A Wing In Each World

For All Souls Day,  friend and colleague Eddi – the original Culture Vulture on the Inglorious Bustards team – reflects on a recent trip to experience the awe-inspiring Griffon Vulture migration, and gain understanding of their liminal nature in local lore…

The Strait of Gibraltar last Saturday morning was calm, suspended between us and Morocco. A calm day perfect for the Griffon Vulture migration, but the skies were empty. Then, like some blessing from birders’ heaven, we found ourselves in the flight path of up to three thousand Vultures. Catching the thermals, they spiralled up before soaring across the 14km Strait. This is the diciest moment of their migration to the Sahel and our adrenaline rocketed when their column fell closer to us. Suddenly these immense birds soared metres from our heads. Claws, feathers, bone, a glinting eye were almost within touch. 

A young Griffon Vulture eyes up the continent of Africa! © Inglorious Bustards

Vultures have been loathed and detested throughout most of western history, written off as nature’s ghastly gourmet feasting on carrion. Charles Darwin called them “disgusting birds that wallow in putridity”. Long associated with death, battles and rotting meat, in our cultural imagination the Vulture is earthly and gothic, belonging to the nether worlds and giving “material form to the idea of a dark angel.” Swooping over the body of a loved one, it is easy to see how much this awesome bird would look like death itself. 

As we stood under their thermal on Saturday we could see their bulkiness, their physicality. Over 2,000 birds weighing up to 11kg each is literally tonnes of flesh in the sky. 

Yet for all their earthiness, in the air they are in their element. Transgressive, the Griffon Vulture lives between heaven and earth, building their nests in the highest rocks and crossing continents while still young. Both Christianity and Ancient Greek cultures have figured them as messengers between humans and gods. The Greeks saw them as “from some foreign and unknown land”, often flocking to and predicting the site of battle. In Christianity Vultures were bad omens appearing at sites of destruction “where the slain are, there the Vulture is.” (Job 39:30) But it was the ancient Egyptians who recognised their liminal state and deified them. 

Griffon Vultures rising on the thermals to cross The Straits © Inglorious Bustards

In Ancient Egypt Vultures were valued for their abilities as carrion eaters. In such a hot climate, where dead flesh rots very quickly the bird was important for the health of the people. So much so that one Pharaoh decreed the death penalty for anyone who killed a Vulture, making them the first ever protected species. But this ability to clean the world of stench and rottenness came with taboo. While grateful to the Vulture for ridding them of contamination, it is likely people feared and detested them for touching the same object. The Ancient Egyptians reconciled this conflict in the mother goddess Nekhbet. 

The goddess Nekhbet was the protective deity of southern Egypt and often took on Vulture form. In paintings and engravings from 3,200 BC we find her hovering watchfully over the heads of kings or, with her wings spread wide, over queens giving birth. She gave protection to royals as seen by the ornate Vultures headdresses they wore. But the mother goddess as Vulture had a very strange role in the culture’s mythology and religion. As “Terrible Mother” she offered both shelter and protection but at the same time the death-bringing, corpse-devouring goddess of death. The Ancient Egyptians saw Life/Death as two sides of the same coin and Nekhbet perfectly captures the dual role of Vultures in her associations with female, life-giving energy and death. 

But isn’t this all a long way from Andalucía? Well, two things suggest it might not be that far: Vulture culture and rock-tombs. The Egyptian influence on Spain and Portugal can be seen at the mysterious rock cut tombs at the Sanctuary of Panóias in northern Portugal. This is a largely forgotten temple to Serápis, the Graeco-Egyptian god of the underworld and resurrection. Latin inscriptions next to the sarcophagi shaped tombs read 

“To the Gods and Goddesses of this sacred place. The victims sacrifice themselves, and are killed in this place. The viscera are burned in the square cavities in front. Blood is poured here to the side for the small cavities. It was established by Gaius C. Calpurnius Rufinus, a member of the senatorial order”

The sacrifices made by the cult to Serápis at Panóias were symbols of rebirth, acknowledging the dual role Life/Death. Hundreds of rock-carved tombs, similar to those at Panóias, litter the hills of the Cádiz province. These enigmatic sites are attractive precisely because they are so mysterious. Lacking in inscriptions, we know little about their function or origins. These empty sarcophagi lie open to the sky, filled with rainwater and decades of archaeological frustration. Often they have panoramic views of the mountains or oceans, are near a spring or water source and, most crucially, near vulture colonies. 

