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Bustards, Leks & Cyborg Dances | Yoav Perlman

Just before Easter I returned from my first proper field session in my study area in Spain and Portugal. In previous short visits I mainly worked on creating and strengthening connections with local collaborators and obtaining long-term monitoring data from these collaborators. This time my trip was devoted to the field. When I am sat in my office at UEA, testing effects of land-use changes on Great Bustards, it is easy to dive into numbers, figures and R codes. However, if I want my project to eventually have a real impact on the conservation of Great Bustards and their habitats in Iberia, I must begin to intimately understand my study system – namely, the birds and their habitats.

My visit was timed to study my Great Bustards during the most exciting part of their annual cycle – the display season. The huge males form leks, that are aggregations of birds in which they perform competitive display dancing that attracts females. Males display their size, colours and feather patterns, and females choose the most impressive males to mate with. Some lucky alpha males are so attractive that they can mate with several females. The display is quite fascinating. Within seconds the male transforms from a ‘normal’ looking bird to a cyborg-like thing, unidentifiable as a bird. They rattle there feathers and tilt from side to side, bob up and down. I found this quite hilarious but I guess females are impressed more by this display than me.

”Males display their size, colours and feather patterns, and females choose the most impressive males to mate with.”

I took this sequence of shots of one male from a hide in SE Extremadura within few seconds:

The females are tiny compared to males, and are very secretive and shy. The visit the lek for a short period, to choose a male and mate, and then they are quickly off to breed in a secluded, safe nest site. The males do not participate at all in raising the young chicks. In every site I learned about the land-use changes that occurred there during recent decades. I did this through observation and in the field with local experts who know the birds and their habitat and ecology best, gaining this expertise is paramount for my success. The small problem is that these local experts only speak Spanish. During the last semester I took a Spanish course that was very useful in acquiring some basic vocabulary and basic conversation skills. I practiced these skills heavily during my time in Spain.

”In every site I learned about land-use changes from local experts”.

Anyway, now I understand what agricultural intensification, increases in grazing pressure, increases in proportion of permanently irrigated agricultural land compared to non-irrigated agricultural land and new power lines are. This understanding of how the system works will help me in my future analyses. Apart for the Great Bustards I got to see many more endangered and beautiful birds that inhabit the steppe zones in Iberia, such as Little Bustard, Montagu’s Harrier and Spanish Imperial Eagle. Thanks again to Swarovski Optik for providing me with superb optics to carry out my fieldwork.

”I had the unique opportunity to see many endangered and beautiful birds that inhabit the steppe zones in Iberia”.

During this trip and previous trip I met lots of devoted ecologists and conservationists. As always they are great people and together we had lots of fun in the field. The weather was good (much better than in the UK for sure), scenery is beautiful – what more could I ask for? Well, I must admit pub food in Extremadura sucks but at least the wine is good.

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