First White-backed Vulture tagged in Europe – implications for African Vulture conservation

A version of this blog was originally published online on the Birdguides website (02/01/2022).


On 3rd December 2021, Fundación Migres ringed and GPS-tagged a White-backed Vulture, a vagrant to Europe and the first one to be ringed and tagged in Europe.

The occurrence of this species here – alongside the increased incidence of Rüppell’s Vulture in The Straits – is extremely interesting.  Both species are Critically Endangered in their usual sub-Saharan range. It is hypothesised that the increase in Eurasian Griffon Vulture numbers in Europe may be at least partly responsible as this leads to an increase in the number of young Griffons dispersing from and returning to Europe.  The largely sedentary African Vulture species mix with young Griffons in The Sahel and get caught up in the return flow of these birds.

Rüppell’s and White-backed Vulture are on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species considered to be Critically Endangered, which is the last category before global extinction.

Satellite tagging these vagrant birds will give us new insights into these Critically Endangered species and aid our conservation knowledge for African Vultures.

The project team decided to name the White-backed Vulture “Viking” in thanks and reference to project partners and funders Viking Optical.

The project

Originally, following presentations and findings at the IUCN Rüppell’s Vulture symposium and given the increasing occurrence of Rüppell’s Vultures in both Southern Europe and North Africa (in particular either North or South sides of The Straits of Gibraltar), the project team had aimed to ring and GPS tag this species at a feeding station. 

Since the early nineties, Rüppell’s Vultures have been encountered in the Iberian Peninsula particularly in The Straits of Gibraltar.

The occurrence of normally largely sedentary African Vultures in The Straits is likely to be linked to an increase in Eurasian Griffon Vulture numbers (thanks in no small part to Spanish conservation efforts).  The resulting increase of Eurasian Griffon Vultures migrating to the Sahel and mixing with the declining African Vulture populations has meant that when the two species encounter each other, some Rüppell’s or White-backed Vultures get caught up in the “conveyor belt” of the pre-nuptial Griffon Vulture migration and make their way into North Africa and sometimes on to Europe. 

We know from existing telemetry data that some of the birds that have made it as far as Morocco have even returned to the Sahel. 

One possible future issue for the critically endangered African Vulture population could be hybridisation.  At the moment there are only records of copulation between Rüppell´s and Eurasian Griffon Vultures without any evidence of viable offspring.  However, Rüppell’s Vulture has been recorded producing viable offspring with Cape Vulture in South Africa.  

“Viking” takes flight what secrets will this White-backed Vulture tell us about the movements, interactions and conservation issues of African Vultures? © Inglorious Bustards

We speculate that there is an increased chance of hybridisation in the future as Eurasian Griffon Vulture numbers continue to increase and, if carrying capacity is reached in Iberia, begin to recolonise former breeding areas in Morocco.  This effect could produce reverse gene flow issues into the Sahelian populations of critically endangered African Vultures.

Here in The Straits the Rüppell’s Vulture is still considered a rare occurrence, but is encountered with increasing frequency. It has been recorded frequently at feeding stations set up by Fundacíon Migres for Egyptian Vulture conservation projects.  This provides a unique opportunity to tag and study the movements of these vagrants and the possibility of reverse gene flow back into African Vulture populations in the Sahel.

Rüppell’s Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

On 3rd December 2021 a White-backed Vulture was trapped and it was decided that the concept of understanding the wider conservation issues for declining and critically endangered African Vultures moving through The Straits still holds true for this species. Just as we have seen increases in the occurrence of Rüppell’s Vulture so too could this White-backed Vulture be the forerunner to increased occurrences in North Africa and Southern Europe.

GPS transmitter and high frequency radio tag fitted to “Viking” the White-backed Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

After studying photographs of a White-backed Vulture recently observed and photographed by Javier Elorriaga and Sergio Briones in Tarifa and Los Barrios, we can see that this now-marked bird is not the same individual.  This means there are at least two White-backed Vultures on Spanish side of The Straits this year alone with a further two trapped and marked on the Moroccan side this year too.

Understanding these vagrancy patterns potentially linked to declining populations of largely sedentary African Vultures and increases in youth dispersal of Eurasian Griffon Vultures is key to a wider diagnosis of the plight of Africa’s declining Vulture populations.

A field readable colour ring will additionally allow for field ornithologists / observers to quickly identify “Viking”, especially as we now know of additional White-backed Vultures occurring in the vicinity of The Straits © Inglorious Bustards

Implications for conservation 

We have considered the implications of this project across our project team and using the framework of spatial targeting for single-species conservation planning (“the Species Recovery Curve”) concluded that more data-gathering was needed to understand the patterns of vagrancy of sub-Saharan African Vulture populations and the subsequent implications for conservation.

