Interview with Mátyás Prommer about the conservation of the Saker Falcon in Hungary and neighbouring countries

Date of the interview: 30 October 2009

The Saker Falcon is one of most endangered raptors in Europe. In this interview, Mátyás Prommer talks about the current situation of this species in Hungary and neighbouring countries.

Saker Falcon Conservation Hungary

Mátyás putting a satellite transmitter on a Saker Falcon. © Miklós Váczi

Markus Jais: What is the current population of Saker Falcons in Hungary?
Mátyás Prommer: The current population of the Hungarian Sakers is around 180-200 pairs. However, it is strongly connected to the population in the neighbouring countries (approximately 30 pairs in Slovakia, 50 pairs in Serbia, 20 pairs in Austria and there are some pairs in the Czech Republic, Romania and West-Ukraine too). So we talk about a more or less coherent population with an approximately 300 pairs – not an enormous one. The closest ‘aggregation’ of pairs is in Central and East Ukraine with an estimated 250-300 pairs.

Markus Jais: Is the population still increasing?
Mátyás Prommer: The population is slightly increasing due to the efficient conservation measures started by Magyar Madártani és Természetvédelmi Egyesület (BirdLife Hungary) 30 years ago. However, the rate of increase is not as high as we would expect from the breeding results and known mortality factors. So now we are trying to find out what is going on exactly. The Hungarian- Slovak Saker conservation LIFE-Nature project that provides financial support for the conservation work, is a great help in that investigation.

Markus Jais: What are the main threats the birds are facing?
Mátyás Prommer: Among the threats we know, recently electrocution, poisoning and secondary poisoning, shooting and collision to electric wires are the main threats. On a lower scale, habitat loss is also affecting the population in Central and Eastern Europe.

Saker Falcon Conservation Hungary

Putting a satellite transmitter on a Saker Falcon. © Miklós Váczi

Markus Jais: Agricultural changes can be a serious problem for many raptors. How is the current European farming policy affecting raptors, including Saker Falcons, in Hungary?
Mátyás Prommer: Sakers are actively using agricultural land nowadays in Central Europe so it is a very important question. Agri-environmental measures (using less pesticides, supporting nature friendly and more diverse agricultural regimes are clearly benefiting also Sakers in general. It is difficult, however, to draw more specific conclusion on how various ways of farmland management affect Sakers. One of the aim of the running LIFE project is exactly to study the relation between various schemes and Sakers and advising the decision-makers how to formulate agri-environmental schemes in order to benefit Sakers.

Markus Jais: What is the scope of the current LIFE project?
Mátyás Prommer: The current LIFE-Nature project coordinated by Bükk National Park Directorate (Hungary) and run in Hungary and Slovakia has many elements aiming to stabilise and possibly increase Saker population.
The most important are:

  • surveying habitat use of adults and advising on appropriate agri-environmental schemes benefiting Sakers;
  • surveying and insulating the most dangerous pylons of mid-voltage power lines;
  • placing artificial nest boxes and nest platforms to provide safe possibility for breeding (as other falcon species Sakers do not build nests either);
  • re-introduction of Susliks (Spermophilus citellus) to their former habitats that had been abandoned once but managed again recently (this species needs short grass thus grazing or mowing is indispensable) to encourage Sakers to settle again in former breeding grounds;
  • satellite tagging of juveniles in order to learn about their post-fledging movements including migration and wintering in order to learn about threats on them;
  • raising public awareness about the species in general among locals and population in general.

More information on the project is available here: www.sakerlife.mme.hu

Markus Jais: Do you already have valuable results from the satellite tracking and what are the implications for conservation from those results?
Mátyás Prommer: Yes, we do and they will be published later. The main conclusion is that stronger co-operation is needed between breeding range and wintering/roaming range countries to provide more efficient protection for the juveniles of the species. The routes of satellite-tracked birds can be followed here:
www.sakerlife.mme.hu/hu/gmap

Saker Falcon Conservation Hungary

Saker Falcon with a satellite transmitter. © Miklós Váczi

Markus Jais: What are the main prey animals of the Saker in Hungary? How can prey populations, for example Susliks, be managed so that enough food is available?
Mátyás Prommer: Main prey species in Hungary are voles (usually taken from other raptors e.g. harriers and Kestrels), birds of medium and small size and Suslik. Recently, as the Sakers moved to the lowland from the hills, Suslik became less important, however it still can be dominant locally. This latter species is managed as written above.

Markus Jais: For what other raptor species is MME/Birdlife Hungary working for at the moment?
Mátyás Prommer: BirdLife Hungary has a very good system of volunteer coordinators for the most important raptor species (from the conservation point of view). It means that one person is responsible one species: for the coordination of conservation activities and ringing in the country, gathering all data about the species, managing and coordinating local experts, and possibly the fund raising activities such as applications for funds. It is very important to emphasize, however that the coordinators are working closely together with the local experts and they never do anything without involving experts on local level. The system would not work without this close co-operation. Apparently, it is a very efficient and good system but an overall good relation and co-operation is needed for that on national level among raptor experts.
Recently, the following species have coordinators in Hungary: Imperial Eagle, White-tailed Eagle, Short-toed Eagle, Saker Falcon, Peregrine Falcon, Red-footed Falcon and Eagle Owl. MME/BirdLife Hungary (sometimes in co-operation with other organisations like in case of Peregrine where Pilis Nature Conservation Association is also involved) has national programmes on those species. In addition, Black Stork is also classified as ‘bird of prey’ because of its breeding habits and it has a national coordinator as well.

Markus Jais: What was your most amazing experience with Saker Falcons?
Mátyás Prommer: Satellite-tracking has just incredible results. It is just amazing to see how far they fly and what performance they can show. Like the juvenile female that crossed the Mediterranean Sea last year between Montenegro and Libya that meant 1100 km above the open water just in 24h – it is just amazing.

Markus Jais: Mátyás, thank you very much for the interview

Further Information

www.sakerlife.mme.hu - Conservation of Saker (Falco cherrug) in the Carpathian Basin (LIFE06 NAT/HU/000096)