Narrow sea crossings present major obstacles to migrating Griffon Vultures Gyps fulvus

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Abstract:

The flight behaviour of Griffon Vultures Gyps fulvus was studied at a major migration bottleneck, the Strait of Gibraltar in southernmost Spain, during the autumns of 2004 to 2007. The 14-km-wide sea channel significantly impeded the southern migration of the species into Africa, with many birds attempting repeated passage for weeks before crossing, and others not crossing at all and overwintering in Southern Spain. Water-crossing attempts were restricted to times between 11:00 and 14:00 h on days with light or variable winds, or on days with strong winds from the north or west. No crossing attempts were made on days with strong winds from the south or east. Vultures attempted to cross the Strait in large flocks and never attempted to do so alone. Although 29% of the birds soared during crossing attempts, at least until they flew beyond visible range of approximately 4 km, most engaged in considerable flapping flight when attempting to cross. Overall, birds flying over water flapped more than 10 times as frequently as those flying over land prior to crossing attempts. Vultures did not flap continuously, but intermittently in brief bouts of flapping interspersed with periods of gliding or soaring flight. The number of flaps per bout over water was significantly greater than the number of flaps per bout over land. Vultures flying over water that flapped at rates of 20 flaps or more per minute typically aborted attempted crossings and returned to Spain in intermittent flapping and gliding flight. There are numerous reports of Vultures falling into the Strait and drowning while attempting to cross, as well as reports of returning Vultures collapsing on the beach having reached Spain in spring ( Barrios Partida 2006). Our observations indicate that passage of Griffon Vultures at the Strait of Gibraltar is limited by the species’ over-water flapping-flight abilities, including its inability to flap continuously for even short periods of time. We suggest that even relatively short sea crossings represent significant obstacles to migrating Vultures and discuss the implications of this limitation on the distribution and abundance of the species.

Keywords: flapping rates; gliding; raptor migration; soaring; water-crossing behaviour

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1474-919X.2009.00919.x

Affiliations: Acopian Center for Conservation Learning, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, 410 Summer Valley Road, Orwigsburg, PA 17961, USA

Publication date: April 1, 2009

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