The eBird database just received a significant boost, in the form of information on almost two million migrating birds from our conservation partners, Fundación Migres!
Many is the joyous day we’ve spent with our conservation partnersFundación Migres, helping with the autumn migration count, gazing up spellbound as literally thousands of raptors migrate over our heads. Horizontal in deck chairs, to the casual observer the team of volunteers must look super-relaxed, but often this couldn’t be farther from the truth! Raptor species and sections of sky have been allocated, clickers have been distributed, and now it is our responsibility to painstakingly count the mind-boggling numbers of migrating soaring birds crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, ensuring our contribution to the Migres legacy is a worthy one.
This work of science and passion combined began over twenty years ago in 1997, making it one of the longest running avian migration monitoring programmes in Europe. The importance of the data it generates cannot be over-emphasised – around three-quarters of the soaring birds that breed in Europe pass through this migration bottleneck, including endangered species such as the Egyptian Vulture. The vast quantities of data generated by the counts carry a powerful amount of information about the fortunes of these birds.
And now, in a big step to make this data more available, several years’ worth have been digitised and uploaded to eBird! All the data generated by the Migres Program from the autumn monitoring campaigns for soaring birds (raptors and storks) 2012-2016 and seabirds 2012 -2013 is now on the site.
The data include over 90,000 records of over a million-and-a-half soaring birds of more than 35 species; and about 20,000 records of 200,000 seabirds of over 40 species. It is also a dataset of enormous qualitative value, having been collected in a systematic and standardised way over many years.
The data come from the daily counts that take place throughout the autumn from Cazalla and El Algarrobo bird observatories near Tarifa, Andalucía. The seabird census is carried out from the Isla de Las Palomas in Tarifa, within The Strait of Gibraltar Natural Park. All is now included in the data logged for the corresponding eBird “Hotspots”. It makes for quite an interesting view on screen – we can’t imagine there are many Hotspots that have been allocated over 30,000 checklists!
Once the counts are completed, the data becomes public information, provided for free to eBird by the Andalucian Environmental Information Network (REDIAM) of the Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning of the Andalusian Government. The massive volume of data for the years in question was then incorporated into the eBird database by the eBird Spain team.
The importance of the data from these seasonal counts cannot be overemphasised. Without a doubt, it is a first-rate contribution not only to the eBird database, but to the knowledge of avian migration at a national and global level.
Seeing those huge numbers on screen can never be quite as mind-blowing as seeing the phenomenon in person! We feel super-privileged to be involved with such an epic project, and to see the results of the hard work from the most skilled, knowledgeable and loveliest bunch of volunteers and staff you could wish to meet.
Fancy contributing to science from a deckchair?! Contact Fundación Migres about upcoming volunteer opportunities.
We often think of the Straits of Gibraltar as a barrier to be overcome, a great leap of faith for the hundreds of thousands of birds that must move between the land masses of Africa and Europe. But through the eons, other vast, invisible migrations have gone almost unseen in the dark depths beneath the sparkling surface.
Here we chat to our friend Aurelio Morales, owner of family-run cetacean-watching company Marina Blue, to find out why, for marine mammals, “The Strait of Gibraltar is a vast underwater canyon – a great corridor that links the Mediterranean and the Atlantic”
Aurelio has spent twenty-two years of his life around the marine fauna of the Strait of Gibraltar. “There is something special about this place that hooks me. Two seas, two tectonic plates, two continents, two prevailing winds… Each outing is completely different. There is no one equal to the other, since the weather and light changes, the behaviour of the species varies throughout the days”
His trips are full of encounters with our local resident delphids – Common, Striped and Bottlenose Dolphins, highly-sociable Long-finned Pilot Whales, and even Orcas in summer – but he is particularly fascinated by the mysterious movements and spectacular sudden appearances of the area’s two migrant species – Fin Whales and Sperm Whales.
“We have so many experiences with these two species that never cease to amaze me. We have seen on many occasions Sperm Whales jumping right out of the water, dragging a large body of water as if it were an explosion in the sea. We have witnessed fascinating interactions between Sperm Whales, Long-finned Pilot Whales and Bottlenose Dolphins. Yellow-legged Gulls will perch on top of a resting whale and clean its dead skin. We have seen Hammerhead Sharks circling them while they rest on the surface.”
But although they are seen regularly and often with great intimacy from Aurelio’s small yacht Miamita, much remains unknown about the movements of these two peaceful giants of the seas.
“We consider Sperm Whales to be semi-residents here. They spend long periods in the Strait feeding, mostly on deep sea squid.”
“In the Strait we almost invariably see adult males of up to 15m in length – and occasionally younger males of around 7-10m. They use this underwater corridor for their movements to and from feeding and mating areas.”
Male and female Sperm Whales generally don’t hang out. The males are loners, found in higher latitude cold waters, whilst the females, calves and young adults form gregarious and relatively sedentary groups in tropical and temperate seas. They meet up only to mate, with the males performing seasonal migrations. They find each other across vast distances – their huge jelly-filled heads directing and amplifying their song to volumes louder than a jet engine.
Research in 2011 used photo-cataloguing of tail flukes – from which individuals can reliably be identified – to compare Straits whales with records from across the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Of 47 Sperm Whales identified here, fifteen could be traced travelling throughout the western Mediterranean, a straight-line distance of up to a thousand miles.
The fact that none of “our” Sperm Whales from this study were recorded in the Atlantic supports existing genetic evidence of an isolated sub-population within the Mediterranean Sea. Believed to contain fewer than 2,500 mature individuals, the Mediterranean population is considered ‘endangered’, based on IUCN Red List criteria.
However, Sperm Whale social groups, with females and calves, do turn up in the Strait from time to time. We recall an incredible experience in September 2017, watching a group of ten females and young whales. They were grouped tightly together in a “marguerite formation”, where the group surrounds a weak or injured individual with their tails pointing outward, enabling them to protect it from attackers. The gathering seemed to emanate tension and anxiety, as the sea around them boiled with curious dolphins and seabirds eyed them suspiciously from above.
