A first ever sighting of the White-headed Duck on the Rio Guadalhorce reserve was without doubt a highlight of our recent visit, and gave us our first images of a bird that has become an iconic example of successful conservation work in Spain.
The White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala is the sole member of the “stifftail” family to be found in Europe. It’s distribution is extremely patchy and localized, with small, resident populations in Spain and north Africa but most are migratory, breeding in Kazakhstan and Russia, and over-wintering in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey and Asia. Over the last century hunting and habitat loss saw numbers crash by 90% to less than 10,000 birds, and the species is threatened globally with extinction.
At this point the story moves – strangely – to pre-war Great Britain, and the arrival of a closely related species from America for inclusion in captive wildfowl collections. The Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis soon escaped and bred in the wild for the first time in 1952, and by the year 2000 the UK population had reached around 6,000 birds.
As the UK population increased, reports of Ruddy Ducks on mainland Europe became more frequent. Confirmed sightings have now been recorded in 21 European and North Afican countries, and they reached Spain for the first time in 1983.
By 1977 there were just 22 White-headed Ducks left in Spain. Measures were taken to preserve the species: breeding sites were protected and managed, and a ban on hunting saw the population stabilize and increase to around 2,500. The campaign to save the white-headed Duck – much like the preservation of Red Kites in the UK – became symbolic of successful ecological work in this country, and heavily influences continuing efforts to save the flora and fauna of threatened wetland habitats.
The arrival of the Ruddy Duck however was quickly identified as a serious problem. Ruddy Ducks interbreed freely with White-headed Ducks, producing fertile, hybrid offspring. The American species is more aggressively promiscuous in its breeding habits than its European relative, and the likely result of it becoming established here would be the steady decline of White-headed Duck characteristics in an increasingly hybrid population, and the eventual extinction of the native species.
Hybridisation has occurred in Spain, and while the Spanish authorities make every effort to remove Ruddy Ducks and hybrid stock an increase in new arrivals would be ever more difficult to manage. Furthermore, the Ruddy Duck has now been found in Turkey – the wintering grounds of the central Asian White-headed Duck population – and a lack of infrastructure and resources in the east could see the problem spiral swiftly out of control.
International conservation groups and European governments believe the White-headed Duck could disappear completely, and with the largest population of wild Ruddy Ducks in Europe, Britain has led the way in introducing measures to prevent more reaching the continental mainland. In 2005 a five year programme of controlled culling was initiated – fully endorsed and supported by the RSPB – and by 2008 the UK population was down to between 400 and 500 birds.
Habitat loss and illegal hunting are still serious issues in Spain, but international cooperation and the continued hard work of Spanish conservationists have thrown this species a lifeline, and its wonderful that we can still enjoy seeing them in their natural surroundings down here in Andalucia.
The Rio Guadalhorce reserve is just one of many fantastic birding destinations to be found in southern Spain. For more information about the birdwatching trips and holidays we run throughout the year, simply click here…and for all our latest news, please keep reading our posts and trip reports!