Sunday, February 14, 2016

Eleonora's Falcon - Will Morocco's Conservation Plan Be Acted On?

Eleonora's falcon (Falco eleonorae) is a migratory raptor that arrives in Morocco each year to breed on the island of Mogador off the coast from Essaouira. Although it is not critically endangered (listed as "least concern") the Moroccan Department of Water and Forestry is taking steps to conserve the species on Mogador

The Water and Forestry Department together with researchers from Morocco and Spain have been working for several years on a conservation action plan, that is intended to help them better understand Eleonora's falcon, improve reproduction space and increase its population. The plan is yet to be finalised and implemented.

"The falcon Eleonore is an emblematic species of Moroccan fauna. Hence the importance of conservation," says Zouhir Amhaouch, from the Division of Natural Parks and Reserves.

The ongoing study programme in Morocco mobilises a team of six researchers and three doctoral students working in partnership with the University of Alicante and a research institute in Spain.

"As researchers, we provide scientific information," explains Hamid Rguibi, ornithologist and professor at the University Chouaib Doukkali of El Jadida. "Personally, I work on the reproductive success. Eleonora's falcon lays three to four eggs per nest. I follow them until they fledge."

Researchers also want to study the falcon's migration route. "It will be a better target our actions for the conservation of this species," says Rguibi. However, they have not been as successful as other researchers. Their study in 2013 did not succeed due to lack of budget.

"We started in September following two adult falcons. But we lost the satellite signal in December at the Sahara in Niger," the researcher said, adding that they have since dropped the research because of the cost of such an operation. A satellite transmitter costs about 1200 euros (over 12,000 dirhams), and a further 2,600 to 2,70070 euros (26,000 27,000 dirhams) for a satellite subscription.

Recent satellite tracking of falcons from Italy and Spain confirming that the birds migrate over the Sahara to Madagascar.

This is a long-distance migrant, wintering in Madagascar. The migration route has been recently confirmed by Spanish and German researchers, and, contrary to previous suggestions, it has been demonstrated by satellite telemetry to be inland through the African continent. Traditionally it has been suggested to be coastal, with birds from the western end of the Mediterranean flying to Suez before flying south down the Red Sea, and across the Horn of Africa. However, recent satellite tracked an inland route through the Sahara Desert, the equatorial rainforests until reaching Kenya and Mozambique. The total distance covered during the flight has reached up to 9,000 km (5,600 mi) for a single one-way trip.

The Moroccans are also studying an eco-tourism project on the island of Mogador at the request of the authorities of Essaouira. The target would be primarily students in groups limited to twelve at a time.

Eleonora's Falcon - all you need to know

Eleonora's falcon is named after Eleonor of Arborea, national heroine of Sardinia. Eleanor was particularly interested in ornithology and was the first person to legislate protection to a certain species of bird (falcon). Based on this, the Eleonora's falcon (Falco eleonorae) was named after her.

This species has a very large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (extent of occurrence 20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). The population trend appears to be increasing, and past declines are not believed to have been be sufficiently rapid to approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (30% decline over 10 years or three generations). The population size is moderately small to large, and it is not believed to approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in 10 years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern. - Birdlife International

Eleonora's Falcon is mainly insectivorous outside the breeding season. During the latter season, which is very late (from July to October) as an adaptation to coincide with autumnal bird migration, both adults and chicks consume migrating birds (mainly passerines but also small non-passerines like Hoopoe and swifts) that fly through Mediterranean islands and Atlantic coast.

During a fieldwork study in 2014, scientists recorded an unusual predation behaviour by this falcon in the Mogador archipelago off Moroccan Atlantic coast.  It was recently observed catching and imprisoning small birds, removing their flight feathers and feeding them, sometimes days later, to their young. This is unique among bird species. The authors remarked that Eleonora's Falcons kept alive some of the captured prey. To do this, "the falcons keep or ‘imprison’ some prey in a relatively deep cavity or in a fissure of rocks from where they can’t escape as their flight feathers (both tail and wings feathers) were already pulled out. Or by keeping them trapped in a tight and deep hole which makes them unable to move neither their wings nor their hanging legs (photo below of the Common Whitethroat)".

The authors reported also that this behaviour can occur even before the eggs hatch, and was already well known to a local fisherman who is staying in the archipelago in a more or less regular basis for decades.

The authors interpreted this hitherto unknown behaviour for this falcon or for any other raptor species as a form of food storage behaviour. They wrote: “Keeping prey alive, one or two days (the precise period not yet known), may allow the falcon to have a fresh food on the right moment, because the dead prey brought to the nest and untouched can no longer be consumed as it dries out too quickly”.

This unusual predation behaviour was described in  the last issue of Alauda: Qninba, A., Benhoussa, A. Radi, M., El Idrissi, A., Bousadik, H., Badaoui B. & El Agbani, M.A. 2015. Mode de prédation très particulier du Faucon d’Éléonore Falco eleonorae sur l’Archipel d’Essaouira

One of the last bird species in Europe to be discovered by science, and noted for its late breeding season and unusual feeding habits, Eleonora’s falcon is a fairly large and slender falcon, with long, narrow wings and a relatively long, rounded tail. The species occurs in two quite different colour morphs, a light and a dark form. Around 30 percent of both males and females belong to the dark form and 70 percent to the light form. The less common dark form is dark brown to slate black all over, often with a cream throat, and sometimes a reddish tinge on the lower underparts. Faint grey to buff bars can usually be seen on the tail when the bird is seen at a close distance. In contrast, the light form is dark only on the back, with white or cream cheeks and throat, a dark ‘moustache’ stripe on the face, and buff underparts, which become more reddish lower down, with black streaks. The vent is usually plain, and the greyish tail may have reddish-brown bars, with a dark tip. The degree of streaking, and of shading from buff to reddish-brown on the belly, varies between individuals, and intermediates between the dark and light forms also rarely occur. In flight, Eleonora’s falcon can be distinguished from other, similar falcon species by the dark underwing-coverts, which contrast with paler flight feathers.

The most common call of Eleonora’s falcon is a harsh keya, extended into kje-kje-kje-kjah .

Eleonora’s falcon breeds later in the year than almost any other northern hemisphere bird, a behaviour that is linked to the species’ other unusual feature, its seasonal switch in diet. For most of the year, Eleonora’s falcon feeds mainly on large flying insects, such as butterflies, beetles, locusts, dragonflies, and winged ants and termites, with prey usually caught and eaten in flight. However, during the breeding season the diet switches to small migrant birds, passing on the autumn migration from Europe to Africa. Breeding late in the year allows Eleonora’s falcon to raise its young on this seasonal glut of food. Birds are caught in the air, with hunting usually taking place over the sea, where a number of falcons may fly into a headwind, so remaining almost on the spot and forming a ‘barrier’ to intercept passing prey

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