It’s hard to explain the power of a day like today to someone who’s never witnessed it.
The strong easterly levante wind dropped away last night, leaving behind a low ceiling of cloud. This is high migration season, and we arrived at the coast at first light with Pepe and Teresa, to find Black Kites and European Honey Buzzards already leaving by the hundred, driven and desperate to continue south across The Straits of Gibraltar.
They are joined by Booted Eagles and Short-toed Eagles in almost inconceivable numbers – as the day heats up it becomes impossible to find a spot of sky which doesn’t have a raptor in it.
Birds are crossing or not crossing, cruising up and down the coast or powering out to sea, from every direction and at every conceivable altitude, a complete three-dimensional extravaganza.
A great cloud of birds gathering over the coast reveal themselves to be over 600 Short-toed Eagles.
Groups of European Honey Buzzards in their extraordinary variety of plumages, mixed with Booted Eagles and Black Kites, tumble up and down the coast.
Concentrating on each bird, enjoying individual behaviours which bely a story, observing details which give information on age and gender, and being completely absorbed by the spectacle of each group which passes swirling overhead, time simply ceases to exist.
Among the airborne pandemonium of the more numerous species, there were Egyptian Vultures, Marsh Harriers, Sparrowhawks, Montagu’s Harriers, Black Storks and a Red Kite. Suddenly we would find ourselves looking at an Atlas Long-legged Buzzard or an Eleonora’s Falcon, dragged into the phenomenon from the African side of The Straits.
A group of over three hundred White Storks tried again and again to find the right moment to cross, passing so low over our heads that you could sense the power of their wings, and hear their feathers brush the air.
These raptors and soaring birds have journeyed from all over Western Europe to collect in one spot in one glorious moment, searching thermals, sharing the sky – a great concentration of life in this one single extraordinary place.
My human mind always searches for meaning, for analogies, lessons and morals, but in the end comes the uplifting realisation, that there are none – we were simply witnesses to a huge amalgamation of life, driven on by its own persistence – and what can be more joyous than that?
Even in a place so packed full of natural migratory wonder as The Straits of Gibraltar, there are few sights as wow-inducing as a flock of hundreds – if not thousands – of migrating White Storks. As they move along the coast in huge, glittering black and white columns, tracing the patterns of the thermals they ride, they really are the epitome of visible migration!
These flamboyant voyagers capture the imagination and curiosity, and have been inspiring research into migration for hundreds of years. Back in 1822, a White Stork turned up in the German village of Klütz with what was clearly an exotic spear lodged through its neck. It turned out to be from central Africa. At a time when it was still commonly believed that Barn Swallows spent the winter hibernating in the bottom of muddy ponds, this Pfeilstorch – ‘Arrow Stork’ – opened our eyes to the possibility of incredible avian journeys, and migration science was born!
Their great size, conspicuous presence and predictable return to nest sites makes White Storks fantastic candidates for study, and extensive ringing (banding) programmes were already underway as early as 1906. From then until the onset of the Second World War, about 100,000 mainly juvenile birds were ringed, resulting in over 2,000 long-distance recoveries of birds reported between 1908 and 1954. To this day, this wealth of information is arguably the foundation of what we know about where they travel and the routes they take.
White Storks breed extensively across Europe. Almost like a watershed, there is a line that runs right through the middle of Germany, along which the westward-flyers separate from the eastward-flyers. The eastern route leads over the Balkans, the Gulf of Iskenderun, the countries of the Middle East over to East, Central and South Africa. The White Storks we see here, crossing over The Straits in such spectacular fashion have come from west of that line, their migration leading them down through France and the Iberian Peninsula to concentrate at this point.
For a bird with such a large wing span, flapping flight uses around 23 times more energy than gliding. Since there are no thermals over the sea, they are driven to seek out the very shortest distance between land masses. That means that, in an average autumn season, 150,000 White Storks of all ages – pretty much the entire western European population – are pushed towards this one point, looking for their moment to cross the 14 km (9 miles) of sea to Africa. This gives rise to the spectacle of these huge gatherings, spiralling upwards on rising warm air until they emerge up to 1500 m above the ground and then gliding out into the blue.