The rock tombs of Betis, for example, are only 14km from the Straits and just beneath a limestone outcrop called Cerro de Bartolo. Some of the young vultures migrating over the Straits would have nested at this colony. Prime position overlooking these rock-tombs. Many of us would recoil at the idea of sky burial and early Christians saw it as the ultimate punishment. But there are those who revel in the idea. When in his poem Vulture Robinson Jeffers plays dead on a hillside, I imagine him lying down in one of these graves – 

“To be eaten by that beak
and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes–
What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life
after death”

Perhaps Vultures are the key to understanding these mysterious tombs in the sierras of Cádiz. The proximity of these rock tombs to the Griffon Vulture colonies point towards their use as places of symbolic ritual, an “enskyment” transmuting earthly bodies to air, reconciling birth and death in rebirth. 

A young Griffon Vulture drifts right over our heads before it continues its pilgrimage to The Sahel © Inglorious Bustards

While Vultures no longer has god-status, we are rediscovering that which our ancestors clearly knew and awarding them ‘keystone species’ status. They cut down disease transmission and act as carcass recyclers. Protecting Vultures means protection of the entire European mountain ecosystems. Vultures offer us the key to examining age-old human questions of life, death and regeneration. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the awe we felt watching their migration over The Straits. We were witnessing an event older than the rock tombs, more ancient than Nekhbet and the Egyptian gods, something that continues to pierce us right to our core. 

Eddi Pitcher is author of Wild Guide Portugal and lives in Cádiz, researching her new book, Wild Guide Andalucía and leading cultural tours in Spain and Portugal.  We are very honoured to have her on board!  Contact us about enriching your bespoke wildlife trip with some fascinating local cultural and historical highlights with Eddi!

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.

Icons of Migration – How White Storks Have Inspired the Study of Migration for Centuries

Even in a place so packed full of natural migratory wonder as The Straits of Gibraltar, there are few sights as wow-inducing as a flock of hundreds – if not thousands – of migrating White Storks.  As they move along the coast in huge, glittering black and white columns, tracing the patterns of the thermals they ride, they really are the epitome of visible migration!

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White Storks heading to Africa – July 2020 © Inglorious Bustards

These flamboyant voyagers capture the imagination and curiosity, and have been inspiring research into migration for hundreds of years.  Back in 1822, a White Stork turned up in the German village of Klütz with what was clearly an exotic spear lodged through its neck.  It turned out to be from central Africa.  At a time when it was still commonly believed that Barn Swallows spent the winter hibernating in the bottom of muddy ponds, this Pfeilstorch – ‘Arrow Stork’ – opened our eyes to the possibility of incredible avian journeys, and migration science was born!

Their great size, conspicuous presence and predictable return to nest sites makes White Storks fantastic candidates for study, and extensive ringing (banding) programmes were already underway as early as 1906.  From then until the onset of the Second World War, about 100,000 mainly juvenile birds were ringed, resulting in over 2,000 long-distance recoveries of birds reported between 1908 and 1954.  To this day, this wealth of information is arguably the foundation of what we know about where they travel and the routes they take.

White Storks breed extensively across Europe.  Almost like a watershed, there is a line that runs right through the middle of Germany, along which the westward-flyers separate from the eastward-flyers.  The eastern route leads over the Balkans, the Gulf of Iskenderun, the countries of the Middle East over to East, Central and South Africa.  The White Storks we see here, crossing over The Straits in such spectacular fashion have come from west of that line, their migration leading them down through France and the Iberian Peninsula to concentrate at this point.

For a bird with such a large wing span, flapping flight uses around 23 times more energy than gliding.  Since there are no thermals over the sea, they are driven to seek out the very shortest distance between land masses.  That means that, in an average autumn season, 150,000 White Storks of all ages – pretty much the entire western European population – are pushed towards this one point, looking for their moment to cross the 14 km (9 miles) of sea to Africa.  This gives rise to the spectacle of these huge gatherings, spiralling upwards on rising warm air until they emerge up to 1500 m above the ground and then gliding out into the blue.

