After a particularly rock and roll New Years Eve, consisting of Toy Story 3, slippers and a bottle of Limoncello, we blew off the old cobwebs this week by exploring our new patch in the bright 2018 sunshine.
We’ve recently moved to the village of Facinas, just along the coast from our accommodation partners at Huerta Grande ecolodge, where we’ve spent a most enjoyable year being log cabin dwellers! Our new base is a pretty pueblo blancowith cobbled streets, which spills down the side of a rocky outcrop and overlooks the wetlands and low intensity farmland of La Janda.
Wandering up through the pastureland, passing the occasional herd of free-roving goats, sheep, cattle and donkeys beneath the shade of a mature Cork Oak tree, we also passed Cattle Egrets, Black Redstarts, Corn and Cirl Buntings, Sardinian Warblers and dozens of wintering Common Chiffchaffs.
About 20 minutes up the hill from our home, a spring, known locally as ´El Chorrito´, gushes out of the mountain. There´s almost always somebody there filling bottles with the pure water, and we took the chance to stop for a freshen-up there, watch the local Grey Wagtail and see Short-toed Treecreepers and Hawfinches moving through the trees.
As the Cork Oak forest became denser, we were in Los Alcornacales Parque Natural proper, and numerous Firecrests, Crested Tits and enthusiastically drumming Great Spotted Woodpeckers joined the avifauna. We could see Griffon Vultures circling overhead, having left their roosts on the rocks just up the hill. Even from this height we could hear the bubbling calls of the many thousands of Common Cranes wintering on the rice paddies of La Janda.
Another half hour up and we were watching European Nuthatch in the trees and Dartford Warblers darting through the scrubby clearings. And then, calling loudly, four Rock Buntings in the Stone Pines! Superb!
As we reached the very top of our bir of Monte Facinas, some 400m above sea level, there, sat on top of the very highest rocky pinnacle like a little blue glacé cherry on top of a celebratory New Year´s cake, was a male Blue Rock Thush singing its heart out to welcome in 2018!
It was a great start to the year, not only for the engaging selection of resident and wintering birds we saw, but also for the promise of those to come – in a few weeks this hillside will be stuffed with Western Bonelli´s Warblers, Iberian Chiffchaffs, Nightingales and Golden Orioles, and the skies full of Black Kites, Short-toed and Booted Eagles making their way north to populate Europe!
Sitting atop the cliffs outside of Tarifa today, we happily wiled away the final daylight hours of 2017 pretty much as we began, gazing out over the narrow stretch of water that separates Europe from Africa, at the epicentre of the East Atlantic Flyway!
We were there in the hope of grabbing an extra couple of species to add to our Spanish year list, but between waves of Balearic Shearwaters and Northern Gannets, we also grabbed the time to reflect on a truly brilliant birding year!
Here, in no particular order, are our highlights! Were you there..? If not, why not?!
Migration, migration, migration!
As a destination to see the sky dark with many thousands of soaring birds, The Straits of Gibraltar is hard to beat! The movement never really stops, but twice a year we get to enjoy this spectacle at its peak, and share it with you! Here‘s how we got on this year! And if that whets your appetite, we still have a couple of places left for our Spring migration tour…
2. Wallcreepers, Lammergeiers and more in the Pyrenees.
A fabulous trip, exploring the wintery Spanish Pyrenees for some truly breath-taking mountain birding and a whole bunch of laughs! This tour will feature as part of our new Brassic Birding range, for adventurous birders on a budget – watch this space and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date!
3. Birding on Two Continents!
With only 14km between us and Africa, it’d be rude not to go now and again! This Spring we showed some lovely folk the best of migration from both sides of the Straits, as well as superb resident species like Northern Bald Ibis, Moussier’s Redstart and Moroccan Marsh Owl. Read our adventures here, and check out the dates and itinerary for 2018 here!
4. Field Trip fun
We love catering for large field trip groups, because the conservationists of the future deserve a field trip somewhere both fascinating and sunny! This year was no exception and we had a great time with the excellent students of Bangor Uni and the University of South Wales. If you are looking for a well-organised good value trip for a large group, please contact us!
5. Vulture extravaganza
Our group was treated to fabulous scenery, top notch cuisine by an award-winning chef, and star birds like Black Wheatear, Rock Bunting and Alpine Accentor, against a backdrop of thousands of migrating Griffon Vultures – just wow! More here! And check out the plan for next year’s trip here!
Always lovely to catch up with friends old and new at the UK’s annual ‘Birder’s Glastonbury’! Here‘s how we got on!
7. Dovestep 3
We were proud to host Turtle Dove conservation warrior and legend Jonny Rankin and his crew in The Straits in February, as he embarked on his third epic journey, walking across Spain – more here
8. Eleonoras Falcons, Cream-coloured Coursers and more in Northern Morocco
Taking wildlife photography artist Tony Mills around Essaouira and Oualidia in search of some star Moroccan species was a great adventure, full of wildlife, culture and food! Read about our adventure here, and check out the tour itinerary for next June!
9. The Gambia
Another of our favourite places on Earth, this year we got to travel the whole length of the Gambia river, bringing our clients up close and personal with such delights as Egyptian Plover, Bearded Barbet, Adamawa Turtle Dove, Carmine Bee-eater and a rainbow of other species! Have a look at our exploits here, and remember there’s still chance to join us in February and avoid those winter blues!
To all our friends old and new, we’d like to wish you a very happy new year, and we hope to see you in person at the centre of the world in 2018!
What a show!!! Adamawa Turtle Dove, African Finfoot, Northern Carmine Bee-eater, Common Wattle-eye, Oriole Warbler, Verreaux´s Eagle Owl, Long-crested Eagle Blue-breasted, Malachite, Pied and Grey-headed Kingfisher, Western Bluebill, African Pygmy Goose, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Senegal Parrots, Senegal Coucal, Palm Nut Vulture, Blue-bellied Roller, Maribou Storks, Black-headed Herons, Black Egret, White-faced Whistling Duck, Northern Red Bishop, Violet Turaco, Grey Woodpecker, and Red-bellied and African Paradise Flycatchers – not to mention Green-back Vervets, Red Colobus Monkeys, Guinea Baboons, Nile Monitor Lizards and Nile Crocs – all adorned the final leg of our fabulous Gambian adventure, run in partnership with The Biggest Twitch.
