It’s always a joy to observe birds in any location, but what if there was a way to experience their whole journey? We’re currently bucking the avian trend and heading north to Birdfair where, as well as enjoying a fab weekend with friends old and new, we’ll be introducing folk to the concept of Flyway Birding…
It´s not that long since we largely believed that Barn Swallows hibernated underwater. Rumours of ´lumps of torpid swallows´ being ´found beneath the ice´ still persisted in rural communities as late as 1867, over thirty years after Darwin had embarked on his world-changing voyages of discovery aboard The Beagle.
Happily for the inquisitive, this great era of discovery opened the world up to ‘travelling naturalists’ – the earliest nature bloggers if you like – exploring the natural world, sharing observations of migration and opening the minds of the folk waiting excitedly at home. The discoveries continue – thanks initially to bird-ringing and more recently to affordable radio- and satellite-tracking technologies, our understanding of migratory birds´ journeys grows all the time.
With this understanding, the concept of saving species across flyways has now gained traction in the conservation world. After all, there´s no point fixing things for a wandering bird in its breeding grounds alone without giving it a helping hand across its entire migratory range. Programmes like the RSPB´s Birds Without Borders recognise the complex nature of the threats faced by a bird whose life cycle involves traversing half the globe.
Take that most iconic of British summertime birds, the Turtle Dove. A drastic reduction in UK breeding success is at the root of their decline and must be remedied by more Nature-friendly management of our farmland. But while their productivity in the UK is so desperately low, we must also find ways to help Turtle Doves meet the challenges they face elsewhere in the world, such as illegal and legal hunting, the ever-widening and unstable Sahara, and threats to their wintering habitats, also from intensive farming.
These are the kind of projects we at the Inglorious Bustards camp spent a great deal of time, passion and energy working on during our time at the RSPB. We´ve been lucky enough to travel with the birds and gain a deep connection to their journey, seeing the similarities and differences between the habitats, landscapes and cultures they pass through.
Now we´ve taken a sideways step, conservation is still very much in our hearts and we want to make sure it continues to be central to everything we do. We want to use our passion to open people´s minds to the immeasureable wonder of migration.
And so, one day while sipping a cold beer overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar, watching literally thousands of raptors pour south over our heads to Africa we got to thinking… What if, through our trips, we could take you on a migratory bird´s journey? We could show you all the outstanding birds and wildlife of the East Atlantic Flyway!
We could also show you the beauty of the immense journey, sweeping past cream teas outside stone chapels in twee country lanes, over white-washed villages amidst olive groves on sunbathed hillsides, through minarets and mint teahouses, down to the simple dwellings and explosive foliage of the Gambian forests.
And we could show you the challenges facing these birds and alert you to the work of our Flyway Family partners across the globe – groups like the Dovestep collective, raising money for Operation Turtle Dove who work hard to persuade farmers to leave space for Nature, Fundacion Migres doing extraordinary monitoring and scientific work to mitigate for the windfarms in the Straits of Gibraltar, Tarifa Ecocenter spreading the message of sustainable farming through amazing food and Champions of the Flyway combatting illegal hunting everywhere.
It sounded like a plan! The concept of #FlywayBirding was born!
That´s what it means to us, but what will it mean to you..?
Well, in a nutshell, #FlywayBirding is…
…thrilling at the sight of local specialities like Wallcreepers in the Pyrenees, Rufous Bushchats in Andalusia, Moussiers Redstarts in the Rif Mountains of Morocco, Moroccan Marsh Owls on the shores of the Merja Zerga lagoon and Egyptian Plovers on the verdant riverbanks of The Gambia, while becoming aware of the constant ebb and flow of Swallows, Swifts, Wagtails and Warblers, all familiar but strangely out of context.
…kicking off your flipflops in a carefully-selected reclining deckchair and supping an ice-cold beer as literally thousands of Honey Buzzards, Black Kites, Short-toed and Booted Eagles and White Storks pour overhead.
…helping save the planet over a delicious locally-sourced meal! Whether it´s exceptional fresh fruit, veg, cheeses and hams in Spain, mouth-watering tagines in Morocco or a spicy domoda in the Gambia…
…greeting thousands of Turtle Doves on a sultry day in The Gambia and learning how to ensure their journey back home is a safe one.
…thrilling at clouds of Pallid and Little Swifts screaming around the minarets of a mosque and noting the Common Swifts, probably on their way back to a city near you.
…appreciating that the sweep of subtle differences across the flyway – the brightness of an African Blue Tit, the astounding array of Yellow Wagtail races, the Iberian birds with closer relatives in Africa than in Europe – are the intricate stepping stones to whole new species.
…enjoying the laughs and banter we have with the people we meet, sharing our enthusiasm for nature and adventures across cultures and landscapes.
…relaxing, enjoying and marvelling at the wildlife around you, satisfied in the knowledge that your trip is contributing to its future existence.
Imagine the delight in discovering that, far from being somewhere in a frozen torpid lump, our Barn Swallows were awake and well and whizzing through the skies of some foreign land! Here at the Inglorious Bustards, we´re all about the delight of discovery! Now you know what it is, won´t you join us for some #FlywayBirding..?
Want to hear more? We’ll be at BirdFair in Rutland this weekend. We’d love to see you at Stand 28, Marquee 1, or at our talk in Hobby Lecture Theatre at 9.30am, Friday. Come say Hi!
With migration curtailed by several days of strong easterlies (strong enough to bring a tree down on the Bustard-mobile, but that’s another story!), and many thousands of soaring birds anxious to make the journey south, this week it became a little like a crowded airport departure lounge here in the Straits!
Flocks of Black Kites and White Storks numbering in the thousands have been tumbling up and down the coast, and hanging in the air, making it look like someone just shook a snow globe!
When your journey’s delayed by bad weather, there’s only so many times you can visit Sock Shop and Sunglasses Hut. After much milling about, these birds have been collecting in huge super-flocks in the valleys – presumably the equivalent of the Wetherspoons!
But today, as we sat down to monitor the migration with our conservation partners Fundacion Migres, it became apparent that the great air-traffic controller in the sky had finally granted them a clear take off to Morocco!