From here they continue their journey south into Morocco, across the Sahara and down to their wintering grounds in central Africa.  In fact, having cheered them on in The Straits, we often get to see them again when we travel to The Gambia each December!

In the 90’s came satellite-tagging technology, a new way of gathering information about birds that was set to change the way we understand so many things.  Technology tends to be larger when new and unrefined – some of the earliest tags were the size of a brick!  Since a tag is required to be below 3% of a bird’s bodyweight to avoid hindering it, these gigantic nomads with their fascinating journeys presented the ideal species to take this new toy out for a spin!

This opened up the opportunity to study a whole new world of detail not just about migratory routes, but about migratory behaviour.  White Storks usually migrate in mixed groups of both adults and younger birds.  A number of studies have followed the fortunes of young Storks making their first migration without adults to follow, in order to look at the innate-ness – or not – of the journey plan.

Although their in-born sense of direction takes them vaguely in a south-westerly direction, if displaced by weather conditions they are unable to orientate themselves with any precision and many never fully migrate.  This is very different to small passerines, which migrate more-or-less alone, often by night, following an inherited map and with no guidance from adults.

The high importance of this social inheritance makes a great deal of sense.  As a day-flying, soaring bird, the efficiency of their route is heavily reliant on thermals generated by local topography.  They follow adults to learn an exact route – a kind of thermal highway – which on future travels they will be able to recognise visually and be sure of the optimum journey.

Tags also give us more information on the temporal nature of migration in these birds.  It turns out they treat it rather like a nine-to-five, flying for around 8-10 hours every day when the air is warmest, before resting until the following morning.  They barely take a day off, covering the 4,000 km (2,700 mile) journey from northern breeding grounds to sub-saharan Africa in two to three weeks.  Rather than feeding up before migration like some birds, Storks evidently snack en route only to meet their immediate needs, and lose weight on the journey.  Presumably when you’re reliant on literally being lighter than air, every invertebrate over-indulgence counts!

As satellite tags become lighter, cheaper and more precise, the insights they give us become ever-more fascinating.  In 2018 a project set out to explore how White Storks navigate thermals as a group by analysing individual high-resolution GPS trajectories of individual Storks during circling events.

A thermal is a complex, drifting, constantly changing column of air.  To thermal efficiently, birds need to adjust their flight speed and circling radius to find, and remain close to, the centre of the thermal where updraft is highest. Thanks to the precision of the data obtained from the tags, we are able to see that Storks navigate the thermal based not only on their own perception of the airflow in their immediate surroundings, but also on a complex series of social interactions, reacting to the movement changes of Storks within their nearby subgroup, as well as the leaders of the group at the highest vertical point in the thermal.

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Collective flight trajectories and synchronization in circling direction. (a),(b) Flock trajectories of migrating storks showing different flight types (circling and gliding). Grey arrows show flight direction. Tracks are colour-coded based on horizontal path curvature. The thermal is drifting with the wind resulting in distorted trajectories even if the bird flies in a perfect circle relative to the moving air (c) Curvature against time for each individual. Arrows at the top depict time delays between switches relative to first individual. (d) Horizontal trajectories of birds that switched their circling direction.

How amazing to think that each Stork is effectively acting as an individual sensor, such that the whole flock becomes a distributed sensory array.  In this way, they explore and gather information on the thermal as a group, effectively mapping its structure and enabling them to use the optimal airflow within it.

From solving ancient mysteries to changing our perception of collective movement, to simply turning a good day into an amazing one, these really are inspirational birds.  And they are pouring over our heads at the moment here in The Straits!  We’re thrilled to be assisting as always our conservation partners, Fundación Migres, with the annual autumn migration count – to date over 38,000 of them have made the crossing, and we look forward to many more inspirational moments in coming weeks!

Get some migration inspiration in your life!  Get in touch for day trips or bespoke tours this autumn, or give yourself a trip to look forward to, taking in Migration and Cetaceans in 2021 or beyond…

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The group reach optimal height and reach for Africa © Inglorious Bustards

 

 

 

 

Safe travel to The Straits is back!

As COVID-19 remains under control in Spain and cases continue to dwindle, we are extremely pleased that we can now begin to safely deliver our day trips and tours!  With the announcement of Europe-wide “air bridges” on 4 July, international travel to Spain from many countries is now available with stringent health precautions en route but no self-quarantine measures at either end of the trip.

