Monday, 9 December 2013

Obscure bird of the week: The Northern Bald Ibis of Spain

The fight of the ibis – From the brink to potential future success story

Feathers black as night, a face only a mother could love and a stare that could make a grown man cry...say hello to the Northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremite), if you dare!
Ok so beauty is in the eye of the beholder but I actually believe that Geronticus eremite (or bald ibis, hermit ibis or waldrapp) is a rather striking bird. To better understand what makes this bird special we need to undertake a small history lesson, ready?
Conrad Gessner, one of Europe’s earliest naturalists, first described the bald ibis in 1555 in his book Historia Animalium. Named the “Forest Raven” by Gessner, who had a reputation as being a bit of a stringer, the northern bald ibis wasn't actually confirmed as a species until the start of the 20th Century, when a few populations were found in North Africa and the Middle East.

Bald ibis are slowly recolonising Southern Spain.
©Oliver Reville, Vejer de la Frontera (April 2013)
Hundreds of years after Gessner, bones were found in Switzerland and his claim of breeding northern bald ibis in his native land was finally proven.  Further bones were found in France, Germany, Austria, Spain and the belief is that populations may have existed in The Balkans, Italy, Hungary and Poland.
Unfortunately the bald ibis was very appealing to the taste buds of the people of these countries and the populations saw huge declines. With the development of pesticides and the increase in human disturbance these remaining fragments dwindled. The Eastern Migratory population is believed to be extinct with a sedentary North African population clinging on by its claws. A Turkish population became extinct by 1990 and a rediscovered Syrian population seems set for the same fate.
So, back to the present day, we are left with a situation where wild northern bald ibis only occur in Morocco. Protection has meant this population has stabilised and 100 pairs are believed to be located here.
It is not all doom and gloom however. bald ibis has proven to take well to captivity and breeds regularly, with around 1000 birds kept in zoos and collections around the world, one of the leading collections its at Jerez Zoo where a successful breeding programme is taking place.
In 2003, after studies of reintroduction in Austria, a decision was made to investigate the possibility of recolonisiation in Spain. Where as the Austrian birds would be migratory these Spanish birds would be sedentary, greatly increasing their chance of survival year to year.
Projecto Eremita, the exploratory project, began in 2003 with the reintroduction of 30 birds into La Janda, a huge former lake located in Cadiz province. With an abundance of food and a established cliff based egret colony nearby, the location was perfect, but would the birds make it?
Fast forward 5 years to 2008 and the first eggs to touch wild Spanish soil in over 500 years were laid. The egrets subsequently left their cliff home but the ibis stayed and breeding was attempted yet again in 2009 and 2010.
In 2011 the unthinkable happened: three pairs of bald ibis moved on to a small cliff face above a busy main road at Vejer de la Frontera, just metres above people, cars, cats, dogs and other potential dangers to adults, chicks and eggs. The presence of a nearby “egrettery” helped and these birds have quickly become local celebrities, attracting numerous visitors each year (including myself in April 2013 where 19 nests were observed as having adult birds in attendance).

Bald ibis on nest. Hopefully a sign of things to come.
©Oliver Reville, Vejer de la Frontera (April 2013)
Away from the nests birds are often seen near Barbate, especially around the driving range of the Montemedio Golf & Country club. Small scale migration has occurred with birds being found in Portugal and 2 birds found to have left in 2005 and 14 in 2006. Sadly predation does occur and eagle owls are particularly fond of a bald ibis snack.
So there we have it, the fall and slow rise of the northern bald ibis. Like the glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) before it, absent in Spain for a century until the 1990s and now with over 2000 pairs in the Coto Donana alone,  the hope is that the northern bald ibis can once again grace the fields and cliffs of Southern Europe. Perhaps one day we will see them here in Britain, as we have done with little egret (Egretta garzetta) and great white egret (Casmerodius albus), but for now I recommend paying the colony at Vejer de la Frontera a visit, it may be your only chance of seeing a true world rarity.

Article adapted from John Cantelo’s report dated 31st May 2011:
For more information on the bald ibis captive breeding programme in the Alps please visit (German text):

Photos: Oliver Reville, Vejer de la Frontera (April 2013)

*EDIT: A very informative article on bringing  the Northern Bald Ibis back in Central Europe: *
-Oliver Reville
Oliver is a 24 year old birder and photographer from North Norfolk. His passion is the wildlife of Spain and in particular its birds of prey. Oliver's other wildlife interests are Sylvia warblers, Wheatears, Reptiles and British orchids. His photographic inspiration is Markus Varesvuo and his book "Birds: Magic moments" first triggered his own interest in photography.

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