By Michael Leidig
A critically endangered bird species that lived in Europe for 1.8 million years before it was wiped out by hunters has been reintroduced in three locations by a bird lover who showed them the way using a microlight.
Dr Johannes Fritz used the technique of imprinting by making sure he was the first thing the chicks of the rare Northern Bald Ibis saw when they hatched. Using the trust that bond built up, he then persuaded the birds to follow him in his microlight between the birds summer and winter feeding grounds in Tuscany and the Austrian and German Alps.
He said: “We now have the birds established in three mountain locations. It’s a great success – but we are counting the days now until the first birds return after running the gauntlet of hunters.”
Last year German student Stefanie Heese, 25, and Austrian student Daniela Trobe, 29, took six months off from University to act as parents to the latest new arrivals.
From first light until sundown the two were on hand to cater to the baby birds every need – from feeding them as chicks through to grooming them and then later into educating them on how to survive in the wild. Educational games such as hunting worms together were designed to expand the birds interest in the world around them, and in training in how to find food on their own – and that effort culminated in the last six weeks of their time together with flight training.
Every day the pair and would lead the birds to a microlight plane and would then practice flying and gliding over the Austrian Alps in Salzburg in preparation for the long migratory flight to Tuscany.
Finally last year in October the pair accompanied their 16 charges as they made the 1,353 kilometre journey accompanied by three support vehicles over 36 days to their winter feeding ground in Italy. Every day they stopped at a prearranged spot and met up with the ground crew where food was provided for the birds to keep their strength up, and then they carried on with the trip.
Dr Fritz who initiated the project a decade ago after working with the birds as part of research project organised by the Conrad Lawrence Research Centre said he had been motivated by the difficulties he observed there in reintroducing captive Ibis birds back to the wild.
Fossil records show that the Northern Bald Ibis, regarded as a critically endangered species, had been present in Europe for 1.8 million years but it vanished 300 years ago – and now thanks to the work of Dr Fritz not just one but three breeding colonies have been established back in Alpine Europe.
He said: “I was also sceptical about being able to reintroduce this unique bird back into the wild but all that changed when I saw the film Fly Away Home and was really impressed by William Lishman’s success with Canada geese. I decided to try and repeat the experiment.”
Single-handedly he started his project and over the years has built up supporters including Schonbrunn Zoo, the world’s oldest zoo, located in the capital Vienna which has a large captive Bald Ibis colony and which provides many of the eggs for the yearly trip down to Italy.
The project has hit many snags – and Dr Fritz, 45, would be the first to admit that starting from scratch there was a lot to learn.
He said: “The imprinting where the birds are taught from the start to recognise a specific person as a parent bird was the first hurdle.
“It is amazing to watch, when the human they don’t recognise is around the birds avoid contact and fly away. But when their adopted parent appears they will run or fly to the person as soon as they spot them – calling and rocking their heads in a welcoming gesture that shows they clearly recognise their parent. That position allows the human to teach the birds a lot – for example not to be afraid of the microlight.”
The first batch Dr Fritz acted as a parent for he admitted was ultimately a heartbreaking experience. None of his 10 hatchlings still survive and now every year he selects students to be parents for the birds. The latest batch of 16 were hatched out by the two students and of the 16 that set off 15 made it. He said: “That is a fantastic success rate.”
And Dr Fritz added: “It shows how far we have come. Only one became ill and couldn’t make it – and that bird has now been put permanently with a captive colony in Carinthia in Austria to spend the rest of it years there. The other 15 are now flying around in Italy with others as part of the community down there.”
The team have managed to iron out teething problems with the imprinting to make the adoption a flawless process and also overcome all the birds obstacles to following the microlight down to Italy where they spend the winter learning from other birds how to feed themselves and about life in the wild.
But they haven’t managed yet to overcome the one big obstacle – man.
Dr Fritz said: “Every year we lose birds to hunters. There’s always been a tradition in countries like Italy about shooting migratory birds which used to be eaten. Nowadays, it’s mainly done for fun, even though it’s illegal to shoot the Ibis which is on the red list as highly endangered.
“This will be the first time we get to see the real advantages of the electronic tagging. We started tagging a few birds last year (2011) and by October we had managed to tag 50 percent of the birds. The device was specially created for us and our requirements. By March (2012) we had tagged all of our birds.”
He said that although they mix in one group in Italy the birds are actually from separate breeding colonies and one group will fly back to Burghausen in Bavaria, Germany, while the others will fly back to colonies in Salzburg and Scharnstein, both in Austria.
Fritz is trying to teach and inform hunters about the project to prevent further losses of the birds by gaining publicity in the media.
He said: “The technology allows us to track exactly where the birds are. This will help us protect them and control their movements.”
For a video of the trip – click here.