Saying “Később találkozunk!” to the Honey Buzzards!

This week, along with our friends and conservation partners at Fundación Migres, we counted just a handful of European Honey Buzzards crossing The Straits of Gibraltar on their migratory journey.  Picked out from amongst thousands of Booted and Short-toed Eagles, Eurasian Sparrowhawks, Black Storks and Griffon Vultures, each one of these gorgeous birds merited close attention to their detailed and variable plumage.  Not least because at this point of the year, we never know which one will be the last we’ll see until Spring!

Adult female (old?) European Honey Buzzard eyes up Africa © Inglorious Bustards

“Honey Season” is definitely drawing to a close and these numbers are very different to those we observed during the peak in late August / early September, when we counted over 47,000 birds crossing in just one week!

These tail-enders are the last few of the 85,000 or so that will have passed through here this autumn.  This is more than the breeding population of western Europe, so it’s clear that something interesting is going on!

Spring counts of birds heading north across The Straits yield far smaller numbers – typically around 15-17,000.

Ornithologists have speculated for some time about the reason for the discrepancy in numbers.  It seems – as you might imagine – that the populations that breed in north and western Europe migrate back and forth along the route that brings them through here.  However in autumn, their numbers are augmented by their eastern cousins.

Research published in 2019 used satellite telemetry to follow a single adult male European Honey Buzzard, tagged in Hungary, over three years of its life.  It supports the theory that many of these eastern birds follow an incredible anti-clockwise loop migration, spanning vast areas of Europe, to travel between their breeding and wintering grounds.

Autumn (yellow) and Spring (red) migration routes from; Repeated large scale loop migrations of an adult European Honey Buzzard. N Agostini et al, 2019

Once the breeding season is done for another year, the priority for these nomads is understandably getting to their wintering grounds as safely as possible.  Heading to Africa via The Straits of Gibraltar is definitely the long way round, adding over 2,300 km to the trip compared to a direct route.  Each autumn, the male in the study (let’s call him István!) covered an astounding 7,046km from Hungary to his favoured wintering site in North Cameroon in around 43 days.

The study also measured how much the bird was compensating for crosswinds – in other words, actively choosing his route.  It revealed he worked extremely hard to stay en route to The Straits, only drifting passively for about 10% of his journey across Europe.

The advantage of this mammoth detour is to allow István to avoid the risks associated with trying to cover many miles of thermal-less water crossing the Central Mediterranean.  Our 14 km sea crossing at Tarifa is nothing to these bad-ass flyers!  Their compact structure, intermediate between harriers (Circus spp) and true buzzards (Buteo spp) lends itself to powered flying and leaves them somewhat less reliant on thermals than longer-winged raptors.  It’s no wonder that we see them crossing in seemingly treacherous conditions, powering out across The Straits in large groups while longer-winged birds like Short-toed Eagles cling nervously to the coastal hills!

juvenile European Honey Buzzard © Inglorious Bustards

Once safely over the sea and into Africa, István spent relatively little effort compensating for wind direction while crossing The Sahara, spending over half the crossing simply drifting effortlessly over this perilous wasteland.  Thanks to this and other studies, we are starting to understand that these incredible birds plan their routes not only to avoid threats but also to connect with anticipated weather conditions, such as helpful prevailing winds. Totally amazing!

István took his time on his way south to his African R&R spot. Of those 43 days, 12 of them were spent on chill-out stops!  Spring however, is a different matter altogether.  Speed is everything, and the race is on to return home as fast as possible and secure the most optimal breeding site.

This leads István and many like him to make a beeline (sorry!) for the breeding grounds, foregoing the relative safety of The Straits of Gibraltar and taking their chances on longer sea crossings.  He flew all the way back to Hungary in just 23 days, resting for only six and slicing almost 1,500 km off his journey, crossing the Mediterranean via Tunisia’s Cap Bon Peninsula, Sicily, Italy and Albania.

Meanwhile here in The Straits, we would have been seeing almost exclusively those birds heading to north and west Europe – including France, the Netherlands, and even the UK.