From here they continue their journey south into Morocco, across the Sahara and down to their wintering grounds in central Africa. In fact, having cheered them on in The Straits, we often get to see them again when we travel to The Gambia each December!
In the 90’s came satellite-tagging technology, a new way of gathering information about birds that was set to change the way we understand so many things. Technology tends to be larger when new and unrefined – some of the earliest tags were the size of a brick! Since a tag is required to be below 3% of a bird’s bodyweight to avoid hindering it, these gigantic nomads with their fascinating journeys presented the ideal species to take this new toy out for a spin!
This opened up the opportunity to study a whole new world of detail not just about migratory routes, but about migratory behaviour. White Storks usually migrate in mixed groups of both adults and younger birds. A number of studies have followed the fortunes of young Storks making their first migration without adults to follow, in order to look at the innate-ness – or not – of the journey plan.
Although their in-born sense of direction takes them vaguely in a south-westerly direction, if displaced by weather conditions they are unable to orientate themselves with any precision and many never fully migrate. This is very different to small passerines, which migrate more-or-less alone, often by night, following an inherited map and with no guidance from adults.
The high importance of this social inheritance makes a great deal of sense. As a day-flying, soaring bird, the efficiency of their route is heavily reliant on thermals generated by local topography. They follow adults to learn an exact route – a kind of thermal highway – which on future travels they will be able to recognise visually and be sure of the optimum journey.
Tags also give us more information on the temporal nature of migration in these birds. It turns out they treat it rather like a nine-to-five, flying for around 8-10 hours every day when the air is warmest, before resting until the following morning. They barely take a day off, covering the 4,000 km (2,700 mile) journey from northern breeding grounds to sub-saharan Africa in two to three weeks. Rather than feeding up before migration like some birds, Storks evidently snack en route only to meet their immediate needs, and lose weight on the journey. Presumably when you’re reliant on literally being lighter than air, every invertebrate over-indulgence counts!
As satellite tags become lighter, cheaper and more precise, the insights they give us become ever-more fascinating. In 2018 a project set out to explore how White Storks navigate thermals as a group by analysing individual high-resolution GPS trajectories of individual Storks during circling events.
A thermal is a complex, drifting, constantly changing column of air. To thermal efficiently, birds need to adjust their flight speed and circling radius to find, and remain close to, the centre of the thermal where updraft is highest. Thanks to the precision of the data obtained from the tags, we are able to see that Storks navigate the thermal based not only on their own perception of the airflow in their immediate surroundings, but also on a complex series of social interactions, reacting to the movement changes of Storks within their nearby subgroup, as well as the leaders of the group at the highest vertical point in the thermal.
How amazing to think that each Stork is effectively acting as an individual sensor, such that the whole flock becomes a distributed sensory array. In this way, they explore and gather information on the thermal as a group, effectively mapping its structure and enabling them to use the optimal airflow within it.
From solving ancient mysteries to changing our perception of collective movement, to simply turning a good day into an amazing one, these really are inspirational birds. And they are pouring over our heads at the moment here in The Straits! We’re thrilled to be assisting as always our conservation partners, Fundación Migres, with the annual autumn migration count – to date over 38,000 of them have made the crossing, and we look forward to many more inspirational moments in coming weeks!
As COVID-19 remains under control in Spain and cases continue to dwindle, we are extremely pleased that we can now begin to safely deliver our day trips and tours! With the announcement of Europe-wide “air bridges” on 4 July, international travel to Spain from many countries is now available with stringent health precautions en route but no self-quarantine measures at either end of the trip.
This spring in The Straits of Gibraltar, one of the world’s most breath-taking migratory spectacles passed by almost unobserved. But whilst we were all sequestered away, Nature carried on regardless, and now these same birds that passed by so spectacularly unseen are preparing to make their journey to their sub-Saharan wintering grounds, new offspring in tow!