The happening was during a series of strong hurricanes over the Atlantic. Could this troubled group have been Atlantic in origin, having come into The Straits to shelter?
There is clearly more work to be done, says Aurelio. “Collaborative studies are currently being carried out between different companies, associations and scientists to verify that the same species seen in the Strait are being seen in other places such as the Canary Islands and Azores.”
Fin whales, the world´s second-largest living creatures, can reach lengths of up to 25m. They used to be abundant in the Strait of Gibraltar and nearby Atlantic areas until their rapid collapse due to intense whaling at the beginning of the 20th century. They are now considered endangered.
Evidence gathered from fifteen years’ worth of photo-identification suggest that some of the Fin Whales seen in the Mediterranean are actually of Atlantic stock. A small community of them have been observed migrating through the Strait of Gibraltar, with remarkable seasonal directionality. They head to the Atlantic Ocean in May-October and the Mediterranean Sea in November-April. Observations of young whales exiting the Mediterranean Sea mainly in May-July suggest that at least part of this community is likely to calve in the basin, probably near the Balearic Islands.
“The Mediterranean is a semi-closed sea with warmer temperatures, so it would make sense that females raise their calves there until they gain enough weight to move to cooler feeding areas.” says Aurelio.
But, he says, there are many threats to these amazing creatures as they try to navigate the busiest shipping lane in the world.
“The greatest dangers for these large cetaceans are almost always related to human presence. The Strait is the only channel that connects the Atlantic with the Med and carries massive shipping traffic. Whales are injured colliding with large ships, and noise pollution interferes with echo-location, and therefore migration. Pollution from oil spills and plastic waste is another great problem that these animals face with this unbridled progress that prevails over the conservation of Nature.”
As a wildlife tour operator, and erstwhile skipper for the Ministry of the Environment, he feels a great sense of responsibility to make sure Marina Blue’s own effects on the environmental are only positive, in line with our own #FlywayPromise.
“There are thankfully many legal requirements to operate here, in terms of good practices regarding cetacean observation and compliance with EU emissions regulations and speed limits, which we naturally comply with. But we also have our own manual of good practices, guided by our own conscience and respect for Nature!”
“Marina Blue works in and for the Strait, with small groups of no more than ten people per trip to minimise our impact. We separate and reduce all our waste. We enjoy the animals with the utmost respect, quietly, allowing them to come to us if they wish. We must always bear in mind that we do not own this planet.”
We love heading out with Aurelio and his crew during selected trips, because of the intimacy of the encounters allowed by such a small vessel, but also because of his obvious deep connection and passion for the wildlife we are hoping to observe. With each spell-binding sighting of one of these incredible animals, we learn a little more about how to protect them.
Mangroves are truly magical. They are capable of storing up to five times more carbon per hectare than tropical rainforests. Their roots dissipate energy from storm surges, shielding local communities. They cleanse waters of their sediments and pollutants before they enter the sea. They are invaluable to local economies and support one of the world´s most biodiverse ecosystems. All great reasons why we’re working with The Gambia Birdwatchers Association to conjure up a little more magic…
In difficult times like these, do you find happy memories shine even brighter? It seems like an age ago, but way back in December 2019, we shared a magical moment with a Giant Kingfisher!
Having sat motionless for an eternity on the wires above our head, it finally decides it’s time to do some Giant Kingfishing! It hits the waters of Kotu Creek like an avian breezeblock, emerging with a squirming silver fish that glitters in the Gambian sun.
That day of our trip to The Gambia was special in other ways too – it was our first opportunity to see the exciting mangrove restoration project being carried out by our conservation partners, The Gambia Birdwatchers Association. We are so proud to be involved in funding this work, and are equally thrilled to be fully funding the next phase of the project – restoration of a further two hectares, as part of our #FlywayPromise commitment to truly sustainable ecotourism.
Our friends Karanta, Tijan and the rest of the GBWA team proudly show us an area where a team of volunteers have painstakingly planted thousands of mangrove propagules on three hectares of mudflat, at the heart of Kotu creek.
It’s not fully understood what caused the dramatic dieback incident of this coastal mangrove some years ago. Some point to the dropping of raw sewage into the waterway by local sewage works, and the dumping of detritus and pollution from the tourist industry.
However, one of the major factors is believed to be land erosion. With offshore reefs degraded and many coastal mangroves gone, there’s nothing to protect this area from coastal erosion caused by rising sea levels. This has led to the gradual deposition of sand in the area, blocking the regular tidal flow, sometimes for weeks.
Upriver, mangroves are also under threat from unsustainable forestry. Soil from deforested river banks washes downstream and clogs the River Gambia’s arteries. They are also particularly vulnerable to climate change. As temperatures and rain patterns change, larger tide volumes and higher soil salinity have deteriorated swamps across The Gambia and neighbouring countries.
Ironically, the fix for many of the main issues that face mangroves is – more mangroves.
As a carbon-sequestering ecosystem they are quite simply astounding – they are capable of storing up to five times more carbon per hectare than tropical rainforests. Most of it is stored in the soil around their roots.
Mangroves protect against weather shocks and other climate-related adversities. Their roots dissipate energy from storm surges, shielding local communities – and themselves – against floods. They contribute to cooling micro-climatic conditions in areas of often high temperatures. Their vegetation retains sediments and filters run-off water, preventing soil erosion and siltation, and removing pollutants before they enter the sea.
Economically, they provide spawning areas and habitat for some 33 species of fish and shellfish, oysters, mud crabs and clams, around 90% of The Gambia’s fishery resources. They promote food sources, fishery income and biodiversity. Managed sustainably, they also provide wood for homes and small community practices, such as fish curing.
The magic of the mangrove lies in its leaf litter. It produces large quantities, and as these leaves sink, taking their carbon with them to Davy Jones´ Locker, they begin a detritus food web, which forms the sludgy base for one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems. The invertebrates that inhabit the sludge feed West African Fiddler Crabs, Atlantic Mudskippers, and a myriad of fish, which in turn nourish West Africa Nile Monitor Lizards, Nile Crocodile, African Manatee, Gambian Mongoose and African Otters.
