Mountain Birding and Vulture Culture in Ronda and the Straits!

What a superb adventure that was! While birding Andalusia from the stunning mountains of Ronda to the gorgeous coasts of the Straits of Gibraltar, last week’s trip brought us encounters with star species including Rüppell’s Vulture, Black Wheatear, Golden Eagle, Audouin´s Gull, Egyptian Vulture, Montagu´s Harrier and many others!

The mountain leg of the trip was based in the quirky blue village of Jùzcar, and the high-altitude birding was fuelled by the mouth-watering local food of our hotel´s award-winning chef, Ivan. The team´s rocky explorations brought us Blue Rock Thrushes, Rock Sparrows, Rock Buntings, Golden Eagle, Black Redstarts, Black Wheatear and more.

In the Sierra de las Nieves, we picnicked amongst Holm Oaks, Wild Olives and endemic Spanish Firs, surrounded by dozens of Black and Common Redstarts, Firecrests, Crested Tits, Nuthatch, and Short-toed Creepers. We could see distant Griffon Vultures circling above the rocky hills, and we watched a Golden Eagle soaring high above us.

Soon we were settling in to our accommodation at Hotel Bandolero in the quirky blue village of Jùzcar, used as the set for the Smurfs! Movie in 2011. We took a couple of hours to unpack, relax and explore the extraordinary pueblo.

That evening, the heavily-anticipated food of award-winning chef Ivan did not disappoint, with astonishingly good chanterelle, pomegranate and blue cheese salad, pumpkin and shrimp risotto, and glazed chestnut mousse making the best of local seasonal produce with a twist!

After a hearty breakfast the next day, we headed out to the nearby `moonscape´ of Los Riscos, where the morning sun was warming the hillside. As we took up our positions, surveying the massive rock plateau in front of us, it wasn´t long before mountain birds were flitting across the rock wall. Blue Rock Thrush was the first to be spotted, soon to be followed by three Rock Sparrows. Fleeting glimpses of an Alpine Accentor were sadly not to be repeated, but after putting in a bit of effort we had close views of Rock Bunting and Cirl Bunting.

After lunch and a quick dip at the turquoise pools of Cueva del Gato we headed to Montejaque Dam, high into the mountains. Cueva del Hundidero lies at the base of a dramatic gorge which wouldn´t look out of place on a Star Wars film set. Here we watched the afternoon soften, and enjoyed unbelievable views of Black Wheatears displaying and squabbling amongst the rocks. Many low Griffon Vultures and Crag Martins passed over on their way to roost, as did a Peregrine Falcon and several Red-billed Chough, much admired by Joan and John.

Our late afternoon decision to stay ´five more minutes´ proved a good one – all at once on the rock face in front of us, we spotted a female Rock Ibex and her kid, picking their way across the boulders! On further examination there were at least six more individuals, including two adult males with impressive horns. Masters of the mountain, they melted away as softly and quickly as they had appeared, and we returned extremely happy to Jùzcar.

We spent some relaxed time in Ronda mid-morning, enjoyed this Moorish city’s gorgeous parks and streets, finding migratory warblers in the trees, including Common and Iberian Chiffchaff and Western Bonelli´s Warbler. We also had fabulous views of two Common Crossbills picking buds off the trees!

We took a coffee overlooking the impressive Tajo gorge, which the town straddles by way of three eye-pleasing historic bridges – one Roman, one Moorish and one dating from the 18th century.

Descending to the Straits, the group found themselves in the thick of the autumn Griffon Vulture migration, with birds kettling in their hundreds along with a late wave of migrating Short-toed Eagles, Black Kites, Booted Eagles and some superb Rüppell´s Vultures.

Even as we arrived in the Straits it was apparent that vultures really were on the move here! An imposing kettle of dozens of Griffon Vultures was swirling over the hillsides just beyond our lodgings, so we chased off after them as if they were a tornado!

We got right underneath this whirling avian biomass and enjoyed superb views before the birds moved on over the hill. In their wake they left at least ten Short-toed Eagles, hovering silently over the fields, hunting side-by-side, yellow eyes searching the scrub below for reptiles.

