The Lesser Spotted Eagle

(Aquila pomarina)

The Lesser Spotted Eagle

Conservation status

On the global extent the Lesser Spotted Eagle is regarded as a species with an unfavourable conservation status, with approximately 20.000 breeding pairs at present. Nevertheless only 103 breeding pairs remain in Germany in 2009. This alarming situation lead to the classifica-tion “severely endangered” (Cat. 2) on “Germanys’ Red list of threatened species”. Current monitoring data furthermore indicate a significant population decline over the last years.

Strong demands on habitat

The Lesser Spotted Eagle is a very wary species, with specific requirements regarding the quality of its habitat. On the one hand, deep and quiet forests of old growth are essential for breeding and raising its young. On the other hand there is an elementary need for wet grass-lands, rich in species, serving as hunting and feeding grounds within a short reach of the nest-site. Open planes also benefit one of the eagles’ exceptional hunting methods: approaching prey on foot.
As the bird is very sensitive to alterations in its environment, any type of disturbance may lead to fatal consequences for the reproduction process and finally to the desertation of breed-ing grounds. In this issue all acts of forestry and hunting as well as leisure-time activities within close distance to nest sites might mean critical intervention to the species natural be-haviour and habitat.

Factors of disturbance

In the course of the 20th century immense modification of landscapes throughout intensified agriculture and enforcement of alternative-energy-strategies as well as the enormous expan-sion of infra-structure leads to a substantial loss of potential habitat for the Lesser Spotted Eagle. The decline of natural structures of open country as well as the drainage of wetlands on a large scale caused increasing distances between feeding grounds and nest sites, resulting in a negative energy coefficient for parent and fledgling. The increasing installation of wind power plants in addition to power lines in the direct environment of breeding grounds resulted in a number of deadly collisions and electrocutions respectively. Furthermore the construction of a growing road- as well as bicycle- and hiking-trail-network seriously intensified pressure in means of human interference.

Threats along the flyway

As a migratory bird of prey the Lesser Spotted Eagle not only faces numerous threats within its breeding grounds. First of all natural mortality clearly increases throughout their exhaust-ing journey. Furthermore, in comparison to stationary species, the eagles have to face multiple occasions of hazardous situations, like the named collisions and electrocutions. But it has been revealed that these unpleasant incidents are not the main cause of death for migratory birds of prey along their flyway. As it turns out, rather acts of unlawful killing such as poison-ing and especially shooting, mainly over the Middle East, are most fatal deeds to a decreasing population of these vulnerable birds.

Aspects of conservation

In the long run, a stable not only German but above all global population of Lesser Spotted Eagles can only be accomplished throughout profound measures of protection. In this matter the “Deutsche Wildtier Stiftung” (German Wildlife Foundation), in cooperation with leading German experts on this species, has developed an extensive future-oriented concept. It con-sists of three different components with the aim a) to protect, improve or recover respectively the species’ habitat in Western-Mecklenburg Pomerania and Saxony-Anhalt, b) to perform research on the species’ migration routes as well as on potential instruments of risk-elimination along the flyway and c) to stabilize or recover respectively the present German population of Lesser Spotted Eagles.

The Lesser Spotted Eagle Conservation Program in details

1. Conservation and improvement of habitat
In 2003 the German Wildlife Foundation initiated a large scale project in order to conserve and improve existing natural habitat of the Lesser Spotted Eagle on a sustainable level. At the Lower Recknitz Valley (province of Western-Mecklenburg Pomerania), intensive measures of renaturation led to the maintenance of wide open wet grasslands. These serve most favourable conditions and support the species’ needs for hunting and feeding its young.
In corporation with the “Nature Preserve Feldberg Lakelands” (also Western-Mecklenburg Pomerania) and throughout co-funding support by the Federal Agency for Nature Conserva-tion (BfN) another step in the conservation of natural habitat has been taken. Under direct scientific supervision of Dr. W. Scheller, an expert on Lesser Spotted Eagles, analysis regard-ing the species’ living conditions has been performed on six breeding grounds. The gained information shall serve as fundamental groundwork in the preparation of guidelines for the lasting protection of the species’ natural habitat. Ideally, the acquired strategies may function as a role-model in the conservation of further breeding grounds in Germany.
In another approach, the German Wildlife Foundation aims to take over stewardship of 1.000 to 1.5000 hectares of mainly forest-areas in the province of Western-Mecklenburg Pomerania. These either already serve as breeding grounds at present or are promising areas to be colo-nized by Lesser Spotted Eagles in the long run.