By now we were right up river, staying in a peaceful riverside lodge at Georgetown, which the group had to ourselves. After breakfast we took a long walk – all the way across the guesthouse terrace to the quay, where our skipper Sado awaited to take us even further upstream. This far inland, the river is freshwater – clean enough to drink if you´ve grown up in the area – and brings a hint of the moist African Forests to the Sahelian region.
As we sailed upstream, Green-back Vervets and Red Colobus monkeys crashed through the luscious green vegetation lining the river, while Nile Monitor Lizards eyed us cautiously from the banks. Palm Nut Vultures, Violet Turacos, Bearded Barbets, African Fish Eagles, Red-throated Bee-eater and African Harrier Hawks perched up in the palm trees and riverine scrub.
We soon arrived on the shore where Kunkilling Forest Park is located. Almost the second our feet touched solid ground we found our target species – the incredibly rare and difficult to see Adamawa Turtle Dove. Darker-bodied, larger and more silvery-headed than our European Turtle Dove, it purrs with a deeper guttural edge! It is non-migratory and restricted to a couple of locations in the moist forests of Africa, and this small island in the middle of the Gambia River, where it sat out proudly, as if it knew that it was a lifer for absolutely everyone in the group!
We spent a pleasant while wandering around the forest, encountering a troupe of Guinea Baboons and a wetland area full of Spur-winged Geese.
African Finfoot is high on any birder´s list of priorities when visiting these parts, but never easy to see. But as we drifted back, enjoying the lush greens in the mid-morning sun, we spotted not one but three, hanging out in a sandy cove at the water´s edge! We could see two adults and a young bird, but by the time the boat had swung back around there were two youngsters and one adult, meaning there must have been four in total! They were untroubled by our presence, and we got great views of them chilling in the shade and trying to move about without tripping over their own enormous orange feet.
Our Finfoot luck was most definitely in, seeing another two individuals on the journey back. That brought the total to six for the trip, a number almost unheard of for such a shy and special bird.
After lunch and a nice long siesta, we headed out to some local forest habitat, to enjoy the late afternoon roost. Many European Turtle Doves were settling into the trees, as well as Rose-ringed Parakeets, Senegal Parrots, Senegal Coucals, and an Oriole Warbler. We had some of our best views yet of Blue-breasted Kingfisher and Blue-bellied Roller, as well African Jacana, and a great view of Grey-headed Kingfisher in the wetland areas.
As the shadows lengthened, we had several sightings of Pearl-spotted Owlet flying in to roost, completed by a fantastic extended view as an individual tried to keep its cool while being harangued by Lesser Blue-eared and Long tailed Glossy Starlings and a particularly persistent Common Bulbul!
The afternoon was ending fast but as we left the best was yet to come – a huge Verreaux´s Eagle Owl crash-landed into a palm tree and surveyed us nonchalantly through its droopy pink-lidded eyes, followed shortly by another. As dark fell and we made our way home, we had to pick our way through the Standard-winged and Long-tailed Nightjars warming themselves on the track!
We had some ground to cover the next day as we returned to the coast, but happily, the country´s relatively new tarmacked main road made our journey easy, and left us plenty of time to visit some great birding areas on the way back. Spotting as we went, we made a couple of stops to look at and photograph Long-crested Eagle and a colony of grotesque but appealing Maribou Storks.
A troupe of sixty or more Guinea Baboons were picking through the chaff of a recent peanut harvest, so we stopped to watch their fascinating social interactions, and chat to some villagers who, though having no intention of harming them, were looking forward to the day when these raucous, intimidating apes finished scouring the field and left them in peace!
We took a rest at the lake at Dala Ba, or ´Big Water´, an important area for wintering European Turtle Doves, and found several hundred hanging out in the branches of trees around the lake, nipping down for the odd drink. The lake and surroundings also yielded Black-headed, Grey and Purple Herons, Black Egret, Western Osprey, Malachite and Pied Kingfisher.
Arriving back at the hotel, there was plenty of time to freshen up before a couple of G&Ts and another delicious meal, topped off with a cake fashioned from ice-cream and fruit to celebrate Alan´s birthday!
The small bird observatory at Kartong was created by Brit Colin Cross, who has been in The Gambia for nearly a decade. The understated concrete structure overlooks a bunch of reed-fringed freshwater and intertidal pools, which he and his local team manage and survey to provide consistently great habitat, and some very fascinating and complete ornithological records for the area. On the pools were numerous White-faced Whistling Duck But perhaps most surprisingly we found two Common Coots, a Gambian lifer for our guide Tijan!
After some searching we also found three cute African Pygmy Geese and a Knobbed Duck amongst the White-faced Whistling Ducks!
Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were now filling the air low above our heads, and as if that wasn´t a spell-binding enough sight to see, suddenly there were two Northern Carmine Bee-eaters amongst them! These birds, normally only seen upriver or associated with bushfires, dazzled us with their stunning fuschia pink and turquoise get-up for a fabulous couple of minutes before vanishing off into the distance.
After a relaxed breakfast and chance to finalise packing for the homeward journey, we said goodbye to the lovely folk at Hisbiscus House and headed for the airport. Happily we had a whole morning to get in one last birding fix before our flight to Manchester, which we spent in Abuko Forest nature reserve, a tiny but teeming patch of primary forest in the heart of The Gambia’s coastal metropolis.
The lush vegetation offered welcome shade from the midday sun, and we enjoyed fantastic views of Violet Turaco, Grey Woodpecker, Western Bluebill and Red-bellied and African Paradise Flycatchers as well as a handsome Lizard Buzzard perched up over our heads.
A Nile Crocodile relaxed open-mouthed by the reserve´s central pool and we enjoyed being under the wistful gaze of Red Colobus monkeys, the so-called ´Old Women of the Forest´.
