Notes From Nature

Notes from Nature: Nov. 2009

A project to encourage farmers to leave fields uncut, has revived the nearly extinct great bustard to Austria

Should you spot a bird from 300 meters or more, and be scratching your head for a name, there are few more helpful people to have around than Dr. Hans Frey, a long-time Lecturer in Zoology at Vienna’s University of Veterinary Medicine.

I caught a lift with Dr. Frey in his gracefully aging Ford Fiesta recently, and we trundled across broad, open plains on the 30km or so, route back to Vienna from his bird rehabilitation center in Haringsee.

The late afternoon sky was flatgrey, and the windschieldwipers of Dr. Frey’s car squeaked in protest against heavy, but intermittent, windblown October rain.

We had been discussing the more exotic species supported by this agricultural, but still bleak and wild, landscape.

Imperial and white-tailed eagles both roam here, as do golden eagles in the summer months. The eagle owl, buzzard, saker falcon, peregrine, hobby, kestrel and merlin are all regulars, too. Then I noticed a group of what at first glance resembled small deer.

“I don’t have my glasses,” complained Dr. Frey, in response to my excited gesturing. He pulled over to the muddy verge and rolled down his window.

“Buzzards?” I asked, since we had past eight or ten already. “That’s err, that’s…” Dr. Frey mumbled for a few moments, squinting against the rain. “That’s Otis,” he said eventually, quietly triumphant. “Otis tarda – great bustard.”

There are only around 15 of these huge, intensely shy, globally threatened birds in these parts, said Dr. Frey, and we were looking at seven of them – a drove, as they’re known collectively.

The magnificent males, which can weigh up to 18kg, are among the world’s largest flying land birds. They were almost extinct here until recently, when a project that encourages farmers to leave fields uncut began restoring their habitat. It’s working well, and there is now a comparatively good population of great bustards in Austria – about 150 birds altogether.

The success of Otistarda in this wild, exposed, Austrian landscape can be better understood on reading Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey’s account of the species in Birds Britannica. “Nervous and mistrustful,” they require a “horizon with clear views of 1km or more on at least three sides,” they write.

Agricultural intensification and hunting has meant that the range of great bustards has been greatly reduced since World War II. They’ve been absent from Britain since the 1800s, but a reintroduction project has recently enjoyed some success.

In Austria, however, just 30 minutes or so from the capital, they appear to be going strong.


The first in a series of columns that considers the wilder side of Vienna.

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