The Straits of Gibraltar is one of the greatest bottlenecks for the East Atlantic Flyway. The Black Kites zooming over our heads have come from all over Western Europe and move south across a broad front, crossing here and at Italy’s Straits of Messina. White Storks are more reliant on soaring, and find the sea at Messina too wide. The entirety of Europe’s migrating population will cross here.
For the White Storks it’s a relatively short-haul flight, for a winter break in North Africa. The powerfully-flying Black Kites head further, across the Sahara to countries like The Gambia and Senegal. They will be the first to return, and we look forward to seeing them arrive from February onwards.
Our day passed in a whir of clickers and plenty of exclamations at the sheer volumes of birds swirling past us. We finally had a chance to take stock for a moment in the afternoon and realised that we had already counted 18,000 birds! Yes, eighteen thousand! By the time we left, we could see black-and-white blobs before our eyes and our final count was 19,488 White Storks, Black Kites, Booted Eagles, Short-toes Eagles, Montagu’s Harriers and Egyptian Vultures for the day!
Days like this happen throughout the Autumn (and Spring!) – if you’ve not experienced this yet (or even if you have!) then you should head for a departure lounge near you and join us this August for some serious #FlywayBirding!!
…..oh! ….You may want to know the actual totals?…so here goes (take a deep breath!!)….
11,670 White Storks
7,748 Black Kites
5 Egyptian Vultures
16 Booted Eagles
3 Montagu’s Harriers
41 Short-toed Eagles
2 Common Buzzards
3 Lesser Kestrels
Sitting proudly on a nest made of twigs, old wet wipes and what appears to be a leopard-print thong, the bird blinks at the downdraft of a passing truck, shakes the irridescent mohawk sprouting haphazardly out of the back of its raw-looking bald head, and returns to the task of tending its extraordinary metallic green and purple-brown plumage with what genuinely looks like pride.
With less than 500 birds remaining in the wild, the Northern Bald Ibis is a bird on the brink. But with a successful reintroduction underway right here in Andalusia, it seems punk really isn’t dead…
For the sixth year running, a small group of Northern Bald Ibises are doing well at Barca de la Vejer in Cadiz province. Bizarrely nesting right beside an ‘A’ road next to a car park and a couple of ventas, this is perhaps not the most picturesque of locations for one of the world’s most endangered birds, but it’s almost certainly the most viewable.
With their nest site so urban and public, their confiding behaviour when feeding on nearby pastureland, and their seeming air of slightly baffled contentment, it’s easy to forget just how fragile their existence actually is, and how much work has gone into ensuring their successful establishment as a breeding bird in Andalusia.
Declared extinct in Syria 70 years ago, a small breeding population was traced near Palmyra in 2002 thanks to local knowledge of Bedouin tribesmen, only to be declared extinct again in 2016 after the one remaining female failed to return from migration.
In Turkey, numbers crashed from 400 to just 10 birds between 1982 and 1986. The fact that this population long outlasted the species in the rest of Europe (it had vanished from its heartlands in the mountains of Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Spain by the 17th Century) is connected with celebration of this bird’s religious significance, endowed as it is with the role of guiding Haji pilgrims to Mecca. How ironic that, to prevent its complete disappearance from Turkey, they are now taken into captivity at the end of the breeding season for safety, to prevent their Mecca-bound migration.
In Morocco the population of this strange, punk-like creature is split between colonies around Souss-Massa National Park and the Oued Tamri north of Agadir. These birds number only 500 between them and are the only remnant wild population left.
The reasons for their decline are all tragically familiar – reduction of food availability through agricultural intensification, pesticide and rodenticide poisoning, hunting pressure and nest-robbing have all played their part. This sociable cliff-nester has seemingly scuppered itself due to its attraction to human habitation, which nowadays tends to expand quickly and swallow up potential breeding grounds.
Hope for the future of the Northern Bald Ibis comes in the form of reintroduction programmes, such as Andalusia’s Proyecto Eremita, the one that has resulted in the above roadside bird with a penchant for leopard-print!
Unlike other reintroduction programmes in Europe, which have tried to create migratory populations (The Scharnstein Project in Austria attempted to teach a migration route to Tuscany by training the birds to follow ultralight planes!), the aims of Proyecto Eremita are more down-to-earth.
It seeks to create a sedentary population of birds, self-sustaining in number, without the need for supplementary feeding. The original phase of the project from 2003-2012 also aimed to learn about the best methods of chick rearing and release, to inform the intended future expansion of the programme.
Chicks were hand-reared from eggs originated from various zoos across Europe. After extensive field habitat evaluations, the first 30 birds were released on military land in La Janda district in 2004 and a further 160 boosted their numbers over the next five years until 2009.
First success came when a pair laid two eggs in 2008. Since then the colony has been steadily growing, from 9 breeding pairs in 2011, 10 in 2012 and 15 in 2013 to 23 breeding pairs in 2014, which successfully raised 25 chicks.
In 2014 the total population was 78 wild birds, distributed between two colonies, five breeding pairs having split from the original one along the cliffs of the Atlantic coast to form the quirky roadside extravaganza at La Barca de Vejer.
But they’re not out of the woods – or indeed the car park – just yet. With a death rate slightly too high and reproductive success slightly too low, population modelling carried out on 2012 figures shows that, without the ongoing addition of 20-30 released birds each year, the population would gradually dwindle to extinction in around 20 years.
With a population this small, chance can play a large part in survival. In the early years of the project, around 50% of deaths were caused by fatal encounters with power lines. Work to repair and improve the lines and their supports was undertaken in high risk areas, and if this continues to be successful a sustainable population will be well within reach.
As of June 2016, the wild population was holding steady at around 80 birds and the exceptional recent breeding season means hopes are high for the future of the species. Some interesting movements have also been observed, with up to six birds being seen crossing the Straits to explore Morocco, where, who knows, they may be rebelliously building another colony next to some other roadside café.
Here at The Inglorious Bustards camp, we’ve been lucky enough to visit these birds frequently as the 2018 breeding season progresses. It’s easy to endow these characterful birds with human emotions, and we never tire of bringing people here to watch them.