This spring in The Straits of Gibraltar, one of the world’s most breath-taking migratory spectacles passed by almost unobserved.  But whilst we were all sequestered away, Nature carried on regardless, and now these same birds that passed by so spectacularly unseen are preparing to make their journey to their sub-Saharan wintering grounds, new offspring in tow!

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Honey Buzzard © Inglorious Bustards

We’re thrilled that, this autumn, we’ll be able bring you right to your front row seats at Nature’s greatest show either for a day or bespoke trip, or as part of a scheduled departure tour.

The Strait of Gibraltar is the point at which Africa and Europe are at their closest, and is the epicentre for one of the world’s most spectacular bird migrations.  Every year, millions of birds make the 14 km sea crossing, making use of uplifts and thermals rising off the Rock of Gibraltar and the stunning Moroccan peak of Jebel Musa. An estimated 300,000 raptors and other soaring birds pass over this rugged terrain during autumn, as well as untold thousands of other journeying passerines and seabirds.

As well as the star attraction, a boat trip into the Straits itself will let you get close and personal with our resident cetacean species – Common, Bottlenose and Striped Dolphins and Long-finned Pilot Whale.  Even migrating Fin, Sperm Whales and Orca are possible here.

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Long-finned Pilot Whale © Inglorious Bustards

There’s plenty more to explore among the area’s superb habitats, which include salt pans, intertidal areas, freshwater wetlands, low intensity farmland, Mediterranean scrub, precipitous rock faces and the woodlands of Los Alcornocales Natural Park, Europe’s largest Cork Oak forest.  The diversity and wealth of avian and other wildlife in this beautifully unspoilt area of Spain really is astounding!

Couple this with tranquil accommodation in an eco-lodge at the edge of the Natural Park itself, the chance to enjoy the picturesque streets and Moorish fortifications of the Old Town of Tarifa, and of course the chance to sample some of Andalucía’s best local sustainably-produced food and wine, and you really do have a trip that’s Strait-up fantastic!

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Short-toed Eagle © Inglorious Bustards

We can’t stress enough that the health and safety of our clients and avoiding the spread of coronavirus in wider society have been and always will be our top priorities.  We are proud to have been awarded a badge of approval for our COVID-19 Risk Prevention Protocol from both the Spanish Ministry for Industry, Commerce & Tourism, and by the local Junta de Andalucía for both tourism and “active tourism” specifically.Guía Visual Por Un Turismo Seguro con SARS-CoV2

 

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These badges mean you can book with confidence that we are fully compliant with official guidance set out by these organisations, and have in place a stringent COVID-19 Risk Prevention Protocol.

Additionally, we receive training and take advice from our independent risk prevention consultants, Quirón Prevención.

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Upon booking and arrival, you will receive a comprehensive guide on measures taken and your own responsibilities.  Here’s a summary of the measures we’re currently taking to protect you and others, which we´ll update periodically:

  • When we meet you, we’ll go over our COVID-19 Risk Prevention Protocol in detail, and introduce you to the whereabouts of hand-sanitiser and thermometer. Sadly, there’ll be no hugging!
  • You can expect our minibus to have been thoroughly cleaned using recommended virucidal products before the start of the trip, and at the end of each day, and to display clear signage about hygiene, self-protection and distance guidelines.
  • We ourselves will also be thoroughly scrubbed and wearing clean clothes that have been washed at >60ºC.
  • Only two seats per row in the minibus will be occupied, meaning you’ll be sharing with a maximum of five other people. Wearing of facemasks will be mandatory during journeys.  You’ll always have the same seat.
  • If you have your own vehicle, you may use it to follow us if you’d prefer.
  • Thanks to the nature of our passion, we’ll be mostly outside and away from crowds! Group sizes will be also be small. In the event that we can’t maintain appropriate social distance, facemasks will be worn.
  • We’ll encourage you to bring your own protective masks and hand sanitiser for frequent use, but we’ll always have a stock of these available for your use.
  • We’ll encourage you to bring your own optical equipment and not share this. We can however still lend out disinfected binoculars for your personal use during the trip.  Although we cannot share scopes, we have digi-scoping equipment that will allow you to see without coming into contact with the scope.  As always, we will have field guides with us, which we can show.
  • We have stringent procedures in place should anyone – including us – fall ill during the trip.
  • Any accommodation used or hostelry establishments visited are known and trusted, and verified to also have a COVID-19 Risk Prevention Protocol in place.
  • Our legendary picnic lunch will be provided as usual – hygienically prepared, served on disinfected reusable crockery to avoid plastic waste and stuffed full of locally sourced, sustainably produced and delicious ingredients!