The Strait of Gibraltar is the point at which Africa and Europe are at their closest, and is the epicentre for one of the world’s most spectacular bird migrations. Every year, millions of birds make the 14 km sea crossing, making use of uplifts and thermals rising off the Rock of Gibraltar and the stunning Moroccan peak of Jebel Musa. An estimated 300,000 raptors and other soaring birds pass over this rugged terrain during autumn, as well as untold thousands of other journeying passerines and seabirds.
As well as the star attraction, a boat trip into the Straits itself will let you get close and personal with our resident cetacean species – Common, Bottlenose and Striped Dolphins and Long-finned Pilot Whale. Even migrating Fin, Sperm Whales and Orca are possible here.
There’s plenty more to explore among the area’s superb habitats, which include salt pans, intertidal areas, freshwater wetlands, low intensity farmland, Mediterranean scrub, precipitous rock faces and the woodlands of Los Alcornocales Natural Park, Europe’s largest Cork Oak forest. The diversity and wealth of avian and other wildlife in this beautifully unspoilt area of Spain really is astounding!
Couple this with tranquil accommodation in an eco-lodge at the edge of the Natural Park itself, the chance to enjoy the picturesque streets and Moorish fortifications of the Old Town of Tarifa, and of course the chance to sample some of Andalucía’s best local sustainably-produced food and wine, and you really do have a trip that’s Strait-up fantastic!
We can’t stress enough that the health and safety of our clients and avoiding the spread of coronavirus in wider society have been and always will be our top priorities. We are proud to have been awarded a badge of approval for our COVID-19 Risk Prevention Protocol from both the Spanish Ministry for Industry, Commerce & Tourism, and by the local Junta de Andalucía for both tourism and “active tourism” specifically.
These badges mean you can book with confidence that we are fully compliant with official guidance set out by these organisations, and have in place a stringent COVID-19 Risk Prevention Protocol.
Additionally, we receive training and take advice from our independent risk prevention consultants, Quirón Prevención.
Upon booking and arrival, you will receive a comprehensive guide on measures taken and your own responsibilities. Here’s a summary of the measures we’re currently taking to protect you and others, which we´ll update periodically:
When we meet you, we’ll go over our COVID-19 Risk Prevention Protocol in detail, and introduce you to the whereabouts of hand-sanitiser and thermometer. Sadly, there’ll be no hugging!
You can expect our minibus to have been thoroughly cleaned using recommended virucidal products before the start of the trip, and at the end of each day, and to display clear signage about hygiene, self-protection and distance guidelines.
We ourselves will also be thoroughly scrubbed and wearing clean clothes that have been washed at >60ºC.
Only two seats per row in the minibus will be occupied, meaning you’ll be sharing with a maximum of five other people. Wearing of facemasks will be mandatory during journeys. You’ll always have the same seat.
If you have your own vehicle, you may use it to follow us if you’d prefer.
Thanks to the nature of our passion, we’ll be mostly outside and away from crowds! Group sizes will be also be small. In the event that we can’t maintain appropriate social distance, facemasks will be worn.
We’ll encourage you to bring your own protective masks and hand sanitiser for frequent use, but we’ll always have a stock of these available for your use.
We’ll encourage you to bring your own optical equipment and not share this. We can however still lend out disinfected binoculars for your personal use during the trip. Although we cannot share scopes, we have digi-scoping equipment that will allow you to see without coming into contact with the scope. As always, we will have field guides with us, which we can show.
We have stringent procedures in place should anyone – including us – fall ill during the trip.
Any accommodation used or hostelry establishments visited are known and trusted, and verified to also have a COVID-19 Risk Prevention Protocol in place.
Our legendary picnic lunch will be provided as usual – hygienically prepared, served on disinfected reusable crockery to avoid plastic waste and stuffed full of locally sourced, sustainably produced and delicious ingredients!
We are also keeping a close eye on international travel advice from the World Health Organisation, Spanish government and relevant Foreign Offices.