We love to see their joyous interactions with their mates on receipt of yet another bit of detritus to be built in to the nest, their intense irritation at the jackdaws dodging their unwieldy bills as they steal morsels of nesting material, and their unmistakeable tenderness towards their growing chicks, which only a mother could love, resembling as they do badly-plucked miniature turkeys.
As well for as their antics, they’re well worth a view to show solidarity with Vejer’s locals and their justified pride in this bizarrely-located nesting colony. As birds go, not a lot about the Northern Bald Ibis makes sense, but they’ve chosen it, they’re rocking it, and it looks like they’re here to stay.
You have to see these incredible birds to believe them! We still have a limited amount of spaces available on our Autumn Migration and Cetaceans tour, during which we´ll visit the avian kings and queens of punk at their colony, as well as taking our place in the moshpit for the greatest avian migration show on earth!
This is an abridged version of our article that previously appeared in the journal of the AndalusiaBird Society, ‘Birds of Andalucìa’, vol 6 issue 3, Summer2017.
July can be a quiet time for the UK-based Birder, with young and moulting birds skulking in full leaved bushes and trees, quiet and notoriously hard to find.
Southern Spain is perhaps not the first place that springs to mind for birding in midsummer but it in fact holds many delights! And, in the time it takes to cross Norfolk (and about the same cost!), you could be in the Straits of Gibraltar taking some of them in!
Because of its strategic position at the gateway of two continents, Andalusia is a unique blend of Europe and Africa. This southernmost Spanish province is the most biodiverse region not only in Spain but the whole of Europe, and it stays relatively cool due to the sea breezes.
So if you´re after a snapshot of superb resident species in intertidal, wetland, farmland, woodland and urban habitats, accompanied with fantastic tapas, passionate discussions, and welcoming people, come join us for a weekend to remember!
Here´s five reasons why…
Meet the locals!
We really do have some star local species waiting for you here in the Straits!
A successful reintroduction programme of the Critically Endangered Northern Bald Ibis took place here in 2008, and we should be able to see these engaging and quirky birds at their nesting colony or grazing on surrounding farmland.
Nipping into the beautiful Old Town of Tarifa, we´ll be able to enjoy the antics of our local Lesser Kestrel colony, swooping and reeling around the Moorish fort.
We can also hope for a great selection of raptors including Griffon Vultures, Egyptian Vultures, Bonelli’s and Spanish Imperial Eagles, Short-toed and Booted Eagles and Black-winged Kites.
Visits to wetlands should yield a host of waders including Sanderling, Red Knot, Dunlin, Little Stint, Bar and Black-tailed Godwit passing through, amongst the breeding Collared Pratincoles, Common Ringed and Kentish Plover.
There are many seabirds such as Sandwich, Little and Caspian Terns, Slender-billed Gull and the once extremely rare Audouin’s Gull. We should also get views of Eurasian Spoonbill and Greater Flamingo as well as Western Osprey and Purple Swamphen.
Other resident Spanish specialities include Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit, Western Bonelli´s Warbler – the list goes on!
2. Add an African twist to your Spanish list!
The mere nine miles that separates Spain from Africa has proved to be no boundary for some plucky African species! Here you can add the unexpected to your Spanish list.
Two typically African Swift species choose the Iberian peninsula as one of their very localised breeding sites in Europe – Little and White-rumped. It’s one of the very few places in Europe you can see all five of our breeding Swift species!
You can also encounter Common Bulbul, Rüppell´s Vulture, Marbled and White-headed Duck and Red-knobbed Coot, all unusual ´ticks´to find this side of the Straits.
3. Migration early days
Perhaps surprisingly, at this time of year, the return to Africa has already begun for some species, and we should start to see flocks of White Storks and Black Kites crossing the Straits.
Groups of super-sized Alpine Swift should be passing overhead on their early morning passage flight, moving through from their mountain breeding grounds to their sub-Saharan wintering areas.
In fact almost anything can turn up here during the early days of autumn migration, as passerines collect amongst the shady trees to gather strength for their southwards crossing of the Straits.
4. Bugs and beasts galore!
As moist air from the Mediterranean Sea passes through the Straits, it gathers in clouds and falls as dew high up on the Cork Oak forests of the Alcornocales Natural Park.
The unique nature of this unusual cloud forest means the streams and brooks in this area continue to run long after the rest of Spain is dry. This phenomenon makes this a superb area for invertebrates, amphibians and reptiles throughout the year.
We should see gorgeous Monarch butterflies, Two-tailed Pashas, Four-spotted Emerald and Copper Demoiselle all in flight, as well as a host of fascinating frogs, toads and lizards to be spotted.
5. All the other things!
Sunshine, sangria, tapas, vino tinto, local hams and cheeses, ice cold beer in chilled glasses, relaxed people, gorgeous scenery, empty beaches… Do we really need go on?!
Recently we hosted a group from Wensum Valley Bird Society from Norfolk, UK at the end of April. We delighted in Birding on Two Continents with them and as with all our trips we became the best of friends in travel and adventure! If you have a group, bird / wildlife club or simply a group of friends and want an adventure that suits your budget and exceeds your expectations, simply contact us for further information.
Here are some of the trip highlights in the fabulous team’s own words!..
The weather was being very contrary at the start of our trip, and we left the UK in the middle of a heatwave. We were hosted by Inglorious Bustards at the lovely Huerta Grande lodge, where Nightingales and Firecrests made their presence known immediately. Our first full day in Spain found us on top of the Sierra de la Plata, near Bolonia, in a howling gale and temperatures more suited to the English winter. Fortunately it didn’t actually rain, and in fact it didn’t stop us from seeing some exciting birds. We were all thrilled to see Woodchat Shrikes on the way up the mountain, and these lovely birds became frequent sightings throughout the week. On parking at the top we were greeted by a Blue Rock Thrush, and a pair of Griffon Vultures on the cliff.