We are also keeping a close eye on international travel advice from the World Health Organisation, Spanish government and relevant Foreign Offices.

We hope that with everyone’s collaboration this situation will continue to improve and we will see you soon in The Straits and beyond to enjoy the best of #FlywayBirding.

We still have limited availability remaining on our Straits of Gibraltar – Bird Migration & Cetaceans scheduled departure tour, 26th August – 1st September 2020.  We also have selected availability for day tours or bespoke trips throughout the Autumn migration season!  We are happy to take no-financial-obligation provisional bookings for future tours – just contact us to register your interest and talk further.

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Black Kite © Inglorious Bustards

 

Over 20,000 Moths in one night!!

Dave Grundy – leading authority on Andalusian moths and expert guide for Inglorious Bustards’ Mothing The Straits holiday – tells us about this phenomenal eruption of Gypsy Moths!

So, what’s the most moths you’ve ever had in your moth trap? And what’s the most of one species? I’ve heard talk of 750 Large Yellow Underwings (Noctua pronuba) in one trap in the UK and maybe as many as 2,000 total moths in the trap of all species?

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Gypsy Moth trap bedlam!! © Dave Grundy

Well this month I have had an interesting time with numbers of moths of one species in particular – the Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar). It causes economic damage to forestry in North America – where it was introduced – and also on a local level in Europe.

There has been a population explosion in The Straits of Gibraltar area of Andalucía, from Algeciras to Tarifa along the coast and up to about 8 kilometres inland. Beyond that, the species is flying but does not appear to be in any large numbers (we saw only 36 across 6 traps near San Roque on 27th June).

I was first aware of the larvae back on 17th May 2020 when I recorded at least 10 in my notebook when trapping at Huerta Grande, Pelayo, Andalucía, with José Manuel Gaona Ríos.  We then went to Bosque de Niebla trapping on 5th June 2020 with Rafael Rodriguez Pino when my notebook just says “millions of caterpillars stripping the oak trees of all leaves”. This must have a massive effect on the ecology of other insect species dependent on the leaves and also on bird life and others dependent on the trees and insects.  

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Gypsy Moth larvae © Dave Grundy

But is this a phenomenon to be celebrated as a marvel of nature or to be horrified about?  Could climate change be a factor? This event, which occurs cyclically every few years, is now occurring more and more often, coinciding with periods of drought.  I don’t know what the answer is. However, I am definitely not a fan of attempts to eradicate on a large scale as this causes damage to so much other wildlife at the same time.

Next I saw my first ever male Gypsy Moth in Spain on 6th June 2020 – what a stunning creature when fresh and new! This was at Centro Internacional de Migración de Aves (CIMA), Tarifa, where we do not have the oak tree foodplants for the larvae to feed on, but they disperse here looking for females, which struggle to fly far from their original location. 

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male Gypsy Moth © Dave Grundy

Numbers then began to increase with 325 recorded on 15th June 2020 and 673 on 17th June and then a stunning estimated 5,000 to one trap on 19th June in calmer weather – this was ridiculous! An estimated 4,940 came to one trap on 20th June and then numbers have been up and down since, with more on calm nights and less on windy nights.

My peak count was on 28th June 2020 when I estimated 24,850 between 5 traps and 10,900 in just one of those traps! Moth recording becomes a nightmare and I even had to wear my COVID mask because of all the scales in the air! I believe and hope we are now near the peak in numbers, so I can return to normal moth-trapping soon! 

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There seems to be a few Gypsy Moths in this trap! © Dave Grundy

But yet, how spectacular! At nearby sights just north of Tarifa I have recorded over 5,000 at La Peña and over 1800 at Punta Paloma. And to put the numbers into perspective I have now recorded since February in Spain a total of over 650 species and over 106,000 moths, but of those 60,690 have been of Gypsy Moth adult males since 6th June 2020! 

