A Swift Weekend to Remember

4 Days. 5 Swift Species. 135 bird species. 13 Spain ticks. 5 world Lifers.  And aside from the numbers, this trip offered just a superb weekend of birding in Andalusia with our guest John, in wetland, farmland, woodland and mountain habitats, giving fantastic views of all the wealth of breeding bird species the area has to offer!

Little Swift
Little Swift © Inglorious Bustards

White-rumped, Little and Alpine Swifts shone out from the astonishing masses of Pallid and Common Swifts, day-roosting Red-necked Nightjars and Tawny Owls caused us much hushed excitement, and we enjoyed encountering all the other hard-to-see specialities of the area, such as Rufous Bushchat, Common Bulbul, Red-knobbed Coot, White-headed Duck, Red-crested Pochard, Audouin´s Gull, Black-eared Wheatear and Northern Bald Ibis.

Butterflies and reptiles were also super-abundant in the perfect weather, as was tasty food, cold beer and good company! This was to be a swift weekend to remember!

On the farmlands of La Janda, the air was absolutely filled with enormous flocks of several thousand feeding Pallid and Common Swifts, with a mass emergence of Red-veined Darters making up the larger part of their airborne feast.  As we enjoyed our first picnic lunch, we were joined by a Great Spotted Cuckoo, while a Short-toed Eagle, a Western Marsh Harrier and several early-migrating Black Kites drifted overhead.

Moving to a higher area of the farm we stopped at a patch of bushes.  A quick search with our optics in the undergrowth and the leaf litter and we were looking at a gorgeous Red-necked Nightjar!  We looked on in hushed awe, taking great care not to disturb this beautiful bird as it rested.

Red-necked Nightjar
Red-necked Nightjar © Inglorious Bustards

We enjoyed the brilliant value Egret colony with Little and Cattle Egrets nearly ready to fledge, pootling around the trees like little arboreal chickens. A single Black-crowned Night Heron also caught our eye.  We also had views of Sand Martins, singing Turtle Doves, and over fifty European Bee-eaters, as well as Glossy Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Green and Wood Sandpiper amongst others.

To celebrate a great day, we took John for a night out in Tarifa!  Here we added Common Bulbul to John´s Spain list and enjoyed the antics of the town´s Lesser Kestrel colony currently full of newly fledged youngsters.

Tarifa Town
Look up! Birds & Beer in Tarifa Town

We enjoyed superb Spanish/Mediterranean cuisine, made from locally sourced organic ingredients at Tarifa Ecocenter, before trying a pint or two of ale from the local microbrewery!

Wandering through a local Cork Oak and Wild Olive dehesa, beautifully cool in the shade, we found many newly-fledged birds, accompanied by their parents.  These included Corn Buntings, Woodchat Shrikes, Common Nightingales and Sardinian Warblers.  There were also large numbers of Spotted Flycatchers, part of an early passage south.

Pausing at a site that looked good for warblers, we tuned into a song of short, melancholy phrases – a Rufous Bushchat was singing!  This was our main target for the morning, and with a bit of patience and careful following of the sounds we managed to get astonishing views of this glamorous Chat. Another for the Spain list…

rufous-tailed Bushchat
A Rufous-tailed Bushchat encounter!

While Niki & Simon prepared a lunch of delicious local salads, olives, meats and cheeses – not to mention a nice cold Cruzcampo beer – John enjoyed watching Black-eared Wheatears, Thekla and Crested Larks, Crag Martins, Short-toed Eagles, Griffon Vultures, Northern Ravens and a Peregrine Falcon overhead, and a couple of Monarch butterflies, at a mountainside site known as La Peña.

picnic at la Peña
Picnic at La Peña

A fantastic afternoon´s birding at the disused saltpans of Barbate awaited!  A great selection of roosting seabirds including Sandwich Terns, Audouin´s, Slender-billed and Mediterranean Gulls greeted us when we arrived.  Kentish Plovers, Pied Avocets and Common Redshanks were super-numerous, and after a little searching we found several Collared Pratincoles and a Eurasian Stone Curlew.  Short-toed Larks and Iberian Yellow Wagtails were there, and a fab Little Owl watched us from the fence.  We enjoyed watching fearless, noisy Little Terns seeing off marauding Yellow-legged Gulls from their nesting colony.

audouin´s gull
Audouin´s Gull © Inglorious Bustards

A slightly earlier start one day gave us time to enjoy the avian wonders of the Bay of Cadiz, and the eastern side of Doñana National Park!  En route, mooching peacefully about on dew-covered grass, we found five brilliant and quirky Northern Bald Ibis!  One of the ten most endangered birds in the world, these charismatic individuals are doing well here in Andalusia, several generations in to a successful reintroduction project.