Lesser Kestrels were nesting on the top. As the Vultures and Kestrels swirled around us, enjoying the strong wind, the really exciting birds were seen. A pair of Egyptian Vultures! What is more they are really beautiful, pale birds, something I never expected to say of a Vulture. They are clearly nesting here, to the delight of Simon, and most of us got pictures of them. Chicks of the Griffon Vultures were too seen and photographed. A Booted Eagle and two Short-toed Eagles also put in an appearance.
A coffee stop at Bolonia was not only enlivened by my first Zitting Cisticola, but also by a cavalcade of around 40 motorbikes, their approach heralded by much hooting and honking! The highlight of our stop at Barbate, a wetland area, had to be the beautiful Collared Pratincoles, which nest there in numbers. Other birds did try to upstage them though. The first I hardly dare mention. It was a Red-necked Nightjar, for which we owe thanks to Alan, who unwittingly flushed it. Sadly he didn’t see the bird himself, and he was remorselessly teased about it for the rest of the week. The other was a Little Bustard, which was heard calling nearby. Another favourite bird that we were to see more of was the Iberian Yellow Wagtail, a bright and beautiful grey-headed sub-species. Add in the Corn Buntings, Crag Martins, Cirl Buntings and Kentish Plovers, among others, and you will see that we had a great first day.
7.30a.m saw us queueing for the 8 a.m ferry from Algeciras to Morocco. It hadn’t been a very smooth crossing, however the African sunshine was welcoming us. Once waved through it was only 20 mins to Oued Marsa, a truck stop high on a splendid viz-mig spot for a second breakfast. What we really yearned for were big mugs of builders tea, sadly not on offer, but Moroccan mint and orange blossom tea made for the perfect alternative.
What happened next was a once in a lifetime birding moment, something every birder dreams about. First out of the fog came hundreds of BLACK KITES, interspersed with WHITE & BLACK STORKS, HONEY BUZZARDS, MONTAGU’S HARRIERS, SPARROWHAWKS, BOOTED EAGLES (both morphs), SHORT-TOED EAGLES, KESTRELS & BEE EATERS, all kettling and trying to gain height for their crossing. We watched a female HONEY BUZZARD set off, lose confidence, turn around and head back, and then set off again, disappearing into the horizon, well on her way into Europe.
A cry of “SPOTTED FLY over here” turned our eyes to the ground. Soon all our group were shouting “REDSTART”, WILLOW WARBLER”, “GARDEN WARBLER”, “WOODCHAT SHRIKE”, “IBERIAN CHIFFCHAFF” in unison. The most unusual find was a pair of BLACK-CROWNED TCHAGRA.
Our host Simon said that the best migration here was with an Easterly. How right he was. In a brief 30 minute stop we reckoned we saw 28 species that had been grounded by the Levante wind. The skies were dripping migrants. It seemed to be the case of name the bird and it will be there somewhere. I have never seen anything like it in my life. A truly memorable birding moment.
Reluctantly we climbed back into our vehicles for the two hour drive to Merga Zerja wetlands, a tidal lagoon located on the Atlantic coast. Once the home of Slender-billed Curlew, last seen there in 1995, its threatened wildlife is under pressure from ever increasing agricultural expansion.
More mint tea was consumed at a restaurant overlooking the lagoon as we waited for our boats, and we marvelled at the aerial antics of CASPIAN and SANDWICH TERNS, AUDOUIN’S and YELLOW-LEGGED GULLS were dotted on the Lagoon shore. GLOSSY IBIS flew past in formation.
We picked our way through the lagoon-side fish market, the fisherman seemingly preferred to sell direct from their boats, rather than the tailor made brick building. Plenty of waders were on the lagoon shores. Umpteen WHIMBREL, splendid GREY PLOVERS, DUNLIN, CURLEW, and OYSTERCATCHERS. GREATER FLAMINGOES glinted in the distance. RED-RUMPED and BARN SWALLOWS, COMMON & PALLID SWIFTS danced above our heads.
Back on land we pulled into a small wood at the edge of the Lagoon, lazily scanning for NORTHERN LAPWINGS and MARSH HARRIERS as we devoured our picnic lunch.
However the day was not over yet. Simon had a “special bird” he hoped we would see at dusk. The secret location was alongside a fruit farm, producing strawberries, blackberries and potatoes for M & S and Waitrose. Quietly and in single file we followed Simon down the edge of a furrowed field, glimpsing ZITTING CISTICOLAS and SERIN on our way. Our target was the vulnerable MOROCCAN MARSH OWL, more and more of its habitat being claimed by the fruit farmers. Preparing for a long wait, we were startled when suddenly there it was, rising out of the reeds in front of us.
By sheer chance and good luck I was actually looking in the right direction, camera in hand. click, click, click. Not brilliant photos, but a brilliant momento. Satisfied, we turned around and headed back towards the vans. Liz and I stopped for a few minutes to admire a LITTLE OWL scowling out of his dead tree at us. We didn’t realise two male and a female MONTAGU’S HARRIERS were displaying behind us, and a COMMON QUAIL was lurking…….
……We had had the best possible day.
Our first full day in Morocco, at Larache a town on the Atlantic coast. After a good night’s sleep in our hotel, breakfast was taken in a restaurant across the road. Freshly squeezed orange juice, flat bread, pancakes, honey, fried eggs, cheese and more olives. Hot drinks of milky coffee and sweet mint tea, both served in glasses.
Simon had advised us to bring cameras and binoculars across the newly refurbished plaza, Place de la Liberation, to the old arches opposite, and there in the corners were Little Swifts nests, these had been there for decades with Swifts repairing and building on to them. Swifts were busy feeding chicks and took little notice of us.
Checking out of the hotel and back in the minibuses we drove along the run-down beach and seafront area to the Loukkos river and along to the marshes. A couple of stops revealed Little and Cattle Egrets, Turtle Doves, Bee-eaters, Greater Flamingos, Savi’s Warblers in full song at the top on reeds, Red-crested Pochard, Marsh Harrier, Black-winged Stilts, Cetti’s Warblers, Brown-throated Martins, Red-knobbed Coots, Great White Egrets, Zitting Cisticolas, a single Purple Swamphen, an elusive Great Reed Warbler, Short-toed Eagle, Black Kites and the list went on!
