We have noisy neighbours! However, far from being an annoyance they are very welcome – even if some of them do decide they want to sing all through the night!
Today is International Dawn Chorus Day, held annually on the first Sunday in May. We are all encouraged to rise early and listen to bird song. But if you slept through your alarm, don’t worry – we didn’t!
We made some recordings of our noisy friends from our village in Andalucía to help you celebrate Dawn Chorus Day. To get the full immersive experience, we suggest you grab some headphones and have a listen!
Firstly a gorgeous Common Nightingale. Just listen to those sweet tones! But also wait for the piping notes (‘pew-pew-pew-pew’). Then the immediate return to that distinctive liquid and rapid melody. You may also be able to hear the scratchy warble of the Sardinian Warbler in the background?
Next, the not-very-well-named Melodious Warbler! You can hear lots of clicks, whistles and rapid scratchy notes. If you listen carefully there’s also the distinctive jangling song of a Corn Bunting, the ‘zips‘ of a Zitting Cisticola and some ‘chipping ‘ from the House Sparrows.
We are living through some of the most noise-pollution free dawn choruses for a generation – leave us a comment and let us know what you’ve been hearing!
A young Italian called Michele caused a frisson of excitement here in The Straits last month, turning up safe and well after being missing in Africa since mid-November! Not long after his reappearance he was on his adventures again, awaiting fine weather on the northern shores of Morocco before jetting across the Straits and spending the night just outside Sevilla.
The plucky individual is a young Short-toed Eagle, satellite-tagged in 2019 as part of a collaboration between MEDRAPTORS, the Vertebrate Zoology Group at the University of Alicante (Spain), and tag providers Tecnosmart. He is a second-generation project participant – his father Egidio was one of seven young eagles tagged between 2010 and 2013, who reached adulthood and bred successfully in 2019 while still transmitting data.
This father-son team continue to shed light on the surprising and convoluted migration of Short-toed Eagles from Italy. The two-kilo eagles wear their tiny GPS tags on their backs, and the fascinating story they tell has confirmed what many suspected. Instead of beginning the journey to their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa by heading directly south to Tunisia, they start with a 1600-mile flight north and west, right up through the Italian Peninsula and across southern France, before crossing the Pyrenees and migrating down through the length of the Iberian Peninsula, more than doubling their journey distance to Africa´s shores.
The reason? it´s all about wings and Straits.
The long, elegant wings of this beautiful raptor mean it is perfectly adapted for soaring on air thermals, and it can do so for many hours, expending very little energy. But where there is no rising air – such as over expanses of water – the bird must beat those long wings to stay airborne, and becomes quickly exhausted.
Leaving the south-western point of Sicily, where Italy is at its closest to Africa, the bird would have to fly almost 100 miles to the next bit of land – an impossibility for such a long-winged raptor. So Italian Short-toed Eagles have learned to go directly against their strong instinct to head south, forcing themselves to fly north in order to eventually arrive in southern Spain. Here the mere 8.5-mile sea crossing at The Straits of Gibraltar presents much less of a challenge to a healthy, experienced bird choosing the right weather conditions.
While southerly migratory behaviour is innate, the study shows that this northerly trek must be learnt. First-year birds follow an adult who has already learnt the circuitous route to avoid the sea. Around 20% of first-year birds get it wrong and follow their hearts south, ending up wintering on Sicily because there is no more “south” to fly.
Michele was named after the late Michele Panuccio, the raptor researcher who studied the species for several years and promoted the tagging of Egidio’s first son, who was tagged a few weeks after he passed away. He left the nest site at the end of September, several days before his father, presumably following another adult bird. No doubt aided by years of experience, Egidio left late but made the journey in considerably less time. By the end of October, he had already arrived in Mauritania while Michele was still taking it easy in Extremadura!
When the lazy adolescent did finally make the crossing, the signal from his tracker was soon lost as he moved out of areas with the mobile coverage necessary to follow him. For the research team, there was nothing more to do except wait and hope that he had found his way to the wintering grounds safely. So when his tracker was spotted on the move again earlier this month, it must have been a tremendous relief!