At a harbourfront complex on the Bay of Cadiz, we stopped for a coffee and were greeted by a swirling mass of Common Swifts. Amongst the screaming we heard a giggle, and sure enough there was a Little Swift!  As we sat down with a cuppa we counted at least six amongst the mélé, allaying our fears that the colony had suffered a wipeout during March´s storms.

papping Little Swifts
papping Little Swifts!

At the Bonanza saltpans, copious microfauna in the traditionally-harvested salt pans made them glow an extraordinary iridescent pink.  The pans were teeming with Slender-billed Gulls, Greater Flamingoes, Kentish Plover, Common Redshank and Pied Avocet. A couple of Dunlin signalled that here too, the southbound migration had already begun.  Little Terns, a Gull-billed Tern and an Audouin´s Gull were also seen, as well as Iberian Yellow Wagtails.

Salt Pans
Salt Pans
Kentish Plover
Kentish Plover © Inglorious Bustards

Some unassuming roadside irrigation ponds in Colorado made for some simply fantastic birding.  There were several White-headed Ducks and Red-crested Pochards with ducklings, Ferruginous Duck as well as Little Bittern, Common Waxbill, Black-crowned Night Heron, Common Kingfisher and Great Reed Warbler.  And there, right at the day´s end, skulking in the shade, was a single Red-knobbed Coot, knobs glowing in the occasional shaft of sunlight!  Another much sought-after Spain tick for John, and his third Lifer of the day!

In the shade of Cork Oaks, Laurels and conifers at a local huerta we enjoyed the sights and sounds of Short-toed Treecreepers, Crested Tits, Iberian Chiffchaffs and Firecrests while Speckled Woods and Purple Hairstreaks flitted through the canopy.  And, after some careful peering up through branches, we managed to find a day-roosting Tawny Owl!  A superb bird to see in daylight at the best of times, made all the sweeter for being a Spain tick for John.

And for our grand finale, at a reservoir site in the Alcornacales Natural Park, we achieved extraordinary views of a pair of White-rumped Swifts!  A joyous little bird, with quite a different jizz to its larger cousins.  We spent some time enjoying their comings and goings and were further rewarded when John picked out an Alpine Swift amongst the throng, completing our Swift Grand Slam!

Then all too soon it was time to take John to his flight at Gibraltar airport.  On the way we discussed our trip and found that, as well as seeing all five Swift species and a wealth of other fantastic wildlife, we had also smashed John’s target and got his Spain list to 254!  An enjoyable and memorable weekend all round – thanks John!

If you´re looking to escape the summer birding lull in the UK, this is the trip for you!  Birding the Straits of Gibraltar at this time gives you access to a wealth of breeding species that can´t be seen anywhere else in Europe!  Take a look at the Swift Weekender 2018 trip report to see what we mean!  Join us in 2019 for a Swift Weekender

Team Swift
Team Swift

You wait all morning then 9,000 turn up at once!

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.

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A European Honey Buzzard descends through the cloud layer © Inglorious Bustards

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.

 

Male European Honey Buzzard © Wader World
Honey Buzzards descend from the grey! © Inglorious Bustards

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!

 

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European Bee-eaters quipping noisily straight passed us, I forgot to take a photo until they were on their way! © Inglorious Bustards

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!

Fill up your Swift page!

Common. Pallid. Alpine. Little. White-rumped. This time next year, your list of European breeding swifts could be complete!  During our exciting new Swift Weekender tour, we endeavour to bring you together with all five species of that most aerially superb genus, the Swift, all over the course of a weekend of fantastic and varied birding!