By early afternoon we had arrived at the little bustling town of Bni Arouss. Several old white Mercedes taxis, heavily-laden donkeys, butchers shops with lamb carcasses hung in the open air and busy barbers shops. Having found a local to mind the minibuses our guides soon organised lunch. The eatery had sawdust on the floor, a home-made BBQ outside and inside about enough space to sit us and space for the cook to prepare our food. Flat breads, two types of spiced beans, grilled sardines, strips of beef and lamb mint balls, chips, water and mint tea, all very tasty.
Back on the road to the Bouhachem Forest a forest of Pine trees, Cork oaks and Wild Olive trees. Our first stop was for a troupe of Barbary Macaques to look at us, this made a change and the dominant male never took his eyes off us. As we walked, stopping here and there, Booted Eagle, Ravens, Long-legged Buzzards, a Short-toed Treecreeper, African Blue Tits, Atlas Pied Flycatchers, Firecrests, Desert Grey Shrikes, Griffon Vultures but best of all with excellent viewsfour Levaillant’s Green Woodpeckers, three seen well the fourth heard.
As [a] member of the wonderfully enjoyable WVBS trip to Spain and Morocco … I thought I would share some of my highlights of the trip.
Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker…Picus vaillantii………………………tick
Northern Morocco was quite a surprise in terms of its vegetation and lushness. The Bouhachem forest in the Rif mountains of North Morocco is wonderful mixed woodland: the ubiquitous Cork Oak, but also cedar, pine, fir and cypress. It seems relatively unspoilt and has recently been assigned status as a “parc-naturel” so hopefully there will be some form of protection against the ongoing spread of developed land creep and technology.
So there we were, on a lonely forest road sitting in the van watching a troupe of Barbary Macaques entertaining themselves. (This population was the originator of the macaques in Gibraltar). But as entertaining as these were as soon as David and Simon, the guide, saw a Woodpecker fly into a tree in their midst, there was an eruption of bodies out of the van to try to spy it. Before too long Simon had it in his scope and we were treated to great views of a Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker, its beautiful green back straight in front of us against the trunk of a pine tree. While we were congratulating ourselves on our luck to see this we heard another calling off stage right and shortly after heard drumming fairly close by. With luck I was able to spot this one in another tree drumming against some dead wood on part of the trunk.
After everyone had a chance to see this we then saw another Levaillant’s Woodpecker buzzing it and then them both flying off stage left across the road. So we got great views of two, calling and drumming and a good barney to boot.
Not so unusual to see a Nightingale but what did seem to me unusual was that we heard Nightingales practically everywhere we went, loud and long, day and night, protected areas and not. There is just so much good habitat: wasteland and scrub. So the Nightingale does not seem to be at risk (yet) in its heartland areas. But it made me think about how little land is available to them in the UK now and how hard it will be to maintain them at the edge of their range. Maybe Mr Gove will solve it all with his new environmental policy…….But it really was a treat to hear them singing so much and I did eventually get great views of one singing near our dining area at Huerta Grande our base camp in Spain.
Crested Tit …. Lophophanes cristatus….tick Firecrest….Regulus ignicapilla….tick
Both on the same tree whilst I was having breakfast at Huerta Grande. How nice was that!
Thekla Lark……Galerida theklae…………………tick
We were at a likely-looking site of grazing and common land with patches of scrub and Iberian Broom. I was idly looking at a Crested Lark and asked the guide what the bird next to it was. He easily identified this as a juvenile Stonechat but suggested I look more closely at the Crested Lark, its distinct breast streaking and its more upright stance. While I was trying to take in this upright posture, the Lark started lowering its breast to the dusty ground and going round in circles. Was it dust bathing? After several circles Liz suddenly shouted “there’s a snake” and a Horseshoe Whip snake at least a metre long weaved its way past the bird and on across the grass into the undergrowth. Did this explain the bird’s strange behaviour? Who knows.
My highlights of the trip in no particular order:
A lovely friendly bunch of people to spend time with
Waking to the wonderful song of Nightingales
Standing by a truck stop watching hundreds of raptors debating whether to brave the Levante wind and cross the Straits
Weird, wonderful and rare birds: Egyptian Vulture, Northern Bald Ibis, Moroccan Marsh Owl, Levaillant’s Woodpecker.
Cartwheel sized flatbreads, fried fish and copious beans
Little Swifts’ feathery nests in the Larache plaza
Eating chewy snails from a market stall in the blue city
Scarce Swallowtail butterfly – and a Common too
White Storks sharing their nests with sparrows and
starlings – imagine Edward Lear’s Old Man With A
An enormous Common Toad on my doorstep!
Lesser Kestrels oblivious to tourists visiting the Castle
Thanks to the Inglorious Bustards.
At the risk of introducing a more melancholy note I would like to mention some of the conservation concerns that I have been pondering since we got back:
Slender-billed Curlew – Shortly after crossing the Straits of Gibraltar we drove to a river estuary where we took two small fishing boats out onto the river. Apart from being a very pleasant excursion, this site has a very sad birding significance as the last known recorded site of the Slender-billed Curlew, now believed to be extinct. Hassan, our local guide, is credited with being one of the last observers to record the bird. There is a local café, beloved of visiting birders, in which the bird log records scores of annual sightings some years ago, then dozens, then a few, and finally none…..We saw lots of Whimbrel, a few Common Curlew, but no Slender-billed. This is a species that has become extinct in our lifetime. Ouch….
Nightingales – The wonderful gardens around our accommodation in Huerta Grande in Spain, and the hotel near Chefchaouen in Morocco, rang to the glorious song of many male Nightingales. They kept us awake at night, and woke us up in the mornings – and never have I been so pleased to suffer insomnia! This bird seems to thrive in less intensively farmed and developed areas in Europe, where the locals are less inclined to be so tidy. There are probably greater numbers of insects, and less Deer browsing the understorey. Whatever the cause, we are about to lose this fabulous bird from the UK where numbers may have declined by as much as 90%. Surely, something must be done to halt then reverse this decline.