Common Wattle-eye – frequently heard on the trip but always hidden – finally decided to give us a look as several individuals showed well in the trees. Fanti Saw-wing was yet another new bird for the list!
For our last lunch we went to the village of Lamin, overlooking the coastal mangroves, where we ate while Green-backed Vervet Monkeys looked hungrily at our plates!
Then, all too soon it was home time, and we said our goodbyes to Tijan and Abubaka before heading home to a dusting of British snow, taking plenty of birding memories and West African warmth home with us.
Want to follow the rainbow?! Join us in 2018! Download the full trip report here
Our journey upriver to Tendaba brought some of the best birdwatching our well-travelled team had experienced!
Egyptian Plover, Marshall Eagle and Long-crested Eagle, Exclamatory Paradise Whydah, Red-throated, Little Green, Blue-cheeked and European Bee-eaters led the way, with African Golden Oriole, Dark Chanting Goshawk and Grasshopper Buzzard, Beaudouin´s, Brown and Short-toed Snake Eagle, African Fish Eagle, African Blue Flycatcher, Kittlitz Plover, Chestnut-backed Sparrow Lark, Cut-throat Finch, Yellow White-eye, Ant-eater Chat, Pied and Blue-breasted Kingfishers making sure the group´s waking hours were filled with avian delights!
We set off in the freshness of the African morning to Tendaba ´airport´ – a hand-painted sign directed us to ´Terminal 1´, which is actually a raised mudbank in the heart of a wetland! From this unbuilt, unspoilt area, we watched birds of open woodland such as Black Scimitar-bills, Purple Glossy Starlings, Village Indigo Birds and African Grey Hornbills moving through the trees, while Grasshopper Buzzards and a young African Fish Eagle got ready to leave their roosts.
Moving on to an area of low-intensity peanut farming mid-morning, we soon added African Golden Oriole to the list. We had fantastic views of Grasshopper Buzzards perched up close in the trees and our first look at a sexy Beaudouin´s Snake Eagle. A prolonged flyby by a low Bateleur left us breathless and with some great photos!
After a bit of relaxing downtime by the side of the broad and tranquil Senegambia River, we took an afternoon boat trip into the extensive mangrove swamps of Bao Bolong Wetland Reserve. From the small fishing boat we had intimate views of the snake-y antics of African Darter and the understated but noisy Mouse Brown Sunbird. We also heard African Blue Flycatcher. Long-tailed Cormorants, Striated and Squacco Herons were numerous as we pootled past muddy coves between the mangrove roots, and Pied and Blue-breasted Kingfishers were with us at every turn.
As the afternoon wore on, Blue-cheeked and European Bee-eaters came into roost, decorating the bare branches of trees, and many Collared Pratincoles and Gull-billed Terns drifted overhead. We enjoyed the spectacle of a whirling mass of Sand Martins, numbering many hundreds, gathering insects over an area of misty, damp pasture.
The Sahel in the early morning has its own special light and its own amazing selection of roosting raptors – as we set off on our day´s birding, beautiful Dark Chanting Goshawks and Grasshopper Buzzards were today upstaged by Long-crested and Brown Snake Eagle and two mega Marshall Eagles, perched up next to the road for all to see.
Soon the passerines were active too, and we had some fantastically productive stops watching the airborne ridiculousness that is the Exclamatory Paradise Whydah. These black, red and yellow avian shooting stars resemble airborne punctuation marks as they flit from tree to tree, encumbered by their massive tail feathers. Yellow White-eye, Red-billed Quelea, Chestnut-backed Sparrow Lark and a host of Long-tailed and Lesser Blue-eared Glossy Starlings were also seen.
Soon we reached Farafennye, where we would cross the Senegambia river to explore the northern shore. Tijan expertly guided us to the front of the queue for the small car ferry, and after half an hour or so of enjoying the exciting atmosphere of the port, as well as its Hammerkops and Egrets, we were aboard and over the river in no time.
Soon we reached Kaur wetlands, where the day’s birding immediately went stratospheric! The very first bird we found was a lone Egyptian Plover, an excellent bird in anybody´s book, but also Alan´s most wanted bird of the trip! This incredibly smart black, white and ginger wader allowed us to within feet of where it sat, particularly Iain and Sarah-Jane who shuffled towards it on their knees in veneration, presumably earning the privilege of some absolutely phenomenal photos of this sought-after bird.
We were so struck by its awesomeness that we barely paid heed to the host of amazing wetland birds in the background – while we ate our picnic lunch we were entertained by a strong supporting cast of Wattled and Spur-winged Plovers, Kittlitz Plovers, Purple Swamphens and Senegal Thick-knees. There were many wintering migrants in the area, including Yellow Wagtails, Reed Warblers, Common Chiffchaffs, and a Subalpine Warbler. Montagu´s and Marsh Harriers quartered the marshes and a Brown Snake Eagle sat up in a Baobab tree devouring a snake.
Next up after a restful few kilometres we arrived at a quarry, where our senses received a further avian pummelling! This sandy expanse is home to a huge breeding colony of Red-throated Bee-eaters, which filled the air with their lively calls. They adorned literally every tree with their vivid colours, making them look like they´d been decorated for Christmas! Among them were Little Green Bee-eaters, Cut-throat Finches, Ant-eater Chats, and a large roost of Long-tailed Glossy Starlings and Yellow-billed Shrikes. A lone White-backed Vulture silently oversaw the colourful party below like a bouncer.
We had one last ferry crossing to do, this time at the sleepy end of the river, where the queue of vehicles numbered one! As we cruised across the river in the gentle evening light, our accommodation was already in sight, and we were soon enjoying a beer overlooking the peaceful Senegambia River, as the local kids splashed about at the quayside and flocks of Egrets travelled downstream to roost.
This was a truly incredible day´s birding and not one that the group will forget in a hurry!
Fancy a piece of the Egyptian Plover action? Download the full trip report here
Not much bigger than Norfolk, The Gambia is Africa’s smallest country and clings to the banks of the Gambia river. The curve of this river as it winds into the continent shapes the whole country into a geographical grin, earning it the nickname of Africa’s Smiling Coast.
