The Lammergeier has become among the rarest of European breeding birds. The decline seems to have started as far back as the 19th Century and its causes seem to have been a combination of the rise of guns, poisoning and nest robbing. Colonel Irby in 1895 wrote how his friend Colonel Verner had already noticed a decline twenty years earlier when "...these birds nested regularly not far from Gibraltar, but owing to persecution have of late years disappeared or retired to less-frequented sierras."
Dr Stark, in the decade of the 1880s recorded how "In Andalucia is decidedly common in the Sierra Nevada, and all the region between Granada and Jaen. In a day’s ride five or six may be seen flying over the hill-sides or gliding along the face of a cliff or down some ravine. In the Ronda mountains they are fairly numerous, becoming scarcer towards Gibraltar and Tarifa."
It seems that the presence of the Griffon Vulture was somehow detrimental to the natural distribution of the Lammergeier. Dr Stark thus commented how "In certain districts of the Sierra Nevada, where the Griffon does not intrude, the Quebrantahuesos is especially numerous."
Stark's comments also suggest that the population near the Strait of Gibraltar was dominated by non-breeding immatures (above and below). "In the lower ranges of the Sierra de Ronda, towards Gibraltar and Tarifa, the Bearded Vulture is not very common; the Griffon being, on the contrary, abundant in that district. The majority of Bearded Vultures seen here have been birds in dark plumage, not fully adult."
Today, to have any chance of seeing (and photographing) Lammergeiers we have to travel to the Pyrenees, the main European nucleus of this species. Re-introduction programmes, such as those in the Sierra de Cazorla, offer hope of recovery which will be slow. These birds take eight years to reach breeding condition.
First winter (left) and adult (right)
Today, in special places like Boumort in the Catalan Pyrenees, it is still possible to observe the complete array of European vultures together. Three of them - Griffon, Black and Lammergeier - are in this single photograph.
My gratitude to the management and staff of Boumort Reserve for permission to photograph within the reserve