Breakfast with Vultures!

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.

DSC00314
Egyptian Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

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.

DSC00343
Griffon Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

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.

 

Make Birding Your New Normal!

Birding is good for you – it’s a scientific fact! The happy buzz that many of us know – and need – from spending time in Nature is gaining traction as a proven means of boosting mental health.

In England, for example, research revealed that access to urban green spaces reduced residents’ sense of isolation and loneliness. Living close to a park can offer an equivalent mental-health improvement as a two-point decrease in unemployment. And here in Spain, schoolchildren raised in greener neighbourhoods have more neural connections in brain regions tied to working memory and attention. It is also now becoming more commonplace for time in Nature to be prescribed as a treatment for depression.

DSC09611
Niki de-stresses observing and counting Honey Buzzards cross into Europe © Inglorious Bustards

Things have been tough for so many in these past weeks. Pain and worry over loved ones, employment and the future are of course very much still with us all, as society feels its way out of the international public health crisis caused by the coronavirus.

But as Spain transitions to a New Normal and we all step blinking into the late Spring light, we’re at last able to share the joy of experiencing the vast open spaces of Nature, and rediscovering its inhabitants, which lifts our spirits so much!

For our part, we’re thrilled to be able to start showing people birds again. As a small but environmentally- and socially-committed ecotourism company, we love running affordable day tours in our beautiful home of the Straits of Gibraltar. Since Cádiz province entered Phase 1 of lockdown de-escalation on 11 May, we have spent some fantastic days with our guests from the province, showing them the awe-inspiring Honey Buzzard migration, and all the other raptors that flow with it, as well as local specialities like White-rumped Swift and Northern Bald Ibis.

We have also teamed up with superb rural eco-lodge Huerta Grande to offer Spain-dwellers an affordable three-day Fly-away Birding Break in The Straits of Gibraltar. What better place to fly away for a short get-away, treat yourself to an escape from your lockdown residence and enjoy your new-found freedom in the wide-open spaces of the natural world?

Residents of Cádiz province can already join us on this trip. People from other Spanish provinces will be able to join us once Phase 3 of lockdown de-escalation is safely behind us all. This very special trip is available for a limited period, until the end of August.

The Straits is an ideal destination for this kind of summer birding, and not just for the cooling sea breezes and plentiful ice-cream! It is also home to interesting and unusual resident and breeding birds, some of which occur nowhere else in Spain. Rüppell’s Vulture, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Common Bulbul, Rufous-tailed Scrub-robin and White-rumped Swift are not only stunning to see but high on many birding wishlists.

Our Home – The Straits © Inglorious Bustards

A great variety of coastal, mountain and wetland areas put us in contact with some of the area’s most engaging species. Gorgeous Greater Flamingoes, characterful Northern Bald Ibis, awesome Griffon Vultures and rainbow-coloured European Bee-eaters make this an ideal place to kick-start your wildlife-watching habit and make birding your New Normal!

Over an introductory afternoon and two full days of birding, we’ll use our local knowledge of weather conditions, up-to-the-minute wildlife information – and of course your personal pace requirements and wishlist! – to bring you the very best of the area’s summer birding.

The itinerary will vary accordingly, but whatever your preferred birding level, with the Inglorious Bustards you can expect passion, knowledge, patience, laughs, complete commitment to sustainability and conservation, outstanding birding and wildlife spectacles, as well as our legendary picnics!

DSC09950
Rufous-tailed Scrub-robin © Inglorious Bustards

Of course, it should go without saying that the health and safety of our clients and avoiding the continued spread of this disease in wider society are still our top priorities. We have been working hard to keep abreast of all current rules and procedures for safe working and will continue to do so, for the good of everybody.

Though many of these common-sense procedures were already part of our trips, ensuring hygiene, safety and comfort for our guests, we want to reassure you that when you come birding with us, you can rely on the following:

– Our vehicle is thoroughly cleaned between every outing

– We ourselves are also thoroughly scrubbed between outings!

– Group size is limited. We are currently limiting group size to a maximum of four people (far smaller than the officially-allowed maximum of 10) to guarantee appropriate social distancing.

– Passenger numbers are limited to two per row of seats in our spacious, air-conditioned minibus.

