It all began last January, when, during our winter Griffon Vulture census, we confirmed the existence of two active nests on the secluded and inaccessible cliffs of a remote Paphos valley. The fact that two Griffon Vulture pairs were nesting this year was particularly important, especially because the species is on the verge of extinction from Cyprus. So, as part of the “LIFE with the Vultures” project, we began to monitor the two nests regularly, to make sure that the chicks were growing well and that they would fly successfully when the time came.
The Griffon Vulture breeding season lasts around 10 months, starting as early as November – December with the formation of territorial pairs, and lasting until August – September when the chicks finally fledge. Chicks usually hatch during March or April after about 8 weeks of incubation. They then spend around 18 weeks in the nest. As the time for the first flight approaches, the chick will stretch and flap its wings. As it grows, the parents carry out fewer and fewer visits to the nest. During the chick-rearing period, both parents deliver around 600 grams of food per day, which, according to studies, and not surprisingly, is the mean amount of food a Griffon Vulture chick needs for its development. Even after fledging, parents continue providing food to their offspring.
Monitoring the nests was a fascinating experience, and watching the two chicks gradually transform from two small white “fluff balls” into the magnificent birds of prey they are was a real privilege. As the time for their first flight neared, our eagerness grew and our nest monitoring visits became more and more frequent. It was only a matter of days or even hours, after all, before that ‘take-off’ was attempted. The first chick, the one we would call Kostis a few months later, made its maiden flight in early August, and the second one in early October. This was fantastic news, since it also meant that the breeding activity of the two pairs was successful. Nevertheless, there was also a bittersweet feeling, mostly at the thought that the two young vultures were now “out on their own” and that our nest monitoring work was over. Or so we thought.
A few weeks later, news of one of the young vultures reached us and it was not good. The first vulture, the one that flew from the nest in early August, was found grounded and exhausted a few kilometers away from his nest. The discovery was made by a Health Service officer who happened to be in the area and who called the Game and Fauna Service (GFS). The GFS immediately rushed to the rescue of the bird, first taking it to a specialized veterinarian for treatment and then to the GFS Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. The first few days were critical, as the bird was very weak and underweight. Thanks to the daily care it received at the rehab centre, its condition began to improve day by day, to the relief of all. A month later, after making a full recovery, it was transferred to an acclimatization aviary in the Limassol district, before its release back to nature. Although we cannot be sure of the reasons the bird came to be grounded, the most probable explanation is the fact that it is young and therefore inexperienced.
On the day of its release, our young Griffon Vulture was ringed and became officially known as “CAT”, a three-letter code found written on the plastic ring that was placed around its leg. Such a code however would not be enough to tell the adventurous story of the bird. So, on release day, the young Griffon Vulture was named “Kostis”, in appreciation of the life-saving work of vet Constantinos Antoniou. During the release, we watched Kostis take to the skies again, only this time without that bittersweet feeling, because we knew that Kostis was not “alone”. It has the LIFE with Vultures project team watching its back, thanks to the GPS transmitter it has been fitted with.
The challenges Kostis has yet to overcome are not few or minor. Being brought up by its parents and making the maiden flight was just the beginning. Kostis must now join the rest of the Griffon Vulture population, find food, and most importantly, keep clear of the numerous threats that lurk – namely poisoned baits, shootings and collisions with wind turbines and power lines. The LIFE with Vultures project team is working tirelessly to tackle all these threats to ensure a safer future for Kostis and all the Griffon Vultures of Cyprus.