Some of our favourite birds seen on our Gambia trip are strongly associated with mangrove habitats in one way or another, including stompers like African Finfoot, Blue Paradise Flycatcher, White-backed Night Heron, Pel’s Fishing Owl, Greater Painted-snipe, African Fish Eagle, Goliath Heron, all the Bee-eaters and half-a-dozen kingfisher species ranging from the very common Pied to the Giant Kingfisher, which is now perched back above us at Kotu Creek.
Standing on the mud, Karanta explains some of the work that has already gone into our project. First of all, the team mapped degraded areas suitable for regeneration, and designed the planting areas so as to fit the natural shape of the creek and the remaining mangrove. Propagules were then reaped from different species within the local mangrove itself, ensuring local genetic diversity was continued.
An army of volunteers then completed the entire planting phase in a single day! It was surely back-breaking work, slurping through the mud in wellies in the stifling 30º heat and humidity of the wet season, but we genuinely wish we had been there!
After planting it takes just 3-4 weeks to see positive results. A healthy 60% of the propagules survived, and by the time we visited in December the tiny mangroves-to-be were shrouded in a delightful green haze of fresh leaves. We can´t wait to see what they look like by this December, and also to see the next two hectares of the project coming to life! As the mangrove returns, so will the invertebrates, molluscs, fish and the birds that rely on them. This and other projects like it will quietly stash away carbon and protect The Gambia’s fragile coasts.
But for the Kotu mangroves, arguably their most important role will be as a showcase for the nation’s biodiversity. Tourism, including ecotourism, is hugely important to The Gambia, accounting for around 20% of GDP. Its protected area network, as well as the country’s low intensity agriculture, forms a vital part of that income. But the tourist industry in this beleaguered nation is still trying hard to recover from a few bad years, as political unrest, Ebola and now travel restrictions due to COVID-19 have caused people to stay away in droves. If nobody is visiting, how long before natural habitats begin to come under pressure for short-term economic benefit in this, the 10th poorest country in the world?
Over 350 species of bird have been recorded in this busy tourist hub, many of them colourful and engaging. From this easily-accessible little gem of a nature reserve, the GBWA can reach out to the thousands of birding and non-birding tourists that make the nearby hotels their base. A magical moment with a Giant Kingfisher reinforces the value of ecotourism, and adds a voice for the continued protection of The Gambia’s exceptional mangroves, forests and sahel.
Want to see first hand how our mangroves are getting on? Join us this November-December on our Bird Party in the Gambia Tour as we head back to Africa´s Smiling Coast! The trip report from last year´s excellent trip is available for download here
We really like Spiders here at the Inglorious Bustards but we know they do attract a lot of hysteria and quite a bit of misinformation!
So we turned to Molly Grace, spider enthusiast and expert to dispel the myths and bring you closer to these fabulous inhabitants of Southern Spain…….
Before we begin, here are 3 spider facts that are important to understand:
Fact n°1: Spider bites are extremely rare. Spiders simply do not go around biting people. In fact, their bites are so rare that you are more likely to get bitten by a dog than a spider, and expert arachnologists say that unless you physically see the spider sink it’s chelicerae (fangs) into your skin, the chances are that your suspected spider bite is not from a spider at all! For a spider to bite it has to be in a near death situation, provoked or even squished onto your skin with such force that the only option it has left is to bite.
Fact n°2: Doctors and/or Pharmacists cannot ID a spider bite. Unless that Doctor has studied arachnology and can guess (without seeing the spider) what family, genus and species it was that bit you and knows what venom that particular spider has, they cannot tell you if it was a spider that bit you. If you happen to have the spider that you suspect was the culprit for your bite and your Doctor is unable to give you at least it’s genus, just take it with a pinch of salt if he or she has told you it’s a spider that did it. However, someone who has studied insects and/or spiders can ID a spider bite. So remember to ask the right person for the right job if you suspect you have been bitten. You don’t call a plumber for an electrical problem and the same goes for spider bites and doctors.
Fact n°3: Any bite can get infected. If you are blaming a spider’s “venom” on your leg/arm/hand or any other part of your body being swollen and oozing pus, the culprit could well be Staphylococcus aureus. This type of bacteria is present in so many places including under your nails when you scratch your skin, so your supposed spider bite could in fact be a mosquito bite that has got infected, or an allergic reaction to a weed. If you have been bitten by any insect or spider, the chances of it swelling up and getting infected are very low if you clean the area with an antiseptic.
Now that this has been explained (very important information as an introduction to anything about spiders) we can move on and continue with our main topic: the spiders of Spain!
In terms of Spanish arachnids and their interactions with people, it’s worthy to note that there are 0 cases of spiders killing anyone here in Spain. Just as some British media companies occasionally fear-monger and publish articles about “deadly” false widow spiders that are actually harmless, the Spanish media has been doing the same to a species that cannot even be found here in the country. Plus, if you look at these stories closely not once do they ask experts. Why? My guess is that facts are considered boring and those stories wouldn’t sell. They would rather sell a dramatic and biased lie.
Also, one too many times I have come across internet sites dedicated to the British expat community in Spain with information about “dangerous” spiders that we can find in the Iberian peninsula, and sadly 100% of the time not only is the information on these sites beyond incorrect, it also spreads fear to any person looking to relocate here or visit for a holiday.
Let’s now have a look at the spiders you are more likely to come across and watch out for. Sometimes you fear what you don’t understand, which is very normal, so I hope this information will at least shed some light on what is truly making a web in your garden or crawling around the corners of your house. And if you still fear them after reading, it’s OK, but at least you will know a bit more about the little eight- legged creature that has innocently walked into your home.