– Any shared optical equipment such as telescopes or loaned binoculars will be sanitised at regular intervals throughout the trip and between trips.

– Your day will be spent outside and away from crowded places (that’s the joy of nature-watching!)

– A minimum distance of 2m between non-cohabiting participants will be maintained while in the field.

– Hand-sanitiser and disposable gloves are provided. We have sourced bio-compostable gloves as part of our continued resolve and commitment to eliminate non-biodegrable waste from our trips.

– Facemasks will be used throughout the day.  We ask our guests to bring their own reusable facemasks to avoid unnecessary disposable items.

– Any accommodation used or hostelry establishments visited are known and trusted, and verified to also be totally compliant with lockdown-easing procedures.

– 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 totally confident in our procedures and really looking forward to bringing you the natural high we all need right now – days out in Nature, not only good for health but good for the soul.

Fancy flying away with us?  Have a look on our website for more info on Fly-away Birding Breaks, Day Trips and Bespoke Tours, then contact us to learn more and arrange your trip.

DSC07276
Rüppell’s Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

Loving the moths but missing the moth-ers!

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…

P1570688 Cerura iberica - Ornipark - 25-04-19
Iberian Puss Moth © David Grundy

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!

group 1
Moth-ing The Straits 2019 © David Grundy

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!

P1570639 Spurge Hawk-moth - Punta Paloma - 25-04-19
Spurge Hawk Moth © David Grundy

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?!

Dave.

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.

P1570934 Latin - Ornipark - 28-04-19
The Latin © David Grundy

 

 

A tale of two Eagles

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.

DSC06487
Short-toed Eagle © Inglorious Bustards

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.

Screen Shot 2020-05-02 at 12.50.52
Michele’s journey – 2019 autumn migration in red and 2020 spring migration in green
Screen Shot 2020-05-02 at 12.51.08
Egidio’s migrations – autumn in red, spring in yellow, 2020 spring in green

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.

REFERENCES

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.

Fourteen Kilometres of Joy and Sorrow

Travel Blogger of the Year

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.

Untitled-1
juvenile Black Kite © Inglorious Bustards

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. 

DSC02649
Migrating White Storks © Inglorious Bustards

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.

_20190408_192959600453085.jpg
A view across The Straits © Inglorious Bustards

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.

Inspired by the brief to write about “My Favourite Place On Earth”, this blog first appeared under the title “Fourteen Kilometres Between Two Continents – 450,000 Soaring Birds Can’t Be Wrong!“, as part of Terra Incognita’s Travel Blogger of the Year 2020 competition.  It was placed in the Top 10 out of over 150 entries, by a panel of 20 judges including world-renowned travel bloggers, writers, conservationists and ethical organisations.

Maybe you´d like to experience the joy and sorrow for yourself?  Look no further than our migration tours and give yourself something to look forward to…

Boosting the Count

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 partners Fundación 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.

img_8537
Whirring clickers as raptors come in from all directions © Inglorious Bustards 

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.

DSC02099
Egyptian Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

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!

Screen Shot 2020-04-24 at 13.25.23
eBird data (www.ebird.org) and Google Maps

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.

img_5304
The Inglorious Bustards / Fundación Migres clan! © Inglorious Bustards

Mangrove Magic!

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.

mangrove propagules
New mangroves! © Inglorious Bustards

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.

DSC03683
Little Bee-eater © Inglorious Bustards

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!

vols at work 4
Volunteers get stuck in! © Inglorious Bustards

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?

DSC07930
Giant Kingfisher © Inglorious Bustards

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

IB & GBWA
Inglorious Bustards with the wonderful Gambia Birdwatchers Association © Inglorious Bustards

We’ve made it onto the Top Ethical Birding Ecotours 2019 list!

When it comes to Ethical Birding Ecotours, it turns out we´re Top of the Pops!

We’re more than just a birding tour company. We care about the wildlife we showcase, the local communities we visit and the opportunities for education through exploration. That’s why we’re excited to announce that we’ve made it into the Top Ethical Birding Ecotours 2019 list!

TI 2019 pic

This unique list is generated by a global community of travellers, bloggers, conservationists, tour guides, birders and ecotourism operators, and curated by Terra Incognita – a social enterprise seeking to promote the best examples of ethical ecotourism worldwide.  We’re part of a group of over 70 incredible birding tours from across the globe.