Therefore we score the project at Diagnosis 2/3 on the Recovery Curve.  This is because whilst we know many of the reasons for decline across the normal range, we still don’t know the full status nor the reasons for their now regular vagrancy into Europe.

Nor do we fully understand vagrant African Vultures interactions with breeding colonies of Eurasian Griffon Vultures once in Europe. There have been observations of Rüppell’s Vultures copulating with Eurasian Griffon Vultures but as yet there is no evidence of viable offspring being produced.

Griffon Vulture returning to Europe at The Straits of Gibraltar © Inglorious Bustards

McCarthy (2006) reports numerous instances of White-backed Vulture hybridisation with Rüppell’s Vulture in captivity and unpublished reports of hybridisation with Cape Vulture too.  It would therefore seem likely that hybridisation between White-backed and Eurasian Griffon Vultures could be possible.

McCarthy also reports on multiple instances of Rüppell’s Vulture hybridising with Eurasian Griffon Vulture in captivity.  An adult specimen in the Natural History Museum, Tring, taken from a nest in Algeria, is considered to be a naturally-occurring wild hybrid between Rüppell’s Vulture and Eurasian Griffon Vulture (Davies & Clark 2018).

Additionally if the occurrence of African Vultures in Southern Europe continues to increase, it is also feasible that they could eventually set up a new intra-specific breeding population.

Main threats to African Vultures

Both primary and secondary poisoning are thought to be key drivers of the rapid decline of African Vultures (including the use of diclofenac in cattle and direct poisoning by poachers using carbofuran). Evidence from wing-tagging and telemetry studies already suggests that annual mortality of present species, principally from incidental poisoning, is perhaps as high as 25%.

Trapping and killing for “traditional voodoo practices” and national and international illegal trade are also threats. African Vulture species are also affected by collisions with power infrastructure, particularly power cables.  Longer dry seasons are leading to changes in habitat mosaic and possible lack of food.  The loss or felling of nesting trees,  and disturbance of nesting trees in particular for White-backed Vultures and at cliff nesting sites for Rüppell’s Vultures also pose problems. 

Nesting tree loss and disturbance in places across the Western Sahel is of particular note as there are very few suitable cliff nesting sites for Rüppell’s Vultures (none at all in The Gambia for instance). 

As the populations of African Vultures decline further due to these multivariate issues, the motivation towards vagrancy increases, as does the potential for hybridisation and reverse gene flow back to the sub-Saharan African Vulture population. 

Hybridisation could therefore emerge as a symptom of overall decline and a new threat to African Vulture populations.

Progress and future work

With the support of IUCN-Med, GREPOM-BirdLife Morocco and the Moroccan Department of Waters and Forests, experts from Spain and Morocco have joined forces to tag vultures with GPS and satellite transmitters. 

In northern Morocco, near The Straits of Gibraltar the team worked with Rüppell’s Vulture (Gyps rueppellii) from the Jbel Moussa Vulture Recovery Centre (CRV). 12 birds were tagged with GPS during 2020 (26 trapped and marked with wingtags, 12 of them marked with GPS), and another 12 birds with GPS during 2021 (devices provided by Junta de Andalucía, Fundación Migres, Doñana Biological Station (EBD-CSIC), GREFA (Grupo de Rehabilitación de la Fauna Autóctona y su Hábitat) and Wilder South. Additionally a further two Rüppell’s Vultures have been ringed in Malaga by the University of Malaga.

In early September a young Rüppell’s Vulture in central Portugal was taken into care for rehabilitation and subsequently released after being fitted with a GPS tracker. This Rüppell’s Vulture was named “Vouzela” and tagging was conducted in a collaboration by the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF). 

Vouzela represents only the third time in Europe and the first time in Portugal that a Rüppell’s Vulture has been fitted with a GPS tag. The question of whether these vagrant African Vultures return to sub-Saharan Africa was subsequently proven this year as Vouzela crossed The Straits of Gibraltar and is now in Northern Senegal. 

Did Vouzela originate from colonies in the Sahel or perhaps an unknown intra-specific breeding in Eurasian Griffon Vulture colonies in Iberia? 

Increased tagging and monitoring is essential to better understand the movements of declining African Vultures, particularly vagrant individuals, and to ensure we fully diagnose all the potential and multi-variate conservation issues critically endangered African Vultures face as their European congeners’ population continues to increase.

Map showing Rüppell’s Vulture “Vouzela’s”  GPS movements since release in Portugal (credit Vulture Conservation Foundation)


Thanks to the team involved in the projects and collaborations across organisations, we have been able to deploy expertise and resources rapidly, demonstrating the benefits of working collaboratively internationally and at a cross-organisational scale.