2. Research and measures of protection along the flyway
Within the course of a long term program to save nestlings from an early decease (see below), the German Wildlife Foundation intends to make use of the circumstances. During the sec-ond-borns’ period off the nest, a small GPS satellite transmitter is attached to the bird. Through this, information on the species’ migration route and also on potential risk areas along its flyway may be collected once the fledglings head off south.
Illegal acts of poaching and poisoning are well-known risk factors for migratory birds along their exhausting journey towards their wintering grounds in Africa. Although there are hunt-ing laws and strong considerations on the protection of birds of prey even in countries such as Turkey, Malta, Lebanon and Syria, their effect often lacks on measures of implementation. As a consequence the German Wildlife Foundation, in cooperation with further organizations, is engaged in political lobbyism for the enforcement of conservational measures in those defined risk states.
Another potential tool for the protection of birds of prey along their flyway would be a further dissemination and acts of implementation of the “Memorandum of Understanding on the Con-servation of Migratory Birds of Prey in Africa and Eurasia” conducted by the CMS („Conven-tion on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals“). In these means the German Wildlife Foundations’ aim is to collaborate with the CMS.

3. Stabilizing the population
Due to the dramatic decline of the Lesser Spotted Eagles’ population in Germany over the past years, immediate measures of conservation are compulsory until the above mentioned instruments will show an effect. In order to stabilize the birds’ fragile population, the German Wildlife Foundation tries to ‘increase’ the number of fledglings by evading “Cainism”, an exceptional characteristic of the birds’ biology.
Typically the clutch of Lesser Spotted Eagles consists of two eggs, of which the first-born nestling (“Cain”) tends to kill the second-born (“Abel”) within the first days. To avoid the loss of individuals, these second-born birds are taken from the nests shortly after hatching and raised separately. Since the aggressive behaviour of the older sibling fades out after a certain period of time, it is possible to reintroduce the younger sibling to the nest. Moreover it has been shown that the introduction of an additional nestling to breeding pairs with only a single young in the first place also is a promising technique. In this case, nestlings from Latvia, a region with a prosperous population of Lesser Spotted Eagles, have been introduced to nests of German eagles. In most of the cases the parents accepted the foreign fledglings. But still the success of this project needs to be proven by the return of the younger nestlings from their wintering grounds, hopefully with a flourishing production of their own offspring in its con-sequence.

Collaboration and Funding

The implementation of the Lesser Spotted Eagle Conservation Program bases on the profound expertise by scientists, close cooperation with ministries and government agencies and the deep enthusiasm of ornithologists and land-owners. Namely these are Prof. Dr. Bernd-Ulrich Meyburg and Prof. Dr. Kai Graszynski of the World Working Group for Birds of Prey and Owls, Dr. Torsten Langgemach and Mr. Paul Sömmer of the Environmental Authority of Brandenburg (Landesumweltamt Brandenburg), Dr. Wolfgang Scheller of the Cooperation Office SALIX for Environmental Planning and Landscaping (Kooperationsbüro SALIX für Umwelt- und Landschaftsplanung) and Dr. Peter Wernicke of the Nature Preserve Feldberg Lakelands (Naturpark Feldberger Seenlandschaft) among many others.The Lesser Spotted Eagle Conservation Program is funded by the German Wildlife Founda-tion which uses capital gains and donations for this purpose. Measures taken to stabilize the German Lesser Spotted Eagle Population by (re-) introducing fledglings have been funded by the German Federal Environment Foundation (DBU, Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt). Acts of conservation and improvement of the Lesser Spotted Eagles’ breeding habitat in Western-Mecklenburg Pomerania have been funded by Federal Agency for Nature Conserva-tion (BfN, Bundesamt für Naturschutz), from the resources of the Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU).