“Necking our coffee we took up position by the sea wall as they began to arrive. Over the next hour or so we witnessed an immense river of raptors and storks arriving from Africa. Three hundred Black Kites, twenty Griffon Vultures, three hundred Short-toed Eagles, over a hundred Booted Eagles, 38 Black Storks, thirty or more Western Marsh Harriers and a sprinkling of Egyptian Vultures, Montagu´s Harriers, Eurasian Sparrowhawks and Lesser Kestrels poured over us in one of Nature´s most uplifting and vibrant spectacles. We abandoned all plans and ate our picnic right there, barely finding a quiet moment between waves to grab a plate of food!”
They say that, here in the Straits of Gibraltar, avian migration is happening 300 out of 365 days a year! All year round, a steady stream of birds move north-south and east- west through this fascinating and engaging place, each with their own story of why they chose this particular day to ´go´.
But there are two quite spectacular annual crescendos in Spring and Autumn. We’re looking forward to our August trip, for which we still have some space! In the meantime, here´s how it panned out this Spring…
Our trip began with fresh Straits air and sunshine, and we made the most of it, doing a spot of pre-breakfast birding with Pete and Adrienne. Pretty much the first bird of the trip was a Hawfinch, perched up in a Poplar with several Spotless Starlings! As well as many Blackcaps and a handful of Iberian Chiffchaffs, we had lovely views of Serins in songflight. Several Short-toed Eagles soared low overhead, boding well for the migration events to come.
Making the most of the wind conditions, we headed down to a valley just below Huerta Grande, to an area that has become known as ´Niki´s Watchpoint´! Affording spectacular views across the Straits of Gibraltar, this area is also amazing for seeing newly arrived raptors when the wind is in the right direction.
As we travelled through the landscape, making frequent stops to admire migrating birds, we enjoyed views of dozens of Black Kites, Short-toed Eagles and Griffon Vultures drifting through the valley, as well as eight Black Storks, two Eurasian Sparrowhawks and an Egyptian Vulture, also newly arrived in Europe.
Other migrants were in evidence too – a Great Spotted Cuckoo flashed before us and we could see the first of the Pallid Swifts arriving amongst Barn Swallows and House Martins.
A blustery day followed with strong westerly winds, and we headed to La Janda, a large area of low intensity agricultural land where rice paddies and well-vegetated ditches provide habitat for waterbirds. Echoes of its former glory as a vast wetland were immediately apparent, as we could see Little and Cattle Egrets, White Storks and Eurasian Spoonbills dotted across the landscape.
Corn Buntings and Calandra and Crested Larks sang from every field, and we enjoyed views of an Iberian Grey Shrike, perched up on a telegraph wire, as well as hunting Western Marsh Harrier.
Waterbirds didn´t disappoint, with two very showy Purple Swamphens on view! We also saw Little Ringed Plover, Ruff, Green Sandpiper and a lone Sanderling. Numerous newly arrived ibericae Yellow Wagtails were showing beautifully, as were White and a single Grey Wagtail.
Using local knowledge to make a decision based on wind direction, Simon took us back through our ´Secret Valley´ west of Tarifa. It was definitely a good choice! Trapped by the weather, many raptors were holed up in this area, hunting and searching for a place to roost.
We parked up and watched as over eighty Short-toed Eagles, 100+ Griffon Vultures, a Eurasian Hobby, Peregrine Falcon, Common Buzzard, Eurasian Sparrowhawks and the first Booted Eagle of the trip drifted in and out of the cloud over our heads – magical! We also had views of a Gibraltar Buzzard – a Common Buzzard who somewhere in its lineage clearly has some Long-legged Buzzard genes, being longer winged and more rufous than average, with white flashes on the upperwing and completely lacking a sub-terminal band on the tail.
We started to head back, thinking we had maxed out on some amazing raptor watching, but we were wrong! A single male Montagu´s Harrier drifted silently past the vehicles, leaving us spellbound.
Heading out west into another blustery, but much sunnier day, we made our first stop at the coast of Punta Paloma, to see what interesting seabirds the westerly wind – or poniente – had brought in off the Atlantic. We spent an enjoyable time letting the breezy day blow away the morning cobwebs while we watched Cory´s Shearwaters, Northern Gannets, Sandwich Terns and a Great Skua hunting just off the coast.