“Viking” with some of the project team before release © Fundación Migres

This project would not be possible without the financial help kindly received from project sponsors Viking Optical and Doñana Biological Station (EBD-CSIC). 

This work would not be possible without the tireless expertise and work of Fundacíon Migres, Doñana Biological Station (EBD-CSIC), GREPOM / Birdlife Morocco, IUCN-Med, Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF),  The Flyway Birding Association / Inglorious Bustards and the Junta de Andalucia.

Simon Tonkin (Inglorious Bustards / Flyway Birding), Carlos Torralvo, Alejandro Onrubia, Cristina Gonzalez (Fundacíon Migres) and Stuart Gillies (Viking Optical)


Davies. R., Clark. B. – African Raptors (2018).

Garrido, J.R., Martín J. and Clavero H. (2020). An overview of the first international symposium on the Rüppell’s Vulture in the Mediterranean region, 24th March 2021. Vulture News, 79: 38-44.

McCarthy. E.M. (2006) – Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World.

Onrubia, A., Torralvo, C., González, C. and Ferrer, M. (2020). Informe de evaluación de la población del buitre moteado o de Ruppell (Gyps rueppelli) en Andalucía. Consejería de Agricultura, Ganadería, Pesca y Desarrollo Sostenible, Junta de Andalucía: Sevilla. (Unpublished report)

UICN (2021). Recomendaciones para la elaboración de un Plan de acción para la conservación del buitre de Rüppell (Gyps rueppelli) en el mediterráneo occidental. Málaga, España: UICN.

“Viking” the tagged White-backed Vulture will undoubtedly reveal interesting but critical information regarding the vagrancy of African Vultures and the resulting conservation implications for these critically endangered species © Inglorious Bustards

The Final Count(down) 2021

Another season has passed us by, and from 5th May 2021 to 5th December 2021 Fundación Migres has once again been monitoring the passage of migratory birds through here at The Straits of Gibraltar.

For our small part we helped with the counts whenever we could for this important programme, which has been running since 1997.

Together we counted 521,000 soaring migratory birds including 151,300 White and Black Storks and 369,700 raptors of 37 different species!

Black Stork © Inglorious Bustards

Additionally 443,300 passerine migrants were counted, including 197,000 Finches, 87,500 hirundines, 83,000 Pallid, Common and Alpine Swifts, 32,000 European Bee-eaters, 15,000 Spotless Starlings and 14,000 House and Spanish Sparrows.

European Bee-eater © Inglorious Bustards

Fundación Migres also monitored the seabird passage from (permit-only) Isla de Tarifa, where we counted 404,000 seabirds passing through The Straits. These included 350,500 Scopoli’s / Cory’s Shearwaters, 21,500 Balearic Shearwaters, 15,000 Northern Gannet, 11,300 Gulls and Terns, 3,100 Razorbills and Atlantic Puffins and 600 Skuas.

Add to that the specific Balearic Shearwater monitoring programme, which counted a further 27,445 of this species passing through The Straits between May and July.

Niki counting out the Black Kites © Inglorious Bustards

All of this count data represents long-term monitoring of population at this migratory bottleneck. With this data we are able to trace long-term (and short-term) trends of individual species at the East Atlantic Flyway scale, which can be used to alert conservationists, policy-makers and land managers to population declines and increases – demonstrating that monitoring is a vital part of conservation diagnosis management

Congratulations to the magnificent and dedicated team at Fundación Migres and their tireless work and for allowing us to be a small part of a great team. Additional thanks should go to Viking Optical who not only have supported the programme through loan optics but also taking part in the count themselves!

Alejandro Onrubia is on it! © Inglorious Bustards

However, just as one season ends another one starts – the first White Storks are already returning to Europe and the Black Kites won’t be too far behind! Soon we will be observing the promise of return being fulfilled!

Black Kites © Inglorious Bustards
Everyday is a good day in The Straits – then you see a Lanner 🙂 © Inglorious Bustards
White Stork wallpaper ! © Inglorious Bustards
After several days of strong cross-winds Kite Fest happened! – over 20,000 Back Kites crossing in a single day! © Inglorious Bustards
Rüppell’s Vulture encounters are becoming much more regular © Inglorious Bustards
It is important to kneel in reverence at the the passing of a large group of White Storks (plus you don’t fall over!) – Simon counting with Viking Optical / Stuart Gillies © Inglorious Bustards
Swirling masses of White Storks! © Inglorious Bustards
Short-toed Eagle © Inglorious Bustards
Often the raptor that doesn’t quite get the attention it deserves the super awesome Black Kite here a juvenile © Inglorious Bustards
Juvenile Black Kite © Inglorious Bustards
Incoming Griffon Vulture – returning to Europe leaving Africa behind it as it returns from its youth dispersal © Inglorious Bustards
Early mornings at the watchpoint sometimes saw us watching European Rollers before they moved on © Inglorious Bustards
Montagu’s Harrier © Inglorious Bustards
White Storks taking on The Straits © Inglorious Bustards

Strength in Numbers – You Can’t Stop The Black Kite Super-flock!