For young birds though, the picture is very different.  These risk-averse autumn routes are learned in later life, by following experienced adult birds.  In its first year, a Honey Buzzard is effectively abandoned by its parents, which leave the breeding grounds on average 1-2 weeks earlier.  It can only follow its innate sense of direction, which leads it SSW, to launch itself at whatever water body or desert it finds in its way!  Only the strong – and lucky – survive.  One in three young Honey Buzzards will die on their first migration while crossing the Sahara.  The area of Africa where they end up wintering – and to which they will eventually become site-faithful – is largely determined by winds and chance.

Adult male European Honey Buzzard © Inglorious Bustards

After such a large investment in rearing the young Honey, this seems like some pretty harsh parental treatment!  However, as always, everything makes sense in the light of evolution.  Every day adults delay their own journey, and every day they would lose en route accompanying slower, less-skilled juveniles decreases their own survival chances.  This more supportive parental behaviour would soon fail as a strategy.  Evolution has moulded  this behaviour – effectively sacrificing one in three young birds who will die on migration without guidance – to ensure that the successful adult optimises its chance of survival and lives to breed another season.

This absentee parenting strategy has certainly worked for István!  He was first tagged as an adult in 2014, and is still going strong.  On 7 September this year – amongst 9,499 other individuals – we observed a tagged bird crossing The Straits, who we subsequently learned had travelled to us from Hungary!  I hope it was István, and I’ll be thinking of him and his epic journey ahead.

Migration Mayhem!

It’s hard to explain the power of a day like today to someone who’s never witnessed it.

The strong easterly levante wind dropped away last night, leaving behind a low ceiling of cloud.  This is high migration season, and we arrived at the coast at first light with Pepe and Teresa, to find Black Kites and European Honey Buzzards already leaving by the hundred, driven and desperate to continue south across The Straits of Gibraltar.

European Honey Buzzard departing for Africa at first light © Inglorious Bustards

They are joined by Booted Eagles and Short-toed Eagles in almost inconceivable numbers – as the day heats up it becomes impossible to find a spot of sky which doesn’t have a raptor in it.

Birds are crossing or not crossing, cruising up and down the coast or powering out to sea, from every direction and at every conceivable altitude, a complete three-dimensional extravaganza.

A great cloud of birds gathering over the coast reveal themselves to be over 600 Short-toed Eagles.

Short-toed Eagle © Inglorious Bustards

Groups of European Honey Buzzards in their extraordinary variety of plumages, mixed with Booted Eagles and Black Kites, tumble up and down the coast.

Concentrating on each bird, enjoying individual behaviours which bely a story, observing details which give information on age and gender, and being completely absorbed by the spectacle of each group which passes swirling overhead, time simply ceases to exist.

Black Stork © Inglorious Bustards

Among the airborne pandemonium of the more numerous species, there were Egyptian Vultures, Marsh Harriers, Sparrowhawks, Montagu’s Harriers, Black Storks and a Red Kite.  Suddenly we would find ourselves looking at an Atlas Long-legged Buzzard or an Eleonora’s Falcon, dragged into the phenomenon from the African side of The Straits.

A group of over three hundred White Storks tried again and again to find the right moment to cross, passing so low over our heads that you could sense the power of their wings, and hear their feathers brush the air.

White Storks © Inglorious Bustards

These raptors and soaring birds have journeyed from all over Western Europe to collect in one spot in one glorious moment, searching thermals, sharing the sky – a great concentration of life in this one single extraordinary place.

My human mind always searches for meaning, for analogies, lessons and morals, but in the end comes the uplifting realisation, that there are none – we were simply witnesses to a huge amalgamation of life, driven on by its own persistence – and what can be more joyous than that?

Simon logs each White Stork leaving for Africa! © Inglorious Bustards

Inglorious Bustards sign up to Tourism Declares A Climate Emergency

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Autumn migration is in full swing here in The Straits of Gibraltar.  As we watch raptors pour south across the narrow stretch of sea, witnessing part of their incredible journey is a complete joy.  But it also brings powerful mixed emotions – as we journey deeper into our man-mad climate emergency, these birds face a Sahara Desert that grows ever wider, erratic food availability, and habitat insecurity at both ends of their travels.

The Straits is one of the best places in the world to witness mass migration, an event which has the power to really open minds to the interconnected-ness of places, people and actions.  Inglorious Bustards believe passionately in that power as a force for positive change, but should we be encouraging people to travel to see it in these times of rocketing atmospheric CO2?