A stroll to examine an intertidal pool yielded Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, Kentish Plover and Common Ringed Plover, and on our return to the vehicle a rather tired-looking Western Osprey was waiting for us, perched up on a post!
Our next stop was at Barca de Vejer, where the group was to meet with the rarest bird of the trip! The grotesque but fabulous Northern Bald Ibis has chosen to make the cliffs outside this town its home, after a dozen or so pairs spilled out from a nearby reintroduction project and started recolonising the countryside! The colony were in full breeding activity, and we enjoyed their fascinating antics, wooing each other with the gift of nest material and indulging in mutual preening.
Simon and Niki were particularly overjoyed to see the colony so active. Over coffee we explained to the group that, last year, all but one of the chicks were lost to a marauding Eagle Owl and we had concerns they wouldn´t return. With only around 500 individuals left in the wild, to lose this busy colony would have been tragic indeed.
Next, we headed on to the disused saltpans at Barbate, a real haven for gulls, terns, waders and waterbirds. Here we were able to view roosting Glossy Ibises and Eurasian Spoonbills, Oystercatchers, Black-winged Stilts and Pied Avocets, without even needing to leave the vehicle! Common Ringed, Kentish and Grey Plovers were numerous, as were Sanderling, Little Stints, Dunlin, Common Snipe, Redshank, Greenshank, Green Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone – a very attractive assemblage! A large group of Audouin´s Gulls afforded great views and we also saw Gull-billed and Caspian Terns.
The sun broke through once more just in time for our picnic lunch! As we enjoyed it we also enjoyed views of three goofy-looking Eurasian Stone Curlews, alternating between standing proud and looking like rocks on one of the saltpan´s gravel islands. There were also many Iberian Yellow Wagtails gleaming in the sunshine.
On the way back to base we stopped off in Tarifa, next to the seafront fort of Guzman el Bueno. Here, we enjoyed watching the antics of the colony of Lesser Kestrels, which have occupied the many nooks and crannies on the fort´s walls and formed a nesting colony. As with the ibises earlier today, bonding and mating activity was at a high, as the handsome males with their rufous backs and powder-blue heads called mid-flight to the beautifully patterned females in their nesting holes.
Then time to head back and relax before dinner, tonight a hearty local speciality known as pisto, a flavoursome peasant´s dish of tomatoes and courgettes mixed in with a poached egg and plenty of robust local bread and wine!
The following day the wind had died down and switched to north-westerly, so it was ´game on´ for migration-chasing! Thousands of raptors had been trapped in North Africa for days now. We knew they would be desperate to get moving, and so were we!
We went to a coastal watchpoint at Guadalamesi, where an old Napoleonic military outpost gives stunning views out over the ocean. Spending an uplifting morning watching from here and other areas around the coast, we enjoyed our first real experience of migration happening all around us as throngs of Black Kites and Short-toed Snake Eagles arrived in Europe, accompanied by Egyptian Vultures, Montagu’s Harriers, Western Marsh Harriers and Eurasian Sparrowhawks!
As we headed to Tarifa for a comfort break and to pick up some picnic supplies, we were astonished to spot two Northern Bald Ibis on the edge of an industrial estate! These birds were a good 50 km from their main breeding colony – what were they doing here..?
We picnicked at El Trafico, looking out over the deep blue waters of the Straits of Gibraltar to the North coast of Morocco, with stunning views of the Rif Mountains and the Jebel Mousa – Morocco´s impressive rocky monolith that is the African twin of the Rock of Gibraltar.
We spent the afternoon at a viewpoint high in the hills above Tarifa, known as La Peña. This area is a good example of the unusual habitat in the Straits where coastal lowland species meet those with a typically more mountainous range. Sure enough, we found both Crested and the superficially similar Thekla Lark together here – an unusual situation. It afforded good opportunities for an ID masterclass on how to separate these two tricky larks!
But as the group diligently examined little brown jobs, they were rather distracted by the appearance of rather more glamorous Black-eared Wheatear! This peachy little stunner perched up on a rock for all to see, and was not to be outdone even when a gorgeous Blue Rock Thrush appeared! And, just to pop a cherry on the cake, a newly arrived Subalpine Warbler – a lifer for some in the group – put on a show. We also had numerous raptors to take our attention, including Peregrine Falcon and dozens of our resident Griffon Vultures.