Juvenile Black Kite © Inglorious Bustards

For the sheer spectacle of the Black Kite migration, August in The Straits is hard to beat!  Those of you who follow our social media will have seen the indescribably large numbers passing through Tarifa during those days. “Swirling masses”, “breath-taking spectacle”, “skies literally full” – the superlatives dry up long before the torrent of birds!  There are not really words or images that can fully describe what it´s like to watch 50,000 raptors pass over in a week – 18,000 in a single day – as we did! And then massive numbers again the next day, and the next – it´s almost incomprehensible to the brain! 

The strong flocking behaviour that characterises the autumn migratory behaviour of Black Kites is what makes the period so special.  At the end of their breeding season, Kites belonging to the same colony tend to aggregate in roosts, and they often leave breeding sites together. 

“Milanada” – Black Kites massing at the meeting of two continents in Tarifa © Inglorious Bustards

As they travel, they meet other migrants along the way or at stopover sites like rubbish dumps or burning cultivated fields.  The flocks build and build in number, until the huge populations of the Iberian Peninsula, France, Germany and Switzerland all meet at Tarifa, to cross the narrowest point of The Straits.  Add to the mix the challenge of crossing the sea during the area´s frequent crosswinds and that’s why we get these extraordinary festivals in the sky.

In this species, mortality rates are high between the first and second year of life – many don´t make it back from their first migration. The arduous journey represents a powerful selective force. It may be what encourages juvenile Black Kites to migrate together with adults, and could explain the strong tendency of Black Kites to travel in flocks during the southbound migration. 

To Africa! – a juvenile Black Kite traverses the continents for the first time © Inglorious Bustards

We know that large bodies of water represent major obstacles for the migration of soaring birds because thermal updrafts are absent or weak over water. But there is still much to understand about the specific factors that affect an individual´s likelihood of surviving this treacherous step of the journey – and indeed, how many make it across the sea to Africa. 

The birds leave Spain highly concentrated, but arrive in Morocco spread out over a broad front, so counting them out of Spain and checking them in to Morocco is an impossibility.  However, advances in satellite tagging provide new opportunities to seek answers. 

The Black Kite is the most common soaring species crossing The Strait of Gibraltar during the post-breeding migration, with up to 140,000 individuals counted on an annual basis. Their strategy of gathering in large flocks and travelling together makes this super-numerous raptor the ideal study choice, and The Straits the ideal study area.

Juvenile Black Kite © Inglorious Bustards

During a recent study, 73 migrating Kites were trapped in the Tarifa area and fitted with GPS dataloggers. These high-resolution data-collecting devices allowed the team to obtain incredibly detailed information about each individual crossing.  The GPS position of each bird, both horizontally and vertically, was recorded every minute over land, and every ten seconds once they embarked on their crossing of The Strait of Gibraltar, and information was gathered about acceleration and flapping behaviour of the birds.

The team could now determine the duration, length, altitude, speed and “tortuosity” of the sea crossing, and record failed crossing attempts.  These parameters were modelled against wind speed and direction, time of day, the strength of the sun (giving insight into the thermal uplifts available), starting altitude and distance to Morocco, and the age and sex of the birds.

Taken together, this information surely brought them as close as you can imagine to being able to perceive and visualise the course of each individual crossing, and give a real picture of the “decisions” made by each bird about when and how to cross.

The good news – no Black Kites were harmed during the researching of this paper!  All 73 survived, and although there were 40 failed crossing attempts during the study where the bird turned back to Spain, 62 successful crossings were eventually made.

Perhaps surprisingly, there were no age differences in the probability of quitting a sea crossing. There were however, marked differences in performance and risk-taking of younger birds.  They tended to take much longer than experienced adults to make the crossing, having embarked into stronger crosswinds or from lower altitudes, and therefore needing to use exhausting powered flight to reach the other side.  They were just as likely to succeed, but often did so by the skin of their bills, and at a high physical cost.  

The similar success rates of adults and juveniles could be taken as a testament to the success of the strategy of gregarious behaviour and mixed flocks, so any youngsters crossing can at least get pointers from an experienced adult!  On the other hand, we can’t know if poorly-performing juveniles went on to pay the price for their exertions later in their vast journey to Mauritania, Mali and beyond.

