The Italian Job

In the framework of the Red-footed Falcon Conservation LIFE+ Programme (LIFE11/NAT/HU/000926 www.falcoproject.eu) we tagged a new bird with a satellite radiotag in July, this time in Italy. The westernmost known population of this species breeds near Parma, Italy, where around 70-100 pairs nest. In the previous years some birds with Hungarian colour rings were observed here, so the available data suggests that this population is linked to those breeding in Eastern Europe and Hungary.

For example in June 2010 a bird was recaptured here that was originally ringed in Hungary in 2009, in the first Red-footed Falcon Conservation LIFE+ Programme. This bird was ringed as a nestling at the Vásárhelyi puszta, its colour ring combination is on white background black inscription: RV8. The same bird was observed again in June 2013, and our Italian colleagues discovered that the bird not only travels around, but it rears four young in a nestbox. During our last trip we got good news our bird appeared in the same region again, we can safely state, that RV8 successfully adapted to the sunny Mediterranean climate of Italy, and established itself as a member of the westernmost, island-like population of the species.
The black RV8 on white background colour ringed female in Italy.

 

But Michele and his friend identified in 2013 an another bird, too, that was ringed by us on the Vásárhelyi puszta. This bird had an orange colour ring with FH8 inscription on it.
The female with orange ring and FH8 code (Photos: Michele Mendi).

 

Usually Red-footed Falcons frequent this area in high numbers in the spring, when they return from the African wintering grounds.

 

The squad…

The dedicated five-strong Hungarian group consisted of the following persons: Szabolcs Solt and Éva Horváth /MME Red-footed Falcon Protection Group/, Péter Fehérvári /Hungarian Natural History Museum/, László Kotymán /Körös-Maros National Park/ and Sándor Piross-Imre /Szent István University, Faculty of Veterinary Science), which was complemented and helped by the Italian partners headed by Marco Gustin, researcher of the Italian Ornithological Society (LIPU, http://www.lipu.it/). The Italian team consisted of the following person: Cristina Giosele, Michele Mendi, Mario Pedrelli, Silvia Salomoni, Rita Pellegrini, Andrea Zanichelli, Enrico Ottolini, Emanuele Fior and our falconer: Fabrizio Cavalli.

 

The splendid plan

Our destination lies in the Northern part of Italy, in the vicinity of the city of Parma in the Po valley. The city belongs to the Emilia-Romagna region (Regione Emilia-Romagna), and it is most well-known for its cuisine, special cheeses and ham. It is probably not a mere coincidence that the headquarter of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is located in this city.

At first sight the landscape around the city seems to be the usual man-made agricultural plain. But for a specialist it is a very interesting area. The most widespread cultivated plant is alfalfa here on an approximately 16 000 square kilometre area, and the plant is grown on small to medium size plots to be used as fodder for livestock.

One of the oldest European cheeses „Parmigiano reggiano” is produced in the region, and to safeguard its world-famed quality, a strictly regulated agricultural practice is carried out here, which was described in a more detailed manner in our earlier article.The realm of the Parmigiano reggiano cheese (source: parmigianoreggiano.com/english/made/default.aspx).

 

The densely populated area, similarly to the open spaces of the Great Hungarian Plain, is broken up into smaller units by high poplar tree lines, and small patches of forests. The trees of these forest stands are used by our Italian colleagues to place the breeding nest boxes similar to those used by us in Hungary. Their nestbox colonies are very special, as all of the three kestrel species breeding in this area are nesting together in the colonies: the Kestrel, Red-footed Falcon and Lesser Kestrel.
Incubating Red-footed Falcon inside the nestbox (Photo: Michele Mendi).

This artificial nestbox colony is located right beside a farm (Photo: Szabolcs Solt, MME).

 

The nestbox colonies are placed in such poplar tree lines and tree stands, often right beside the farm buildings. The birds are as accustomed to the presence of humans, as the Common Blackbirds or urbanised Eurasian Magpies are in Hungary.

