Eagle on the eastern Alps


A project to study the eagle in the eastern Alps, an example of interpark collaboration

At the beginning of the century, the golden eagle was nearly extinct in the Alps. At the last moment, the creation of protected areas and conservation measures agreed between the various countries involved enabled the king of the air to be saved from disappearance. In 2001, five important protected areas in the Alps, the Belluno Dolomites National Park, the Fanes-Sennes-Braies and Vedrette di Ries-Aurina National Parks, the Alto Adige part of the Stelvio National Park and the Hohe Tauern National Park in Austria undertook a joint project to assess the current situation of the golden eagle. For the last three years, they have been undertaking joint monitoring and research on this emblem of Alpine wildlife.

Data collection methods are standardised between the various parks. In particular, the size and demographic trend of the golden eagle population in the areas concerned (a total of about 3200 km2) is being studied.
As well as breeding data on 70 pairs of eagles, information is also being collected on the location and characteristics (altitude, type and dimensions) of the nesting sites.The presence of suitable nesting sites is extremely important. Eagles build very large nests which they often use for a number of years. As a general rule, each couple has a number of nests they can use in rotation from year to year. In the areas studied, the number of nests in each territory varied from 2 to 11.
Eagles usually nest on rock walls on the tree line at a lower altitude than their hunting grounds in order to minimise the energy outlay when descending with their prey.
Food remains are being analysed to document the eating habits of the eagle which vary from region to region and also during the year, given that eagles have a varied diet.

Areas rich in prey are an essential precondition to healthy eagle populations. The breeding success of individual couples is, however, also influenced by the tranquillity of the nesting site. Disturbance in the immediate vicinity of the nest often leads to the eagles abandoning the eggs or chicks. A disturbed nest may then be abandoned for years, or even definitively, if the disturbance continues. Climbers, hang gliders, woodcutters and helicopter flights may all lead the breeding to fail, but also overly curious nature photographers. The overhead cables of ski lifts, cable cars, cableways and power lines located near the breeding sites are also extremely dangerous.

In 2004, the surveys in the Belluno Dolomites National Park were carried out by Giuseppe Tormen, Enrico Canal, Fabrizio Friz, Gianni Poloniato and Enrico Vettorazzo. Eight pairs were identified and monitored. To date, 33 nests have been identified, mostly located between 1000 and 1400 m.
Regular monitoring of populations plays an important role in protecting the eagle. Only regular monitoring of couples and their breeding success can enable negative developments to be detected rapidly and adequate countermeasures to be taken without delay. The creation of large protected areas such as national and natural parks also guarantees the eagle extensive, well conserved and tranquil habitats where it can find adequate nourishment and refuge from possible disturbance. International cooperation to monitor populations and coordinate safeguarding strategies is indispensable to ensure that this species can continue to be sighted regularly around the peaks and valleys of the Alps in the future.
These studies also have management spin-off as they enable the coherence of the Nature 2000 network to be verified in the field. This is particularly important for the golden eagle, a species listed in annex 1 of EC Directive 79/409, the so-called Bird Directive.

The data gathered are publicised to a vast public to promote knowledge of both the eagle and the importance of supranational nature conservation strategies, the most effective for species with a large home range such as predators.
Particular attention has therefore been paid to information initiatives including creation of an internet portal www.aquilalp.net, printing of a yearly Newsletter with the results of the research, publication of a brochure on the golden eagle and creation of a travelling didactic exhibition.
As well as traditional display panels with photographs and text, the exhibition also uses modern multimedia techniques with spectacular films. It reveals curious and little known aspects of the life cycle of the eagle, its eating habits (with a display of the remains of meals collected from nests), its legendary eyesight and distribution in the world and on the Alps. It also explains how to distinguish it from other birds in flight and an interactive device enables visitors to test their strength and compare it with that of an eagle’s claws. A map of the five parks involved in the project shows the nesting areas, while the last section analyses human activities potentially damaging to the eagle and illustrates the common efforts being made by protected areas in the Alps to safeguard this bird of prey.

As part of the Italy-Austria INTERREG IIIa Programme, the project is financed with regional development funds, together with funds from the Carinthia, Saltsburg and Tyrol regions, the Austrian Federal Ministry for Agriculture, Forestry, the Environment and Water Resources, the Republic of Italy, the Autonomous Province of Bonzano and the Veneto Region.