Despite being possibly the most common raptor in the world, the European population of Black Kites has declined owing to poisoning, shooting, pollution of water and over-use of pesticides. Modernisation of urban environments and agricultural intensification are also thought to be causing declines locally, as prey and carrion are less available in the landscape.  

As well as being intrinsically fascinating, deepening our understanding of how Black Kites travel and learn from one another, where they go and what affects their chances can hold the key to their conservation – and to the preservation of the glorious sky-festival in The Straits!

Black Kites collecting to cross The Straits © Inglorious Bustards

For a piece of this amazing action, take a look at our tours page, especially our day and bespoke tours, and our Bird Migration & Cetaceans trip – and sign up to our free e-newsletter, where we´ll shortly be announcing a brand new migration trip for 2022!

A Fantastic Tail

A Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin keeping its tail in tip top condition © Inglorious Bustards

Whether you call it the Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, the Rufous Bush-chat, the Rufous-tailed Bush Robin or maybe even the Rufous-tailed Scrub-Bush Robin-Chat, one thing that we can all agree on is that this little bird is a stunner.

The Spanish name Alzacola – meaning “lift-tail” – is arguably more descriptive than the plethora of available English names!  The dazzling, distinctive pattern of this bird’s frequently displayed tail is a large part of what gives it its charm.

Peering through the organic vines you might see that distinctive tail flick! – Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin © Inglorious Bustards

This striking appendage is almost constantly on the move, slowly up and down or dropped and spread like a fan; often it is cocked vertically, or held almost flat along the back, the wings meanwhile being flicked forward or part-opened and drooped, tips nearly scraping the ground.

The tail is a multi-functional tool.  It serves to beguile a mate and to warn off potential competitors. It’s also a lure, to distract predators and draw them away from the nest, perched just inches from the ground among the vines or hedgerows of its agrarian habitat.

Evolution has whittled this tool to perfection! Studies have shown that the size of the white terminal patches positively affects reproductive success – the larger the white bits, the more desirable the bird!  Conversely, the size of the black sub-terminal patches has a negative relationship with nest predation – the larger the black bits, the more successful the bird is in drawing predators away from the nest.

But the evolutionary intricacy of this extremity is even more complex!  The Alzacola is a nomadic bird, migrating thousands of miles to winter in as yet poorly-understood areas of sub-Saharan Africa.  As the breeding season wears on, the delicate white end of the tail wears off, becoming abraded and eventually disappearing.  The black patches, strengthened by melanin, do not wear so easily and effectively form the new terminal part of the tail.  Mind-blowingly, it’s thought they delineate the perfect aero-dynamic shape for a long-distance traveller, a shape which is reached just as the bird is ready to leave on its migratory journey. How cool is that?!

In its breeding areas, the bird often collaborates uneasily with nearby Woodchat Shrikes, striking up a kind of neighbourhood watch scheme.  They make handsome partners, sporting a matching colour scheme of rufous-y bits, with prominent flashing black-and-white wings and tail.  The Shrike takes a look-out from the tops of trees and posts, keeping an eye out for Eurasian Sparrowhawks and other aerial predators.  Meanwhile, the lower-level Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin is alert to ground predators like foxes, mustelids, snakes and feral cats.  Each bird knows the other’s alarm call, enabling double the vigilance!  This partnership surely takes the sting out of what must be a bit of a contest for grasshoppers, spiders and beetles!

Across its range – which extends from Portugal, southern Spain and the Balkan Peninsula, through the Middle East to Iraq, Kazakhstan and Pakistan, and also Africa, where it breeds from Morocco to Egypt and south of the Sahara as far east as Somalia – the bird is split into numerous sub-species. Many of these population numbers are stable, and considered of Least Concern in conservation terms.

Sadly though, in Spain the migratory race Cercotrichas galactotes galactotes is considered Endangered.  In recent decades the area of traditionally and extensively managed vineyards in Andalucía – one of the bird´s main population strongholds –   has decreased by nearly 70%.  Just like in wider agriculture, vineyard and orchard production is being intensified – herbicides, pesticides, habitat removal and mechanical harvesting drastically reduce biodiversity.  The ecosystem is broken from the bottom up, and the Alzacola is no longer able to find nesting sites or large-bodied insect prey amongst sparse vine monocultures. 

In the area of Trebujena however, Alzacolas are getting a big helping hand from Nature-friendly viticulturalists! 

Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin in the Nature Friendly vineyards of Trebujena © Inglorious Bustards

These farmers are caring for their lands and their cultural and natural heritage, producing excellent, organic, Nature-friendly vino oloroso in the Marco de Jerez region, with the Xeres-Sherry Designation of Origin. We’re extremely proud to be working with this project through our not-for-profit arm, the Flyway Birding Association, and you can read more about it here.