There was certainly no shortage of smiles within our team either, as the very first days at the coast brought us avian delights like Bearded Barbet, Western Bluebill, Snowy-crowned Robin Chat, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Standard-winged and Long-tailed Nightjar, Yellow-capped Gonalek, Lesser Blue-eared and Long-tailed Glossy Starling, Klaas’s Cuckoo, Northern White-faced and Greyish Eagle Owl, Beautiful Sunbird, Yellow-throated Leaflove, Red-bellied Flycatcher, Black Scimitarbill, African Hawk Eagle, Red-winged Warbler, Pied and Malachite Kingfisher, Grasshopper Buzzard, Lizard Buzzard, Dark Chanting Goshawk and Bateleur to name but a few!
As the tarmac roads gave way to red dirt streets lined with fruit and clothes stalls, mechanic´s shops and hairdressers, bicycles, dogs and playing kids, the group could sense our Gambian adventure had already begun! Hooded Vultures, Pied Crows and Yellow-billed Kites patrolled the skies above us, with needle-thin African Palm Swifts and Little Swifts filling the gaps in between.
We were soon at Hibiscus House hotel – a quirky, refreshing haven of a place, with luxurious rooms nestling around a courtyard draped with greenery, with intimate gathering areas and an appealing pool at its heart. After settling in with a welcome drink or two it was time for our first dinner, choosing from a delicious menu of European and West African traditional dishes, which we enjoyed as enormous fruit bats swooped down, splashing as they drank from the swimming pool.
Dotted around the courtyard at Hibiscus House are numerous bird baths, so the next day the group got in an early start, birding the hotel before breakfast! Little Weavers, Red-billed Firefinches, Common Bulbuls, Bronze Mannakins and Red-cheeked Cordon Bleus were all bathing and drinking just metres away. Yellow-capped Gonalek made an appearance, and it soon became apparent that a pair of Senegal Coucals were nesting within the grounds!
After a tasty breakfast of fresh fruits, breads and omelettes, we headed out – just down the road to Brufut Forest, a fantastic area of Sahelian woodland.
In a clearing just beyond the village, we got our first views of some engaging local birds, including Red-billed Hornbill, Lesser Blue-eared and Long-tailed Glossy Starling, African Mourning Dove and a cute spearmint green Klaas’s Cuckoo.
Moving further into the forest, local bird guru Tijan´s local knowledge and skill came into play and he found two roosting Northern White-faced Owls, wicked little owls which stared down at us from their roosts as we got some great photos.
As the heat of the day started to pick up we headed to Tijan´s home – affectionately dubbed ´RSPB Brufut office´ – where he had kindly invited us for lunch. Here we sat drinking a refreshing coffee in the shady courtyard while his wife Mariama prepared us a delicious Yassa, a type of local curry.
Tijan has many bird feeders and drinking areas in his garden, and we were delighted to get fantastic up-close views of Village and Black-throated Weavers, African Thrush, Lavender Waxbill, Beautiful Sunbird and Red-cheeked Cordon Bleus flitting through the trees as delicious aromas wafted out of the kitchen.
We ate African style, sharing out the peanut-y Yassa, fresh salad, bread and fried potatoes while Tijan´s 3-year old son Lamin impressed us with his binocular skills!
After lunch we headed out once more to Tanji area, where the thriving fish market brings together colourful boats, fish-buyers and fishermen haggling over fresh catches while gulls and terns do the same over the discarded bits.
We got right in amongst all the action and had fantastic close-up views of Slender-billed and Grey-headed Gulls on the beach scrapping over scraps, while Royal, Lesser Crested, Caspian and Sandwich Terns were all fishing just offshore. Waders working the beach detritus included Ruddy Turnstone, Bar-tailed Godwit, Spur-winged Plover and Sanderling, and three wintering Western Ospreys were seen fishing and perching in nearby Baobab trees.
Continuing the relaxed birding theme of the day, we retired to the bar-café area of Tanji Eco Lodge, where, again, we had great views of feeders and water bird baths from our beverage-drinking area! We sat back and watched the West African avian fashion parade, where Western Bluebill, Snowy-crowned Robin Chat, Little Greenbul, Yellow-throated Leaflove and Paradise Red-bellied Flycatchers showed off their plumage for all to see and giving the photographers in the group good reason to drool!
The next day’s journey upriver was at a relaxed pace, enjoying spending the whole day on the two-hour journey, making the most of great birding opportunities along the way.
Breakfast was a caffeine and condensed milk-fuelled Gambian special, taken at a roadside stall by the market at Brikama, where we supplemented our fine hotel takeaway breakfast with a nice strong coffee!
Next we made a stop at Farasuto Forest reserve, where local people are being trained to be wardens to help preserve the local wildlife. We walked through the rich Sahelian scrub getting great views of many resident species including Bronze Mannakins and Black Scimitarbills.
Arriving at a specially marked site, we were able to pass one at a time and in complete silence to a small viewing area. From here we found ourselves within metres of roosting Standard-winged and Long-tailed Nightjar, which remained undisturbed as we admired their intricate camouflage patterning. Roosting nocturnal birds were numerous here, and we also found a Greyish Eagle Owl and a nesting Northern White-faced Owl.
In another area of the park we were treated to two exuberant Bearded Barbets, which showed well from the top of a dead tree while Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters swooped round them.
We made good progress upriver, and stopped for lunch at Kanpant rice fields. Tijan and his son Abubaka, who is following in his father´s footsteps as a bird guide, whipped up a lovely bunch of sandwiches on fresh local bread. Appetites sated, we were birding again in no time. We took a wander through the rice paddies, finding African Harrier Hawk, African Hawk Eagle, Red-winged Warbler, Bronze Mannakin, Western Grey Plantain Eater, African Jacana, Hammerkop, Fine-spotted Woodpecker, Pearl-spotted Owlet and Malachite Kingfisher amongst others.
Driving on we made a couple more stops to appreciate the new raptors that were passing us by, including Grasshopper Buzzard, Lizard Buzzard and the stunning Dark Chanting Goshawk. And a lone Bateleur, soaring tail-less on V-shaped wings caused us to screech to a halt and watch it until it vanished into a speck.
