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!

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

Rush hour for the East Atlantic Flyway started late yesterday, but Blimey, was it a busy one!

It was a dank start, with cloudy raptor-less skies that were more like England than southern Spain! Indeed, as we looked over to the Rock of Gibraltar, it was actually raining in the UK!

We were volunteering again today, helping Fundacion Migres with their long-running migration monitoring programme.

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

The sullen morning gave us chance to appreciate another aspect of migration – the wild olive scrub around El Algorrobo watchpoint was hosting loads of migrant passerines like Common Redstart, Spotted Flycatchers, Golden Orioles and many Phylloscopus warblers, resting on their way south.  The morning rush hour saw dozens of Hirundines, Common, Pallid and Alpine Swift racing through.

But it was 11.45am that the climatic traffic lights turned green for raptors! The sky was suddenly full of Honey Buzzards, kettling in their hundreds and barging south along the now congested flyway.

 

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

The chirpiest of the travelers were the European Bee-eaters. So many passed over, quipping like kids on a school bus, and some buzzed right over and around our group, prompting so many ‘Ooooh’s and ‘Aaaah’s that we almost forgot to count them!

 

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

But it was the last couple hours of the count that really blew our minds! Late arrivals finally getting past bad weather in the Pyrenees were racing over in their hundreds, seemingly experiencing flyway rage, desperate to reach Africa before sundown. At around 3pm, after a busy but relaxed days counting, our group was suddenly silent except for whirring clickers and the barking of things like “10 Milanos Negros!”, “234 Abejeiros!”, “Aguila Calzada! Aguila Calzada!”

All in all we counted 9,081 birds commuting to Africa in just one day, at just one watch point, a mere fraction of the 250,000+ raptors and 400,000 Swifts that will pass through here this season.

Fundacion Migres have been carrying out this exceptional monitoring programme since 1997, making it one of the greatest sustained efforts in Europe. Today we were privileged to count alongside Alejandro, Migres’s Flyway Veteran.  He has been with the programme since the beginning, and now leads it.

They are keen for volunteers to help with the counts – people like Alberto – a professional musician and birder from Madrid who was with us yesterday.  He will be with Migres for the minimum placement of 1 week, during which he can stay at their accommodation at the Centro Internacional de Migracion de Aves near Tarifa and receive full training.

Fancy gazing at a bit of mega migration? Don’t worry, this was only the beginning! Find out about volunteering with Fundacion Migres here. Or come see #FlywayBirding in action with us next Spring or Autumn!

Fill up your Swift page!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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