With its organic, hand-harvested artisanal vineyards rich in insects and habitat, this area is a 1000-hectare oasis for Nature amongst a desert of intensive agriculture. No surprise that it holds the highest concentration of Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin nests in the Iberian Peninsula. Each year approximately 129 pairs are recorded, which is likely if anything to be an underestimate.  That’s one reason why one of the first tasks of the project is to formalise an annual census in order to be able to accurately monitor the population going forward.

If you’re a follower of our social media feed, you will have seen that we spent some incredible days in the area this week, with active territories all around us.  At one point we were in the midst of a skirmish between four different individuals!  We’re certainly looking forward to finally being able to share them with you again during our Swift Weekender Tour 2022 or perhaps a guided day tour of the area.  If that doesn’t make you want to shake your tail-feather, we don’t know what will!

Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin action! © Inglorious Bustards

Our Sustainability Journey – The Story So Far!

In July 2020, Niki completed the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC)´s training course in Sustainable Tourism delivery.  This excellent learning programme gives a full understanding of GSTC´s Sustainability Criteria and how to apply them appropriately to a tourism business or organisation of any size or scope.

Migrating Black Stork crossing The Straits – Sustainability in what we do ultimately helps migrant birds and their habitats © Inglorious Bustards

It teaches the importance of having a sustainability reporting and management system in place, to make sustainability achievements measurable, and to help move towards continuous improvement.  To this end, we have produced a document detailing our present situation according to GSTC Criteria and also our sustainability journey from the beginning and into the future.

The ethos behind Inglorious Bustards´ Nature tourism has always been to use travel to bring positive outcomes for biodiversity in the places we visit and beyond.  We came to the ecotourism industry from a background in sustainable agriculture, travel and conservation, full of ideas about how the market can be used to drive conservation initiatives, and determined to put these into practice across the East Atlantic Flyway.

This of course brings challenges!  As conservationists, we are only too aware of the environmental impact of the activities associated with tourism.  We want to share the joy of watching wildlife all along the East Atlantic Flyway, but in doing so we inevitably encourage consumption of the planet´s resources.

We launched our #FlywayPromise in 2019, making a pledge to our guests, colleagues and conservation partners that we would strive to meet the challenges of responsible ecotourism.  We call this concept #FlywayBirding, putting conservation action and education at the very heart of what we do, to ensure our operations benefit rather than exploit wildlife.  On our trips, “eco-tourism” is a promise, not an oxymoron.

Truly sustainable, responsible ecotourism is essential in supporting local economies and preventing the destruction of habitats that not only host much of the world´s biodiversity but provide essential ecosystem service functions such as carbon sequestration.  It thereby provides overall net benefit to biodiversity conservation and the wider environment.

The criteria and themes of sustainable tourism are wide-reaching, covering cultural, socio-economic and natural heritage.  As a small tour operator, it is not within our scope to change the tourism industry alone.  But we can have a positive impact on our little corner of it – traveling to both experience and help nature – as well as holding up a light for others, illuminating the art of the possible.

The theme about which we are most passionate and where we are able to exert the most influence through our small conservation-based travel company is the interconnectedness of habitat and species conservation, food choice and carbon footprint.  We believe a nature-watching tour can and should deliver exemplary responsible wildlife-watching and insight into local and global conservation issues.  It should link local sustainably-produced food with local natural, cultural, and culinary heritage.  We believe that all these things go indivisibly hand-in-hand.  This is the central theme of our Sustainability Management Report and Plan, and the area in which we particularly aim to excel.

An in-glorious picnic ! Sustainably produced, no single use plastics and yummy! © Inglorious Bustards

The report follows the sustainability criteria set out for tour operators by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.  They are designed to cover everything up to large tour operators with many staff and their own properties, so not all are applicable.  Using guidance and training from GSTC we have used this document to demonstrate what we are doing to fulfil applicable sustainability criteria across the board, and where our journey will take us next. 

If you wish to read the full substantive report you can do so here

We hope you like it!

Kite-fest 2021!

We’re all pretty sick of travel restrictions by now, for sure. Well today, for Black Kites at least, they were finally lifted!

After ten days of strong easterlies, overcast conditions and heavy rain around The Straits of Gibraltar, the meteorological ´border´ finally opened for the most spectacular day so far of 2021´s spring migration!

Black Kites incoming! © Inglorious Bustards

Since early February we´ve been seeing brave attempts by plucky raptors to cross The Straits towards their northerly breeding grounds.  Driven on by the desire to grab the best territory, numerous Black Kites, Short-toed Eagles and Griffon Vultures have been braving all sorts of weathers – some succeeding and some sadly not.