First launched in 2018, the list has grown in its second year to include tours in 40 countries.

“With every new tour we discover, we’re amazed to see what operators are doing to have a positive impact on the planet through tourism,” said Dr Nick Askew of Terra Incognita. “Eventually we hope to showcase ethical tour experiences in every country worldwide.”

Tour operators on the list are doing everything from partnering with conservation charities and donating to conservation projects, to offsetting the carbon emissions generated by their business activities and encouraging their guests to do the same during their travels.  Some are contributing to conservation research, while others are empowering local people through environmental education and capacity building, supporting future conservation ambassadors.

img_8965
Our partnership working with local conservation organisations like the Gambia Birdwatchers Association is one of the actions that earned us a top spot on the 2019 Terra Incognita Ethical Birding Ecotours list

The list includes a transparent explanation of how all tours contribute to conservation, local communities and education and is open to reviews from guests who’ve participated in the tours.

“It’s exciting to discover ecotourism operators that see sustainability as a fundamental way of doing business, rather than just a marketing strategy or checklist”, said Kristi Foster of Terra Incognita.

“Rather than take away from a tour, guests can join in that creative, innovative process. These tours are experiences where everyone involved learns and grows”, she added.

The Top Ethical Birding Ecotours 2019 list was launched during the British Birdfair 2019 – an annual event for birdwatchers that supports BirdLife International.

Bird experiences highlighted range from Golden-collared Manakin leks in Panama, to reintroduced blue ducks in New Zealand, to searching for Uganda’s iconic Shoebill by canoe. You can even see the autumn Vulture migration across the Strait of Gibraltar, with as many as 2,300 birds recorded in a single hour.

With tours in 40 countries across six continents you can find inspiration to explore a new corner of the world or discover an ethical experience closer to home.

You can view the Ethical Birding Ecotours 2019 list at www.terra-incognita.travel and join a movement to create positive change for people and planet through travel. 

Top-Ethical-Ecotour-Medal-300x285

 

“The fork is the most powerful tool to change the planet” – Tarifa Ecocenter and the #FlywayPromise

We´re readying ourselves for our annual pilgrimage to UK Birdfair, and we hope to see you there!  As you ready for the off and decide what to put in your butties, have a look at this profile of our good friends at Tarifa Ecocenter, participants in our #FlywayPromise, whose philosophy that “The fork is the most powerful tool to change the planet” chimes so strongly with our own…

In the Straits of Gibraltar we find ourselves at the epicentre of a great journey, that takes avian migrants over thousands of miles of landscapes and habitats where, irrespective of political borders, they must find food and safe passage to sustain them on their journey.

Our work over years for the RSPB, attempting to reverse the fortunes of UK, European and African farmland wildlife, has made us recognise the power of our own food choices and how it can affect the availability of habitat for these birds, and all the other wildlife whose lives depend on our decisions about how we manage land.

img_9780
Students from Bangor University enjoy a delicious vegetarian feast at Tarifa Ecocenter

That’s why we love our partnership with Tarifa Ecocenter and their sister project, the Molino de Guadalmesí.

The Ecocenter is not just a superb vegetarian restaurant, it is a local hub for eco-consciousness.  The organic produce shop and meeting spaces are a sociable place designed to encourage the exchange of ideas.  Here you can partake in delicious, sustainably-sourced meals, much of the produce for which comes from their sister project, Molino de Guadalmesi – an organic farm, community centre, and eco-lodge situated in a beautifully-restored water mill.

“Sharing food connects people of all ages and backgrounds. Each meal gives you the opportunity to make a conscious decision about how you impact your health, your environment and our common future.”

johnny a
Johnny from Molino de Guadalmesi

Community member Johnny Azpilicueta is just back from a spot of global travelling and idea-sharing on sustainable living, so we grabbed the chance to catch up with him over a chickpea burger and a slurp of local organic IPA.

The thing that strikes me as we chat is the dual themes of connectivity and positive action that runs through everything they do – connecting people with where our food comes from, connecting them with the provenance and consequences of every food choice we make, connecting the food on our plate with the very field or animal it came from .