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Records of Gypsy Moths at CIMA © Dave Grundy

Breakfast with Vultures!

Going out to a restaurant isn’t something we’ve been able to do a lot of recently, but today we were thrilled to be invited to an eatery with a difference!  The menu didn’t really appeal – we’re all for trying new things but offal, rotten eggs and cow dung are a bit too avant-garde even for our tastes!  The thrill of the invite came purely from the chance to rub shoulders with the celebrity guests…

For this beastly bistro has been set up with one purpose in mind – the conservation of the Endangered Egyptian Vulture – or Alimoche as they are known in Spain.

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Egyptian Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

With its starkly-contrasting wing pattern, wedge-shaped tail and yolk-coloured face, this gorgeous bird must surely be one of the most eye-catching scavengers in the world.  It is both sensitive and intelligent, using pebbles to break eggs, sticks to wind wool, and staying faithful to partners and nest sites over long periods. Incredible travellers, migrating birds can cover over 300 miles in a single day along the East Atlantic Flyway, until they reach the southern edge of the Sahara, as much as 3400 miles from their summer home.

Sadly, the same old story of human destruction applies to this species as to many others. Their numbers have declined dramatically – in Europe, over 50% have been lost in the last three generations. Throughout their nomadic year they face many dangers.  The disastrous effects of the terrible twins threats of habitat destruction and agricultural change are exacerbated by lead and pesticide accumulation, persecution, collisions with power lines, intentional and accidental poisoning.

Around our base, in the Campo de Gibraltar and La Janda area, we are lucky enough to host a small breeding population of this stunning bird – five of the remaining 1400 pairs in Europe.

But here they face the peril of our local windfarms.  Despite the fantastically successful work of our partners at Fundación Migres to reduce raptor collisions, in recent years there have been some strikes involving Egyptians from the local population.  The presence of ornithologist “spotters” on the farms – such a successful strategy for protecting Griffon Vultures and other species – is simply not enough for these birds.  The deaths were few, but with such a tiny population, any such losses are desperately significant, and pose a risk to the birds’ future in the area. It was clear a new approach was needed.

In 2018, Fundación Migres started piloting the creation of supplementary feeding points near to Egyptian Vulture territories. The idea was that if the birds could find “easy” food at strategic points near their nests, they would no longer take risks foraging near turbines.  Turbine strikes of foraging adults would be reduced or hopefully even eliminated.

Suitable sites for supplementary feeding have to be well-located – close to one or more Egyptian Vulture territories, with a clear route to the nest that avoids windfarms. They have to be easily accessible for the feeding team, yet be quiet, safe places, away from human disturbance. Experts at Fundación Migres identified several such sites and began feeding, eventually narrowing their efforts down to the two most successful locations.

Unlike Griffon Vultures, which have evolved to work together to rip open and devour large carrion items, Egyptian Vultures love to pick up the scraps!  For this reason, they get given the piltracos – small items of meat waste and offal collected from local butchers in the Tarifa area.

In one of life’s rare win-win situations, the butchers also save the money they would otherwise pay for a waste disposal service. The meat is transferred in authorized containers to the supplementary feeding points, where it is put out four times a week.

So this morning, we stood in a secluded field while our friend and colleague Alejandro dished up 90kg of waste meat, guts, bones and other unspeakable titbits, accompanied by soothing background music from Cirl Buntings, Turtle Doves and Common Nightingales!

As well as the main feast of meat scraps, the team also puts out attractive side dishes like eggs and cow dung! For an Egyptian Vulture, these accompaniments are simply to die for – they are rich in the carotene pigments they need to give them that gorgeous yolky-yellow face. 

To measure the success of the project, the sites are checked daily and activity is also monitored using camera-traps.  Many of the birds are tagged or ringed, so a detailed picture can be built up of which individuals or pairs come to the sites and how long they spend there.

At the same time, in the wind farms, the “spotters” collect information on any birds that fly nearby.  This means that the team can make a direct comparison between days when food is laid out or not, to see if it reduces the birds’ presence in or around the windfarms.

Preliminary results of the pilot are very promising. Since the trial began, there have been no deaths of local birds on the windfarms.  The supplementary feeding points have significantly reduced the number of birds recorded near wind farms, massively reducing the risk of collision. This is especially important while they have chicks are in the nest, and adult foraging is particularly intense.

