Crazy about Spring!

It´s hard to pick a favourite time of year here in the Straits, at the very epicentre of migration , the midway point of a million avian journeys. At the moment we’re crazy about Spring!

We are midway into Spring migration, when every day yields new – often unexpected – treasures. There´s always a feeling of anticipation when you step outside – the air is fresh, the short heavy showers and the bright sun bring the hillsides to life with a riot of colourful wildflowers.

The Black Kites as ever began determinedly pouring through in late February. It seems nothing can stop these dark, determined bad-ass birds – they were recorded crossing the Straits in a Force 8 a few days ago! As the season progresses, their numbers are swelled by increasing numbers of Short-toed Eagles, Egyptian Vultures, Sparrowhawks, Booted Eagles, and Montagu’s Harriers – often exhausted, always spectacular.

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Short-toed Eagle making it into Europe © Inglorious Bustards

During the challenging sea crossing of a windy Spring day, there is many a captivating individual struggle to watch unfold. One moment of drama saw us glued to our scopes at the peril of a small male Sparrowhawk, flying full tilt towards the coast pursued by seven or more Yellow-legged Gulls trying to knock it into the sea. Twice they clumped it from above so hard it clipped the waves. But twice it flipped over, talons bared, and grappled a Gull into the sea into return. We couldn´t see how it was going to survive this persistent mobbing but the plucky little fellow made it to the coast, and we cheered!

The coast west of Tarifa is quite developed, but blessed with many unassuming areas of urban parkland. It´s fantastic to stroll through the park at La Linea on a Spring morning after westerly winds, to find the tamarisks and olive trees dripping with Common Whitethroats, Subalpine and Western Bonelli´s Warblers, while Northern Wheatears and Common Redstarts forage on the ground amongst children playing on the swings and people throwing balls for their dogs.

In the coastal scrub of Los Alcornacales Natural Park, every day brings a new wave. Early on, the Great Spotted Cuckoos flush through on their way to find their corvid surrogate chick-rearers. One day there are suddenly stacks of Tawny Pipits, then the next day Black-eared Wheatears and Woodchat Shrikes adorn every fence and bush as they decide whether to stay local or reach a step further.

Not long after that, the hills are alive with the sound of the squelchy song of Common Nightingales. Amongst the constant ebb and flow of Barn Swallows, suddenly there are Red-rumped Swallows too, and on an afternoon stroll around the coastal valleys you´ll find yourself surrounded by sudden swarms of feeding Pallid and Common Swifts.

A recent extended period of strong easterlies, generated by a low pressure system over Morocco and the Middle East, brought some surprises this year with Lesser and Greater Spotted Eagles crossing the Straits and a number of Pallid Harriers recorded in Spain. We also yet again found a Yellow-browed Warbler at our eco-lodge base, Huerta Grande, this time apparently heading north on its parallel migratory trajectory!

It´s hard to beat that uplifting moment when you become aware of a distant excited chirruping, which gradually becomes louder until the air around you is full of European Bee-eaters, travelling in colourful, exuberant family groups. They always give the impression that they´re on their way to a party!

And there is so much more to come! The first Honey Buzzards have been recorded and we wait in anticipation of their spectacular passage numbering over 100,000 birds. Soon the Golden Orioles will sweeten the air, Rufous Scrub Robin will brighten the scrub and the cryptic beauty of the Red-necked Nightjar will touch the eye of those patient enough to quietly look.

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Red-necked Nightjar © Inglorious Bustards

It´s so good here! And it´s decided, Spring is definitely our favourite season! Well, until Summer that is!

Mothing at the gateway to Africa! A chat with moth-er extraordinaire @dgcountryside

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?

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Trapping in the campo © Dave Grundy

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.

 

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Latin © Dave Grundy

 

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!

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Hoyosia codeti © Dave Grundy

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!

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Dave awaits!