But the sensible ones chose today – and as the morning rain stopped, the clouds parted to reveal hundreds upon hundreds of Black Kites streaming towards us across the sea!

Black Kites swirling overhead © Inglorious Bustards

As ever it´s hard to describe such a mind-blowing gathering of soaring birds of prey!  Within an hour of arriving at the coast we had counted 3,000, with Booted Eagles, Short-toed Eagles, Marsh Harriers, Black and White Storks and even a decidedly lost Lanner Falcon amongst them!  

“The sky was full of Kites” is in this case a literal description.  As each wave of hundreds of birds turns into a swirling mass of thousands and drifts inland on a welcoming thermal, still more arrive, until you just don’t know where to look!

Our conservation partners, Fundación Migres, reckon that upwards of 12,000 birds crossed The Straits today!

We were happy to run into some of our off-duty friends from Migres on the clifftop – today was their day off from counting the migrating raptors, so they joined us to simply to marvel at the Kite-fest!

Also marvelling at the incredible day was our friend Ugo Mellone of MEDRAPTORS research group.  Those of you who are regular readers of this blog may remember our “Tale of Two Eagles”, covering the migratory journeys of two Italian Short-toed Eagles – father and son, Egidio and Michele.  Ugo leads on the project that fitted their satellite tags and follows their travels.  He excitedly told us that Egidio was on the way!  Last night his tag transmitted that he had spent the night on the rocky Moroccan coastline just 14 km from where we were standing, and that he would surely be one of the birds crossing over our heads today!

Carlos (left) and Ugo (right) in amongst the Kite fest!

Onward journeys, travel with no restrictions, families and friends reunited – we could all use some of that!  Hopefully, by the time these very birds are heading south in the autumn, we will be able to share days like these with you.

If this is just the kind of uplifting spectacle you need, then our Straits of Gibraltar – Bird Migration and Cetaceans tour is definitely for you!  We are taking no-obligation provisional bookings for Autumn 2021 and Spring 2022!

The strange case of a Black Kite marked in Tarifa and recovered in Benin, West Africa.

Migratory birds don’t recognise borders, and finding out where they are passing through, and going to and from is vital not only to understand the threats and areas for conservation but also to bring to life the epic story of migration.

Flyway-scale conservation and funding must be driven by good science, wise spending and cross-border, holistic conservation.  Ecotourism has a part to play here and that is why we developed our #FlywayPromise  and the concept of #FlywayBirding – directly experiencing the magic of migration, further understanding the its perils, and directly contributing to benefit migratory birds along the East Atlantic Flyway.

At this moment we have been watching Black Kites coming through The Straits here and our minds turn to the epic journeys they have undertaken.

Black Kite © Inglorious Bustards

Our friend, Fundación Migres chief ornithologist and Inglorious Bustards guide Alejandro Onrubia tells us the unusual but not unique tale of a Black Kite ringed here in Tarifa and recovered in Benin, West Africa

“Two weeks ago (February 2, 2021) a trapper from Benin (West Africa) live-captured a Black Kite that Fundación Migres had ringed in The Strait of Gibraltar in August 2018. Often these birds can end up in local markets or being eaten.  With the rings, necklaces and bracelets are sometimes made and in fact, these ringed birds are sometimes targeted for capture to remove the rings and make jewellery or ornaments. On some previous occasions, when birds marked with emitters or wing marks were captured in their wintering grounds, the trappers contacted Migres to request a ransom for the birds’ release!

In the case of this ringed Black Kite, it was lucky that it fell into the hands of a local person who loves birds (Mr. A.B.). He looked at the ring and its return address, searched the internet and contacted the Spanish ringing center. From there, they contacted me (the bander) and passed their contact on to me. And so I got in touch with this man from Benin to see where and when they had captured the Kite, for what … and of course to ask him to release it.

At first, he told me that he could not release it because the hunters and trappers would capture and / or kill it again, and told me that he could “send it to Spain by courier to return it” or “I could go directly to Benin to pick it up”. I told him that it was impossible because the animal would not withstand the trip, it was very expensive and many permits were required, and I could not travel to Benin either. The fact is that he is finally going to free him, although he wants to wait for the rainy season so that they do not kill him and he can return to Spain.

I asked Mr A.B. how and why they capture the birds there in Benin, and he indicated that there are many trappers who capture the birds alive with different trapping systems (not firearms), because live birds are priced better in the markets than dead birds. He has indicated to me that it is common for these birds to be eaten, but above all they are sold in the markets for magical rituals (voodoo), to make products to fight against evil spirits, to attract good luck, and many other things.”




