tono from Andalusia flew four consecutive years to the Pyrenees and remained there from spring until autumn. These dispersal movements probably serve to establish connections with other populations. Other possibilities include that young individuals follow other migrating birds and are aided by strong winds, but we do not know precisely why. In the case of Alpine Bearded Vultures, but also birds from Andalusia, most of the dispersion occurs to the north, which is also puzzling.

We hope the young Bearded Vulture seen in Normandy will find their way back to the mountains and that the bird now in rehabilitation in Hegalaldia will make a full recovery and return to the wild soon! 

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