We hope that with everyone’s collaboration this situation will continue to improve and we will see you soon in The Straits and beyond to enjoy the best of #FlywayBirding.
We still have limited availability remaining on our Straits of Gibraltar – Bird Migration & Cetaceans scheduled departure tour, 26th August – 1st September 2020. We also have selected availability for day tours or bespoke trips throughout the Autumn migration season! We are happy to take no-financial-obligation provisional bookings for future tours – just contact us to register your interest and talk further.
Going out to a restaurant isn’t something we’ve been able to do a lot of recently, but today we were thrilled to be invited to an eatery with a difference! The menu didn’t really appeal – we’re all for trying new things but offal, rotten eggs and cow dung are a bit too avant-garde even for our tastes! The thrill of the invite came purely from the chance to rub shoulders with the celebrity guests…
For this beastly bistro has been set up with one purpose in mind – the conservation of the Endangered Egyptian Vulture – or Alimoche as they are known in Spain.
With its starkly-contrasting wing pattern, wedge-shaped tail and yolk-coloured face, this gorgeous bird must surely be one of the most eye-catching scavengers in the world. It is both sensitive and intelligent, using pebbles to break eggs, sticks to wind wool, and staying faithful to partners and nest sites over long periods. Incredible travellers, migrating birds can cover over 300 miles in a single day along the East Atlantic Flyway, until they reach the southern edge of the Sahara, as much as 3400 miles from their summer home.
Sadly, the same old story of human destruction applies to this species as to many others. Their numbers have declined dramatically – in Europe, over 50% have been lost in the last three generations. Throughout their nomadic year they face many dangers. The disastrous effects of the terrible twins threats of habitat destruction and agricultural change are exacerbated by lead and pesticide accumulation, persecution, collisions with power lines, intentional and accidental poisoning.
Around our base, in the Campo de Gibraltar and La Janda area, we are lucky enough to host a small breeding population of this stunning bird – five of the remaining 1400 pairs in Europe.
But here they face the peril of our local windfarms. Despite the fantastically successful work of our partners at Fundación Migres to reduce raptor collisions, in recent years there have been some strikes involving Egyptians from the local population. The presence of ornithologist “spotters” on the farms – such a successful strategy for protecting Griffon Vultures and other species – is simply not enough for these birds. The deaths were few, but with such a tiny population, any such losses are desperately significant, and pose a risk to the birds’ future in the area. It was clear a new approach was needed.
In 2018, Fundación Migres started piloting the creation of supplementary feeding points near to Egyptian Vulture territories. The idea was that if the birds could find “easy” food at strategic points near their nests, they would no longer take risks foraging near turbines. Turbine strikes of foraging adults would be reduced or hopefully even eliminated.
Suitable sites for supplementary feeding have to be well-located – close to one or more Egyptian Vulture territories, with a clear route to the nest that avoids windfarms. They have to be easily accessible for the feeding team, yet be quiet, safe places, away from human disturbance. Experts at Fundación Migres identified several such sites and began feeding, eventually narrowing their efforts down to the two most successful locations.
Unlike Griffon Vultures, which have evolved to work together to rip open and devour large carrion items, Egyptian Vultures love to pick up the scraps! For this reason, they get given the piltracos – small items of meat waste and offal collected from local butchers in the Tarifa area.
In one of life’s rare win-win situations, the butchers also save the money they would otherwise pay for a waste disposal service. The meat is transferred in authorized containers to the supplementary feeding points, where it is put out four times a week.
So this morning, we stood in a secluded field while our friend and colleague Alejandro dished up 90kg of waste meat, guts, bones and other unspeakable titbits, accompanied by soothing background music from Cirl Buntings, Turtle Doves and Common Nightingales!
As well as the main feast of meat scraps, the team also puts out attractive side dishes like eggs and cow dung! For an Egyptian Vulture, these accompaniments are simply to die for – they are rich in the carotene pigments they need to give them that gorgeous yolky-yellow face.