His northward crossing of the Straits was unusual behaviour for such a young bird, as non-breeders would normally stay in Africa for another year, “finding themselves” until they come of age. Interestingly though, back in the day, dad Egidio was also a precocious exception to this rule – he too returned to the breeding grounds as a one-year-old.
This year, seven-year-old Egidio was no less keen to breed, and started his migration back to Italy as early as mid-February, arriving there by 12 March! In early March we spent some absolutely joyous days here in the Straits of Gibraltar, watching raptors arrive across the narrowest stretch of sea between Europe and Africa. We clapped them all as they arrived on our shores! We´d love to think that Egidio was one of them…
With thanks to Ugo Mellone of MEDRAPTORS and Universidad de Alicante for kindly giving permission for citation and reproduction of maps and data.
Agostini N., Baghino L., Coleiro C., Corbi F. & Premuda G. 2002. Circuitous autumn migration in the Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus). Journal of Raptor Research 36: 111-114
Mellone U., Limiñana, R., Mallìa E. & Urios V. 2011. Extremely detoured migration in an inexperienced bird: interplay of transport costs and social interactions. Journal of Avian Biology 42: 468-472
Mellone U., Lucia G., Mallìa E., Urios V., 2016. Individual variation in orientation promotes a 3000-km latitudinal change in wintering grounds in a long-distance migratory raptor. Ibis DOI: 10.1111/ibi.12401
Panuccio, M., Agostini, N. & Premuda, G. 2012. Ecological barriers promote risk minimization and social learning in migrating short-toed snake eagles. Ethology Ecology and Evolution 24: 74-80.
Read our award-winning blog about how a sudden drop in the wind on an autumn day in Andalucía inspires heart-stoppingly spectacular mass avian movement, but also provokes thought on travel, conservation and global change…
Fourteen kilometres of sea and sky are all that separate two continents. At 9am, the Mediterranean sun is already warming the air and sparkling on the calm waters. It’s early autumn, and this narrow – but potentially deadly – stretch of sea is all that stands between countless millions of birds and the next leg of their journey to African wintering grounds.
It’s been windy all week in The Strait of Gibraltar, making the crossing too dangerous for larger birds. Without the help of uplifting coastal air currents, they must power all the way, or face drowning. They’ve been stranded in the avian departure lounge for days and they’re hungry and desperate to continue their journey.
As mid-morning arrives, thermals form over the rocky coastline, and they’re finally cleared for take-off! In minutes, the sky fills with birds of prey. Eagles, Kites, Harriers and Honey Buzzards, swirl together in almost incomprehensible numbers and barge south along the suddenly congested flyway.
Chirpy European Bee-eaters pass over in vocal family groups, fifty at a time, quipping and chatting excitedly like they’re off on holiday. Clouds of thousands of White Storks form, sparkling black-and-white as the flock circles around on itself, turning the air currents to art.
The incredible spectacle continues all day, ending with streams of late arrivals racing over in their hundreds, seemingly experiencing `flyway rage´, desperate to reach Africa before sundown.
This breath-taking migratory marvel is beyond compare! During one rapturous, raptor-filled day at Spain’s most southerly point, I’ve counted over 20,000 soaring birds making the commute to the northern coast of Morocco – a mere fraction of the 450,000 that will pass through here in a season.
Imagine looking up from your tapas in Tarifa town and seeing layers upon layers of birds gliding overhead, stretching as far as the eyes can see in every direction, including ‘up’. It’s not surprising that this experience has the power to reduce many folk to tears!
But it also has the power to provoke thought, about travel, conservation and global change. With so much at stake, how do we help these feathered wanderers fulfil the yearly promise of return? Must the joy of watching wildlife inevitably encourage consumption of the planet’s resources? How can our passion for travel and wildlife be channelled into a positive outcome for the environment? How can we turn “eco-tourism” into a promise, rather than an oxymoron?
