A rare wild Ibis named after British conservationist Jane Goodall has become the first member of the critically endangered bird species to fly over the Alps to the breeding grounds of northern Europe in 400 years ago.
The rare Northern Bald Ibis lived in Europe for 1.8 million years before they were wiped out by hunters four centuries ago, but the first bird has now returned thanks to an Austrian 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.
And now after a decade of work, the first of the birds has finally made it back over the Alps under her own steam.
The birds flight was tracked by GPS system that was fitted to all the adult birds last year and was coupled with a campaign to educate hunters to avoid having the birds shot.
He said: “We were following her progress over the Alps on the GPS at our head office in Innsbruck. It was an incredible flight in record time. She travelled like an arrow direct to the breeding ground and we had a huge celebration when she finally arrived. We have raised and imprinted dozens of birds and show them the flight route but GoJa is the first to make it back on her own steam.
“Jane Goodall has been a great supporter of our project and visited us for the first time in 2008 for a book project she was working on. In her honour we took the first two initial letters of her name which is our practice the naming birds, and we gave that name GoJa to a newly hatched bird.
“She is now the first adult Northern Bald Ibis returning to the a breeding area north of the Alps in 400 years. We have had dozens of birds born in our program and it is by pure chance that we named this particular bird in her honour. So our most famous bird also bears the name of the most famous conservationist.
“We now have the birds established in three mountain locations – two in Austria and one in Germany. It’s a great success – but we are counting the days now until the first birds return after running the gauntlet of hunters.”
Among those celebrating the return were German student Stefanie Heese, 25, and Austrian student Daniela Trobe, 29, who last year 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.”
The project which is an Austrian initiative has three colonies, the first to be established was in Berghausen in Germany, where GoJa has now returned to the nesting area, the huge outdoor cage where she was born, the second is in Salzburg where the birds have remained in Italy and are too young to fly back this year, and the third is also in Austria but the final location is still being worked on.
The hope is that birds who have made the journey without problems will in future be able to teach others the way.