A visit to a colony of 100+ Griffon Vultures in the hills of the Sierra de la Plata allowed us to see these impressive birds up close, perching on and circling round the rocks, screeching like prehistoric beasts. As the team relaxed in the shade and observed these awe-inspiring birds – as well as Black Storks, Honey Buzzards and Booted Eagles – the shout went up! A Rüppell´s Vulture had arrived! Tarifa area is the only place in Europe where this African Species can be seen, making it highly sought after. They are not easy to see and older birds can be difficult to distinguish from Griffon Vultures, but this was classic Rüppell´s – 10% smaller than the birds alongside it, chocolate brown with no contrast, and a beautiful spangle of white on the underwing. We were immeasurably chuffed with our find and the bird was low enough for us to get some great pictures too.

A spot of sea-watching from the seaside town of Bolonia (complete with ice cream!) gave us Northern Gannet and Cory´s Shearwater, and flocks of Dunlin and Sanderling on the beach. Andrew headed down to the shore and we cheered him on from as a distance as, after sitting stock still for a while and finally lying face down in the sand, a Kentish Plover came and practically sat on his lens!

A walk through the grazed pastures down to the shoreline at Playa de los Lances gave us swirling flocks of Corn Buntings, House Sparrows and Spotless Starlings, as well as our best views yet of Crested Larks and numerous Meadow Pipits. Reaching the hide we enjoyed Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey Plovers chilling out on the sand while flocks of Sanderling, Common Ringed and Kentish Plover scurried back and forth. Out to sea, Northern Gannets and Cory´s Shearwaters were visible.

Just as we were leaving, a Short-eared Owl rose up from the tussocky vegetation at the far end of the reserve and landed on the sand right in front of us! An SEO on the beach certainly made for a very unusual sight!

Heading to the salt pans at Barbate, passing a stunning melanistic Montagu´s Harrier on the way, we arrived to find a flock of lovely Audouin´s gulls waiting for us close to shore. A pleasing selection of waders ensued, including Redshank, Greenshank, Dunlin, Black-winged Stilt, Common Ringed and Kentish Plover and Common Sandpiper. A passing Peregrine Falcon caused a flurry of activity with many more Common Ringed and Kentish Plover flushed to our end of the marsh. Further on we found Eurasian Spoonbills and Greater Flamingoes, and a late Marsh Harrier also graced us with its presence before we headed home, ready for a relax before dinner.

In a moment of silliness, we had indulged in a group prayer to the ornithological gods and spirits, and we like to think it was this that brought us to Cheryl and Richard. Noticing our bird-watchers´ T-shirts and equipment, they came over to tell us that they had a young Griffon Vulture with a leg injury – nicknamed Victor – knocking about on their farm. We put them in contact with our friends at the Junta de Andalusia who manage a raptor rehabilitation centre, and popped in to visit the damaged youngster. Victor proved very relaxed and keen to meet us, and we were honoured to spend half an hour in his company, admiring his incredibly strong beak and talons, and his gentle-looking eyes.

At our accommodation at the tranquil eco-lodge of Huerta Grande, we enjoyed strolls around the beautiful wooded grounds, enjoying the mist-shrouded trees, where many Serins, Short-toed Treecreepers, Crested Tits and Firecrests sang, and a wave of migrant Blackcaps and European Robins brought the undergrowth to life.

Our exploration of mountains, salt pans, lagoons, intertidal habitat, cork oak forests, plains and pastureland habitat had brought us encounters with over 140 bird species, some very special mammals, and a fascinating selection of reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, moths and dragonflies.

As well as being treated to some spectacular birding in Spain, the group enjoyed relaxed days taking in all the gorgeous cuisine, scenery Andalusia has to offer.
Simon and Niki had some top birding – and such great fun – with John, Joan, Andrew, Pip and Jane, and we´re thoroughly looking forward to welcoming them back next year!

Sound like your kind of Vultural experience?! Our Ronda & The Straits trip will be running again next October! Contact us for more info or download our brochure here.

Full trip report and checklist available here!

Published by Simon Tonkin

'Here at the Inglorious Bustards, experiencing the powerful event of bird migration has led to a life-long fascination with avian migration and #FlywayBirding. It’s no accident that we have chosen our base to be here in the Straits of Gibraltar. Our location between Gibraltar and Tarifa puts us right at the epicentre of birding in the Straits and, from a migrating raptor’s point of view, we must surely also be at the centre of the world! We love not only to marvel at the birds passing but also to follow them on their migratory journey, and explore the whole range of fascinating and varied terrains they traverse each year. More than that though, we love to share our adventures with you!'

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