Johnny says: “I wonder what it would be like if people could see directly in the moment what the consequences of their choices are. Like, people don´t like animals and birds to be shot but if they are choosing unsustainable food they may as well be pulling the trigger themselves. I wonder what it would be like if every time they took a bite a bird fell from the sky in front of them, or every time they threw away a piece of plastic suddenly there was a dead dolphin right there next to them. What we want to do is to make people really see through all the complexity of their choices and help them make better ones that have better outcomes from the planet.”

Johnny is the driving force behind Tarifa´s hugely successful participation in World Clean up Day – one of the biggest civic movements of our time, where in 2018 a massive day of social environmental action saw a staggering 18 million people in 157 countries out picking up litter.

img_8741
Inglorious Bustards and friends after a morning´s hard work at World Clean Up Day 2018

“ I find it is proving to be such a very unifying activity. Protecting the planet is full of complex issues but it seems that everyone has in common that they want their home to be clean, and it is something that can really bring people together in making positive action. It´s inspiring, it can lead to even bigger things.”

The concept of Flyway scale conservation is no stranger to Johnny either. “I have been in the Straits for 15 years and every time I look up and see these birds coming from all over Europe to cross to Africa, I feel connected. I feel this connection with Nature, I feel connected with how all the different parts of the world are connected and to the people who are trying to make these journeys too.

“What I think is that we have to allow these birds to cross like a pathway of organic farms all across the flyway, so they can eat healthy… Here we are making a Flyway Promise to support the kind of agriculture that is beneficial to these animals.”

Findings presented at the IPCC in October 2018 were striking and conclusive.  While everyone talks about reducing electricity consumption and aviation, it seems that we are still ignoring the scientific findings that show beyond doubt that by far the best way of having a positive impact on our planet is to change what we eatCurrently 85% of the world´s farmed land produces just 18% of our calories.  Loss of wildlife areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife.  This is the legacy of meat and dairy production, which has enormous environmental costs in terms of habitat loss, air and water pollution and carbon release.

In order to keep global temperature rise below 2ºC by 2020 we as global citizens will need to eat around nine times less red meat, five times less poultry and five times more legumes, vegetables, nuts and seeds.

On our trips we are working towards these changes by offering a higher proportion and better quality of vegetarian options on our dinner menus than ever before.  Thanks to the bright idea of our friends at Huerta Grande Ecolodge to include “meat-free Mondays” in our trips, we are working with our accommodation and catering providers across the board to offer at least one meat-free day one very trip.

On selected tours, we visit the Molino de Guadalmesí for dinner, offering our guests a thought-provoking experience around food choice and how positive change can help our wildlife and the wider environment – not to mention be extremely tasty!

We want to make the choice to eat ethically an irresistible one!  And thanks to the passion and talent of people like the folk at Molino de Guadalmesi and Tarifa Ecocenter, that doesn’t have to be difficult.

Come and see us in Marquee 1 Stand 28 at Birdfair this weekend, and come to the event´s Hobby Lecture Theatre, Sunday, 3.30pm to hear more about our #FlywayPromise and how we are striving to make ecotourism a genuine force for positive environmental change.

Braving the Blades & the work of Fundación Migres

We all know that turbines and soaring birds don’t mix. So what is being done to help our avian nomads as they pass these whirring legions marching across the Estrecho Natural Park, one of the most important raptor migration bottlenecks in the world?  We report on the Compensatory Measures Project, just one strand of the immensely important work carried out by our conservation partners, Fundación Migres.

contemplation (c) Niki Williamson
Griffon Vulture surveys The Straits © Inglorious Bustards

As we round the corner of the coast road, in the hills high above Tarifa, most of our tour groups let out a gasp of awe at the stunning views of Morocco. This is often closely followed by a gasp of shock, as their gaze falls on the imposing ranks of wind turbines lining some of the coastal hillsides. 

At just nine miles wide, here the Strait of Gibraltar is at its narrowest point between Europe and Africa, making it the chosen crossing point for over 300 million migratory birds, journeying between these continents twice a year.

37915581_486101738483981_8968695826415091712_n-1
Monitoring the Straits © Inglorious Bustards

A humungous sixty percent of Europe’s raptor population passes through here, as well as virtually its entire population of White Storks. Swifts also cross here in staggering numbers, with more than 400,000 passing through the area during peak times. This migratory spectacle is one of the most uplifting, life-affirming natural events we have ever seen, and simply has to be experienced to be believed.