Lycosidae (Wolf spiders)
Wolf spiders come in all sizes, from the very small ones, to some that can just about fit in the palm of your hand. There are 4 large wolf spiders here in Spain from two different genus:
– Lycosa hispanica
– Lycosa fasciiventris
– Hogna radiata, and
– Hogna ferox.
All but one of these spiders are active hunters (meaning they search for their food), the other makes a burrow in the ground and awaits its prey. Those that venture out become most active at night, they don’t make webs, and just like a wolf they go “on the prowl” looking for their dinner. They are not aggressive spiders and do not bite – unless provoked or squished, as mentioned above in this article – but if you did somehow get bitten you can expect the same pain and reaction that you would to a wasp sting. If you find one in your house simply remove it using a glass and paper , and make sure he or she is released to a safe location.
Araneidae (Orb weaving spiders)
There are numerous Orb weavers that you can come across here in Spain, and the most common to spot are from the Araneus and Argiope genus. They are all quite clumsy on the ground and are usually found in the centre of their majestic webs where they patiently wait for their meal to become trapped. They are surprisingly agile and merciless when this happens! For us humans, they make ideal friends to have in the garden. In fact, Argiope like to build their webs near vegetable patches where they can serve as an excellent form of pest control. And I for one wouldn’t worry about flies with one of them nearby!
Sparassidae (Giant crab spiders/Huntsman spiders)
As with wolf spiders, Huntsman spiders come in different sizes. The common ones here in Spain are from the Micrommata genus (green huntsman) and the Eusparassus genus, these last being the largest ones of this family that can be found here in Spain (there are a LOT bigger ones in Australia, though!). Huntsman spiders are very fast and also very timid, which is why they like being hidden away in dark crevices and tree bark where they will not be disturbed. Just like the wolf spiders, they do not use webs but physically hunt their prey down. Special caution should be given to female Eusparassus guarding their egg sacs, they have been known to bite in defence if she feels that her offsprings are in danger.
Salticidae (Jumping spiders)
Spain has many of these spiders from different genus. If I got 1€ for every time someone has told me they have been bitten by one of these little cuties and 2€ for being told that they have sent someone to hospital from a bad bite, I’d be quite rich indeed. However, they feed on fruit flies and other tiny insects, and half of them are so small that their fangs can’t even penetrate human skin! Jumping spiders are extremely intelligent and social, so much so that people actually keep them as pets (yes, you read that right)! They definitely don’t go around jumping and biting for the sake of it – remember fact n°1 in this article – and if one of the larger ones (which don’t even live here in Spain) did happen to bite you, you would have a hard time differentiating it from a common mosquito bite. Similar to orb weavers in the garden, jumping spiders make ideal allies indoors. You can say goodbye to mosquitoes without the use of pesticides if you have a jumping spider as your flat-mate!
Sicariidae (Violin Spiders)
Spain has one species from the Loxosceles (recluse spiders) genus, Loxosceles rufescens. Not to be confused with the Brown recluse or the Chilean recluse, the Mediterranean recluse is not as dangerous as it’s overseas cousins. Recluse spiders are not aggressive at all, and one would only bite if being squished. I have handled many of them with my bare hands and I’m still alive! Nevertheless, this is one spider people will single out and try to make you fear. You should be cautious of course, but there is no need to act as if it’s lethal. Its venom has been known to cause adverse affects but bites are rare (in America for example, out of the 64 reported brown recluse bites between 1939 and 2014, only 6 of them turned out to really be from this species). You can identify a Mediterranean recluse spider by the violin shape on its cephalothorax (upper body) and it’s 6 eyes in sets of 2. They like dark areas where they will not be disturbed like cupboards, crevices and, one of their favourites, clothes piles that remain undisturbed for a long time (good excuse to keep your bedroom floor clean, right?). If you find one in your house and it’s not welcome, use a paper and glass to remove it to a safe location.
Macrothelidae (Large spinnerets spider)
Spain has one species of this genus, the Macrothele calpeiana or the Andalucían funnel web. It’s both the only protected spider species throughout Europe, and also the largest (reaching up to 80 mm in size). At one point it could only be found in the oak forests in the province of Cádiz, but sadly due to the destruction of its habitat and the trafficking of the species amongst irresponsible spider enthusiasts, this spider is now not only rare, but can be found in other areas throughout Andalucía and even in Portugal, Africa and Italy. It can be identified by its black colour and its large spinnerets at the end of its abdomen. It builds deep funnel web tunnels in the bark of oak trees and under rocks. Females are rarely seen and will not leave their webs unless it’s destroyed or food is scarce, but males venture out during mating season. Again, it is a protected species, therefore killing it and/or removing it from its natural habitat is punishable by Law. There is another spider that sometimes gets confused as Macrothele calpeiana, this usually is a male Amblyocarenum walckenaeri (a species of Wafer trapdoor spider) who at a glance can look very much like the Andalucían funnel web, except it lacks the long spinnerets and tends to have a dark brown abdomen.
Theridiidae (Comb footed spiders)
In this family we can find False widow spiders (Steatoda genus) and true widow spiders (Latrodectus genus) amongst others. Spain has numerous spiders from this family including false widow species (Steatoda) and two true widows (Latrodectus) which are Latrodectus tridecimguttatus (Mediterranean widow) and Latrodectus ilianae. They are distributed around Spain although some provinces have no sightings of them at all. There have been no registered bites from either of these spiders and not enough is known about their venom to say what kind of effect it has on humans, however it is known that the venom itself is a neurotoxin but not as powerful as the venom from other species of Latrodectus found in America and Oceania. They, like the others, are not aggressive spiders.
For more information, identification and facts on spiders feel free to visit my Facebook page Molly’s web https://m.facebook.com/Mollysweb/ or follow me on Instagram @Mollysweb. And thank you for reading this article! My main motivation is to help people overcome any fears they may have, using fact-based arguments which create interest and understanding. So I truly hope this has served its purpose!