Soon we arrived at Tendaba Lodge, our home for the next two nights. Set on the quiet shores of the Senegambia River, this homely lodge offers a welcoming, clean, friendly place to stay in the heart of rural Africa. We had time to relax before dinner, and enjoyed a couple of Gambian beers while gazing out over the serene waters and enjoying views of Spur-winged Goose, Pink-backed Pelican, Caspian Tern and Pied Kingfisher from the riverside terrace. What a start to our trip!
Sound like this experience would bring a smile to your face? Download the full trip report here.
What a superb adventure that was! While birding Andalusia from the stunning mountains of Ronda to the gorgeous coasts of the Straits of Gibraltar, last week’s trip brought us encounters with star species including Rüppell’s Vulture, Black Wheatear, Golden Eagle, Audouin´s Gull, Egyptian Vulture, Montagu´s Harrier and many others!
The mountain leg of the trip was based in the quirky blue village of Jùzcar, and the high-altitude birding was fuelled by the mouth-watering local food of our hotel´s award-winning chef, Ivan. The team´s rocky explorations brought us Blue Rock Thrushes, Rock Sparrows, Rock Buntings, Golden Eagle, Black Redstarts, Black Wheatear and more.
In the Sierra de las Nieves, we picnicked amongst Holm Oaks, Wild Olives and endemic Spanish Firs, surrounded by dozens of Black and Common Redstarts, Firecrests, Crested Tits, Nuthatch, and Short-toed Creepers. We could see distant Griffon Vultures circling above the rocky hills, and we watched a Golden Eagle soaring high above us.
Soon we were settling in to our accommodation at Hotel Bandolero in the quirky blue village of Jùzcar, used as the set for the Smurfs! Movie in 2011. We took a couple of hours to unpack, relax and explore the extraordinary pueblo.
That evening, the heavily-anticipated food of award-winning chef Ivan did not disappoint, with astonishingly good chanterelle, pomegranate and blue cheese salad, pumpkin and shrimp risotto, and glazed chestnut mousse making the best of local seasonal produce with a twist!
After a hearty breakfast the next day, we headed out to the nearby `moonscape´ of Los Riscos, where the morning sun was warming the hillside. As we took up our positions, surveying the massive rock plateau in front of us, it wasn´t long before mountain birds were flitting across the rock wall. Blue Rock Thrush was the first to be spotted, soon to be followed by three Rock Sparrows. Fleeting glimpses of an Alpine Accentor were sadly not to be repeated, but after putting in a bit of effort we had close views of Rock Bunting and Cirl Bunting.
After lunch and a quick dip at the turquoise pools of Cueva del Gato we headed to Montejaque Dam, high into the mountains. Cueva del Hundidero lies at the base of a dramatic gorge which wouldn´t look out of place on a Star Wars film set. Here we watched the afternoon soften, and enjoyed unbelievable views of Black Wheatears displaying and squabbling amongst the rocks. Many low Griffon Vultures and Crag Martins passed over on their way to roost, as did a Peregrine Falcon and several Red-billed Chough, much admired by Joan and John.
Our late afternoon decision to stay ´five more minutes´ proved a good one – all at once on the rock face in front of us, we spotted a female Rock Ibex and her kid, picking their way across the boulders! On further examination there were at least six more individuals, including two adult males with impressive horns. Masters of the mountain, they melted away as softly and quickly as they had appeared, and we returned extremely happy to Jùzcar.
We spent some relaxed time in Ronda mid-morning, enjoyed this Moorish city’s gorgeous parks and streets, finding migratory warblers in the trees, including Common and Iberian Chiffchaff and Western Bonelli´s Warbler. We also had fabulous views of two Common Crossbills picking buds off the trees!
We took a coffee overlooking the impressive Tajo gorge, which the town straddles by way of three eye-pleasing historic bridges – one Roman, one Moorish and one dating from the 18th century.
Descending to the Straits, the group found themselves in the thick of the autumn Griffon Vulture migration, with birds kettling in their hundreds along with a late wave of migrating Short-toed Eagles, Black Kites, Booted Eagles and some superb Rüppell´s Vultures.
Even as we arrived in the Straits it was apparent that vultures really were on the move here! An imposing kettle of dozens of Griffon Vultures was swirling over the hillsides just beyond our lodgings, so we chased off after them as if they were a tornado!
We got right underneath this whirling avian biomass and enjoyed superb views before the birds moved on over the hill. In their wake they left at least ten Short-toed Eagles, hovering silently over the fields, hunting side-by-side, yellow eyes searching the scrub below for reptiles.
A visit to a colony of 100+ Griffon Vultures in the hills of the Sierra de la Plata allowed us to see these impressive birds up close, perching on and circling round the rocks, screeching like prehistoric beasts. As the team relaxed in the shade and observed these awe-inspiring birds – as well as Black Storks, Honey Buzzards and Booted Eagles – the shout went up! A Rüppell´s Vulture had arrived! Tarifa area is the only place in Europe where this African Species can be seen, making it highly sought after. They are not easy to see and older birds can be difficult to distinguish from Griffon Vultures, but this was classic Rüppell´s – 10% smaller than the birds alongside it, chocolate brown with no contrast, and a beautiful spangle of white on the underwing. We were immeasurably chuffed with our find and the bird was low enough for us to get some great pictures too.
A spot of sea-watching from the seaside town of Bolonia (complete with ice cream!) gave us Northern Gannet and Cory´s Shearwater, and flocks of Dunlin and Sanderling on the beach. Andrew headed down to the shore and we cheered him on from as a distance as, after sitting stock still for a while and finally lying face down in the sand, a Kentish Plover came and practically sat on his lens!
A walk through the grazed pastures down to the shoreline at Playa de los Lances gave us swirling flocks of Corn Buntings, House Sparrows and Spotless Starlings, as well as our best views yet of Crested Larks and numerous Meadow Pipits. Reaching the hide we enjoyed Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey Plovers chilling out on the sand while flocks of Sanderling, Common Ringed and Kentish Plover scurried back and forth. Out to sea, Northern Gannets and Cory´s Shearwaters were visible.