The fringe benefits of the project have also been impressive!  It seems word has got around about the hottest table in town, and the team are recording non-local Egyptian vultures and many other species coming to the feeding sites, including Griffon Vultures, Cinereous Vultures, Black Kites, Common Buzzards, Northern Goshawks and more.

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Griffon Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

At the moment one of the area’s local celebrities is also putting in an appearance every day.  A stunning adult Rüppell’s Vulture – supposed to be in sub-Saharan Africa but currently hanging out with our local Griffon Vulture colony and attempting to mate. Earlier in the Spring other vagrant individuals were recorded too, as this species gradually gains a foothold in Europe.

The project is supervised by the Andalucían Government and is coordinated with their vulture conservation team.  It is currently financed by the wind power companies.  In academic terms the project is still in early days, and nothing will be published until data has been collected for several years and the effectiveness of the measure can be properly evaluated.

In the meantime, it may not have a Michelin star or serve many vegetarian options, but Café Alimoche is definitely our new favourite eatery!

Thanks to our conservation partners and colleagues at Fundación Migres for the invite and our continued partnership.

If you love Vultures, you´ll love our Ronda & The Straits trip, timed to coincide with the virtually unknown spectacle of the Griffon Vulture migration across The Straits of Gibraltar.  Check it out here and get in touch to find out more – we´re currently taking no-obligation provisional bookings for 2020.

 

Make Birding Your New Normal!

Birding is good for you – it’s a scientific fact! The happy buzz that many of us know – and need – from spending time in Nature is gaining traction as a proven means of boosting mental health.

In England, for example, research revealed that access to urban green spaces reduced residents’ sense of isolation and loneliness. Living close to a park can offer an equivalent mental-health improvement as a two-point decrease in unemployment. And here in Spain, schoolchildren raised in greener neighbourhoods have more neural connections in brain regions tied to working memory and attention. It is also now becoming more commonplace for time in Nature to be prescribed as a treatment for depression.

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Niki de-stresses observing and counting Honey Buzzards cross into Europe © Inglorious Bustards

Things have been tough for so many in these past weeks. Pain and worry over loved ones, employment and the future are of course very much still with us all, as society feels its way out of the international public health crisis caused by the coronavirus.

But as Spain transitions to a New Normal and we all step blinking into the late Spring light, we’re at last able to share the joy of experiencing the vast open spaces of Nature, and rediscovering its inhabitants, which lifts our spirits so much!

For our part, we’re thrilled to be able to start showing people birds again. As a small but environmentally- and socially-committed ecotourism company, we love running affordable day tours in our beautiful home of the Straits of Gibraltar. Since Cádiz province entered Phase 1 of lockdown de-escalation on 11 May, we have spent some fantastic days with our guests from the province, showing them the awe-inspiring Honey Buzzard migration, and all the other raptors that flow with it, as well as local specialities like White-rumped Swift and Northern Bald Ibis.

We have also teamed up with superb rural eco-lodge Huerta Grande to offer Spain-dwellers an affordable three-day Fly-away Birding Break in The Straits of Gibraltar. What better place to fly away for a short get-away, treat yourself to an escape from your lockdown residence and enjoy your new-found freedom in the wide-open spaces of the natural world?

Residents of Cádiz province can already join us on this trip. People from other Spanish provinces will be able to join us once Phase 3 of lockdown de-escalation is safely behind us all. This very special trip is available for a limited period, until the end of August.

The Straits is an ideal destination for this kind of summer birding, and not just for the cooling sea breezes and plentiful ice-cream! It is also home to interesting and unusual resident and breeding birds, some of which occur nowhere else in Spain. Rüppell’s Vulture, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Common Bulbul, Rufous-tailed Scrub-robin and White-rumped Swift are not only stunning to see but high on many birding wishlists.

Our Home – The Straits © Inglorious Bustards

A great variety of coastal, mountain and wetland areas put us in contact with some of the area’s most engaging species. Gorgeous Greater Flamingoes, characterful Northern Bald Ibis, awesome Griffon Vultures and rainbow-coloured European Bee-eaters make this an ideal place to kick-start your wildlife-watching habit and make birding your New Normal!