Because of its strategic position at the gateway of two continents, our home in Andalusia is a unique blend of European and African, with our beloved Apus species passing through on their way to and from breeding grounds, and the more typically African amongst them choosing the Iberian peninsula as one of their very localised breeding sites in Europe. It’s one of the very few places in Europe you can see them all!
This southernmost Spanish province is the most biodiverse region not only in Spain but the whole of Europe. So, set our swift-spotting against a background of superb resident species in intertidal, wetland, farmland, woodland and urban habitats, accompanied with fantastic tapas, passionate discussions, and welcoming people, and you’re looking at a weekend to remember!

From our delightful weekend base at Huerta Grande eco-resort, fast becoming known as the centre of birding in the Straits of Gibraltar, while searching the skies for Pallid, Alpine and Common Swifts, we’ll also explore our rich local surroundings in the Los Alcornacales natural park. As well as some cracking local avian specialities in the form of Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Firecrest, Crested Tit, Hawfinch and Short-toed Treecreeper, almost anything can turn up here during the early days of autumn migration, as passerines collect amongst the trees to gather strength for their southwards crossing of the Straits.

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We’ll also go out on the town in picturesque Tarifa, where we can encounter Common Bulbuls (another unusual European tick), urban Little Owls and breeding Lesser Kestrels. We’ll enjoy a stroll along the harbour front where, simply by looking up we’ll be able to see Pallid Swifts galore and pick out Common Swifts on passage crossing over this historic town.

Around teeming local farmland and wetland sites, we’ll look out for a veritable takeaway menu of delights, including many hundreds of White Stork and Glossy Ibis, Collared Pratincole, Purple Swamphen, Black-winged Kite, Short-toed, Booted, Spanish Imperial and Bonelli’s Eagle, Black Kite, Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Spanish Sparrow, Tawny Pipit, and Calandra, Crested and Short-toed Lark.  A successful reintroduction programme of the Critically Endangered Northern Bald Ibis took place here in 2008, and we should be able to see these engaging and quirky birds at their nesting colony or grazing on surrounding farmland.

You won’t mind missing the sport this weekend for a visit to a tiny breeding colony of White-rumped Swift. Several pairs of this typically African breeding species have found and occupied a collection of old Red-rumped Swallow nests nearby, making this area one of only a handful of European sites for this fabulous little bird. As well as unintrusively visiting the nest site we will enjoy them feeding over nearby open water, mixed in with many Common and Pallid Swifts, several species of swallow and martin, and hopefully also enjoy views of locally breeding Western Osprey.

Little Swift is another typically African species, better known in the souks and medinas of Marrakech. But again, for this tiny Apus the Straits have proved no barrier, and we will be able to make a Sunday afternoon saunter to the local seaside near Cadiz to enjoy their aerial antics.

Cadiz Bay is also home to some exceptional coastal marshes and sensitively-managed salt pans. We’ll explore the creeks and lagoons of this very special area, with its ever-changing selection of wetland birds. At this time of year the southerly migration has already begun for many waders, and we can hope to see Sanderling, Red Knot, Dunlin, Little Stint, Bar- and Black-tailed Godwit passing through, amongst the breeding Collared Pratincoles, Common Ringed and Kentish Plover.  There are also many seabirds such as Sandwich, Little and Caspian Terns, Slender-billed Gull and the once extremely rare Audouin’s Gull. We should also get views of Eurasian Spoonbill, Greater Flamingo and Western Osprey.

A relaxed Sunday dinner Spanish-style enjoying chef Juan Carlos’s traditional Andalusian fare, and a glass or two of local sherry should sooth all thoughts of the coming week, and instead of heading to work on Monday morning, you’ll be enjoying our local Monarch and Two-tailed Pasha butterflies, Copper Demoiselles and Four-spotted Emeralds before flying out over the spectacular Rock of Gibraltar.

Fancy getting set for the weekend with us? Check out our tour here, and sign up for our e-newsletter so you can always keep up-to-date with new tours!  And please, come and chat to us at Birdfair, Marquee 1, Stand 28.  Be swift!