Even in the face of a global pandemic, we must not forget that climate change is still the biggest emergency facing our planet and the biggest threat to our survival, and that of so many other species. But it is easy to condemn travel, while conveniently ignoring agriculture and spiralling consumerism as major contributors to the emissions that cause global warming.
For many species, habitat loss, intensive agriculture and localised threats are the immediate emergency. Without travel, protected areas lose their economic value and habitats are forgotten. The voice to protect them inevitably becomes drowned out as they become meaningless to most, something you can only see on telly.
Without travel, we lose support for countless local conservation organisations, community businesses, and sustainable ecotourism endeavours, working hard to effect change at grassroots level. So too we lose understanding of our connection to the habitats, landscapes and cultures that Nature’s nomads pass through.
From a conservation standpoint, the concept of saving species across flyways is an important one. After all, there’s no point fixing things for a wandering bird in its breeding grounds alone without giving it a helping hand across its entire migratory range. Places like The Strait of Gibraltar are rare, not just for their importance and natural beauty, but for their power to open people’s minds to migration and the interconnectedness of things.
By the end of November most of the birds of prey have passed through, and the skies of my home seem a little empty. But winter in The Strait brings its own visitors. Northerners seeking a bit of winter sun arrive in their thousands. Cranes fly in raggedly lines over the rice fields, bugling to one another. Tiny Chiff-chaffs and Blackcaps scuttle around the wild olive trees, waiting for the lengthening days to carry them back north.
Then one day in February conditions are suddenly right, and the first arrivals of spring are coming! Huge columns of Black Kites will be visible surging from the northern coast of Morocco, as if someone has popped open a bottle of champagne. Seemingly within minutes they’re arriving to the clifftops above Tarifa – my ringside seat for this migratory dance!
They have travelled from the moist forests of Africa, across the Sahelian scrublands and the Sahara, over temples, mosques and churches. They have overcome unstable and ever-widening deserts, persecution, pollution, habitat loss, and finally crossed this mere fourteen kilometres of sea and sky at the meeting of two continents. For me there is no bigger joy than a promise of return fulfilled.
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
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…
As we ready ourselves for the post-nuptial migration here in the Straits of Gibraltar, our thoughts turn to these great travellers’ wintering grounds where we will soon make our annual pilgrimage and follow in their footsteps.
The juxtaposition of Sahelian scrub habitat and The Gambia River gives a unique biosphere in this area of Africa. Rather than being dominated by Sahel like that of its neighbouring Countries, it is a mixture of moist forest and Sahel and that is a great draw for migrants as well as stunning resident species.
Let us introduce you to some of the line-up!
The Egyptian Plover is the only member of the genus Pluvianus, also referred to (wrongly) as the Crocodile Bird due to its proposed symbiotic relationships with Crocodiles. According to the ancient Greek historian, orator and author Herodotus, the crocodiles lie on the shore with their mouths open and the bird flies into the crocodiles’ mouths so as to feed on decaying meat lodged between the crocodiles’ teeth! However no known modern day observations or photographic evidence of this behaviour exists! Although Herodotus did also comment on furry ants the size of foxes in the Persian Empire !
The Adamawa Turtle Dove has a disjunct population, very little seems to be known about this species, hardly anything exists on its feeding habits and it probably requires further census work to ascertain its preferred habitat and populations.
In case you were wondering……Adamawa was a subordinate kingdom of the Sultanate of Sokoto which also included much of northern Cameroon. The name “Adamawa” originates from the founder of the kingdom Modibo Adama.
If you can whistle like a Pearl-spotted Owlet you are likely to bring in a lot of interest from other forest avian dwellers who want to give you a hard time ! It is a fairly common inhabitant of The Gambia forests and forest edge and we often hear and see them at our sustainable locally-run accommodation. As they often hunt during the day – usually from a perch searching for small mammals, birds and insects – they tend to draw a crowd, as birds love to mob them!
The Turacos are in the family Musophagidae literally meaning “banana-eaters” – which is fairly apt as they eat fruits, flowers and buds. These birds can be at times hard to find amongst the treetops of the dense forests, but will often come to water, as we provided here. Offering it a reliable drinking source and watching from a respectable distance ensured our group got some fabulous views.