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A mass of White Storks head south for the winter © Inglorious Bustards

Globally, tourism is a 7 trillion-dollar industry and before the current pandemic it was continuing to out-grow the global economy.  Its carbon footprint accounts for around 8% of global emissions.  If its annual growth rate returns to pre-pandemic rates, tourism-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will reach 6.5 gigatons per year by 2025.

But within tourism, eco-tourism is the fastest growing sector.  With it grows the potential to make travel truly sustainable and a force for good in the world.

Nature tourism – a significant “sub-species” of ecotourism – has recently been estimated to be worth nearly $350bn to the global economy each year, comprising around 4.4% of total global travel and tourism GDP.  It also employs over 20 million people.

The power of this could be immense.

When done right, sustainable tourism raises the profile of natural and cultural heritage, ensuring governments remain under pressure to protect it.  It gives economic and political value to important wildlife habitats.  It can offer an alternative income stream to local people.  It has been shown again and again to reduce damaging activities such as illegal logging, poaching and intensification of farming.  Not only does this have direct positive impacts for biodiversity, it also ensures important habitats such as tropical forests, mangrove swamps and peat marshes remain intact, their carbon locked away.

During the pandemic, we’ve seen global carbon emissions drop by about 8% compared to 2019.  Planes sat on tarmac all over the world and the tourism industry came to a complete halt.  But the effects of this grounding on emissions were tiny compared to those driven by reductions in global industry and ground transport.

Meanwhile the true toll in lost creatures and habitats due to the overnight collapse of the wildlife tourism industry may never be fully known.  Anecdotal evidence of the horrific side-effects for Nature are coming to light – poaching in Uganda for example has doubled during the pandemic, and in Kenya, desperate people who have seen their livelihoods wiped out are being forced to hunt endangered animals for food and income.

And here lies a huge problem for sustainable tourism. The negative impacts of travel and tourism, especially the GHGs for which we must all take responsibility, are well quantified on a global scale.  But it’s extremely hard to measure the positive impacts of the industry on habitat conservation.  By this I don’t just mean the local effects for people and key wildlife species, but for the planet as a whole, in terms of the carbon sequestered, water and air cleansed and all the other ecosystem services provided by habitat that wildlife tourism has directly or indirectly contributed to protecting.

I recently read a great article in which a nature guide in Guyana tried to quantify the immeasurable good in keeping habitats safe:

“If each visitor [from Europe] generates 2.8 tonnes of CO2 … and there are 200 of them, that makes 558 tonnes. … But look how much CO2 the Rewa community forests might be absorbing every year (350 sq km x 200): over 70,000 tonnes.”

It prompted me to try a similar quantification of good, taking our trips to The Gambia as an example:

When we take a birding and Nature-watching trip of eight people to The Gambia from Europe, the return flights generate 1.34 tonnes CO2 per person = 10.72 tonnes (carbon calculator, World Land Trust).

Once in-country, for a company that cares it’s relatively easy to have a low carbon impact here simply by adhering to good sustainable tourism practice and prioritising small, locally-owned businesses – which also give a more enriching travel experience and fantastic local food!

We also support an ongoing mangrove regeneration project, by our conservation partners The Gambia Birdwatchers´ Association, creating 2-3 hectares per year.  Mangroves sequester carbon up to five times faster than tropical rainforests, so we’re talking around 60 tonnes of CO2 per year just for the bit that´s already been planted!

A trip also:

  • directly employs 1 local guide and 1 driver for 11 days
  • enables 11 days training for an apprentice bird guide
  • pays entrance fee and local guide fee at 6 different community forest reserves, ensuring they are more valuable standing than logged
  • uses locally-owned accommodation and eateries at 3 different bases
  • employs local boat drivers during 3 river boat trips
  • puts on average €12,700 directly into the local economy

While recognising that offsetting alone is not a solution to our emissions, once we’ve eliminated all we can we then carbon-balance any remaining transport, food and accommodation emissions with the World Land Trust.  We also balance staff flights and encourage clients to balance their own.

But here’s the important bit: this income, multiplied up by all the wildlife tourists, ensures that areas like Bao Bolong National Park remain protected and valued by the area’s communities and the nation’s government.  This 220-sq km mangrove forest is capable of sequestering up to 220,000 tonnes of CO2 per year.  Not to mention the creation of diverse income sources for rural villagers so they are not forced to intensify farming and destroy native forests.