Moroccan Marsh Owl – Simon, our leader, took us to an area bordering a river estuary. We drove down farm tracks past fields and greenhouses where fruit and vegetables were being farmed intensively, almost entirely for the British market. One multinational farming company was responsible for draining and then eating up much of the land in this area to grow strawberries for our supermarkets. We were met on the edge of the cultivated area by Hassan and another local who knew exactly where to find a Marsh Owl and what a fantastic bird this is, but now very rare, and if the farming company continue to swallow up the limited marshland habitat, the last few birds will be forced out of this area.
Northern Bald Ibis – These birds have been reintroduced into Spain and had chosen a nest site in some cliffs just above a relatively busy road. An Eagle Owl had wiped out all but one of the chicks last year, so the owl had been captured and relocated out of harm’s way. I asked Simon if there was any risk from egg collectors stealing, as these birds are so rare (this is currently their only European nest site). No, he said, as the local villagers are very proud of “their” Bald Ibis colony, and anyone threatening it would be likely to be dealt with quite harshly! This colony is small, but with care, will continue to prosper and hopefully grow in numbers.
Janet and I cannot thank Simon and Niki from Inglorious Bustards enough for hosting such a brilliant week. And we are very grateful to our six colleagues from the club that were such good company throughout. I would love to visit the area again, and, who knows, maybe a Red-necked Nightjar will appear….!?
Just a short ferry trip away from Tarifa, Northern Morocco offers superb birding opportunities, putting a trip to North Africa´s teeming wetlands, ancient forests and towering mountains within easy reach of a Spanish wildlife holiday.
This we were keen to demonstrate to our good friends Iain and Janet so, as the sun rose on our ferry, speeding across the narrow stretch of water that separates Europe and Africa, we stood up on deck and watched Tangiers looming rapidly towards us!
Pretty much the first bird of the trip was a House Bunting, singing merrily away from a harbour front window, letting us know we had definitely arrived in Africa!
A short drive through expansive Moroccan countryside and we were soon sharing a mint tea with Hassan, our local guide during our boat trip out onto the famous Merja Zerga lagoon.
Out on the lagoon, it was gull paradise! Among the many Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, there were numerous smart-looking Audouin´s and Slender-Billed Gulls, as well as a couple of Mediterranean Gulls and a lone second-year Common Gull, an unusual bird for the area.
We had hit the tide perfectly, high enough to explore the whole lagoon but low enough that there was plenty of exposed mud, hooching with waders! Birding from a sandbank in the middle of the lagoon, we could see huge flocks of thousands of them swirling over the flats including Common, Grey and Kentish Plovers, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, Redshank, and Greenshank, while on the mud we could see Eurasian Curlews,
Eurasian Spoonbills, Greater Flamingos, a handful of Red Knot, and a handsome Western Osprey perched up on a wooden pole.
After a picnic lunch, Hassan took us to a site where local graziers had been seeing Moroccan Marsh Owl activity. He told us other recent visiting birders hadn’t managed to see the bird, but after a while of searching and waiting, there they were! Not one, but two gorgeous individuals emerged from a field of short grass and flew overhead, giving us superb views of their beautifully-patterned primary feathers. One then settled on top of a pile of grass cuttings and sat looking into our very souls for what seemed like an age!
Elated, we returned to our hotel in Larache, encountered a group of thirty migrating Black Kites on the journey. After a bit of time to relax and explore, we headed out to celebrate our fabulous day at our favourite restaurant, specialising in fresh locally-caught seafood.
Next morning, we headed to nearby Loukkos wetlands, today shrouded rather atmospherically in mist. As it lifted it revealed a wealth of avian life – an enormous gull roost, containing yesterday’s Common Gull suddenly dispersed, leaving behind many Glossy Ibis, Black-Winged Stilts, Black-tailed Godwits, Common Snipe and Red-crested Pochard, among the Eurasian Spoonbills and Greater Flamingos.
Thirty Black Kites suddenly erupted out of their roost in nearby trees, and we wondered if they were the same birds we had seen yesterday, following us on our journey.
Soon it was time to travel on, up through the mystical Cork Oak forests of Bouhachem. Here we hoped to find one of our main target birds. Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker was to be a lifer for Janet – no pressure then!
We spent some time searching the sunlit glades where Eurasian Nuthatches, Short-toed Treecreepers, Firecrests and African Blue Tits and Chaffinches foraged. And sure enough, not long after a distant call was heard, a flutter of wings announced the arrival of our woodpecker, which proceeded to perch on a tree trunk and eyeball Janet, as if to say “tickable enough for ya?!”
Then our whirlwind adventure took us up into the mountain town of Chefchouen. After seeking out a beer to celebrate our woodpecker, we enjoyed working up our appetite for tagine by wandering the town’s famous blue streets.
A morning jaunt up into the craggy landscape of the Talassamtane National Park brought us mountain birds galore! A strong supporting cast of Black Wheatears, Blue Rock Thrushes and Rock Buntings got our attention in time for an appearance by the stunning star, a gorgeous male Moussier’s Redstart! Fit!
Talassamtane National Park
Blue Rock Thrush
Back of camera Moussier´s Redstart
But by mid-afternoon we were already on our way back to Spain, enjoying dozens of Cory’s Shearwaters, an Arctic Skua and a surprise appearance by a Sperm Whale on the short trip!
Sitting outside a bar in Tarifa that evening, sipping a cold beer while we reflected on our mini-adventure, we looked up to see a stream of thirty Black Kites, in off the sea from Africa, streaming over our heads. We´d love to think these were the same birds again, engaged in their own mini-adventure between two continents!
For a Northern European migratory bird, contemplating its daunting 3,000 mile journey to wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa, access to a network of key food-rich spots to rest, refuel and wait for good weather is a must.
These hotspots across the East Atlantic Flyway attract travelling migrants in their hundreds of thousands, making for some of the best wildlife spectacles that
Europe and Africa have to offer!
So this year, instead of waving them off as summer ends, why not join us and follow them on their southerly journey?!
