Montagu’s Harrier Conservation Project in times of COVID-19

This species conservation campaign during 2020 has been marked by the dire consequences of COVID-19 and its restrictions.
At the end of March, the new confinement situation forced us to think about alternatives to continue working on the recovery of the Montagu’s harrier. The global pandemic has coincided with one of the most critical moments in the life cycle of the birds in our fields during their breeding season and today more than ever we need to be creative and coordinated to protect our harriers. Social networks, video calls, the use of mobile apps or teleworking have been important tools to keep us connected and coordinate our conservation actions in 2020.

At the beginning of April, we decided to request a special permit so that a reduced number of members from our organization could go out into the field and carry out the tasks of tracking and locating breeding pairs, this was important as farming could not stop for obvious reasons.

We were clear that the safety and health of our teams should come first, and that is why the request for a special permit at the time of COVID-19 would be accompanied by a Safe Work Procedure in which the precautions to be observed were detailed The early outings in search of breeding pairs have allowed us to locate for the first time two birds released within our rescued bird release program: HT3 and HT5. This was a great way to start the season!

We were also able to place our camera trap within the breeding colonies, which has been of great help to us for the identification of ringed specimens and to know the composition of the pairs present there. These devices are non-intrusive, providing important information which otherwise would be very difficult to obtain given the low volunteer resources available to us in the field.

During this campaign we have expanded the areas of active

collaboration with the Junta de Andalucía into other areas within the province of Cádiz and the south of Seville.
In all of our priority action areas we have managed to arrest the decline of this species, with slight increases apparent in all three of these areas.

As in other years, the main focus has been the negotiation and compensation to the farmer for standing pasture. This included: Benalup, 1.4 hectares containing 5 nests and Tahivilla with 2.3 hectares and 3 nests.

This year only eight specimens have been released, Three of them were fitted with a GPS-GSM transmitter for their monitoring. This provided the following data:
Tahivilla – released on June 13 and equipped with an emitter donated by Interrex-Rings Poland unfortunately drowned in a well a few days after its release.
Jaramago – a female released on June 21, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar on August 17, dying in mysterious circumstances on August 23 in Berrechid south of Casablanca very close to the highway.
Tahivila jr – a male released on June 26, equipped with an emitter provided by Interrex-Rings Poland that began crossing the Strait on August 17.

These un-harvested areas not only have benefits during the reproductive season, they are also used as roosting sites for many these harriers.
In addition have successfully utilised the drone as another non- intrusive survey tool for surface measurement and nest tracking. The importance of scientific ringing bears fruit with the subsequent tracking of the harriers which gives the project vital data on the dispersal and migration patterns of these birds.

For example this highlights the movement of individuals between different breeding colonies. In the case of Tahivilla, two specimens, which were born in the area were tracked; these were the 8W3 female born in 2010 and the 7XJ male from 2007. The dispersal of individuals from Tahivilla to Jerez has also been confirmed, with HTC ( born in 2018) breeding 43km from her own birthplace.

As we mentioned at the start of this article this year’s campaign was made more difficult by the lack of personnel due to restrictions placed on us by the Junta de Andalucía. This impacted on our ability to rescue more harriers.

This year the breeding of two birds released in 2017 has been confirmed, Sacapuntas (released 2019) is confirmed and two more birds released in 2019 are observed feeding in this year’s

release zone.
Another aspect of hacking is to function as a supplementary feeding station for wild birds that could potentially establish themselves as breeding birds in this area in the future.

Potential purchase of steppe habitat

An important development has been the agreement to lease and potentially purchase the Benalup site where four pairs bred this year. We propose to formalise the lease and include an option to buy this plot of approximately 6 hectares.

This will be the first nature reserve fully managed by Tumbabuey with the primary purpose of conserving steppe birds and their habitat. The next stage will be to collaborate to obtain the funds to realise aim and to see the site flourish into the future, a safe haven for our special birds.

Sacapuntas, The Life of a Harrier
To promote environmental awareness and education, our colleague Antonio Aguilera had the idea to create a story of the adventures of a Montagu’s harrier during its first year of life. Pablo Ortega provided the beautiful illustrations and Miguel Delibes, the famous naturalist provided the foreword. The main objective of this book is to raise awareness of the importance of steppe habitats and to promote our project to the widest possible audience as well as giving us a valuable source of income.

We worked with the difficulties presented to us by COVID-19, and thanks to the coordinated effort during confinement, we overcame them and ensured that the southernmost population of Montagu’s harriers was safe and healthy under our stewardship. Like other organizations in the public and private sector, at Tumbabuey we have had to adapt to the new challenges that arise from COVID-19 to continue protecting this raptor. This experience has helped us to reinvent ourselves and to learn new ways of working together in a time of social isolation.

The project continues to bring success and this is only possible thanks to the ongoing help of our volunteers and collaborators, without which Tumbabuey could not exist.

Miguel González – Tumbabuey ABS Member

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