Mystery of where bald ibis goes in winter is solved

Northen Bald Ibis ©Stehen Daly
It's a weird-looking bird, a mysterious bird, and one of the rarest on earth. Now at least part of its mystery has been solved.
Satellite tracking has enabled scientists to find the wintering grounds of birds from one of the only two known colonies of the bald ibis, a wader once found in Europe, but now on the brink of extinction in north Africa and the Middle East.
Its population has shrunk to 250 at a site on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, and a tiny group of 13 birds found in 2002, near the city of Palmyra in Syria, 150 miles north-east of Damascus.
While the Moroccan birds are resident on their nesting areas all year round, the Syrian ibis migrates south at the end of the summer - and a tracking experiment has found out where. The adult birds fly nearly 2,000 miles across seven countries and the Red Sea, to spend the winter in the highlands of Ethiopia, 50 miles from the country's capital Addis Ababa.
This week, the three birds that were tagged, christened by scientists Sultan, Salam and Zenobia - the latter named after Palmyra's third century warrior queen celebrated in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - have returned from Ethiopia to their Syrian nesting cliffs. It is hoped the other, younger birds that were part of last year's colony, thought to have migrated somewhere else, will soon join them.
Birds in the ibis family are distant relatives of storks and herons.

The bald ibis, Geronticus eremita, has a bald head, scruffy feathers in a punk-like tuft on the neck, a long, curved, red bill and a bronze and purple shine on a black body. It was was revered by the Egyptian Pharaohs and had its own hieroglyph.
It was once widespread in the Middle East, northern Africa and the European Alps - there were breeding populations across Germany, Austria, Switzerland - but, by 1900, the birds had disappeared from much of their range. In the 20th century, colonies were extinguished in Syria and Algeria, largely by hunting.
The current Syrian tagging project is funded by Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) as well as The National Geographic Society. Bedouin nomads and rangers from the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform protect the breeding site and the new data will help conservationists guard the birds in migration and in winter.
"The birds' return is a huge relief," said Dr Ken Smith, a senior RSPB scientist. "Knowing the migration route is a major breakthrough and means we can now tackle the huge challenge of protecting the birds throughout the year. The next riddle we must solve is where the young birds go and how we can safeguard them as well."
Paul Buckley, the RSPB's International Officer explained: "None of the nine younger birds in Syria last summer have been seen and that suggests that they use a different over-wintering site."

From the Independent By Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor
Published: 02 March 2007

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