Our Strait Birding & Cetaceans spring migration spectacular is coming soon, and there are still spaces available! Here´s a flavour of what happened last time…
“The clouds were low and moody, and the winds pretty strong, but the intrepid Black Kites had decided, “Stuff it! This will do!”. One by one, and then by the dozen, they started to appear out of the clouds, wings beating like crazy and some barely making land! We watched, hearts in mouths as two individuals struggled right in front of us, so close we could almost have dragged them in with a well-flung lasso!
There are no thermals over the sea, which is what makes crossing it so treacherous for soaring birds. Though barely metres from land, they were having to use the diagonal wind to gain lift, increasing the length of their journey many times. Then, after what seemed like an age they hit land and instantly found a thermal, taking them from a couple of metres above the sea to a couple of hundred metres above the land within seconds! We cheered them on with a massive amount of relief!
“Exhilarated, we headed down to the village for a coffee. But our break was not to be an uneventful one! Suddenly a break appeared between two large clouds over Punta Carnero and Gibraltar, effectively creating a sunlit channel of warm air which stretched right from the coast of Morocco to just above our heads!
This was the moment they – and we – had been waiting for! Necking our coffee we took up position by the sea wall as they began to arrive. Over the next hour or so we witnessed an immense river of raptors and storks arriving from Africa. Three hundred Black Kites, twenty Griffon Vultures, three hundred Short-toed Eagles, over a hundred Booted Eagles, 38 Black Storks, thirty or more Western Marsh Harriers and a sprinkling of Egyptian Vultures, Montagu´s Harriers, Eurasian Sparrowhawks and Lesser Kestrels poured over us in one of Nature´s most uplifting and vibrant spectacles. We abandoned all plans and ate our picnic right there, barely finding a quiet moment between migratory waves to grab a plate of food!”
This trip, running 28th March – 3rd April 2020, is not to be missed! Check out further information on our website here for your ringside seat to the greatest show on Earth…
This note by Simon Tonkin and Juan Miguel Gonzalez Perea recently appeared in Brit. Birds 112 686–687 – You can view the original by clicking the link.
On 2nd January 2017, Simon Tonkin found a Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus in the village of El Pelayo (near Tarifa), in Andalucia, Spain. The bird was subsequently present in an area of Cork Oaks Quercus suber for around six weeks and was presumed to have overwintered. Later that year, two Yellow-browed Warblers were found in the area, one on 30th October 2017, at the same site as the first, and the second on 1st November 2017, no more than 500 m from the first. One of these overwintered and, on 28th January 2018, was trapped and ringed by JMGP. It had a fat score of 0 (on a scale of 0–3) and a muscle score of 2 (scale 0–8; Redfern & Clark 2001), levels which suggest a wintering bird rather than an active migrant. Then, on 4th November 2018, ST found a ringed Yellow-browed Warbler in El Pelayo; on closer examination of the photos, the ring number was confirmed to be that of the ringed bird from the previous winter.
This observation is the first ringing recovery of Yellow-browed Warbler that confirms winter site fidelity in Europe and supports the hypothesis that this species is developing a new migration strategy and is now wintering regularly in the Western Palearctic (Gilroy & Lees 2003; de Juana 2008; Alfrey 2017a,b). This hypothesis could, at least in part, explain the massive increase of individuals in Britain in autumn (see White & Kehoe 2018, and earlier Scarce Migrant reports), which in turn could be related to new breeding grounds and/or population increase in the boreal forests of Siberia. It is now widely believed that these birds arriving in Europe are mainly juveniles on exploratory migration.
Until recently, Yellow-browed Warbler was a rare visitor in the Iberian Peninsula with only 95 accepted records between 1985 and 2011 for mainland Spain, mainly in late autumn/early winter (Juana & Garcia 2015). However, more recently sightings have increased markedly and the species is now reported regularly from favoured sites in Andalucia. The upsurge in records cannot be accounted for by changes in the numbers of potential observers and the pattern does appear to match the overall increase in numbers recorded in northwest Europe. Differences in mean arrival date with latitude in western Europe suggest that just a small proportion of birds arriving in Scandinavia and the UK move on through the Iberian Peninsula. It is also possible that birds appearing in potential wintering areas in Iberia and North Africa could arrive on a wide front across mainland Europe.
Sightings of Yellow-browed Warbler across Europe in the winter of 2018/19 shows birds discovered in a broad arch from Britain and Ireland across Iberia and into Macaronesia clearly indicating a wintering meta-population, which included over 50 birds wintering in southwest England alone in early 2019. Further ringing recoveries to confirm the establishment of a returning wintering population in Europe are still lacking and, as yet, satellite tracking of small passerines is still limited by the size and expense of the tags. Although good numbers of Yellow-browed Warblers are ringed each autumn in northwest Europe (over 4,000 in the UK to the end of 2018; BTO), the ring recovery rates of small passerines are extremely low; Robinson et al. (2011) showed the ringing recovery rate for Willow Warbler P. trochilus is only 0.001% with an annual survival of 31%.
We thank Peter Alfrey for his expertise, input and discussions about migration pioneers over many years and his direct review and discussion regarding this observation; Alex Lees for supplying e-bird data and Dawn Balmer for supplying the BirdTrack map; and the efforts of the Tumbabuey Ringing group.
When it comes to Ethical Birding Ecotours, it turns out we´re Top of the Pops!
We’re more than just a birding tour company. We care about the wildlife we showcase, the local communities we visit and the opportunities for education through exploration. That’s why we’re excited to announce that we’ve made it into the Top Ethical Birding Ecotours 2019 list!
This unique list is generated by a global community of travellers, bloggers, conservationists, tour guides, birders and ecotourism operators, and curated by Terra Incognita – a social enterprise seeking to promote the best examples of ethical ecotourism worldwide. We’re part of a group of over 70 incredible birding tours from across the globe.
First launched in 2018, the list has grown in its second year to include tours in 40 countries.
“With every new tour we discover, we’re amazed to see what operators are doing to have a positive impact on the planet through tourism,” said Dr Nick Askew of Terra Incognita. “Eventually we hope to showcase ethical tour experiences in every country worldwide.”
