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Hope and resilience – cinereous vultures resurrect from the ashes in the Douro canyon – Happy Easter!

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Easter is an important date for half of the world – and is often associated with resurrection. Today, Easter Sunday, we bring you a fabulous story of resilience and hope from the vulture world – the case of the cinereous vultures in the Douro canyon, that have literally resurfaced from the ashes, like a modern-day phoenix.

Cinerous vultures started to breed in the Douro valley in 2012, in what represented an outstanding recolonization – the nearest breeding colony is 100 km away, so this is to date the farthest recolonization known. Cinereous vultures are highly sympatric and tend to settle in areas near the breeding colonies, so in the recent expansion of the population in Spain we mostly observed the growth of existing colonies and the establishment of satellite colonies nearby.

The new pair in the Douro failed the first year, but then bred successfully for 4 years, on the same nest in a cedar (Juniperus) tree on the step Douro canyon cliffs, on the Portuguese side of the river. So when the project to enhance the Douro population of the endangered Egyptian vulture started – our own LIFE RUPIS – the cinerous vulture was included as a secondary priority species, and is benefitting from thee many conservation actions being implemented within that project, from the supplementary feeding directed at the Egyptian vulture to habitat management actions.

Then last year, as reported here, a griffon vulture occupied that nest. Fortunately, the cinereous vultures did not abandon the territory, and laid eggs in a secondary nest nearby~. But then, in July, disaster struck. Last summer Portugal was affected by some catastrophic forest fires, and in mid-July a terrible fire, that started on the Spanish side of the river but quickly crossed the margins, hit the area where the nesting cinereous vulture was. The chick was almost fully-grown, but not yet ready to fly, and unfortunately it burnt alive (see photos) in the intensive blaze, powered by strong winds and very high temperatures.

The fires killed more than 100 people in Portugal, and destroyed vast amounts of human property, so the loss of a young cinereous vulture seemed at the time irrelevant, but of course we were concerned about the future of this species in the region. After establishing a tenuous foothold in the Douro, would it come back?

We were expectant – as usual cinereous vultures were observed throughout the winter in the region, but we did not know if these included the breeding pair. Then, in December, the griffon vulture occupied again the partly burnt main nest, which had only been partially affected by the fire. We feared for the worst, with the only nest available now occupied with a griffon. It was then with joy that the teams from ICNF (the Portuguese statutory nature conservation agency) and their colleagues from the Arribes del Duero Natural Park in Spain, who monitor closely the raptors nesting in this stretch of the river, reported last February that the breeding pair of cinereous vulture was building a third nest (see photo) – and we were even happier when they reported more recently that the birds started incubating there.

Like a true phoenix, this resilient breeding pair of cinereous vultures resurrected from the ashes and continues with this greatest adventure. But the whole story begs some questions – what do we need to do to protect the habitat against natural disasters? How will vultures be affected by climate-change induces extreme weather events?

Last year about a third of the area of the Parque Natural do Douro International – the protected area on the Portuguese side of the canyon, was burnt. The ICNF – a partner in our LIFE RUPIS project, has responded swiftly and this year there will be more fire prevention and fighting brigades ready to act, but little can be done against the large-scale fires that have engulfed the country last year.

This time the phoenix has resurrected – we are hoping for the best outcome, a cinereous vulture flying again from its nest in the Douro canyon. Happy Easter!

Photos: ICNF/VCF

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