The adult male Standard-winged Nightjar pictured here (his standards are out of view) has a totally mental wing ornament during the breeding season which consists of a broad central flight feather on each wing elongated to 38 cm, much longer than the bird’s body. 20 cm or more of this is bare shaft then a feather at the end. In normal flight, these feathers trail behind, but in display flight they are raised vertically like….well…like standards…or flags!…A crazy example of sexual selection!
Interestingly there have been studies by Malte Andersson in 1982 of the elongate display feathers in male Widowbirds. Tail feathers of some males were shortened by one-half, and some other males were ‘enhanced’ by gluing the distal half harvested from the first half. The study showed that birds with shortened tail feathers were less attractive than control (unaltered) males, while females preferred the ‘super’ males over the controls.
Clearly female Standard-winged Nightjars like those standards..!
In early 1979 maltreated Chimpanzees from captivity were brought to the Gambia and introduced to the islands 300km upriver on the River Gambia.
Wild chimpanzees disappeared from The Gambia in the early 1900’s, but there are now more than 100 chimpanzees living free on three islands in four separate social groups.
Janis Carter who was instrumental in leading the project had to initially demonstrate which foods were safe, led foraging expeditions, and communicated through chimp vocalisations. Janis knew that if the chimps’ return to the wild was to be successful, she too would have to limit contact with humans. The chimps were let loose on the island. She slept in a cage.
Famously Janis accompanied a Chimpanzee named Lucy to The Gambia, Lucy was owned by the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma. Lucy was reared as if she were a human child, teaching her to eat with cutlery, dress herself, flip through magazines, and sit in a chair at the dinner table. She was taught sign language and for years she was unable to relate to the other Chimpanzees in the rehabilitation centre. After her return to the wild Lucy showed many signs of depression, including refusal to eat, and expressed sadness and hurt via sign language.
The Abyssinian Roller is likely to be encountered anywhere within the Sahelian habitats of The Gambia and perch prominently in trees or bushes making photographs like this possible. Rather surprisingly it is believed that the population trend for this species is on the up as it exploits urban areas and agriculture.
The White-backed Night Heron is a secretive species often found in dense Mangrove and being strictly nocturnal it makes it all the more harder to find particularly as it is rarely found at feeding areas less than one hour after sunset and usually returning to day-roosts 15–30 minutes prior to dawn.
Very little is known of its eating habits although its likely to prey upon small fish, amphibians, molluscs, crustaceans and perhaps flying ants, flies and other insects.
The Malachite Kingfisher is commonly found in areas of freshwater including ditches, ponds and streams. We quite frequently find them alongside rice paddies. There is an exceptional record of a nest site nest 4 m down a well shaft but they normally nest in a bank side within a dug tunnel 25–125 cm long excavated by both pairs. The nest-chamber is going to whiff a bit as it is often lined with fish bones and regurgitated arthropod exoskeletons!…..yum!
The Gambia recently began the process of returning to its membership of the Commonwealth and formally presented its application to re-join to the Secretary-General on 22nd January 2018. The Gambia officially rejoined the Commonwealth on 8th February 2018.
With a population of just over two million people The Gambia is Africa’s smallest nation. Around 75% of people live in the cities and towns and as you journey upriver leaving behind the beach tourists you realise just how poor The Gambia is, with a third of the population surviving below the United Nations poverty line of $1.25 a day.
However inland the subsistence farming management gives rise to a huge array of wildlife not seen in neighbouring countries due to their intensity of agriculture. Long term fallows are the norm, long rotations with forested edges and even rotational scrub development which gives an amazing heterogeneity and a boom of habitats for both resident and migratory species alike. Here it is possible to find roosts of Turtle Doves several hundred strong as they are drawn to the array of seed available for them both from agricultural spillage and more natural sources. The River Gambia dominates and perhaps this availability of freshwater combined with food resources makes this area a magnet to wintering Turtle Doves.
