The beautiful White-headed Duck is a compelling species. Keen birdwatchers are always eager to catch a glimpse of its distinctive blue bill or stiff tail. Its larger, eastern population in Asia is shrouded in mystery: the precise breeding and wintering grounds of tens of thousands of birds counted in Kazakhstan remains unknown. This population is also migratory, travelling long distances from Siberia to the Middle East, whereas the smaller western Mediterranean population resident in Spain, Algeria and Tunisia is more sedentary and far more closely studied. Sadly, what unites these populations is their IUCN listing as globally ‘Endangered’.
Back in the 1970s, the Spanish population of White-headed Duck was brought to the verge of extinction following the severe destruction of its wetland habitats and unsustainable hunting. A count in 1977 recorded just 22 individuals, confined to a single lagoon in Córdoba, Andalucía. Conservationists sprang into action: hunting at the lagoon site was made illegal and habitat restoration measures were implemented, including vegetation regeneration and the removal of harmful non-native species. Slowly but surely, the species began to recover, progressively spreading first to the neighbouring provinces of Sevilla and Cádiz and then on to Almería and Toledo. By 1988, more than 400 birds could be counted and today that number has rocketed up to 2,500 individuals across 13 Spanish provinces.
The spectacular recovery of the White-headed Duck in Spain is an inspiring example of what can be achieved by a well-coordinated Species Action Plan (SAP), grounded in science and supported by local authorities and community groups. But success in one country usually isn’t enough to turn things around for a whole species worldwide. That is why BirdLife has been leading the LIFE EuroSAP project with the goal of elaborating SAPs for sixteen iconic species on an international scale, spanning 65 countries and three continents. The White-headed Duck, still Endangered globally, was selected to be one of the target species, with SEO/BirdLife Spain coordinating efforts to identify threats and conservation measures to feed into an updated international SAP.Read on