Migratory birds need to feed up en route and so do birders! So here are four of our favourite places to experience the ebb and flow of the East Atlantic Flyway, and where to rest and refuel while you’re doing it!
Appetite whetted?! Have a look at our guest blog on Blue Sky Wildlife here…
We’ve made no secret of the fact that here at the Inglorious Bustards we are self confessed migration junkies! We are in total amazement of the constant flow of migration here in the Straits and that is why we chose to base ourselves here! We have shared some magnificent experiences this last year collaborating with Migres in conducting counts or witnessing mega migration events with visiting migration lovers like you!
Here is an amazing update on the autumn migration in 2017 from Migres migration guru and our good friend Alejandro Onrubia (with his kind permission):
“Since 5th of July to 5th of December, expert ornithologists from Migres Foundation helped by 50 collaborators, have counted every day migratory birds passing the Straits of Gibraltar.
During this period, 390,100 soaring birds, including 127,000 Storks and 262,000 Raptors belonging to 33 different species were registered flying south from the watchpoints of Cazalla and Algarrobo, located on the Spanish side of the Straits of Gibraltar.
The commonest species were Black Kite (133,000 individuals), White Stork (124,000), Honey Buzzard (71,000), Booted Eagle (29,000) and Short-toed Eagle (18,000), with also good numbers of some endangered species as Black Stork (3,700) and Egyptian Vulture (2,300). Among non-soaring bird species some tens of herons, spoobills, and more than 315,000 small birds (passerines and allies) of 61 species have been recorded, including 23,000 European Bee-eaters, 35,000 Swifts (4 species), 1,000 Larks (5 species), 46,000 swallows and martins (5 species), 5,000 Pipits and Wagtails (8 species), 188,000 Finches (10 species), 2,500 Starlings (2 species) and 13,000 Sparrows (4 species). Likewise, 237,000 seabirds of 36 species have been recorded, including 215,000 Cory’s Shearwaters, 7,300 Balearic Shearwaters, 7,400 Gannets, 4.800 Gulls and Terns (10 species), 300 Skuas (3 species), 1.500 Razorbills and Puffins, and 700 wildfowl (8 species)”
WOW! Thank you to Migres for their continued excellent work and we hope in our own small way we helped!
If you’d like to find out more about the excellent work of Migres and support their efforts or take part in their upcoming conference then please take a look here!
The Pyrenees area in winter is beautiful, exciting, adventurous and fun! It’s a challenging place to survive for wildlife, and the harsh conditions bring some star avian species within easy reach for the intrepid birder, allowing to see them how you’ve never seen them before!
This is an area all about the specialists, and spending quality time with star species that you probably won’t see elsewhere. An area where Black Woodpecker, Citril Finch, White-winged Snowfinch, White-backed Woodpecker and Western Capercaillie are all possible.
Couple this with a visit to Aragòn’s sweeping steppe landscape near Gallocanta, winter home to Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Dupont’s Lark and thousands of Common Cranes, and you’ve certainly got yourself a trip to remember!
After a hot coffee and some freshly baked pastries, spirits were high as our intrepid recce team donned gloves hats and scarves and set off up the Serra del Cadi for our first day´s mountain birding.
Hawfinches and Rock Buntings were feeding in the streets of the frozen villages. As we headed up from the valley floor, we passed through hushed frozen forests and streams and waterfalls caught in ice. We picked our way carefully up the frosty roads, feeling a little bit lame every time a local raced past us at speed, but preferring not to take a short cut back to the valley bottom!
A stop outside a mountain refuge hut brought us to conifers full of Common Crossbills and Crested Tits. As the road climbed higher up the mountainside, the forested slopes gave way to a rocky moonscape, where flocks of wild Chamois grazed. Taking a walk, it wasn’t long before we heard the characteristic call of a Rock Ptarmigan, which we later got a glimpse of.
The morning air was starting to warm, and as it did, it filled with Griffon Vultures leaving their roosts. Then suddenly, below us, there it was – our first Lammergeier!! What a stunner! This adult was flying along the valley below us – a rare view indeed! It was soon joined by another adult and a juvenile bird, as well as a Golden Eagle! A lifer for some in the group, this impressive eagle was pretty much blanked in favour of our circling Bone-breakers! We must have spent a good hour admiring these magnificent scavengers, of which we counted a total of at least four in the area, being drawn in by a carcass just over the hill from where we stood.
On the way down we encountered a flock of thirteen Alpine Accentors – what a bonus! We took an exploratory detour up a track and found ourselves surrounded by a massive tit flock, mostly Coal Tits but also Crested, Long-tailed and Great Tits, with a handful of Goldcrests and Firecrests chucked in for good measure – a magical end to a superb day’s birding!
Our search for this much-coveted, flashy little gem of a bird took us to some of the most beautiful places in Spain, as we wandered through haw-frost covered forests to search the walls of dramatic gorges like Mont Rebei, encountering Hawfinches, Black Redstarts, Golden Eagles, Blue Rock Thrush, Northern Ravens and Red-billed Chough as we went.
But in the end it was in the streets of an unprepossessing Pyrenean village that we found our prize!
The afternoon sun was by now warming the golden walls of the sandstone church. We scanned for a moment and there it was, sat under the eaves just metres above our heads!This incredibly confiding little bird hung out with us for a while, before disappearing under the church roof. On a hunch we checked a neighbouring street and sure enough it had emerged!
This cheeky little chappie showed off for us, flitting in and out of people’s houses and dragging helpless Hummingbird Hawk-moths out of crevices in the walls! It even flitted right through the midst of the group to retrieve one that it had dropped!
We watched its antics and snapped away until our memory cards were pretty much full, by which point it had flown back to the church. As luck would have it there was a café opposite, so we were able to have a beer with our stunning little
Wallcreeper before heading off back to our comfortable apartment to really celebrate!
