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African White-backed Vulture in Portugal, October 2006 – new for Europe?

Brian J Small

Plate 1 African White-backed Vulture, Cape St. Vincent, Portugal, 14th October 2006 © Brian J Small

One of the highlights of a trip to Portugal in October is the chance that, given the right weather conditions, you might get a good passage of raptors at Cape St. Vincent, in the extreme southwest.  Whilst on a family holiday, the 14th October 2006 dawned fine and sunny, with a good westerly breeze at the cape, and as my family (and my mum and dad) drove towards the headland we could see a few Booted and Short-toed Eagles and Black Kites lifting out of a band of woodland, testing the air and wind, but without any real purpose.  At the headland, good numbers of Cory’s Shearwaters were over the sea, with 350+ on the sea itself, but as it was quiet we decided to head inland to watch for raptor passage.  Passing through a flock of over 70 Red-billed Choughs, we watched a vulture to the north-west lifting distantly, before dropping low behind the trees; smaller raptors were rising high above our heads, with pale- and dark-phase Booted and Short-toed Eagles drifting south-east over Sagres.  Though the totals were not high, we had soon logged 42 Booteds (including five dark-phase), 12 Short-toeds, five Eurasian Griffons and two Egyptian Vulture, and one Hen Harrier, but by far the most interesting bird had been a vulture Gyps sp. which came low from the north-west, lifted up above our heads and then glided off south-east.  Despite alarm bells ringing enough for me to note it as being ‘a very pale extreme (?) of Griffon, white underwing coverts reminiscent of AfW-bV; structure also appeared stocky, less-fingered primaries’, I took a single photograph through my ‘scope and then, for several reasons, forgot about the bird.

Plate 2 African White-backed Vulture, Cape St. Vincent, Portugal, 14th October 2006 © Brian J Small

Note in particular the white underwing coverts contrasting with the dark, blackish, remiges.  In all ages Ruppell’s has darker underwing coverts with often single narrow pale lines bordering the marginal coverts near the forewing; Eurasian Griffons show two or three pale lines across the coverts, with more pale areas on juveniles.  Structurally, also note the quite broad primary ‘fingers’, short tail and shorter and relatively broader wings of AfW-bV 

However, in January 2007, whilst looking through my photos I came across the picture and realised it must be an adult African White-backed Vulture Gyps africanus, a species I have seen on many occasions in Africa.  AfW-bV in adult plumage is not a difficult species to identify (and I should have known better whilst actually watching it – I have even illustrated it for ‘The Birds of East Africa’!), having white underwing coverts contrasting with dark remiges; structurally, they are significantly smaller than both Ruppell’s Gyps rueppellii and Eurasian Griffons Gyps fulvus, with shorter, less-fingered primaries a shorter tail and a different silhouette. To make sure I wasn’t being stupid, I sent the image to Mike Crewe, Dick Forsman and James Lidster and pretty soon all came back with the same identification as me. Dick kindly commented, ‘Nice shot, and the only thing that comes to mind is africanus! It looks small and compact, compared with the corvids, which helps to exclude the other vulture species with whitish underwing coverts. But where has it originally come from?’.  This final comment threw me a little, as though I knew it had not been recorded in Europe before, I was aware of Ruppell’s Vultures in Portugal and Spain and assumed, being a vulture migrating through southwest Europe in October, following the same pattern as other migrating raptors, it was likely to be seen in the same light. 

Griffon Vulture, Spain, Extremadura Feb 2006 © Chris Lodge

Griffon Vulture, Spain, Monfrague NP, Extremadura May 2006 © Stuart Elsom

‘Birds of Africa’ (Brown et al, 1982), show the distribution of African White-backed Vulture broadly overlapping with that of Ruppell’s across sub-Sharan Africa, though apparently the latter moves a touch further north into the Sahel; in 1982 there is no indication of Eurasian Griffons occuring in Western Africa at all.  I knew that Ruppell’s had been recorded in Iberia, indeed, I had looked out for it many times in Portugal, but could not recall any records of African White-backed.  There have been two relatively recent articles examining the occurrence of Ruppell’s Vultures in Spain and Portugal (Ricard Gutierrez in Dutch Birding 25: 289-303, 2003 and Dick Forsman in Birding World 18: 435-438, 2005).  The former summarises the history of their appearance in Iberia since the first record in 1992, and by 2003 there had been a total of at least 24 records.  These are largely concentrated in southern Spain, but there have been records as far as c.600km north of Gibraltar, whilst in Portugal the Castelo Branco region northeast of Lisbon is the place to look.  Since 2003, records have remained regular in Spain (see http://www.rarebirdspain.net/home.htm), and Forsman in the latter article lists up to six birds in the Tarifa, Cadiz area in 2005.  The main factor involved in Ruppell’s Vulture occuring in Iberia is, primarily, the increase in numbers of Eurasian Griffon Vultures over-wintering in sub-Saharan Africa, where in recent winters they can be seen regularly with the local populations of Ruppell’s and African White-backed Vultures.  This increase is largely a result of the increase in the population of Eurasian Griffon’s in Spain, which underwent an increase of over 500% between 1979 and 1999 (and further increases have been logged since this date); large numbers are now reported exiting Iberia via the Straits of Gibraltar in (e.g. 4,816 in 2000) during October and November. 

Ruppell's Vulture, The Netherlands, Reeuwijk 21-04-2004 © Chris van Rijswijk

Gutierrez concludes his article with the following statement:-‘Eurasian Griffon Vultures of the recently increased Spanish population reach the wintering areas in Western Africa in higher numbers than before and they occur here together with Ruppell’s Griffon Vultures which showed an increase as well.  It seems likely that, on their way back to Spain, Eurasian Griffons are sometimes joined by Ruppell’s Griffons and that especially dispersive immatures may keep going all the way..Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture has been included in ‘Category A’ of the Spanish, Portuguese and European lists.’  One could certainly replace ‘Ruppell’s Griffon’ with ‘African White-backed’ and come up with an equally true statement.

 Ruppell's Vulture, South-eastern FRANCE, Remuzat Oct 5th 2003 © Jean-Philippe PAUL

My personal observations in the Gambia over the past five years echo the general increase in Eurasian Griffon Vultures, but also the numbers of Ruppell’s and African White-backed Vultures with which they soar and feed.  My observations suggest that African White-backed is more numerous than Ruppell’s throughout the Gambia, and that the three Gyps vultures are most often seen together. Though many records of Ruppell’s in Spain are immatures, there have been adults, indeed the first record, in 1992, was an adult; one might argue that adults are more distinct and it took the awareness that Ruppell’s were present, and subsequently looked for, before immatures were observed.  One might also argue that given that immature African White-backs are also superficially similar to both Ruppell’s and Eurasian Griffons that they are also being over-looked. 

I would be very interested to hear of any other possible sightings of African White-backed Vultures in Spain or Portugal, but also any sightings north of their typical range in Africa.  The occurrence of other African species, previously thought of as sub-Saharan in distribution, such as Lesser Flamingo and African Spoonbill, could well add weight to a theory that these birds are more dispersive than first realised.

Brian Small, February 2007

escaped White-backed Vulture, Norfolk, Warham Greens 12/10/06 © Dave Curtis


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