 

Nature Protection the Italian way

In Italy private land ownership is more significant than in Hungary, and hence it would be very difficult to start any nature conservation programme on an area of several hundred hectares. To gain the approval for the installation of nestboxes much more co-ordination and the agreement of large number of landowners is necessary. The employees of LIPU has been working on this area for more than 20 years, and the organisation not only deals with Red-footed Falcons, but also works on the conservation and practical management of many other species, and species groups. Moreover it develops and executes long-term habitat reconstruction projects. For example around the city of Torrile right beside the settling pond of a sugar factory a nature protection area was set up in 1998, and it has been continuously enlarged to its present 110 hectares size. A shallow lake and several deeper water bodies were linked together to form a large wetland area, and due to the proximity of the Po river it serves not only as a nesting area, but also as an important stopover site for migrant birds.Our host, Ugo Faralli, the LIPU official responsible for nature protection areas demonstrates the important steps of advancement of the lake system from 1998 (Photo: Éva Horváth, MME).

A small wetland paradise in the sea of arable lands.

We can observe and photograph from hides partially submerged under the water level …

… the every day life of the numerous birds (Northern Lapwing) …

… and can even see their most hidden and intimate moments - Little Egret (Photos: Szabolcs Solt, MME).

 

Meanwhile in the neighbourhood landowners busily harvest the alfalfa with mowing machines pulled with small tractors. So we walked to a quiet, small restaurant to have lunch. It is worth trying the smallest places, because oftentimes these tiny inns give the most memorable experiences. For example the menus in Torille are themselves very remarkable.
Here you can see the menu that completely amused our company while our meals were prepared.

 

So we spent two days with our host on this excellent area, and we planned to attach a PTT satellite tag to at least one Red-footed falcon.

 

Attaching transmiters á la falcoproject.eu – II.

We tried to capture birds at two locations. We used the method of our hosts i.e. applying large mist nets parallel with the Hungarian method developed this season we named FalcoPhag. Marco and his team cleared an area bordered by three mist nets and placed into it the lure, …

…a cheerful Harris-hawk - Parabuteo unicinctus (Photo: Szabolcs Solt, MME).

Meanwhile at the Eastern side László Kotymán starts assembling the FalcoPhag (Photo: Éva Horváth, MME).

The excellent Hungarian product is assembled, and with an artificial owl scanning the neighbourhood used as a lure, it is ready to catch birds (Photo: Szabolcs Solt, MME).

 

Finally from the 6 birds caught during the two days (1 female, 5 males) we chose an individual that was in the best, well-above average condition for satellite tagging. The handsome male was named Apollo by Marco and his team.
"Apollo" in the hand of Cristina Giosele - LIPU (Photos: Éva Horváth, MME).

The next step is to saw the radio tag, it begins with the attaching of the filament (Photos: Cristina Giosele, LIPU).

Meanwhile Marco puts a ring on “Apollo’s” leg.

In Italy rings with blue background colour with white characters are used.

Marco’s team also takes measurements, according to their own protocol, and of course all the measured data are recorded carefully (Photos: Szabolcs Solt, MME).

We attach the radio tag, and then comes sawing and fitting the transmitter to the feathers, and finally clipping the feathers in order the transmitter’s solar panel gets direct exposure (Fotó: Emanuele Fior).

 

While fitting the transmitter we were pleasantly surprised: the leader of a former LIFE project, and our friend Enrico Ottolini visited us in the field. He was a member of the Italian delegation at the Red-footed Falcon Conservation Conference held in Szarvas in 2009.
Enrico Ottolini summarises what happened since we have last met.

Enrico was very active in the ongoing fieldwork, too: he released one of the captured kestrels (Photo: Emanuele Fior).

„Apollo” with its radio tag on the 17th July, 2014 right before its releasing (Photo: Cristina Giosele).

 

In the weeks past since he had been released Apollo stayed around its nest, and was observed by Marco both on the 15th and 16th of September on a small roost site, where 36-38 birds gathered. But this fact also is an indication the he will soon begin his long migration.

Similarly to the Red-footed Falcons tagged in Kazakhstan the journey of Apollo can be tracked on the satellitetracking.eu webpage.

It was a great experience to work together with our Italian friends, we thank Marco Gustin, the godfather of Apollo, the local mentor of the kestrels and his dedicated team the two unforgettable days we spent with them.

 

Szabolcs Solt