3. Things beginning with ´Alpine´!
A heavy snowfall overnight was starting to abate by mid-morning, so after a relaxed start we explored some woodlands near Jaca, enjoying Crested Tits feeding round our feet and calling Red-billed Chough overhead. After a warming second breakfast back in town, we headed up the high slopes to a ski station at Astùn, where the clouds were lifting to reveal gorgeous blue skies and pristine white slopes. Birds gravitate to these man-made oases in the snow, and we enjoyed the novelty of seeing Great Tits and Blackbirds at 2000m! Wandering round the complex, it wasn´t long before we found an Alpine Accentor! Another ridiculously friendly bird, it perched on railings and walls just feet away allowing us all to get some great photos.
Carrying on out of the village we stopped just at the French border, where suddenly the characteristic call of Alpine Choughs filled the air! At first we could only see three, but soon we spotted a nearby area where dozens were swirling overhead and feeding near a meltwater stream. We got superb views of this hard-to-see high altitude corvid!
Just below the snowline as we headed home, we stopped at an area of riverside pastureland. We hit the raptor jackpot, and for a while it was hard to look! Within minutes we had seen Lammergeiers, Bonelli’s Eagle, Golden Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Sparrowhawk, Red Kite, Common Kestrel, and Griffon Vultures, all making use of the late afternoon thermals, along with a great spinning ‘chough-nado’ of Red-billed Chough, more than the team had ever seen together!
4. The sounds of the plains!
For lovers of birdsong (and who isn’t?!) there’s something incredibly special about the otherworldly steppe habitat of the Aragonese plains. At dawn, as the sun rises over the sweeping, empty landscape, the air fills with the bugling of thousands of Common Cranes, the bubbles of Black-bellied Sandgrouse, and a cacophony of larksong including Skylarks, Lesser Short-toed, Calandra, Thekla and Crested – and in the right spot, with luck, the eerie song of the elusive Dupont’s Lark. We had an early start on the last day of our trip, with many miles to cover to reach our home in the Straits, but we couldn’t have wished for a better start to the day!
Does this snowy adventure send excited shivers down your spine?! We’ve out together a new tour to show you this magical place, with dates available next winter. Check it out here…
There is little doubt that Vultures are amazing, despite the completely unfounded bad press they sometimes receive Here in the Straits we are blessed with them being a garden bird for us! Not only we do we get to witness their amazing antics and all important ecological functions, but twice yearly we watch as masses of them stream through the Straits in biblical proportions. This is the only place in the world where such an event occurs! It is amazing!
Much of the conservation work of Vultures is to be lauded, as there has been a lot of work to recover numbers of these enigmatic birds and important eco-system service providers throughout Europe, but there is clearly much more needed to be done (such as the removal of the licencing of veterinary diclofenac within the EU).
Most of us will remember the outbreak of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), an animal disease at its peak between 1986 and 1990. As well as being transmitted through the food chain, the disease could also be spread through the presence of dead infected cattle. Following the outbreak, in 2001 the EU prohibited the abandoment of livestock carcasses in the field. This action clearly would have an impact on scavenging Vultures, therefore was not applied mandatorially across EU member states. This allowed for each member state to adopt their own regulations concerning livestock carcass disposal, allowing the issue to be dealt with at a local level, but consistent with the overriding principles to tackle the disease issues.
Spain is home to c. 95% of European Vultures and here farmers can leave some carcasses where Vultures occur. This obviously benefits the birds but also farmers and tax-payers too, saving time, money and environmental costs from incineration. In contrast to this approach, the Portugese government decided that removal of livestock carcasses is still required, save for a few specific licenced Vulture feeding stations.
The authors of a recently published paper in Biological Conservation (Volume 219, March 2018, Pages 46–52) observed that there was an abrupt decline in the number of Vulture locations across the Spanish-Portuguese border. Modelling showed that this was unlikely to be related to differences in land cover or topography, but simply on differences in carrion resource availability, namely carcasses from extensive livestock husbandry.
Vultures are capable of exploiting huge areas in search of food, and often will perform transnational flights. Yet, despite broadly similar habitats and their abilty to transverse countries, both Griffon and Cinerous Vultures of Spanish origin were rarely located in Portugal as these maps of GPS tracked birds below show from the study.
Griffon Vultures were marked in two populations: 30 adult birds in the Ebro Valley, northern Spain, and 30 adult birds in Guadalquivir Valley, southern Spain. Cinereous Vultures (11 fledglings) were marked in Cabañeros National Park, central Spain.
One potential problem with this study was that the authors did not track Vultures from Portuguese breeding colonies, which are mainly located close to the border and thus might use the Portuguese areas more than individuals breeding in Spain. However, some previous although limited GPS tracking of both Cinereous and Griffon Vultures tagged in Portugal has shown that the individuals tend to cross the border to feed in Spain, which is line with the results of this study.
Griffon and Cinereous Vultures are known to differ in food resources used. Griffon Vultures are very much dependent upon carcasses of domestic livestock, where the diet of Cinerous Vulture is broader, including the remains of smaller mammals and sometimes even live prey. This difference in feeding behaviour for us is demonstrated in the GPS maps, showing a much closer need for Griffon Vultures to stick to Spain whereas there are some broader transnational flights (although limited) by Cinerous Vultures.
The findings of this study are also unlikely to be influenced by habitat differences across borders as anyone who has visited both the areas Alentejo (Portugal) and Extremadura (Spain) will testify. Dehesa habitat – known to be good for both species – is relatively widespread across both the areas.
One thing is for certain – this study shows the need for continued research on vulnerable Vulture species and this should be extended to other species such as Egptian Vultures. Telemetry data is providing new insights into the movements of species and how they utilise the landscape and for highly mobile Vultures, this is invaluable information to form cross border conservation prorities and techniques.
There is a need to evaluate the potential ecological consequences of the implementation of restrictive husbandry and sanitary policies, especially when they affect highly mobile, endangered species such as Vultures. It also serves the point that conservation should not observe borders and that joined-up conservation implementation – especially for endangered Vulture species – is required and that is something that the EU has within its gift to pursue.
Invisible barriers: Differential sanitary regulations constrain vulture movements across country borders
Eneko Arrondoa,⁎, Marcos Moleóna,b, Ainara Cortés-Avizandaa,g, José Jiménezc, Pedro Bejad,e, José A. Sánchez-Zapataf, José A. Donázara