In efforts to better monitor migrating birds, a team have set up a monitoring station in the new university city of Galala, Egypt. In today's blog Steffen Oppel, Senior Conservation Scientist, explains the project along with some of the amazing photos captured by the research team. 

Over the past 10 years the RSPB has invested a lot of effort to protect migratory raptors along the eastern Mediterranean flyway as a partner of an ambitious EU-funded LIFE project (Egyptian Vulture NEW LIFE). However, at present we do not know whether those efforts are actually yielding results.

Our BirdLife partners are monitoring breeding territories of Egyptian vultures in four countries on the Balkan peninsula in eastern Europe, but very little information exists from breeding areas in Turkey or Central Asia. One way to keep tabs on such widespread populations is to count them on migration.

Flock of white storks on migration © Ben Jobson

In 2013 the RSPB helped to establish a migration monitoring site in southern Turkey to count the Egyptian vultures leaving Turkey after the breeding season. In 2022, our colleagues from Nature Conservation Egypt - the BirdLife partner in Egypt - invited us to help them establish a new permanent spring migration monitoring site along the north-eastern coast of the Red Sea. Previous work in 2012 had witnessed mass migration of steppe buzzards and eagles, and we were therefore prepared to be counting a lot of birds.

View from the Galala plateau along the Red Sea - birds use the orographic uplift of the cliffs to effortlessly migrate north © Steffen Oppel

In early March 2022 we joined colleagues from Bulgaria and Egypt on a first exploratory mission around the new city of Galala. Situated on a mountain plateau 600 m above the Red Sea, this brand-new university town was carved out of the rocky desert in the last 10 years, with new roads connecting the as yet unpopulated city with the coast and with highways to Cairo.

A flock of white storks passing over the new city of Galala © Ben Jobson

We observed the migration for a few days from different vantage points and eventually established three permanent count stations that would cover the majority of the flight paths of northward-migrating birds. However, once the migration intensity increased in late March, we simply did not have sufficient observers to count from all three stations at the same time.

A migrating steppe eagle © Ben Jobson

Most of the Egyptian vultures were adult birds returning to breeding areas © Ben Jobson

Overall, the migration volume that we observed was spectacular and included >250,000 steppe buzzards, >1000 Egyptian vultures, and tens of thousands of steppe, lesser spotted and short-toed eagles.

The complete data are shown on our Egyptian vulture website. The site has huge potential for long-term monitoring as it captures significant proportions of flyway populations of several species, and the highest number of Egyptian vultures along the eastern Mediterranean flyway (>1200 birds in 6 weeks).

Short-toed snake eagles were also numerous at Galala © Ben Jobson

Besides large numbers of raptors, we also saw many other species that would be of interest for any European birdwatcher, such as desert larks, hooded and white-crowned wheatears, and sand partridges. Regardless of the importance to monitor migrating raptor populations, the site therefore also has significant potential for birdwatching tourism and nature photography, as many birds migrate very close to the observation point.

Desert lark © Steffen Oppel

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