Just as we were leaving, a Short-eared Owl rose up from the tussocky vegetation at the far end of the reserve and landed on the sand right in front of us! An SEO on the beach certainly made for a very unusual sight!
Heading to the salt pans at Barbate, passing a stunning melanistic Montagu´s Harrier on the way, we arrived to find a flock of lovely Audouin´s gulls waiting for us close to shore. A pleasing selection of waders ensued, including Redshank, Greenshank, Dunlin, Black-winged Stilt, Common Ringed and Kentish Plover and Common Sandpiper. A passing Peregrine Falcon caused a flurry of activity with many more Common Ringed and Kentish Plover flushed to our end of the marsh. Further on we found Eurasian Spoonbills and Greater Flamingoes, and a late Marsh Harrier also graced us with its presence before we headed home, ready for a relax before dinner.
In a moment of silliness, we had indulged in a group prayer to the ornithological gods and spirits, and we like to think it was this that brought us to Cheryl and Richard. Noticing our bird-watchers´ T-shirts and equipment, they came over to tell us that they had a young Griffon Vulture with a leg injury – nicknamed Victor – knocking about on their farm. We put them in contact with our friends at the Junta de Andalusia who manage a raptor rehabilitation centre, and popped in to visit the damaged youngster. Victor proved very relaxed and keen to meet us, and we were honoured to spend half an hour in his company, admiring his incredibly strong beak and talons, and his gentle-looking eyes.
At our accommodation at the tranquil eco-lodge of Huerta Grande, we enjoyed strolls around the beautiful wooded grounds, enjoying the mist-shrouded trees, where many Serins, Short-toed Treecreepers, Crested Tits and Firecrests sang, and a wave of migrant Blackcaps and European Robins brought the undergrowth to life.
Our exploration of mountains, salt pans, lagoons, intertidal habitat, cork oak forests, plains and pastureland habitat had brought us encounters with over 140 bird species, some very special mammals, and a fascinating selection of reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, moths and dragonflies.
As well as being treated to some spectacular birding in Spain, the group enjoyed relaxed days taking in all the gorgeous cuisine, scenery Andalusia has to offer.
Simon and Niki had some top birding – and such great fun – with John, Joan, Andrew, Pip and Jane, and we´re thoroughly looking forward to welcoming them back next year!
This September, we were joined by a hearty crew of Inglorious Bustards for a rip-roaring (yet thoroughly laid-back!) adventure, birding across Southern Spain and Northern Morocco!
Our journey brought our group up close and personal with star species on both sides of the Straits of Gibraltar, including Moroccan Marsh Owl, Moussier’s Redstart, Bonelli’s Eagle, Audouin’s Gull, Red-necked Nightjar and much, much more.
The Straits themselves formed the centrepiece of the trip, and the group found themselves in the thick of the autumn migration, with hundreds upon hundreds of raptors and soaring birds moving south alongside many thousands of hirundines and Swifts.
Within hours of arriving, the group were thrilled to have our first encounters with Honey Buzzards, Black Kites and Booted and Short-toed Eagles, soaring low over our heads, as well as a solitary Black Stork and an Egyptian Vulture, as we took in the stunning views out across Tarifa Bay. We also found ourselves right in the middle of a river of Alpine, Common and Pallid Swifts as well as Barn and Red-rumped Swallows whizzing right past our ears!
Exploring local mountain habitat, we drove up through a maquis-covered landscape of Fan Palm and Cistus to a dramatic rocky outcrop, to a spot next to a colony of some seventy pairs of Griffon Vultures. These enormous birds delighted the group by soaring low over our heads and screeching from their perches like prehistoric beasts. As we enjoyed the thrilling views, many Honey Buzzards, Black Kites, Booted Eagles and Short-toed Eagles drifted overhead, and we were lucky enough to get great views of two Bonelli´s Eagles, and two Egyptian Vultures.
We wiled away a pleasant time bird-watching at the rice paddies and pastures of La Janda, marvelling at the numbers of Montagu´s and Marsh Harriers and Lesser Kestrels, and enjoying Eurasian Spoonbills, Greater Flamingoes, White Storks, Glossy Ibis, Cattle and Little Egrets, interspersed with Black-winged Stilts, Common Snipe, Green Sandpipers, as well as Little Ringed Plovers, Northern Lapwings and Ruff.
The farmland had another treat in store for the group! Taking a track up to the higher part of the farm, we stopped alongside a strip of willow and poplar scrub, and began to quietly scan the leaf litter with our optics. There, gulating gently amongst the dried leaves and twigs, completely still apart from the twitch of its rictal bristles, was a Red-necked Nightjar, just feet away from us! Taking great care not to disturb this exquisite bird we took our time to enjoy the beautiful pattern details of its gold-and-brown plumage.
Birding in Morocco, we explored the famous Merja Zerga lagoon – known as the haunt of the planet´s last Slender-billed Curlews – by boat, with local legend Hassan. The lagoon is a teeming protected wetland, alive with birds – and local traditional fishermen – probing the mud for crustaceans and molluscs.
We soon spotted Mediterranean, Slender-billed and Audouin´s Gulls amongst the Yellow-legged, Lesser Black-backed and Black-headed Gulls. The numbers of waders were huge, with Oystercatchers, Black-winged Stilt, Common Ringed and Grey Plover, Sanderling, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Eurasian Curlew, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Green and Common Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone all around us.
Mooring the boat, Hassan ushered us out onto a sandbank in the middle of the lagoon! From here, as well as enjoying our surreal birding location, we also added Glossy Ibis, Greater Flamingoes, Kentish Plover and Black Terns to our list, as well as picking up a Western Osprey.
And later that afternoon, just as we hoped, our star species appeared, with not one, but EIGHT stunning Moroccan Marsh Owls taking flight from their roost in local grazing marshes. The group were spellbound by these beautiful, dark-eyed birds.