To measure the success of the project, the sites are checked daily and activity is also monitored using camera-traps. Many of the birds are tagged or ringed, so a detailed picture can be built up of which individuals or pairs come to the sites and how long they spend there.
At the same time, in the wind farms, the “spotters” collect information on any birds that fly nearby. This means that the team can make a direct comparison between days when food is laid out or not, to see if it reduces the birds’ presence in or around the windfarms.
Preliminary results of the pilot are very promising. Since the trial began, there have been no deaths of local birds on the windfarms. The supplementary feeding points have significantly reduced the number of birds recorded near wind farms, massively reducing the risk of collision. This is especially important while they have chicks are in the nest, and adult foraging is particularly intense.
The fringe benefits of the project have also been impressive! It seems word has got around about the hottest table in town, and the team are recording non-local Egyptian vultures and many other species coming to the feeding sites, including Griffon Vultures, Cinereous Vultures, Black Kites, Common Buzzards, Northern Goshawks and more.
At the moment one of the area’s local celebrities is also putting in an appearance every day. A stunning adult Rüppell’s Vulture – supposed to be in sub-Saharan Africa but currently hanging out with our local Griffon Vulture colony and attempting to mate. Earlier in the Spring other vagrant individuals were recorded too, as this species gradually gains a foothold in Europe.
The project is supervised by the Andalucían Government and is coordinated with their vulture conservation team. It is currently financed by the wind power companies. In academic terms the project is still in early days, and nothing will be published until data has been collected for several years and the effectiveness of the measure can be properly evaluated.
In the meantime, it may not have a Michelin star or serve many vegetarian options, but Café Alimoche is definitely our new favourite eatery!
Thanks to our conservation partners and colleagues at Fundación Migres for the invite and our continued partnership.
If you love Vultures, you´ll love our Ronda & The Straits trip, timed to coincide with the virtually unknown spectacle of the Griffon Vulture migration across The Straits of Gibraltar. Check it out here and get in touch to find out more – we´re currently taking no-obligation provisional bookings for 2020.
Somewhere in a parallel universe, this weekend Dave Grundy and I would just have been saying goodbye to a group of moth-ers and wildlife lovers, having spent a week enjoying Andalucía’s lepidopteran delights!
Here’s a heartfelt message from renowned moth expert Dave, as well as some stunning photos to look back on from the excellent trip he hosted here in 2019…
So, this week I am sad, even though I am living in Andalucía and able to look at some great moths every morning, with beautiful sunshine as well! That’s because with fellow leader Niki Williamson, I should have been hosting ten moth enthusiasts last week, to show them the moths of Andalucía in our holiday called Mothing the Straits!
We would have completed six days’ worth of glorious mothing – and a further four days enjoying the area’s birds and other wildlife for those that wished to stay on. But unfortunately, due to the coronavirus situation we had to cancel this year’s holiday. I am really gutted not to have been looking at moths with these people!
And I am sad because I am never happier than when I am sharing moths with other people and I’ve not been able to do that since lockdown began! So, I thought I would do the next best thing and show you some photos of the fantastic selection of the moths we saw on this trip in 2019, as well as some of the sites and the crack team of moth-ers!
Hopefully they will inspire you to consider coming with us on the same Mothing the Straits holiday next year – we already have announced dates for 2 – 7 May 2021. But book early because places are already filling fast. Take a look at further details here, and download the checklist and trip summary here.
Again, like this year, you will have the optional extra of being able to stay on for four more days and take advantage of a birding and wildlife-watching extension. Over half the people booking on the moth tour usually book for the extension as well! And this is a stunning part of the world to view wildlife, famous for its migrating raptors, cetaceans, butterflies and reptiles as well as its moths!
So, although I’m sad about this year, I’m already looking forward to next year, why not give it a try and maybe I will see you next May?!
We hope you can join us! We are currently accepting no-obligation provisional bookings on future trips – contact us to express an interest or to find out more information on this or any of our trips.
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.