We headed back happy for a rest and dinner, but not before a well-earned ice-cream stop at the Mirador del Estrecho, where we took in a few last drifting Black Kites while we chomped on our choc ices!
Day 5 was another day of humid north-westerly winds took us east – to Punta Carnero, a migration watchpoint near Algeciras. We enjoyed nice views of a great selection of sea and waterbirds, including Great Skua, Great Crested Grebe, Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant, Ruddy Turnstone, a flock of Common Scoter and a single Arctic Skua.
The clouds were low and moody, and the winds pretty strong, but despite the inclement conditions, the intrepid Black Kites had decided, “Bugger it! This will do!”. One by one, and then by the dozen, they started to appear out of the clouds, wings beating like crazy and some barely making land! We watched, hearts in mouths as two individuals struggled right in front of us, so close we could almost have dragged them in with a well-flung lasso! There are no thermals over the sea, which is what makes crossing it so treacherous for soaring birds. Though barely metres from land, they were having to use the diagonal wind to gain lift, increasing the length of their journey many times.
Then, after what seemed like an age they hit land and instantly found a thermal, taking them from a couple of metres above the sea to a couple of hundred metres above the land within seconds! We cheered them on with a massive amount of relief! Looking along the cliffs we could see an exhausted looking Western Osprey clinging there, presumably having undergone the same ordeal earlier!
Exhilarated, we headed down to the coastal village of Getares for a comfort break and a coffee stop. But our break was not to be an uneventful one! Suddenly a break appeared between two large clouds over Punta Carnero and Gibraltar, effectively creating a sunlit channel of warm air which stretched right from the coast of Morocco to just above our heads! This was the moment they – and we – had been waiting for!
Necking our coffee we took up position by the sea wall as they began to arrive. Over the next hour or so we witnessed an immense river of raptors and storks arriving from Africa. Three hundred Black Kites, twenty Griffon Vultures, three hundred Short-toed Eagles, over a hundred Booted Eagles, 38 Black Storks, thirty or more Western Marsh Harriers and a sprinkling of Egyptian Vultures, Montagu´s Harriers, Eurasian Sparrowhawks and Lesser Kestrels poured over us in one of Nature´s most uplifting and vibrant spectacles. We abandoned all plans and ate our picnic right there, barely finding a quiet moment between waves to grab a plate of food!
The following morning, envigorated by our breakfast of toasted local breads and spreads, fresh fruit and cereal – not to mention the good strong coffee – we headed out to see the intertidal habitat at pretty Los Lances beach, just outside Tarifa.
A short walk down to the hide took us through pastureland, where we enjoyed many Yellow Wagtails, Meadow Pipits, Zitting Cisticolas, Corn Buntings and a single probable ‘Italian Sparrow’ amongst the large House Sparrow flocks.
From the hide overlooking the beach we watched many dozens of waders going about their business, including Common Ringed, Kentish and Grey Plovers, Sanderling, Dunlin, Common Redshank and Green Sandpiper amongst others.
Amongst the flocks of Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls roosting on the beach, we picked out nine Mediterranean Gulls, several Audouin´s Gulls and a first-winter Common Gull – unusual for the area. There were also many Sandwich Terns, and a single Caspian Tern drifted overhead. Out to sea, we spotted Northern Gannets, Cory´s Shearwaters and a Great Skua.
Next we headed out to the seaside town of Bolonia, where we had a quick coffee break before heading up into the rocky hills of Sierra de la Plata. Here, we could right down onto the magnificent sweep of Tarifa bay, over the Roman ruins of Baelo Claudia and out to the craggy coast of Morocco. A singing Blue Rock Thrush and a lovely male Black Redstart put in an appearance before we headed off.
We spent our afternoon across from a craggy cliff face that hosts the area´s colony of Griffon Vultures. While Simon and Niki prepared another fabulous picnic, the group delighted in watching the birds soar overhead and land noisily at their nesting sites. We counted over seventy of these magnificent, prehistoric-looking scavengers as well as a view of a Rüppell´s Vulture and three Endangered Egyptian Vultures – a welcome site indeed.
Then it was home for our last delicious dinner at Huerta Grande, where we toasted a successful trip and recounted our highlights over a glass or two of local sherry!