The ebb and flow of migration along the East Atlantic Flyway never really stops – here’s how in the past year The Inglorious Bustards have been gathering a perspective from the Straits of Gibraltar on the journeys of some familiar – and less familiar – species…
Birdfair 2016 marked the beginning of our journey last year – a beautiful summer weekend to bid a fond hasta luego to friends before heading off to our home at Huerta Grande Eco-lodge in the Straits of Gibraltar on our next tour-leading adventure. We weren’t the only ones choosing to head south, and our movements coincided with the steadily mounting autumn migration.
All through August, September and October, our UK-bred Turtle Doves, Barn Swallows, Cuckoos, Reed and Sedge Warblers, Chiffchaffs and Marsh Harriers to name but a few were streaming south, travelling mostly by cover of darkness, all following the bustling East Atlantic flyway to wintering grounds in Africa.
At only 14 km wide, the Strait of Gibraltar is the narrowest stretch of water between Europe and Africa. As well as many millions of Northern European passerines, twice a year over 250,000 migrating raptors choose this point to cross between continents. The birds gather in huge numbers, making use of the thermals that rise off the rocky coastlines to give them the lift they need to traverse the short – but potentially deadly – stretch of sea.
This breath-taking migratory spectacle is beyond compare. Imagine looking up and seeing 20,000 Honey Buzzards, Black Kites, White Storks, Short-toed and Booted Eagles, with supporting groups of Black Storks, Egyptian Vultures and European Bee-eaters. No matter how many times we see it, it never loses its magic. It’s not surprising that this experience has the power to reduce many folk to tears!
This phenomenon continues well into November as thousands of Griffon Vultures join the throng. At this time, we also enjoyed exploring the more mountainous inland areas of Malaga province, where delights such as Alpine Accentor, Black Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush, Rock Bunting and Rock Sparrow were starting to move down to more agreeable altitudes for the winter, making them much easier to find. We also got to enjoy the odd migratory overshoot, in the form of Fieldfares and Redwings enjoying expat life and a wealth of fruits and berries on the nearby farmland.
December and January were fine months to explore the area’s wetland habitats. The flooded farmland fields were at their absolute best, hosting a wetland spectacle to rival Coto Doñana. Many thousands of Common Cranes congregated, while we enjoyed huge flocks of Northern Lapwings, Skylarks and more, enjoying some winter sun before their return to the UK. While we were still without a heart-warming pint of Adnams, wintering Common Chiffchaffs, Robins, Song Thrushes and Blackcaps provided us with a much-needed taste of UK life.
February is when it all kicks off again. One day conditions will suddenly be right, and huge columns of Black Kites will be visible surging from the northern coast of Morocco as if someone has popped a bottle of champagne. Seemingly within minutes they’re here – and if we’re not working, we like to sit on the clifftops and raise a glass of vino tinto to their welcome arrival!
Perhaps surprisingly, at this coldest dampest part of the British year, swallows and martins have already started their passage north by now – the earliest we had were on Christmas Day!
This year for us, February also brought everyone’s favourite waif and stray, Jonny Rankin, and his crew, who stayed with us for the first legs of his epic Dovestep 3 walking extravaganza, before eventually marching on cross the entirety of Spain on foot (some 700 miles) and raise another £7000 for the RSPB’s Operation Turtle Dove.
Throughout March and April the migratory return journey was in full rush hour. What a joy to see the promise of return fulfilled by familiar species such as Barn Swallows, House Martins, Ospreys, Nightingales, Common Redstarts– and the odd flavissima Yellow Wagtail – pouring through on their way back to the UK! We also got to enjoy the arrival of such stunners as Collared Pratincoles, Stone Curlews, Melodious Warblers, Tawny Pipits, Woodchat Shrikes and Black-eared Wheatears.
In May and June we enjoyed the later movement of UK birds like Common Swift, Pied Flycatcher and the deeply anticipated Turtle Dove, all merged in with a fantastic passage of almost the entire European population of Honey Buzzards. It was also the peak of the breeding season – a perfect time to observe local resident species. This is one of the very few areas in Europe where you can find all five of the European swifts – Common, Pallid, White-rumped, Little and Alpine. It’s also a fine place to get outstanding views of the Critically Endangered Northern Bald Ibis. A successful reintroduction programme of this weird and wonderful avian creature means that the Straits now holds possibly the most viable – but certainly the most viewable – population in the world.
With its intense heat, early July is probably the only real lull in activity, so we spend the brief time doing some office work (with air-conditioning if possible!), forging ahead with new partnerships we are building to ensure that we, and the people we bring here, are able to give something back to conservation in the Straits. We’re working with organisations like Fundacion Migres, who have been monitoring the migration for 25 years and are the source of much of the available data on it.
Come mid-July and August, however, and flocks of White Storks and Black Kites are once more overhead, already Africa bound! Beautiful as they are, we are Blighty-bound to catch up with old friends and new at the Birdfair. Will we see you there? We are in Marquee 1, Stand 28 – Come and chat to us and we can tell you in person how, no matter which of the 365 days you choose, every day is a good day in the Straits!
Next year we’d love to share some of these experiences with you! Check out our tours page and come and see us at Birdfair, Marquee 1, Stand 28 to find out more about migration experiences, vulture spectacles, swift weekenders and more!