“Cranes are the stuff of magic, whose voices penetrate the atmosphere of the world’s wilderness areas, from arctic tundra to the South African veld, and whose footprints have been left on the wetlands of the world for the past 60 million years or more”

Andalucía is an important wintering and stopover point for migrating Common Cranes, so in winter we are often lucky enough to be surrounded by the magical, musical voices which Paul A Johnsgard speaks of in the above quote.

As a small part of our commitment to our Flyway Promise conservation effort (and because we love Cranes!) we´ve been spending some time surveying with Grupo de Trabajo y Conservación de la Grulla Comun en Extremadura (Grus Extremadura for short).

As well as education and conservation work, this organisation has been working to bring together data about Common Cranes passing through the Iberian Peninsula since 2014, both by collating ad hoc records and managing two peninsula-wide surveys in December and January of each winter.  They also have an incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic WhatsApp group – it seems Crane enthusiasts are as gregarious as the birds themselves!

The overwintering Red-knobbed coot at La Janda (a personal friend!) © Inglorious Bustards

And so, we found ourselves spending the end of a glorious winter´s day on our home patch at the farmlands of La Janda, enjoying local treats in the form of Spanish Imperial Eagle, Black-winged Kites, Short-eared Owl, Western Swamphens, Spanish Sparrows, White and Black Storks, a Red-knobbed Coot that´s been hanging out, Penduline Tits and Eurasian Bluethroats.  Counting the Cranes, we were treated to the evening fanfares of those bugling beauties as they came in to roost around us in long, wavy lines.

The spectacle of large numbers of gregarious birds, gathering together during a huge journey, is always an uplifting one, and is brought even more to life by the spark of an individual story.  One young Crane grazing on rice stubbles with its family wore a nice bit of bling, in the form of colour rings on its legs.  Checking out the colour code, we found this youngster and its family had joined us from Teuva in Finland, having travelled a distance of around 4,600 km.

Their journey, made with extended family and friends from their home wetlands, probably started in August or September.  Joining up with other travelling birds from around Scandinavia as they went, they most likely crossed the Baltic Sea to Sweden, then moved south through northern Germany, wetland-hopping all the way.  In France they may well have taken a break at the Lac du Der (a reservoir) in Chantecoq with thousands of others, before crossing the Pyrenees through the valleys of Navarra and western Aragon.

A stop at Zaragoza´s famous Gallocanta Lagoon – usually for a few days – is an annual pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds.  Winter numbers usually peak at over 100,000.  To see and hear these gatherings on an icy dawn is a beautiful experience which we have missed a lot in 2020!  I can only imagine what it must feel like for a young Common Crane from Finland joining this throng for the first time!

Many Common Cranes then continue to the central parts of Extremadura where they rest and feed, using this area as a corridor to the rest of Iberia – Portugal, Cordoba, Sevilla, Doñana and our own La Janda, from where some birds cross The Straits of Gibraltar to winter in Morocco.

On our first survey we counted 732 – much lower than the usual 1,200 or so recorded in the December census (in fact only yesterday we counted 1,407) – but a beautiful sight nonetheless.  Adverse weather across central Spain may well have held the birds back or made them choose other sites – just days later there were reports of hundreds more arriving from the North.  All in all that evening, our Ibergrus compañeros counted 11,361 individuals in Andalucía – a little higher than usual – and a grand total of 238,361 birds in Spain.

Common Cranes are nothing if not adaptable.  Despite threats from draining of wetlands, agricultural intensification, and danger from collisions and electrocutions by power infrastructure, their western European population has trebled in the last 20 years.  They have seemingly embraced modern agriculture, augmenting their winter acorn feasts in traditional Spanish dehesa (Holm Oak pasture) with plenty of extra treats from rice and maize stubbles.

However, the fate of our youngster´s eastern cousins provides a cautionary tale. Had s/he hatched a few hundred kilometres further east, the journey might have been a very different one.  Changes in land use since the collapse of the former Soviet Union are proving too fast and too great for the Crane community to adapt to.  Resulting population declines are only made worse by persecution, hunting and pesticide poisoning.

The habitats of the Common Crane are highly susceptible to climatic change.  As the world heats, affecting seasonal water levels and food availability, we are seeing them arriving earlier at their breeding areas, abandoning them earlier in summer, passing earlier through post-breeding stopover sites, and wintering further north.

If traditional migration routes become untenable due to lost wetland stopovers and land use changes, they must develop new ones, as they have done across parts of southern Germany and central Spain in recent years.  It is our job to look after the habitat that is left, so there is always a place for those magical voices and footprints.

Common Crane census data (18.12.20) © Grus Extremadura


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.