Above: Bonelli’s eagle with young at the nest, at a typical cliff site. This species has a large global distribution, but is nowhere common. In Europe it is a rare resident around the Mediterranean, confined primarily to mountainous regions Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Leonardo Fernandez Lazaro

 

THE LARGEST FOREST fire recorded in Europe this year could have disastrous consequences for Portugal’s most important population of Bonelli’s eagle (Aquila fasciata).

In just one week, earlier this month, the blaze consumed 27,000ha (66,700 acres) of the western Algarve’s mountain chain, the Serra de Monchique. This internationally recognised Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) is a vital breeding area for the eagle and regarded as one of the most important in Europe.

At least five pairs are known to nest in the area that has been burned down and several nests could have been destroyed by the flames. Other pairs occupying nearby territories may also have been affected or still be at risk, which could be catastrophic for future breeding success.

Joaquim Teodósio, head of the Land Conservation Department at BirdLife’s Portuguese partner SPEA, explained: “At this point, it’s not yet possible to know what the true impact will be.

“Although fires are a frequent occurrence in this kind of habitat, in this case the fire is going through incredibly large areas. Only later, in the aftermath of the fire and with long-term monitoring, will we be able to judge the consequences.” 

During the past few decades, Bonelli’s eagle has suffered significant population declines in Portugal. While northern populations continue to suffer, those in the south have boomed to the extent that they have reversed the overall national trend. However, this success is due to pairs nesting on large trees instead of rocky cliffs – meaning there is a risk that the recent fire has not only destroyed current nests, but trees where pairs could have built new ones.

The situation looks bleak, but Rita Ferreira from SPEA’s Bonelli’s Eagle Working Group, offers a positive outlook. She said: “If important areas within the territories are affected, and some pairs are left with no place to nest or feed, it’s possible that pairs could redistribute themselves throughout the forest and use the space differently. 

“This is what we saw in Serra do Caldeirão after the fire in 2012.”

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