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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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The Inglorious Bustards / Fundación Migres clan! © Inglorious Bustards

AvianAir is now cleared for take-off!

With migration curtailed by several days of strong easterlies (strong enough to bring a tree down on the Bustard-mobile, but that’s another story!), and many thousands of soaring birds anxious to make the journey south, this week it became a little like a crowded airport departure lounge here in the Straits!

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White Stork bedlam! Can you find the Black Kites? © Inglorious Bustards

Flocks of Black Kites and White Storks numbering in the thousands have been tumbling up and down the coast, and hanging in the air, making it look like someone just shook a snow globe!

When your journey’s delayed by bad weather, there’s only so many times you can visit Sock Shop and Sunglasses Hut. After much milling about, these birds have been collecting in huge super-flocks in the valleys – presumably the equivalent of the Wetherspoons!

But today, as we sat down to monitor the migration with our conservation partners Fundacion Migres, it became apparent that the great air-traffic controller in the sky had finally granted them a clear take off to Morocco!

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Final call! This juvenile Black Kite is clear for take off ! via Morocco it will head for sub-saharan Africa © Inglorious Bustards

Arriving from:

The Straits of Gibraltar is one of the greatest bottlenecks for the East Atlantic Flyway. The Black Kites zooming over our heads have come from all over Western Europe and move south across a broad front, crossing here and at Italy’s Straits of Messina. White Storks are more reliant on soaring, and find the sea at Messina too wide. The entirety of Europe’s migrating population will cross here.

Departing to:

For the White Storks it’s a relatively short-haul flight, for a winter break in North Africa. The powerfully-flying Black Kites head further, across the Sahara to countries like  The Gambia and Senegal. They will be the first to return, and we look forward to seeing them arrive from February onwards.

Our day passed in a whir of clickers and plenty of exclamations at the sheer volumes of birds swirling past us. We finally had a chance to take stock for a moment in the afternoon and realised that we had already counted 18,000 birds! Yes, eighteen thousand! By the time we left, we could see black-and-white blobs before our eyes and our final count was 19,488 White Storks, Black Kites, Booted Eagles, Short-toes Eagles, Montagu’s Harriers and Egyptian Vultures for the day!

Days like this happen throughout the Autumn (and Spring!) – if you’ve not experienced this yet (or even if you have!) then you should head for a departure lounge near you and join us this August for some serious #FlywayBirding!!

…..oh! ….You may want to know the actual totals?…so here goes (take a deep breath!!)….

11,670 White Storks
7,748 Black Kites
5 Egyptian Vultures
16 Booted Eagles
3 Montagu’s Harriers
41 Short-toed Eagles
2 Common Buzzards
3 Lesser Kestrels

…..AND ….RELAX!