Tour operators on the list are doing everything from partnering with conservation charities and donating to conservation projects, to offsetting the carbon emissions generated by their business activities and encouraging their guests to do the same during their travels. Some are contributing to conservation research, while others are empowering local people through environmental education and capacity building, supporting future conservation ambassadors.
The list includes a transparent explanation of how all tours contribute to conservation, local communities and education and is open to reviews from guests who’ve participated in the tours.
“It’s exciting to discover ecotourism operators that see sustainability as a fundamental way of doing business, rather than just a marketing strategy or checklist”, said Kristi Foster of Terra Incognita.
“Rather than take away from a tour, guests can join in that creative, innovative process. These tours are experiences where everyone involved learns and grows”, she added.
The Top Ethical Birding Ecotours 2019 list was launched during the British Birdfair 2019 – an annual event for birdwatchers that supports BirdLife International.
Bird experiences highlighted range from Golden-collared Manakin leks in Panama, to reintroduced blue ducks in New Zealand, to searching for Uganda’s iconic Shoebill by canoe. You can even see the autumn Vulture migration across the Strait of Gibraltar, with as many as 2,300 birds recorded in a single hour.
With tours in 40 countries across six continents you can find inspiration to explore a new corner of the world or discover an ethical experience closer to home.
You can view the Ethical Birding Ecotours 2019 list at www.terra-incognita.travel and join a movement to create positive change for people and planet through travel.
We´re readying ourselves for our annual pilgrimage to UK Birdfair, and we hope to see you there! As you ready for the off and decide what to put in your butties, have a look at this profile of our good friends at Tarifa Ecocenter, participants in our #FlywayPromise, whose philosophy that “The fork is the most powerful tool to change the planet” chimes so strongly with our own…
In the Straits of Gibraltar we find ourselves at the epicentre of a great journey, that takes avian migrants over thousands of miles of landscapes and habitats where, irrespective of political borders, they must find food and safe passage to sustain them on their journey.
Our work over years for the RSPB, attempting to reverse the fortunes of UK, European and African farmland wildlife, has made us recognise the power of our own food choices and how it can affect the availability of habitat for these birds, and all the other wildlife whose lives depend on our decisions about how we manage land.
The Ecocenter is not just a superb vegetarian restaurant, it is a local hub for eco-consciousness. The organic produce shop and meeting spaces are a sociable place designed to encourage the exchange of ideas. Here you can partake in delicious, sustainably-sourced meals, much of the produce for which comes from their sister project, Molino de Guadalmesi – an organic farm, community centre, and eco-lodge situated in a beautifully-restored water mill.
“Sharing food connects people of all ages and backgrounds. Each meal gives you the opportunity to make a conscious decision about how you impact your health, your environment and our common future.”
Community member Johnny Azpilicueta is just back from a spot of global travelling and idea-sharing on sustainable living, so we grabbed the chance to catch up with him over a chickpea burger and a slurp of local organic IPA.
The thing that strikes me as we chat is the dual themes of connectivity and positive action that runs through everything they do – connecting people with where our food comes from, connecting them with the provenance and consequences of every food choice we make, connecting the food on our plate with the very field or animal it came from .
Johnny says: “I wonder what it would be like if people could see directly in the moment what the consequences of their choices are. Like, people don´t like animals and birds to be shot but if they are choosing unsustainable food they may as well be pulling the trigger themselves. I wonder what it would be like if every time they took a bite a bird fell from the sky in front of them, or every time they threw away a piece of plastic suddenly there was a dead dolphin right there next to them. What we want to do is to make people really see through all the complexity of their choices and help them make better ones that have better outcomes from the planet.”
Johnny is the driving force behind Tarifa´s hugely successful participation in World Clean up Day – one of the biggest civic movements of our time, where in 2018 a massive day of social environmental action saw a staggering 18 million people in 157 countries out picking up litter.
“ I find it is proving to be such a very unifying activity. Protecting the planet is full of complex issues but it seems that everyone has in common that they want their home to be clean, and it is something that can really bring people together in making positive action. It´s inspiring, it can lead to even bigger things.”
The concept of Flyway scale conservation is no stranger to Johnny either. “I have been in the Straits for 15 years and every time I look up and see these birds coming from all over Europe to cross to Africa, I feel connected. I feel this connection with Nature, I feel connected with how all the different parts of the world are connected and to the people who are trying to make these journeys too.
“What I think is that we have to allow these birds to cross like a pathway of organic farms all across the flyway, so they can eat healthy… Here we are making a Flyway Promise to support the kind of agriculture that is beneficial to these animals.”
Findings presented at the IPCC in October 2018 were striking and conclusive. While everyone talks about reducing electricity consumption and aviation, it seems that we are still ignoring the scientific findings that show beyond doubt that by far the best way of having a positive impact on our planet is to change what we eat. Currently 85% of the world´s farmed land produces just 18% of our calories. Loss of wildlife areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife. This is the legacy of meat and dairy production, which has enormous environmental costs in terms of habitat loss, air and water pollution and carbon release.
In order to keep global temperature rise below 2ºC by 2020 we as global citizens will need to eat around nine times less red meat, five times less poultry and five times more legumes, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
On our trips we are working towards these changes by offering a higher proportion and better quality of vegetarian options on our dinner menus than ever before. Thanks to the bright idea of our friends at Huerta Grande Ecolodge to include “meat-free Mondays” in our trips, we are working with our accommodation and catering providers across the board to offer at least one meat-free day one very trip.
On selected tours, we visit the Molino de Guadalmesí for dinner, offering our guests a thought-provoking experience around food choice and how positive change can help our wildlife and the wider environment – not to mention be extremely tasty!
We want to make the choice to eat ethically an irresistible one! And thanks to the passion and talent of people like the folk at Molino de Guadalmesi and Tarifa Ecocenter, that doesn’t have to be difficult.
Come and see us in Marquee 1 Stand 28 at Birdfair this weekend, and come to the event´s Hobby Lecture Theatre, Sunday, 3.30pm to hear more about our #FlywayPromise and how we are striving to make ecotourism a genuine force for positive environmental change.
