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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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’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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
“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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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:
Develop a ‘Climate Emergency Plan’ within the next 12 months, which sets out our intentions to reduce carbon emissions over the next decade.
Share an initial public declaration of our ‘Climate Emergency Plan’, and update on progress each year.
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.
Encourage our suppliers and partners to make the same declaration; sharing best practice amongst peers; and actively participate in the Tourism Declares community
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.
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!
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.
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!