European White Storks are impossible to miss in southern Alentejo. They are on buildings, flying in kettles, hunting for frogs and mice in fields and then there are the lines and lines of nests in the trees and on telegraph poles beside the roads.
We must have past hundreds last week. So when I first saw another kettle flying above the Campo Branco I didn’t really take much notice, but then I spotted one that seemed to be twice the size of all the others. Well maybe not twice the size but certainly a lot bigger.
I called out to MrB who was driving to try and find a spot to stop. Not the easiest thing to achieve on the N123 between Castro Verde and Mértola as there is now a minimum speed limit of 70kph and solid white lines either side of the road. All of which mean you have to pull off the road if you are going to observe the bird life or even taken a photograph of the view. Fortunately however for us there was no one behind us so we could slow down slightly and then we spied a piece of verge which was big enough and firm enough for the car. Phew, I could take a close up and even more importantly MrB could look too!
It was very evident the bigger bird was not a stork, but what was it? It didn’t look like a Griffon Vulture as it was huge as well as very dark and rectangular.
Later that evening MrB started researching, and quickly concluded from its enormous size, colouring and shape that it must be a Eurasian Black Vulture, also called Cinereous Vultures. They are one of the largest, if not the largest, bird of prey in the world, with wing spans of between 2.5m and 3.1m and weighing up to 14 kg (roughly 30 lbs). However we were still not 100% sure as these vultures are critically endangered in Portugal.
Thanks though to the magic of twitter and the lovely people at the Hawk Conservancy back in Hampshire we quickly confirmed this solitary bird was indeed a Black Vulture. Their scientific name is Aegypius monachus and their Portuguese name Abutre-preto.
The Abutre-preto, thanks to positive human intervention in Portugal and possibly a reaction to overcrowding on the Spanish plains, are very slowly recolonising Alentejo. They remain very vulnerable though because of illegal poisoning, lack of food availability, collisions with power lines and Spain still marketing the veterinary drug, Diclofenac for cattle which is poisonous to vultures. However Portugal does seem to be doing what they can, although it would help even more if they allowed cattle and sheep carcasses to be left on the plains.
Cinereous Vulture are a solitary bird, and their special type of haemoglobin allows them to still absorb oxygen at incredible heights, one bird apparently was once spotted at more than 22,00ft. Not sure I’d get a photograph of that! Fortunately this one, who had probably popped across the border from Spain as they are a rare sighting on these plains, was flying quite low.
It was an extraordinary few minutes and more than made up for not seeing Great Bustards this trip. After all we have seen Great Bustards before but never observed an Abutre-preto. And this wasn’t our only fabulous birding moment last week as the following day we saw Common Cranes (they are not a common sighting despite their name!) and then there were the lapwings, lesser kestrels, black kites and red kites. But those are stories for another day, so here’s a picture of the Alentejo steppe instead.