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New finds deepen mystery of rare bird's migration

Last modified: 12 January 2008

Bald ibis foraging in a cereal crop in the Souss-Massa National Park, Morocco

Efforts to save the Middle East’s rarest bird have been boosted by two chance sightings of the species 1,500 miles apart.

Northern bald ibises were seen last month in the Jordan Valley for the first time in 13 years, and in Djibouti, east Africa, for the first time ever, raising hopes that the species’ numbers are not as low as scientists fear.

The bird was thought extinct in the Middle East in the 1990s before a colony of just six birds was found in Palmyra, Syria in 2002. Since then, adult and young birds have been fitted with satellite tags by the RSPB and BirdLife Middle East, to try to discover and protect their migration routes and wintering sites. The tagged adult birds are currently in Ethiopia for the winter.

'These sightings are great news. They were entirely unexpected and in some ways deepen the mystery of where they go on migration'

Dr Jeremy Lindsell, a Research Biologist at the RSPB, said: 'These sightings are great news. They were entirely unexpected and in some ways deepen the mystery of where they go on migration. The fact that the birds are in three different sites away from their breeding grounds reflects the little we know of their numbers and where they go. It also shows how essential it is that we keep tracking the birds so that we can protect them throughout their range.'

Two adult bald ibis were spotted on the Yardena cliffs on the Israel/Jordan border early last month. They were seen by a researcher surveying black storks and had disappeared when he returned the following day.

Two weeks later, a young bald ibis was found on the beach at Tadjoura, eastern Djibouti, by a group of Swedish birdwatchers. The bird was searching for food and its appearance astonished the visitors.

Dr Henrik Lind was amongst the visiting group from the Swedish bird organisation Club300. He said: 'We knew about the Syrian birds and our first thought was that this bird was from Palmyra. When a young boy from the village saw the bird, he told us there were others nearby. We didn’t find the others but it was fantastic to see one bald ibis so far from where they breed.'

Tracking adult birds was successful in 2006 when three birds flew a total of 3,700 miles to the Ethiopian highlands and back last spring. But readings from the satellite tag fitted to a young bird last summer failed in August and the fate of that bird is unknown.

The Djibouti find is more significant for scientists because the bird was a juvenile and very few of the 25 birds fledged in Syria since 2002 have returned.

Conservationists fear the missing birds are being shot on migration but until they know the young birds’ migration route, they cannot alert hunters to their rarity.

'Piecing the jigsaw together'

Scientists hope to tag more young birds in Syria this summer in a second bid to track their migration. RSPB scientists also hope to agree steps to protect the species from hunters, with colleagues from Ethiopia, Yemen and other countries on the adult birds’ migration route.

The only other known population of bald ibis is in south-west Morocco but it is thought that the birds in the Jordan Valley and Djibouti flew from Syria.

Sharif Al Jbour of BirdLife Middle East said: 'Unless there is another colony we know nothing of, it seems young bald ibises are strong enough to fly as far as Djibouti which is nearly 1,700 miles from Palmyra.

'We are gradually piecing the jigsaw together but it is a long process fraught with problems. How we alert hunters in remote areas to just how rare this bird is, is something we must urgently resolve.'

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