With some 350 different species recorded, the list of birds in the area is extensive. At migration times there are Honey Buzzards, Western Ospreys, Red-rumped and Barn Swallows, Sand and House Martins, Pallid, Common and Alpine Swifts, Common and Great Spotted Cuckoos, races of Yellow Wagtail, Western Bonelli’s Warblers, Common and Iberian Chiffchaffs, Golden Orioles and Turtle Doves amongst many others.

At any time of year, birds in the area include Crag Martins, Blue Rock Thrushes, Crested and Thekla Larks, Lesser Kestrels, Tawny, Little and sometimes Eagle Owls. A wide range of nesting raptors, including Bonelli’s Eagles, Short-toed Eagles, Common Kestrels and Peregrine Falcons are common in the area. Around Tarifa there are colonies of Griffon and Egyptian vultures, the most southerly in the Iberian peninsula, with 70+ pairs of Griffon Vultures and six pairs of Egyptian Vultures breeding in 2017.

DSC03292
An Egyptian Vulture checks in © Inglorious Bustards

So how did these feathered millions end up running the gauntlet of the wind farms, adding to the perils they already face?

Back in 1993, when the area was still military land, the original two windfarms were commissioned, approved and built. The 20 MW Planta Eólica del Sur (PESUR) project and the 10 MW Energía Eólica del Estrecho (EEE) farm totalled 269 turbines. They were straight away mired in controversy, with local conservation groups and independent experts presenting evidence in 1994 of high avian death tolls(1). The corpses of 13 different species were allegedly found at the wind farms, either killed on impact or by electrocution on power cables, including an Eagle Owl, White Storks and Lesser Kestrels.

A random corpse count of Griffon Vultures stood at around 30, with some apparently decapitated by the blades. Counter-claims at the time by the wind company’s managing directors suggested that the yearly death count was never higher than twelve birds in total, and others presented figures as low as two birds.

In some cases it was alleged that no real impact study regarding the birds was ever carried out. It was even alleged that, while risk assessments were carried out based on presence of resident birds, the experts simply ‘forgot’ to account for the hundreds of thousands of migrating soaring birds that pass through twice a year!

Spain had (and still has) an ambitious plan for alternative energy generation, and the Tarifa area was to be its spearhead. Development of a proposed 2000+ turbines in the area were to provide a sizeable chunk of Spain’s 20% renewable energy target by 2020.

One can only imagine what it would have been like to be a fly on the wall in the many meetings that must have taken place, leading up to the declaration of the area as a Natural Park in 2003. With the area now protected, and acknowledged as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International, extensive study and intensive mitigation work would be needed to reduce the negative effects of existing farms and prevent the creation of new ones in high-risk areas.

Enter Fundación Migres. This private non-profit organisation had been monitoring the area’s extraordinary migration event with daily counts during peak times since 1997.
In 2003, the companies whose memberships form the Tarifa Wind Power Association (AET) signed agreements with Fundación Migres to work on the Compensatory Measures Project for La Janda Windfarms, dramatically expanding their remit.

During the seventeen year project, their task was to find ways to reduce bird mortality in the windfarms, find out the effect of the farms on local raptor populations, and establish recovery programmes for more affected species, as well as raising awareness locally about environmental conservation and renewable energy.

The high-quality, independent science they have generated since their inception has added considerably to the world’s knowledge on wind farms and their effects on birds. It is helping develop better protocols for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) and mitigation measures to reduce turbine collisions.

Their work has generated both disturbing and promising results.  A three-year study of 20 operational wind farms took place between 2005 and 2008, as the 323 turbines gradually came online(2). Over the study period, the research team found 596 dead birds – a devastating 1.33 birds per turbine per year, which is among the highest rates of wind farm mortality ever published. 36% of the dead were raptors and included 23 Common Kestrels, 13 Lesser Kestrels and 16 Short-toed Eagles.