Having worked in The Gambia over a number of years on conservation projects and being the original members of #TeamPeanut we have forged great relationships and fully support and continue to work in partnership with the Gambia Bird Watchers Association. (GBA)
Inglorious Bustards work closely with GBA, giving project advice and consultation. We are now donating 10% of our profits from all our Gambia trips to supporting their high quality, objective-led work.
These relationships enable us to give a unique visit to The Gambia and the least explored avian delights as well as ensuring that we leave behind us positive impacts for nature, the environment and its people.
We still have availability on this years departure 2nd – 12th December and we hope to see you there!
At the gateway between Europe and Africa, there is biodiversity galore! Avian migration is the most visible and celebrated, and we spend a lot of our time looking up. But to never look down would be to miss out on so much, including some of the best moth-trapping opportunities in Europe. That´s why, with the help of acclaimed international moth expert Dave Grundy, we´ll be running a trip in May 2019 to look more closely at the gorgeous local nocturnal Lepidoptera under our very noses!
We caught up with Dave to ask him about all things moth-y, and more!
So Dave, what drew you to the Straits? Why would you recommend it to British moth-ers?
The Straits is just an amazing place! There are so many moths and a higher diversity all year round, and it’s all in brilliant scenery with great hospitality from local Andalusian people!
I first started coming here simply to extend the mothing season. I was fed up of opening traps in the cold to find none, or maybe one moth huddled in the corner of the trap, so I headed south, to look forward to opening a trap and finding 60 species in it!
I got hooked, really – it is a real biodiversity hotspot at the crossroads of two continents, the far south of Spain in Europe and the far north of Morocco in Africa. The geology is diverse due to the collision of two continents in geological time and this leads to a diversity of fauna and flora and of course this includes a very rich fauna of moths.
The mothing sites are great and from a totally different biogeographic area – trapping Mediterranean olive scrub and cork oak forest in an area where new moth species are likely to be discovered! What’s not to get excited about?
We know you´re often to be found trapping at Europe´s most southerly point at Fundacion Migrés coastal HQ. And also enjoying a pizza at top veggie restaurant Tarifa Ecocenter! Any other favourite hangouts in the area?
I love to stay at Huerta Grande up in the hills above Tarifa. From there you can step into both the coastal Natural Park of the Straits with its olive scrub and coastal habitats and inland to Los Alcornocales Natural Park, which is on inland hills cloaked in humid cork oak woodland.
There´s birds to enjoy too, for those that like that sort of thing! The Straits is probably most famous for its twice-yearly raptor migration event during which 250,000 soaring birds pour across the sea. Plus there´s loads of nice resident birds in local coastal, wetland and woodland habitats. You get things like Crested Tit and Short-toed Treecreeper just hanging around the log cabins at Huerta Grande!
We remember coming to inspect a trap with you and you showed us our first Giant Peacock Moth. Europe´s biggest moth! It was mega! What are some of the other cool species you’ve trapped in Andalusía?
There´s so many! Goldwing, Passenger, Alchymist, Latin, Pale Shoulder, Striped Hawk, Lydd Beauty, Four-spotted, Eutelia adulatrix, Porter’s Rustic and Speckled Footman to name just a few.
I don´t really have a favourite but I do like Lemonia philopalus, a lot! Why? – is more difficult to say – big and furry and stripy with amazing wing and antennae patterns. And also crazily it needs heavy rain to come out – and this is because it pupates in the soil and needs the soil softened by rain to emerge!
For the newcomer, how does mothing with a local expert help?
Mothing in Spain is difficult, if not impossible for non-local people who don´t at least have mothing friends here. You need a moth-trapping licence, which is expensive and really difficult to fill in – in Spanish, of course!
Best to hook up with somebody who has all the kit and permissions, so you don´t have to worry about it. I have the all the paperwork and licences you need for trapping. I have the permissions off local landowners to trap in the area. I bring lots of traps here from Britain in my van – so when people come mothing with me they have access to five or more moth traps every night to see what is inside – and no need to bring your own trap! If you fly out here, you would be lucky to squeeze one trap into your suitcase.