We breakfasted the next day under a ´giggling´ colony of Little Swifts, under the newly-restored colonnades of Larache´s main square, before birding the Loukkos marshes, just a short drive out of town. These grazed damp pastures are a real oasis for all manner of birds, from waders to raptors, and can be easily birded either from the minibus or by walking short distances along farm tracks. We soon picked up Brown-throated Martins amongst the Barn Swallows and Sand Martins. As we explored the shallower pools we found waders galore, including Black-winged Stilts, Collared Pratincole, Little Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Ruff, Common Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Common Greenshank, Green, Wood and Common Sandpipers. In the deeper waters waded elegant Squacco Herons and many Glossy Ibis, alongside dabbling Ruddy Shelducks and Red-crested Pochards. Overhead, over twenty Marsh Harriers quartered the wetlands.
These beautiful wetlands are home to many traditional farmers, and while we birded the group enjoyed a bit of friendly banter with the locals, as well as finding ourselves amidst a flock of curious sheep!
After lunch in a rural village, where the delighted chef rustled up us up a banquet of deep-fried sardines, lentil dahl, tomato and cucumber salad, white beans in tomato sauce, and flatbread from seemingly nowhere, we headed up into the mystical forest of Bouachem.
It wasn´t long before we caught a glimpse through the undergrowth of a Barbary Macaque! He was of course one of a troupe, and we watched spellbound as over forty of these sociable, intelligent creatures filed peacefully past us, foraging for insects, nuts and roots on the forest floor.
Along the steep mountain tracks of the Talessamtane Natural park in our convoy of 4×4 vehicles, we had stunning views down over the Oued Laou valley, and the charming blue-painted city of Chefchouen.
It didn’t take too long before we started coming across a fantastic array of mountain birds. Three marvellous Moussier’s Redstarts were flitting enthusiastically around the rock faces and were sometimes just metres away from our group! As we explored the slopes, they were joined by Black Wheatears, Rock Buntings, Crag Martins, Common Redstarts, and a Bonelli´s Eagle drifting in and out of the clouds.
We took the afternoon to explore the picturesque labyrinthine streets of Chefchouen´s famous blue-washed medina, or old town, enjoying the assault on our senses from all the colourful wares and spicy smells. Bill, a surrealist artist, was thrilled by the colours and angles of the sloping mountain town and we are eagerly waiting to see it reflected in future works!
After experiencing the traditional Moroccan town, we were glad to experience its traditional food. We headed to our favourite restaurant overlooking the main square, where we enjoyed excellent salads, soups, tagines and a dessert of yoghurt, nuts and local honey.
Our hotel was wonderfully situated on the outskirts of Chefchouen and during a pre-breakfast stroll around the nearby riverside habitat we encountered very confiding subpersonata White Wagtails and a Desert Grey Shrike. We also found two Golden Orioles warming up in the morning sun, two Black-crowned Night Herons, an Atlas Long-legged Buzzard, a probable Barbary Falcon, and a swarm of Barn Swallows and House Martins too numerous to count.
Having explored wildlife on both sides of the Straits, we headed out onto the waters themselves, on a boat trip with responsible whale-watching company Turmares. Over the seas we had great views of dozens of Cory´s Shearwaters, Northern Gannets, Great Skua, Audouin´s Gulls, and maybe twenty bizarre, dustbin lid-shaped Ocean Sunfish. Striped Dolphins too were extremely active and we saw a hundred or more scudding through the sea.
But the stars of the show were the Long-finned Pilot Whales, which decided to offer us breath-taking close-up views! Finding several combined family groups numbering over fifteen individuals, we simply floated quietly for over an hour, while they swam curiously around the boat and often surfaced right alongside! It was a long and extremely moving encounter with these alluring creatures.
Overall, our exploration of salt pans, lagoons, intertidal habitat, cork oak forests, mountains, plains and freshwater wetland habitat on two continents brought us encounters with over 140 bird species and a fascinating selection of African and European mammals, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, moths and dragonflies.
As well as being treated to some spectacular migration and cetacean events, the group enjoyed relaxed days in perfect weather, taking in all the gorgeous wildlife, scenery, culture and cuisine Southern Andalusia and Northern Morocco have to offer.
We really enjoyed welcoming our hearty crew – Lynne, Peter, Margaret, Sue, Bill, Tony and Wendy – to our home in The Straits, – you were great company on this intercontinental birding adventure and we hope to see you again here soon!
Rush hour for the East Atlantic Flyway started late yesterday, but Blimey, was it a busy one!
It was a dank start, with cloudy raptor-less skies that were more like England than southern Spain! Indeed, as we looked over to the Rock of Gibraltar, it was actually raining in the UK!
We were volunteering again today, helping Fundacion Migres with their long-running migration monitoring programme.
The sullen morning gave us chance to appreciate another aspect of migration – the wild olive scrub around El Algorrobo watchpoint was hosting loads of migrant passerines like Common Redstart, Spotted Flycatchers, Golden Orioles and many Phylloscopus warblers, resting on their way south. The morning rush hour saw dozens of Hirundines, Common, Pallid and Alpine Swift racing through.
But it was 11.45am that the climatic traffic lights turned green for raptors! The sky was suddenly full of Honey Buzzards, kettling in their hundreds and barging south along the now congested flyway.
The chirpiest of the travelers were the European Bee-eaters. So many passed over, quipping like kids on a school bus, and some buzzed right over and around our group, prompting so many ‘Ooooh’s and ‘Aaaah’s that we almost forgot to count them!
But it was the last couple hours of the count that really blew our minds! Late arrivals finally getting past bad weather in the Pyrenees were racing over in their hundreds, seemingly experiencing flyway rage, desperate to reach Africa before sundown. At around 3pm, after a busy but relaxed days counting, our group was suddenly silent except for whirring clickers and the barking of things like “10 Milanos Negros!”, “234 Abejeiros!”, “Aguila Calzada! Aguila Calzada!”
All in all we counted 9,081 birds commuting to Africa in just one day, at just one watch point, a mere fraction of the 250,000+ raptors and 400,000 Swifts that will pass through here this season.
Fundacion Migres have been carrying out this exceptional monitoring programme since 1997, making it one of the greatest sustained efforts in Europe. Today we were privileged to count alongside Alejandro, Migres’s Flyway Veteran. He has been with the programme since the beginning, and now leads it.
