Europe and Central Asia
7 Sep 2018

Algarve fires menace Bonelli’s Eagle

Bonelli's Eagle © Leonardo Fernandez Lazaro
By Sonia Neves

As fire rages across the Algarve, BirdLife’s Portuguese partner, SPEA, sounds the alarm for the region’s important Bonelli’s Eagle population.

Last month, the largest fire recorded in Europe this year raged in the western Algarve’s mountain chain, Serra de Monchique – an internationally recognised IBA (Important Bird and Biodiveristy Area) and Natura 2000 protected site. In one week, 27,000 ha was consumed by flames. The area is a vital refuge for Bonelli’s Eagle Aquila fasciata and BirdLife’s Portuguese partner, SPEA, fears for a population that is not only significant nationally, but is also important for Iberia and Europe.

The Bonelli’s Eagle – incidentally, Portugal’s ‘Bird of the Year 2018’ – suffered terrible population decline in Portugal in the 1980s. More recently, its fate has diverged markedly north and south: in northern Portugal, decline has continued unabated, plummeting 40% in the last decade alone; in the south, populations have grown so successfully, they have actually reverted the overall national trend. But there is a catch. Conservationists believe that part of secret of the southern population’s success may be down to behaviour that actually puts them at greater risk in the event of forest fires. “In the south of Portugal, instead of nesting mostly on rocky cliffs, Bonelli’s Eagles prefer to nest on large trees,” explains Joaquim Teodósio, head of the Land Conservation Department at SPEA. “This means there’s a risk that the fire could destroy not only the current nests but also other trees where the pairs might build new ones.”

 © Paco Gomez

"there’s a risk that the fire could destroy not only the current nests but also other trees where the pairs might build new ones.”

Although fires are frequent in this kind of habitat, the current fire has spread across an incredibly large area. At least five pairs are known to nest in the area that has burned down, and several nests may have been destroyed by the flames. Other pairs occupying nearby territories may also have been affected or could still be at risk. Even now that the flames have died down, only time will tell what the true impact will be. What is certain is that the situation will require close monitoring for the foreseeable future.

The consequences for local flora and fauna could be significant in a fire this large; how they recover will depend on the species and on the extent to which populations are affected. Aside from the direct impact on nests, this fire will have killed partridges, pigeons, rabbits and other prey that the Bonelli’s Eagle depends on, leading to food shortages.

Though the situation looks bleak, Rita Ferreira from SPEA’s Bonelli’s Eagle Working Group offers a glimmer of hope: “If important areas within the territories are affected, and some pairs are left with no place to nest or feed, it’s possible that there could be a reshuffling, that pairs have to redistribute themselves throughout the forest and use the space differently. This is what we saw in Serra do Caldeirão after the fire in 2012.”


Sonia Neves – Communications Officer, SPEA (BirdLife Portugal)

To stem the decline of Bonelli’s Eagle in the north of the Iberian Peninsula, SPEA coordinates the project Life Rupis. Co-funded by the European Commission’s LIFE Programme, this project aims to protect endangered eagles and vultures in the Douro canyon, on both sides of the border.

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