Over the ten years I´ve been coming here I´ve been lucky enough to make some great friends in the local mothing community – a group I´m working hard to build! I´ve got lots of gen now on where the good sites are for moths. It´s been fascinating building up experience trapping in olive groves, or cork oak forests or sand dunes by the sea. There are so many special moths to see! I feel I can now say I know the moths of the area as well as anyone. Which is handy for people on the trip, as the main moth books are in Spanish, and many of the moths we´ll see only have a scientific name!
What’s the Spanish word for moth?
The fancy way of saying it is mariposa nocturna which of course translates as “night butterfly”. However I´m trying to bring the word polilla into popular use. It´s a Spanish word for moth, but it actually has negative connotations – it´s usually used to describe the kind of critters that munch their way through your clothes! It makes people laugh when you describe yourself as a moth-studier by using the word polillero, which is why I like it!
Are you excited about running our 2019 Mothing the Straits trip? What does it have in store for the group?
Of course I am! I´ve run loads of successful field courses before, but an actual moth-ing holiday?! As far as I know it´s a first!
Every night we´ll have one or more traps within walking distance of the log cabins at Huerta Grande, plus we will head out into nearby habitats each night to set up another five traps. Each night we will do this in very different habitats within a few miles of our base.
Then we come back for a lovely three course meal of typical local food with plenty of wine and beer!
Then every morning we will head back out to check the traps and this will probably take us the whole morning including photographing the most exciting moths. After that there´s time for picnic lunch, siesta, local exploration, whatever you like, before we set off again in the evening!
The trip actually also coincides with the area´s massive raptor migration. Tens of thousands of Honey Buzzards will be crossing the Straits daily, alongside other raptors like Short-toed and Booted Eagles. I know some of the people that have already booked on my trip are also extending their stay a bit to watch migrating raptors and do some excellent local birding with you two!
Thanks Dave! Sounds amazing! So tell us, where can people find out more about this ground-breaking moth-trapping holiday?
There´s full details on the website tour page, and you can have a look at my profile there too! There´s not many places left though, so don´t hang about!
It´s hard to believe six weeks have passed since we were basking in the warmth and loveliness of The Gambia, with our fantastic group from Honeyguides Wildlife Holidays! It´s also hard to capture in words the resplendent riot of colour and life that was packed into our trip to this tiny West African gem!
As we followed the gleaming Gambia River inland, we left our European existences behind and ensconced ourselves in rural life, exploring sparkling coastal creeks, tranquil mangrove swamps teeming freshwater lakes, verdant forests and life-rich Sahelian heath, dotted with unimaginably ancient Baobab trees.
Our adventure brought us up close to stunning local specialities such as Egyptian Plover, African Finfoot, White-backed Night Heron, Adamawa Turtle Dove, Hadada Ibis, Northern Anteater Chat, White-shouldered Black Tit, Cinnamon-breasted Rock Bunting and Four-banded Sandgrouse.
Our days were filled with eye-poppingly colourful flora and fauna, including seven glittering species of Sunbirds, six glamorous species of Bee-eaters, four Rollers, six Kingfishers, Barbets, Turacos and Exclamatory Paradise Whydahs that sailed through the air like tiny shooting stars!
Rivers and jungles held Hippopotamus, Nile Crocodile, Guinea Baboons, Red Patas, Red Colobus and Green Monkeys.
Our 31 raptor species included Long-crested Eagle, Bateleur, African Hawk Eagle, Beaudouin´s, Western Banded and Brown Snake Eagle, African Harrier Hawk, Shikra and Dark Chanting Goshawk, many of which were swirling in huge numbers around a raging bushfire!
Add to this the welcoming and generous Gambian people, the vibrancy of their culture, music and clothing, and the delicious West African food, and you may start to get a picture of why it´s so easy to fall for ‘Africa´s Smiling Coast’!
If you need brightening up, take a minute to read our full Honeyguides trip report – hopefully it´ll be all the incentive you need to join us! We´re already looking forward to heading back this December, or stay tuned for a 2020 repeat trip with Honeyguides…