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New Mangrove forest creation in The Gambia © Inglorious Bustards

Of all global tourism, it is probably the wildlife tourism sector where eco-conscious potential travellers are most likely to make personal sacrifices to reduce their carbon footprint – including foregoing travel and avoiding flights.

So that is our challenge.  As conservationists, we believe passionately in the power of wildlife tourism to benefit Nature and people, in terms of socio-economic and cultural benefits, education and continued support for protected areas and wildlife habitat.

But we are of course only too aware of the environmental impact of the activities associated with our business.  Our challenge as a responsible ecotourism operator is to constantly seek practical solutions to minimise and eliminate negative impacts including our carbon footprint, so that when people travel with us, they’re benefitting, not exploiting the wildlife we see together.

There are many aspects to maximising our positive impacts and minimising the negative ones – such as eliminating plastic waste, avoiding wildlife disturbance and supporting local conservation projects – and we´re already working hard on this through our #FlywayPromise.

In relation to our carbon footprint:

  • We offer a high proportion of delicious vegetarian and vegan food on our trips, use only sustainably-produced extensively-grazed local dairy, and have one meat-free day per trip, used to highlight the fabulous veggie variety and provoke thought around food choice – keep an eye out for an upcoming blog on this…
  • During the booking process, we are on hand to advise our guests on the best overland ways to reach us, the most direct flights and the most carbon-conscious airlines.
  • We use modern, fuel-efficient vehicles during our trips and plan our routes carefully to avoid excessive mileage.
  • We use local guides, so for 90% of our tours, we don’t need to fly ourselves.
  • We strive to reduce all our emissions, and once we’ve eliminated everything we can we carbon-balance the remainder with the World Land Trust. We also balance any staff flights and encourage clients to balance their own.
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Delicious sustainably-produced food is an important part of reducing your carbon footprint.        © Inglorious Bustards

But we feel the seriousness of the current situation requires us to go further.  As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and people begin to travel once more, there is desperate need for carbon reform across the tourism industry.

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That is why we are joining a growing movement to Declare A Climate Emergency.

We’ve signed up to Tourism Declares, an initiative that supports tourism businesses, organisations and individuals in declaring a climate emergency and taking purposeful action to reduce their carbon emissions as per the advice from The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to cut global carbon emissions to 55% below 2017 levels by 2030.

Like all signatories, we have committed to the following five actions:

  1. Develop a ‘Climate Emergency Plan’ within the next 12 months, which sets out our intentions to reduce carbon emissions over the next decade.
  2. Share an initial public declaration of our ‘Climate Emergency Plan’, and update on progress each year.
  3. Accept current IPCC advice stating the need to cut global carbon emissions to 55% below 2017 levels by 2030 in order to keep the planet within 1.5 degrees of warming. We’ll ensure our ‘Climate Emergency Plan’ represents actions designed to achieve this as a minimum, through delivering transparent, measurable and increasing reductions in the total carbon emissions per customer arising from our operations and the travel services sold by us.
  4. Encourage our suppliers and partners to make the same declaration; sharing best practice amongst peers; and actively participate in the Tourism Declares community
  5. Advocate for change. We recognise the need for system change across the industry, and call for urgent regulatory action to accelerate the transition towards zero carbon air travel.

By nature, and as shown through our annual carbon footprint audit through the World Land Trust, our trips are relatively low carbon.  However, as a tour operator reliant on customers travelling, we recognise that just by publishing this declaration, we are opening ourselves up to accusations of greenwashing and – that new favourite word of the people who oppose progress – hypocrisy.

But it’s our responsibility to engage with the challenges we face head on.  Wildlife tourism is essential to conservation and must continue.  We’ll do everything we can to cut the carbon emissions we have any say over, encourage others to do likewise, and campaign for the wider system changes needed to move travel and aviation towards a low carbon future.

Read more about how we’re working to maximising our positive impacts and minimise the negative ones through our #FlywayPromise.

Whether you’re a traveller, tour operator, hotelier or have some other link to tourism, please consider also declaring at www.tourismdeclares.com, and follow @tourismdeclares on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.