Over an introductory afternoon and two full days of birding, we’ll use our local knowledge of weather conditions, up-to-the-minute wildlife information – and of course your personal pace requirements and wishlist! – to bring you the very best of the area’s summer birding.

The itinerary will vary accordingly, but whatever your preferred birding level, with the Inglorious Bustards you can expect passion, knowledge, patience, laughs, complete commitment to sustainability and conservation, outstanding birding and wildlife spectacles, as well as our legendary picnics!

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Rufous-tailed Scrub-robin © Inglorious Bustards

Of course, it should go without saying that the health and safety of our clients and avoiding the continued spread of this disease in wider society are still our top priorities. We have been working hard to keep abreast of all current rules and procedures for safe working and will continue to do so, for the good of everybody.

Though many of these common-sense procedures were already part of our trips, ensuring hygiene, safety and comfort for our guests, we want to reassure you that when you come birding with us, you can rely on the following:

– Our vehicle is thoroughly cleaned between every outing

– We ourselves are also thoroughly scrubbed between outings!

– Group size is limited. We are currently limiting group size to a maximum of four people (far smaller than the officially-allowed maximum of 10) to guarantee appropriate social distancing.

– Passenger numbers are limited to two per row of seats in our spacious, air-conditioned minibus.

– Any shared optical equipment such as telescopes or loaned binoculars will be sanitised at regular intervals throughout the trip and between trips.

– Your day will be spent outside and away from crowded places (that’s the joy of nature-watching!)

– A minimum distance of 2m between non-cohabiting participants will be maintained while in the field.

– Hand-sanitiser and disposable gloves are provided. We have sourced bio-compostable gloves as part of our continued resolve and commitment to eliminate non-biodegrable waste from our trips.

– Facemasks will be used throughout the day.  We ask our guests to bring their own reusable facemasks to avoid unnecessary disposable items.

– Any accommodation used or hostelry establishments visited are known and trusted, and verified to also be totally compliant with lockdown-easing procedures.

– Our legendary picnic lunch will be provided as usual – hygienically prepared, served on disinfected reusable crockery to avoid plastic waste and stuffed full of locally sourced, sustainably produced and delicious ingredients!

We are totally confident in our procedures and really looking forward to bringing you the natural high we all need right now – days out in Nature, not only good for health but good for the soul.

Fancy flying away with us?  Have a look on our website for more info on Fly-away Birding Breaks, Day Trips and Bespoke Tours, then contact us to learn more and arrange your trip.

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Rüppell’s Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

Return to Doñana

On a rainy afternoon we found ourselves reminiscing about our superb trip to beautiful Doñana earlier this year, in all its wintery wonder! It was perhaps the perfect antidote for our guests that week for their Northern European January.

Thousands of wintering waders, wildfowl and wetland birds filled the lagoons, ponds and saltpans, including Red-knobbed Coot, Marbled Duck, White-headed Duck, Black-winged Stilt, Little Stint, Caspian Terns, Slender-billed Gulls, Common Ringed, Little Ringed, Grey and Kentish Plover, Black-crowned Night Herons, White and Black Storks, Common Cranes, Glossy Ibis, Greater Flamingoes and Purple Swamphens.

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White-headed Duck © Inglorious Bustards

As well as treats like showy Bluethroats, Little Swifts, Eurasian Hoopoes, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, Black-winged Kites, Booted Eagles, Iberian Grey Shrikes and a sneaky Lesser Flamingo, the group were lucky enough to encounter both of Doñana’s most famed Iberian endemics. In two wholly different experiences we shared the briefest of moments with an evaporating Iberian Lynx – soon followed by outstanding views of no less than SIX Spanish Imperial Eagles!

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Bluethroat © Inglorious Bustards

It is hard to know how we packed so much into just five days!

But we did, and we still had plenty of time to enjoy every species at a relaxed pace, sample sustainably-produced local food during picnics in the sun, and get to know the sandy streets and bar-side hitching posts of El Rocí­o.

You can read more on the tour page and in our trip report about the fantastic wildlife of Doñana.

As the world starts to think about arriving to a brave “new normal”, we all need something to look forward to.  As well as thinking back, we’re looking forward to seeing you in the future, and we’re currently taking no-obligation, flexible bookings on this and other trips for 2020 and 2021.

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Doñana in winter is a special wildlife delight © Inglorious Bustards