Birding in a Vulture Landscape – talk by Ian Parsons on 27th January 2020

Many will be familiar with Ian Parsons’ insightful and informative articles in Bird Watching magazine where he casts light on British species often revealing behaviours that are not so widely known to us all. Ian brought this focus in his presentation where he introduced us to that birding Mecca of Spain’s Extremadura region. It is a place close to the heart of Ian and his wife Jo. So much so that in 2012 they set up a bird tour company specialising in guiding birders toward the many exciting flora, fauna and avifauna there. Ian and Jo named their company “Griffon Holidays” a name that owes much to Ian’s great passion for vultures and, in particular the Griffon Vulture.

Ian gave us a detailed overview of the region; its geography and flora, fauna and birdlife. The region is rich in surprises, such as a species of Mongoose, and the Iberian Lynx, which is recovering its status in Spain thanks to a conservation programme there. Wolves are also present in the north of the area.

Why do species prosper in Extremadura?  Land management, low population density & climate all underpin the food chain. Beautiful wild flowers fill landscapes of traditionally managed livestock who freely roam the distinctive dehesa grazing under the oaks, which also provide precious shade in the hottest months. Other landscapes include the mighty steppes where Bustards mingle with cattle and Bee-eaters hawk from fence wires. In the Montfrague region the Tajo cuts through the landscape and provides cliffs from which raptors and Black Stork can be seen. Bridges are occupied by huge colonies of House Martin and Alpine Swifts scythe the skies beneath. Trees host species such as Golden Oriole, Crested Tit and Hawfinch. And, up above them, ever present, watching and waiting Black, Griffon and Egyptian vultures occupy the airspace.

Evolved and adapted for a key position in the ecology of Extremadura vultures can be seen circling. Using the thermals with great mastery and always watching- watching each other, other birds such as Kites, Eagles and Ravens and livestock (and incidentally humans far below them!) they await opportunities to find carrion.  They are the ‘clean-up squad’, reducing carcases in a matter of minutes to mere skin and bone. In doing so they prevent the spread of diseases, such as rabies and anthrax, due to their unique physiology that incorporates stomach acid that destroys these antigens and dissolves bone. They are equipped also with the ability to cope with extreme heat of the region up to 40C +, by regulating body temperature through heat loss from ‘bare’ necks and legs’ circulatory system.

Ian presented this talk with great knowledge and passion.  Listening to him it is evident why one could become enthralled by this iconic area of Spain – a ‘must do’ visit for all birders and naturalists.

Ian’s book, “A Vulture Landscape, twelve months in Extremadura” Whittle Publishers is available from June 2020     ISBN 978-184995-457-0

Griffon Holidays                                                                            John Lloyd