We all know that turbines and soaring birds don’t mix. So what is being done to help our avian nomads as they pass these whirring legions marching across the Estrecho Natural Park, one of the most important raptor migration bottlenecks in the world? We report on the Compensatory Measures Project, just one strand of the immensely important work carried out by our conservation partners, Fundación Migres.
As we round the corner of the coast road, in the hills high above Tarifa, most of our tour groups let out a gasp of awe at the stunning views of Morocco. This is often closely followed by a gasp of shock, as their gaze falls on the imposing ranks of wind turbines lining some of the coastal hillsides.
At just nine miles wide, here the Strait of Gibraltar is at its narrowest point between Europe and Africa, making it the chosen crossing point for over 300 million migratory birds, journeying between these continents twice a year.
A humungous sixty percent of Europe’s raptor population passes through here, as well as virtually its entire population of White Storks. Swifts also cross here in staggering numbers, with more than 400,000 passing through the area during peak times. This migratory spectacle is one of the most uplifting, life-affirming natural events we have ever seen, and simply has to be experienced to be believed.
With some 350 different species recorded, the list of birds in the area is extensive. At migration times there are Honey Buzzards, Western Ospreys, Red-rumped and Barn Swallows, Sand and House Martins, Pallid, Common and Alpine Swifts, Common and Great Spotted Cuckoos, races of Yellow Wagtail, Western Bonelli’s Warblers, Common and Iberian Chiffchaffs, Golden Orioles and Turtle Doves amongst many others.
At any time of year, birds in the area include Crag Martins, Blue Rock Thrushes, Crested and Thekla Larks, Lesser Kestrels, Tawny, Little and sometimes Eagle Owls. A wide range of nesting raptors, including Bonelli’s Eagles, Short-toed Eagles, Common Kestrels and Peregrine Falcons are common in the area. Around Tarifa there are colonies of Griffon and Egyptian vultures, the most southerly in the Iberian peninsula, with 70+ pairs of Griffon Vultures and six pairs of Egyptian Vultures breeding in 2017.
So how did these feathered millions end up running the gauntlet of the wind farms, adding to the perils they already face?
Back in 1993, when the area was still military land, the original two windfarms were commissioned, approved and built. The 20 MW Planta Eólica del Sur (PESUR) project and the 10 MW Energía Eólica del Estrecho (EEE) farm totalled 269 turbines. They were straight away mired in controversy, with local conservation groups and independent experts presenting evidence in 1994 of high avian death tolls(1). The corpses of 13 different species were allegedly found at the wind farms, either killed on impact or by electrocution on power cables, including an Eagle Owl, White Storks and Lesser Kestrels.
A random corpse count of Griffon Vultures stood at around 30, with some apparently decapitated by the blades. Counter-claims at the time by the wind company’s managing directors suggested that the yearly death count was never higher than twelve birds in total, and others presented figures as low as two birds.
In some cases it was alleged that no real impact study regarding the birds was ever carried out. It was even alleged that, while risk assessments were carried out based on presence of resident birds, the experts simply ‘forgot’ to account for the hundreds of thousands of migrating soaring birds that pass through twice a year!
Spain had (and still has) an ambitious plan for alternative energy generation, and the Tarifa area was to be its spearhead. Development of a proposed 2000+ turbines in the area were to provide a sizeable chunk of Spain’s 20% renewable energy target by 2020.
One can only imagine what it would have been like to be a fly on the wall in the many meetings that must have taken place, leading up to the declaration of the area as a Natural Park in 2003. With the area now protected, and acknowledged as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International, extensive study and intensive mitigation work would be needed to reduce the negative effects of existing farms and prevent the creation of new ones in high-risk areas.
Enter Fundación Migres. This private non-profit organisation had been monitoring the area’s extraordinary migration event with daily counts during peak times since 1997.
In 2003, the companies whose memberships form the Tarifa Wind Power Association (AET) signed agreements with Fundación Migres to work on the Compensatory Measures Project for La Janda Windfarms, dramatically expanding their remit.
During the seventeen year project, their task was to find ways to reduce bird mortality in the windfarms, find out the effect of the farms on local raptor populations, and establish recovery programmes for more affected species, as well as raising awareness locally about environmental conservation and renewable energy.
The high-quality, independent science they have generated since their inception has added considerably to the world’s knowledge on wind farms and their effects on birds. It is helping develop better protocols for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) and mitigation measures to reduce turbine collisions.
Their work has generated both disturbing and promising results. A three-year study of 20 operational wind farms took place between 2005 and 2008, as the 323 turbines gradually came online(2). Over the study period, the research team found 596 dead birds – a devastating 1.33 birds per turbine per year, which is among the highest rates of wind farm mortality ever published. 36% of the dead were raptors and included 23 Common Kestrels, 13 Lesser Kestrels and 16 Short-toed Eagles.
By far the worst affected bird was the Griffon Vulture, with 138 found dead during the course of the study. Other studies suggest that most birds of prey can detect and actively avoid turbines without too much problem(3), but alas for the Griffon Vulture, for all its aerial prowess, agility is not one of its strong points. The bird relies on air currents and thermals to travel and has relatively weak flight, making evasive manoeuvres difficult.
All of these high-mortality wind farms had had EIAs carried out according to accepted methodology, had been accepted as low-risk areas, and had been licensed according to the law. The way raptors use the air currents and topography of an area is complex. It seemed site-scale EIAs based on bird abundance did not account for this, so could not adequately predict the threat level of proposed turbines.
However, interestingly, the study also found that the vast majority of these deaths could be attributed to a very small number of turbines. A new study was undertaken(4) – what if, by controlling function of these high-risk turbines, bird mortality could be reduced?
During 2006, body counts on 13 windfarms with 296 turbines had illustrated that most of the deaths were being caused by just ten turbines, distributed amongst six windfarms.
