There are reasons to celebrate in the Austrian Alps. In addition to the seven Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) pairs that attempted to breed in 2022, two additional pairs were established this season. Almost all were successful in producing offspring! With a remarkable achievement of eight fledglings in 2023, the breeding success two folded in Austria, a record-break milestone for the reintroduction efforts ongoing across the Alpine countries since 1986.
Breeding Record for Austrian Bearded Vultures
From the 30 estimated individuals in Austria, six breeding pairs are located in the Hohe Tauern National Park, including a new pair that settled this year in Tyrol, where the species was absent for over a century. The remaining three pairs colonised Western Austria, the pair in the Ötztal and Lechtal valleys bred again, and a new pair was established in the Pitztal valley.
The growing number of individuals in the area now reaching breeding age is the main driver for this season’s remarkable breeding record. According to the local monitoring teams, eight pairs successfully reared and fledged offspring, doubling the number of fledglings compared the four offspring from last year. In addition to the experienced pair on Katschberg, the Bearded Vulture pairs in Prägraten, Heiligenblut, Mallnitz, and the Gschlößtal successfully fledged a chick for the first time. Unfortunately, the Krumtal pair was the only one that failed this season, as their hatchling died in the nest weeks after hatching.
Who is who? An insight into the Austrian Bearded Vulture pairs
A sad loss for the Pair Krumltal
The female Alexa (Rauris; 1988) is known as the “grande dame of bearded vultures” across the Alpine population. With 35 years and eight chicks successfully fledged, she is considered the oldest breeding bird in the Alps. Together with the male Andreas Hofer (Rauris; 1996), she was observed feeding her chick in January, which would become “Kruml9”, but the bird sadly died, undetermined causes.
(Unknown) parents for the first time
The parents of “Prägraten2023”, the first chick hatched in East Tyrol in the past 100 years, are yet to be determined. The first breeding attempts in the Prägraten area were observed consecutively since 2018, but all failed. In 2021, a trio was formed though it rapidly dissolved in 2022. This year, finally, a pair settled in and successfully reared offspring. The male is probably Lea (Dorfertal, 2015), whilst the female remains unknown until genetic material is collected and analysed. The team suspects she can be El Dorado (Matrei i.O., 2001) or Joker (Mallnitz, 2003).
The most successful breeding pair in Austria
The Katschberg pair consisting of Romaris (Kals; 2007) and Hubertus2 (Kals; 2004) produced this season its 10th offspring. Since 2014, the pair has fledged chicks yearly, making them the most successful Bearded Vulture pair in Austria. In mid-July, the young bird was observed in flight.
Breeding after last year’s failure
The unsuccess of last year’s breeding season for the Heiligenblut pair didn’t prevent them from breeding again this year. The female Ambo (Gastein; 2002) and the male Fortuna (Dorfertal; 2015) started breeding in mid-January 2023, with a hatchling confirmed in March. It is the first chick of this pair, although the female had previously produced offspring with the male Hubertus2 in Katschberg in 2012. As Ambo was displaced by Romaris, the current partner of Hubertus2, she has now found another pair and successfully fledged a chick.
Pair Mallnitz breeding successfully for the first time
In late summer 2020, Charlie (Untersulzbachtal; 2016) and Felix2 (Debantal; 2014) moved from the Gastein Valley to the neighbouring area of Mallnitz in the south. The first breeding attempt recorded was in spring 2022, but the pair broke it off in mid-April, possibly due to Charlie’s young age. It was already late in the breeding season that good news came, as a clutch was detected in the nest by mid-February.
Pair Gschlöß, the biggest surprise
The Bearded Vulture pair in the Gschlößtal (Matrei in East Tyrol) was the biggest surprise of this breeding season! Although there were no signs of a hatched young bird during the field monitoring in the first half of March, it turned out in mid-May, to the surprise of all those involved in the project, that the pair, consisting of Glocknerlady (Heiligenblut; 2012) and Pinzgarus (Rauris; 2008), had provided for offspring for the first time.
Although Bearded Vultures usually lay a second egg 5 to 7 days after the first, scientists suspect the second egg in Gschlößtal was laid much later. By analysing the chick’s size and plumage colouration, it could be determined that the Gschlößtal young bird hatched in the second half of March. In mid-July, an East Tyrolean National Park ranger reported the first flight of the Gschlößtal fledgling.
Wild-hatched Bearded Vultures from Switzerland and Italy paired in Ötztal.
In November 2022, the analysis of genetic material was conclusive: the Ötztal pair is currently formed by the female Humboldt-Albula (2011; Switzerland) and the male Paolino-Zebru (2016; Italy). The first pair in Austria exclusively composed of wild-hatched Bearded Vultures. As young Bearded Vultures migrate and colonise new areas, new pairs are formed over time. The colonisation of the Ötztal and neighbouring valleys is mainly from the west (Switzerland) and southeast (Parco Nazionale dello Stelvio / Stilfserjoch National Park).
The pair started breeding in the Ötztal in mid-January, and on 9 July, the young bird left the parental care and took off on its first flight.
Pair Pitztal remains incognito
The Bearded Vulture pair in the Pitztal Valley was detected by alpinists by the end of January, where they were seen carrying material to build their nest. The pair was confirmed some weeks later, and the first offspring was observed in mid-April. However, the identity of the adult birds is still unclear. As one carries a GPS transmitter that is no longer working, the team suspects it might be the male Lucky, released in 2016 in the Hohe Tauern National Park.
For the fourth time, the Bearded Vulture pair composed of Madagascar (Calfeisental; 2011) and Natura (Haute-Savoie; 2001) successfully produced offspring in Lechtal Valley, which was confirmed in mid-March.
Towards a thriving Bearded Vulture population in the Alps
The efforts to bring the Bearded Vulture back from extinction in the Alps started in the 1970s, with a captive-breeding programme involving several zoos and the Richard Faust specialised breeding centre. The first four Bearded Vultures were released in 1986 in the Hohe Tauern National Park, and it took another eleven years for the first wild hatchlings to fledge successfully.
The Alpine Bearded Vulture population is steadily expanding every year. Given that it takes between 7 and 9 years for a Bearded Vulture to attain sexual maturity, many young vultures released over the past decade are now reaching the breeding stage. Ensuring the species’ long-term survival is a commitment that requires time, endurance and cooperation among several partners. Both the field teams that steadily monitor the pairs and the specialists working in the Bearded Vulture Captive Breeding Network (Bearded Vulture EEP) are fundamental to the conservation of the species.
Currently, with the aim of increasing genetic diversity within the Alpine population, captive-bred Bearded Vultures are still being released in key areas, such as the Berchtesgaden National Park and in Melchsee-Frutt, Switzerland. In recent years, juveniles have also been released in the Grands Causses with the aim of bridging the Pyrenean and Alpine Bearded Vulture populations.
We wish the new fledglings a long life in the wild!