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Meet the Bearded Vultures that flew above seas and travelled vast distances in 2020

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The different partners within the International Bearded Vulture Monitoring Network (IBM), coordinated by the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF), currently follow the movements of over 50 Bearded Vultures. The monitoring with GPS tags helps us identify if a bird is in trouble to react as quickly as possible and learn about their behaviour and movements. 

The birds equipped with GPS tags are either captive-bred and released or wild-hatched from the Alps, Andalusia, Corsica, Maestragzo, the Massif Central or the Pre-Alps. On the other hand, the network also monitors individuals across the Alpine arc through observations, where most Bearded Vultures can be identified through their unique plumage characteristics or identification rings. 

Every year, we learn more about this species through this Network, and 2020 was no different. For years, we’ve known that young Bearded Vultures often leave their mountainous habitats, travel vast distances, exploring unusual corners in Europe. Still, this year, we confirmed that birds from island populations could fly above seas and find their way home. 

The Corsican birds that left their island

This year, two Corsican birds surprised us as they left the island! First, it was Cintu, a captive-bred Bearded Vulture that was released in Corsica last year as part of the restocking efforts of the Parc Naturel Régional de Corse (PNRC) and the VCF. In June, the young Bearded Vulture flew away from Corsica, visited Capraia island about 40 km away, and even travelled halfway to Elba island, before going back to Capraia, spending the night, and returning to Corsica the next day. Then Orba who was released the same time as Cintu in 2019, followed in his footsteps and left Corsica in July. She also reached Capraia island, spent the night and returned to Corsica the following day.

Their movements provided significant input. In the past, there were observations in Greek islands of Bearded Vulture crossing the seas, but now we know for sure that Bearded Vultures can leave their islands and find their way back around since it was recorded with GPS data for the first time. Indeed, this news was quite impressive when considering the large size of these birds, the limited thermals above the sea and that there was nowhere to land and rest.  

The wandering Pierro

A Bearded Vulture that left his mountainous home and was rescued at Indre-et-Loire in France turned out to be a familiar face. After a blood sample from the bird was analysed with 24 microsatellite markers, there was no match in the comprehensive database coordinated by Pro Bartgeier. Luckily, we could do a parental analysis, and it turned out that vulture’s parents were the ‘Bargy’ pair in the Haute Savoie, so we could identify the bird as Pierro that hatched in 2019. After Pierro was nursed back to health at Hegalaldia (64), the young bird was released at Parc naturel régional du Vercors. There, a field team was present monitoring the recently released birds and could, therefore, also look after Pierro. But, it seemed that Pierro was not done wandering. He left Vercors, and crossed the Rhône Valley, spending the summer in the north of Massif Central. He then crossed the valley again, reaching the Alps, but did not stay and instead continued to the north Apennines in Italy. This was only the second GPS record of a Bearded Vulture in this area. Then, he moved back to the Alps in northern Italy, finally spending some time in his natural Bearded Vulture habitat.  

The famous “Vigo”

The Bearded Vulture “Vigo” probably needs no introduction. This bird became quite a celebrity in 2020. Thanks to the unique shape of this bird’s tail, we could tell that “Vigo” first travelled to Belgium and the Netherlands in spring, before crossing over to the UK in early June. We could monitor the vulture’s behaviour and health status as she captivated the attention of thousands of observers, who provided photographs and detailed observations. But, as the bird did not have a tag, ring or feather markings, we could not tell if the vulture came from the Alps or the Pyrenees until a David Ball retrieved two feathers from a previous roosting site. These feathers were sent to the VCF and Pro Bartgaier for analysis, which revealed that “Vigo” is a female from the French Alps that hatched last year! After spending over four months in the UK, birdwatchers saw “Vigo” leaving Sussex in mid-October. There was no news for some time until the IBM received an observation of a Bearded Vulture, first in Central and then Eastern France. According to experts, based on the plumage of the bird photographed, there is a good chance that it’s “Vigo”. 

In brief, this year we saw several immature Bearded Vultures travelling large movements and some even successfully crossed seas, which is brilliant news if we wish to connect populations like North Africa and Corsica. 

Stay tuned with vulture news in Europe by signing up to the VCF’s monthly newsletter.

The International Bearded Vulture Monitoring Network

The International Bearded Vulture Monitoring Network (IBM) is a unique international collaboration led by the Vulture Conservation Foundation between national & natural parks and non-governmental organisations to coordinate the monitoring activities for European Bearded Vulture populations. Through this network, data about the Bearded Vulture in Europe is collected, shared and made available to everyone working for the conservation of the species. The IBM-network also uses this data and comes together to discuss conservation strategies and priorities for this species on an international level. There are currently 16 partners and two associated organisations part of the IBM-network.

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