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Happy ending for Portuguese cinereous vulture pair that lost chick to fire last year

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Cinereous vulture chick fledging in the Douro International Natural Park
Cinereous vulture chick fledging in the Douro International Natural Park

After losing a chick in the fire that raged through the Douro International Natural Park, in the North of Portugal, last year, the only pair of cinereous vultures in the region has now seen a chick fledge. A moment of celebration for conservationists, who at one point feared the worst. 

Will they come back?

After a huge forest fire burned the nest and killed the chick last year, conservationists were worried: would the pair return to the Douro? Or would they abandon the region and join one of the colonies in Spain?

To increase the likelihood of the vultures returning to the region, the LIFE Rupis team appealed to their stomach. The team has several supplementary feeding stations for vultures in the region. These feeding stations are mostly geared towards migratory species such as Egyptian Vultures, so normally the team wouldn’t stock them during winter (when those migrants are not around). But given the cinereous vulture pair’s worrisome situation, the team continued to place food in the nearest feeding stations throughout winter, and they installed two temporary feeding stations close to the area where the pair had nested in previous years.

Nest in peril

In November, to the team’s delight, the pair returned to its breeding area in the Douro canyon. Their arrival set off the second wave of concern: would they find a place to build a nest? The nest that burnt down last year was already a ‘spare’ one that the Cinereous Vultures had resorted to after their usual nest was taken over by griffon vultures. There weren’t many options left in this area devastated by fire – most of the stronger trees had burned down. The LIFE Rupis team even debated building wooden platforms that the vultures could nest on, but in the meantime the pair made the choice for them, settling on a new nesting site. But the birds’ choice didn’t exactly reassure the team: the vultures decided to nest on a partially-scorched Cade Juniper. This raised the question: could the tree support the weight of the nest, with parents and eventually a juvenile on top?

Oblivious to the concerns of the humans who kept them under close watch, the pair laid an egg in February. A month later, a chick had hatched. Nevertheless, with storms buffeting the region in February and March, as the chick grew so did the team’s concern that the tree wouldn’t hold. 

Cinereous vulture pair building the nest in February 2018, Female incubating the nest in April 2018, Female protecting the chick at 25 days old in May 2018 and Female protecting the 25 day old chick in May 2018. 

The nest was very unstable, so after consulting specialists and monitoring the situation over several weeks, the Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests team decided to act. The fragile tree had to be anchored and secured with a belt, to prevent it from falling.

The decision was not taken lightly, since cinereous vultures are sensitive to disturbances around the nest, which meant there was a risk that human help might cause the pair to abandon the chick. This would spell disaster: at only six weeks old, the chick was still completely dependent on its parents. But faced with the tree’s imminent collapse, the team moved in.

Nerve-wrecking night

While technicians reinforced the tree, the vulture pair moved away from the nest. After the work was done, what followed were hours of tension for the LIFE Rupis team, anxiously waiting for the parents to come back to their chick. To make matters worse, the weather didn’t help: the temperature – which was already unseasonably cold – dropped that night, and it started raining. And the forecast was for worse to come. 

Finally, at 3pm the following day, the news everyone had been waiting for: “female on the nest feeding the chick; both were there earlier, now it’s just the female and the chick is feeding voraciously” 

Now that the family was reunited, the Life Rupis team continued to monitor the situation, and stock the feeding stations to ensure the vultures had everything they needed. A few months later, the results are evident: a strong healthy chick, ready to take flight.

Hope for the species

Watching this chick fledge and make its first flights is important because of this pair’s history, and what they went through, but also for what it represents for the species. It gives us hope that we may one day have a new group of Cinereous Vultures in the Northeast of Portugal,” says  Joaquim Teodósio from Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds (SPEA).

When this pair settled in the Douro in 2012, it surprised biologists by nesting about 100km from the nearest colonies. The largest birds in Portugal, cinereous vultures normally live in colonies, in their dozens. Occasionally, recently-formed pairs will move away from a colony, starting a new group. But normally these new groups are formed 10 or 20km away from the original colony – not 100km away!

The team’s hope is that, when this chick reaches maturity, it too will settle in the region, and that little by little a colony of cinereous Vultures will be born in the Northeast of Portugal. A new population in Portugal would be excellent news for this endangered species – a boost in numbers for the Iberian Peninsula, which harbours the species’ largest population in Europe (currently mostly on the Spanish side of the border). It would also provide important information, which would be very useful to protect these birds.

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