DSC06979
Short-toed Eagle © Inglorious Bustards

By far the worst affected bird was the Griffon Vulture, with 138 found dead during the course of the study. Other studies suggest that most birds of prey can detect and actively avoid turbines without too much problem(3), but alas for the Griffon Vulture, for all its aerial prowess, agility is not one of its strong points. The bird relies on air currents and thermals to travel and has relatively weak flight, making evasive manoeuvres difficult.

All of these high-mortality wind farms had had EIAs carried out according to accepted methodology, had been accepted as low-risk areas, and had been licensed according to the law. The way raptors use the air currents and topography of an area is complex. It seemed site-scale EIAs based on bird abundance did not account for this, so could not adequately predict the threat level of proposed turbines.

However, interestingly, the study also found that the vast majority of these deaths could be attributed to a very small number of turbines. A new study was undertaken(4) – what if, by controlling function of these high-risk turbines, bird mortality could be reduced?

During 2006, body counts on 13 windfarms with 296 turbines had illustrated that most of the deaths were being caused by just ten turbines, distributed amongst six windfarms.

During 2008–2009, the team implemented a selective stopping program – when Vultures were observed near these deadliest turbines they were simply turned off till the threat had passed. Encouragingly, the Vulture mortality rate was reduced by 50% with only these ten turbines involved. The consequent reduction in total energy production for the wind farms was just 0.07% per year, a small price to pay.

DSC02649
Mega migration White Storks and Black Kites © Inglorious Bustards

This successful strategy was expanded to other high-risk turbines. When a high number of raptors are passing through, or individual birds are in danger – especially Griffon Vultures or the Critically Endangered Egyptian Vulture – the turbines are simply turned off.

With Migres-trained wind farm ‘watchmen’ on high alert, the whole shutdown process – from spotting a risk, to phoning it in, to stopping the relevant turbine – takes less than two minutes. The annual mortality – previously exceeding 200 vultures – has been reduced by 60% across the whole area(4). The accidents happen mostly during the autumn migration period when young birds – both resident and from all over Europe – are passing through the area. Though this is still a horrible price to pay for clean energy, this level of loss is at least thought to be sustainable from a population size point of view.

The process is far from perfect. A locally-breeding Egyptian Vulture was killed by a turbine last year, and two the year before. A drifting radio-tagged Lesser Spotted Eagle also hit a turbine, but seemingly recovered its wits and moved on, after sitting dazed in one spot for two days. We ourselves have been devastated to witness a majestic Honey Buzzard, hanging on an air current, lose control for just a brief second and get sucked backwards into the blades. And this is without even touching on the as yet unmitigated effects the turbines have on bats and other wildlife.

The end of the windfarm cooperation project in 2020 is fast approaching, putting the future of the turbine-stopping measures in doubt. With funding for Fundación Migres in decline, also at stake is one of the greatest sustained efforts for monitoring migratory birds in Europe, not to mention the invaluable research they generate.

It can be hard to believe that wind farm development was ever given the go-ahead in such a key area for the birds of the East Atlantic flyway. But it’s important not to forget the bigger picture. Many more birds are killed by traffic, power lines, radio and television towers, glass windows, and due to human activities such as poisoning and illegal shooting, not to mention habitat destruction.

Badly located as they are, the ever-spinning blades of the Straits supply around 20% of Andalusia’s power. Like all locally-damaging ‘renewable energy’ sources, they are there because of our insatiable appetite for consumption – of fossil fuels, of meat, of stuff we just don’t need. As the planet warms, ecosystems are disrupted and the Sahara creeps ever larger. For the millions of avian nomads that pass the turbines unharmed, the biggest peril is whether they still have breeding and wintering habitat to go to.

Want to get involved? You can help out Fundación Migres by volunteering to be part of their monitoring programmes or donating  – see www.fundacionmigres.org for details.

(1) Watts-Hosmer (1994) Bird deaths prompt rethink on windfarming in Spain. Windpower Monthly
(2) De Lucas et al (2012) Weak relationship between risk assessment studies and recorded mortality in wind farms. Journal of Applied Ecology
(3) De Lucas et al (2004) The effects of a wind farm on birds in a migration point: the Strait of Gibraltar. Biodiversity and Conservation
(4) De Lucas et al (2012) Griffon vulture mortality at wind farms in southern Spain: Distribution of fatalities and active mitigation measures. Biological Conservation