During 2008–2009, the team implemented a selective stopping program – when Vultures were observed near these deadliest turbines they were simply turned off till the threat had passed. Encouragingly, the Vulture mortality rate was reduced by 50% with only these ten turbines involved. The consequent reduction in total energy production for the wind farms was just 0.07% per year, a small price to pay.
This successful strategy was expanded to other high-risk turbines. When a high number of raptors are passing through, or individual birds are in danger – especially Griffon Vultures or the Critically Endangered Egyptian Vulture – the turbines are simply turned off.
With Migres-trained wind farm ‘watchmen’ on high alert, the whole shutdown process – from spotting a risk, to phoning it in, to stopping the relevant turbine – takes less than two minutes. The annual mortality – previously exceeding 200 vultures – has been reduced by 60% across the whole area(4). The accidents happen mostly during the autumn migration period when young birds – both resident and from all over Europe – are passing through the area. Though this is still a horrible price to pay for clean energy, this level of loss is at least thought to be sustainable from a population size point of view.
The process is far from perfect. A locally-breeding Egyptian Vulture was killed by a turbine last year, and two the year before. A drifting radio-tagged Lesser Spotted Eagle also hit a turbine, but seemingly recovered its wits and moved on, after sitting dazed in one spot for two days. We ourselves have been devastated to witness a majestic Honey Buzzard, hanging on an air current, lose control for just a brief second and get sucked backwards into the blades. And this is without even touching on the as yet unmitigated effects the turbines have on bats and other wildlife.
The end of the windfarm cooperation project in 2020 is fast approaching, putting the future of the turbine-stopping measures in doubt. With funding for Fundación Migres in decline, also at stake is one of the greatest sustained efforts for monitoring migratory birds in Europe, not to mention the invaluable research they generate.
It can be hard to believe that wind farm development was ever given the go-ahead in such a key area for the birds of the East Atlantic flyway. But it’s important not to forget the bigger picture. Many more birds are killed by traffic, power lines, radio and television towers, glass windows, and due to human activities such as poisoning and illegal shooting, not to mention habitat destruction.
Badly located as they are, the ever-spinning blades of the Straits supply around 20% of Andalusia’s power. Like all locally-damaging ‘renewable energy’ sources, they are there because of our insatiable appetite for consumption – of fossil fuels, of meat, of stuff we just don’t need. As the planet warms, ecosystems are disrupted and the Sahara creeps ever larger. For the millions of avian nomads that pass the turbines unharmed, the biggest peril is whether they still have breeding and wintering habitat to go to.
(1) Watts-Hosmer (1994) Bird deaths prompt rethink on windfarming in Spain. Windpower Monthly (2) De Lucas et al (2012) Weak relationship between risk assessment studies and recorded mortality in wind farms. Journal of Applied Ecology (3) De Lucas et al (2004) The effects of a wind farm on birds in a migration point: the Strait of Gibraltar. Biodiversity and Conservation (4) De Lucas et al (2012) Griffon vulture mortality at wind farms in southern Spain: Distribution of fatalities and active mitigation measures. Biological Conservation
When you´re mentally logging the ID features of a lifer or gazing at thermalling raptors, how much thought do you give to what you´re looking through..?
Of the thirty optics companies that were examined in the 2018 Ethical Consumer report entitled “Shooting Wildlife II”, 83% were found to specifically market to hunters as well as birders. And a disappointing 13 of these actively glamourise trophy hunting in their promotional material, including targets like lions and bears.
That´s why we´re proud to be ambassadors for Viking Optical – a British-based company which is one of only a handful of companies that produce high quality optics solely for the wildlife-watching market. They too have nature at their heart, and we love the personal contact, trust and compassion involved in working with them. They really put their optics where their mouth is, enabling us to loan binoculars to volunteers monitoring the raptor migration here, across the Straits of Gibraltar, to bird-watching newcomers, and to budding young Gambian ornithologists.
We caught up with Stuart Gillies, Viking Optical´s front man and top birder, to get his take on migration, conservation and Flyway Birding…
As a birder since childhood (over 40 years now!) and living not far from the coast in Edinburgh, I’ve always been fascinated with migration – from the childishly naïve question to my dad one December “Why aren’t there any Swallows” to looking for the first returning local Yellow Wagtails in Spring and hoping for some continental strays in autumn – it seems a natural preoccupation for UK birders.
However, this parochial obsession with ‘our’ birds was soon replaced by the nagging questions – where are they coming from and where are they going when they leave us?
There has been a great deal of attention placed upon migration flyways as so many species are compelled to follow certain geographical corridors for various reasons and rising public awareness of not just the natural perils of undertaking such arduous journeys but, crucially, increasing negative pressures from human activity.
I’ve seen enormous population crashes in iconic species such as Turtle Dove in my lifetime. Although this is depressing, what is very heartening is the resolve of the global birding and conservation community to highlight the issue, raising not only awareness but also funds to tackle urgent problems and to, incredibly importantly, provide reliable data in order to accurately assess trends.
This is where Viking Optical can help. I have worked for this UK based optical company for 23 years and, with a background in conservation work myself, have been very proud to be part of their commitment to conservation work as optics supplier to the RSPB for over 20 years, Birdlife International species champion for 2 critically endangered birds, joint main sponsor of Birdfair for the past 15 years and optics sponsors for many public engagement projects and young birders/environmentalists.
Inglorious Bustards´ work immediately struck a chord with me. So much more than a tour company – it is crystal clear that conservation is at the core of everything they do including carbon offset, donating 10% from Gambian tours to local projects, sourcing local produce to name but a few – culminating recently in the recognition by Terra Incognita who promote “responsible tour operators who conserve wildlife, support local people and educate their guests”.
We are very happy and proud to participate in their #FlywayPromise initiative by providing optics for migration counters at Tarifa and also for trainee guides in the Gambia.
To find out more about Viking Optical, our products and what we do please see here – www.vikingoptical.co.uk – or come and visit us in the Optics Marquee at Birdfair, 16-18 August 2019.