They are keen for volunteers to help with the counts – people like Alberto – a professional musician and birder from Madrid who was with us yesterday. He will be with Migres for the minimum placement of 1 week, during which he can stay at their accommodation at the Centro Internacional de Migracion de Aves near Tarifa and receive full training.
Fancy gazing at a bit of mega migration? Don’t worry, this was only the beginning! Find out about volunteering with Fundacion Migres here. Or come see #FlywayBirding in action with us next Spring or Autumn!
It’s a disconcerting feeling when you shut your eyes and you can still see hundreds of raptor silhouettes passing in front of them!
We’ve spent the day volunteering with Fundacion Migres as part of their long-standing migration monitoring programne – we reckon this must be a common side effect!
With very little wind, but heavy low cloud to start with, it’s been a strange day for movement. Early doors saw dozens of hundreds of assorted raptors forming in large lazy kettles and rolling up and down the coast.
It gave us a while to find our feet in terms of monitoring protocol, and to find even deeper admiration for Migres staff Marina and Martina, their quick eyes, organised approach and the intense, almost telepathic communication between them!
Enthusiastic and skilled teachers, they were chatty and friendly yet never missing a bird.
As the day wore on, many Short-toed Eagles continued to mooch around the valleys, giving stunning views, sunlit from the south against a black sky.
Egyptian Vultures, Sparrowhawks, quipping Bee-eaters and some dapper Montagu’s Harriers provided further highlights.
Black Kites and Booted Eagles were passing over us in droves but today, The Honey Buzzard was king – they streamed over all day in groups of 30 or more, and by 3.30 we were receiving reports from Morocco that they were arriving at the the iconic rock monolith of the Jebel Musa.
The pace was constant but relaxed – we even found time to have bit of fun with an Egyptian Mantis determined to learn the salient ID features of a Honey Buzzard!
Fundacion Migres have been carrying out this exceptional monitoring programme since 1997, making it one of the greatest sustained efforts in Europe. It has generated much important research and conservation protocols for migrating soaring birds and the challenges they face.
We were happy to help (at least we hope we were helpful!) and to add our numbers to today’s count, which we’ll hopefully hear the results of soon! Sure we’ll see most of them again when we close our eyes to sleep!
Fancy gazing at a bit of mega-migration?! Migres welcome seasonal volunteers, who can stay at their Centro Internacional de Migracion de Aves near Tarifa. Or come see #FlywayBirding in action with us next Spring or Autumn!
With potentially record attendance figures and legions of new faces in evidence, this year’s Birdfair felt more like the start of a movement than the continuation of an event.
We were told on Sunday by one of the events’ army of lovely volunteers that the combined visitor total for Friday and Saturday was up by 2000 on previous years. With the usual attendance at around 20,000 that’s an increase of 10% in just the first two days! (Anyone heard the final figures yet..?)
5..4..3..2.. the Friday am queue await opening time
Fab volunteers taking a well-earned breakfast Sangria
So who are these new disciples flocking to ‘Birders’ Glastonbury’? It seems to us there’s been a seismic shift in the past year or two in the mass appeal of birding. As well as the legendary folk who’ve been making the pilgrimage for many years, there’s a new following in town. And far from being the influx of shallow hipsters that the mainstream media had us all expecting, these are genuine bird-curious nature-lovers who are looking for a new place to connect.
Of the folk we chatted to on our stand, many were old friends and personal heroes of ours. But many were new to birding and Birdfair. Nowadays folk are as likely to be sporting jeans and a hoodie as the fabled twitcher’s jerkin, as likely to be female as male, and are representative of diverse age groups, nationalities, and cultures. With this sort of inclusivity of attendance on the rise, Birdfair is becoming ever more deserving of its title of the ‘Birders’ Glastonbury’.
Conservation hero and giver of geat hugs, Mark Avery stopped by
Our friends Alan and ruth of Biggest Twitch fame!
Professor Extremadura, Martin Kelsey and Patrick
Legend of La Brenne, Tony Williams
Alexia, Carla and Chris always have a big smile for everyone!
BTO allstars Dawn and David!
People were loving our relaxed, but professional approach to birding and wildlife tours and #FlywayBirding, our approachability, and the way we and others like us offer a non-patronising way to learn, to reach whatever level of expertise is desired, or just to appreciate the beauty of a wildlife spectacle like migration. No doubt the free Sangria on our stand also helped!
Although many people stay the full weekend, and no doubt celebrate together in the evenings (the long-standing ‘Birds and Beers’ event being a prime example), we loved the feeling of an emerging of what Niki dubbed the ‘Birdfair Fringe’. Our friends Amity and Mark of Morning Bride rocked an intimate folk gig at the Crown in Uppingham, and the Champions of the Flyway event grew ever bigger, with wine, music and uplifting project updates from previous years’ beneficiaries.
Flyway champ Yoav looks on while Morning Bride rock the gig!
Drinks with lovely Jonathan!
Mark and Amity stopped by! That’s my dad’s thumb..
The birders we know are lovely folk – what a great feeling that there seem to be more and more of them!
More people connecting with the message from organisations and individuals like Mark Avery, Chris Packham, Birders Against Wildlife Crime and rspb, this year focussed heavily on ending wildlife crime and the murder of Hen Harriers and other raptors our uplands – which should be managed for the many, not the few.
More people becoming aware of the struggles our wildlife faces against invasive non-native species, like the breeding colonies of endemic birds on Pacific islands, decimated by rats, whose future generations will benefit from this year’s Birdfair dosh. It’ll be a while before we know the full total that was raised this year, but last year it was £350,000, up from the previous year’s £320,000, up from £270,000 the year before that, so it won’t be negligible!
More people engaging with causes like Champions of the Flyway, committed to ending the illegal hunting of birds across so many flyways (this year’s cause will see funds go to a collaborative project between Bosnia and Croatia– that’s the kind of cross-border amazingness we’re talking about!).
And yes, we can’t lie about it – for us, it means more friends!! YES!!