Monday, 18 June 2007

Record vulture influx underway in north-west Europe

An unprecedented influx of Griffon Vultures into north-west Europe has been taking place over the last three days, with record numbers reported at sites in Belgium and The Netherlands.

The first signs of an extraordinary movement came with sightings in Belgium over the weekend, including a single flock of 89 birds watched circling over Oudenaarde. Today (Monday 18 June), the indications are that that flock has dispersed and most, if not all, birds seen in Belgium have continued north over the Dutch border, perhaps with new individuals also arriving.

Dutch ornithologist Arnoud van den Berg told Birdwatch that this morning a flock of 50-60 Griffons had been reported over Gilze-Rijen, Noord-Brabant, with another 18 over Schoondijke, Zeeland. This was followed by a flock not far away of 56 over Oostburg, also in Zeeland. Some duplication may have been involved in the Zeeland records, but more reports continue to be received and it will be some time before it is known just how many individuals are involved.

The appearance of vultures well north of their southern European breeding ranges has become a feature of recent years, with The Netherlands, Germany and Belgium all benefiting from the phenomena. Although Griffon Vulture is the primary species, Eurasian Black Vulture and Lammergeier have also been involved, and individuals of wild descent and also originating from reintroduction projects in the Alps and the Cevennes in southern France are known to have wandered north.

The reasons for the movements are unclear, though one possible factor is food shortages in the Spanish Pyrenees. It is now illegal for animals carcasses to be left out in the countryside in Spain, resulting in reduced carrion availability for the region’s large vulture population. But earlier movements involving birds from other regions indicate that other, as yet unexplained, factors are at work.

With record numbers of Griffon Vultures now at large just across the North Sea, it will be interesting to see whether any make it across the water to reinstate the species on the British List – the sole record, of two birds in Derbyshire in 1927, was removed by the British Ornithologists’ Union’s Records Committee back in October 1999 (more details here).

Photo: Griffon Vulture by Dominic Mitchell