For All Souls Day, friend and colleague Eddi – the original Culture Vulture on the Inglorious Bustards team – reflects on a recent trip to experience the awe-inspiring Griffon Vulture migration, and gain understanding of their liminal nature in local lore…
The Strait of Gibraltar last Saturday morning was calm, suspended between us and Morocco. A calm day perfect for the Griffon Vulture migration, but the skies were empty. Then, like some blessing from birders’ heaven, we found ourselves in the flight path of up to three thousand Vultures. Catching the thermals, they spiralled up before soaring across the 14km Strait. This is the diciest moment of their migration to the Sahel and our adrenaline rocketed when their column fell closer to us. Suddenly these immense birds soared metres from our heads. Claws, feathers, bone, a glinting eye were almost within touch.
Vultures have been loathed and detested throughout most of western history, written off as nature’s ghastly gourmet feasting on carrion. Charles Darwin called them “disgusting birds that wallow in putridity”. Long associated with death, battles and rotting meat, in our cultural imagination the Vulture is earthly and gothic, belonging to the nether worlds and giving “material form to the idea of a dark angel.” Swooping over the body of a loved one, it is easy to see how much this awesome bird would look like death itself.
As we stood under their thermal on Saturday we could see their bulkiness, their physicality. Over 2,000 birds weighing up to 11kg each is literally tonnes of flesh in the sky.
Yet for all their earthiness, in the air they are in their element. Transgressive, the Griffon Vulture lives between heaven and earth, building their nests in the highest rocks and crossing continents while still young. Both Christianity and Ancient Greek cultures have figured them as messengers between humans and gods. The Greeks saw them as “from some foreign and unknown land”, often flocking to and predicting the site of battle. In Christianity Vultures were bad omens appearing at sites of destruction “where the slain are, there the Vulture is.” (Job 39:30) But it was the ancient Egyptians who recognised their liminal state and deified them.
In Ancient Egypt Vultures were valued for their abilities as carrion eaters. In such a hot climate, where dead flesh rots very quickly the bird was important for the health of the people. So much so that one Pharaoh decreed the death penalty for anyone who killed a Vulture, making them the first ever protected species. But this ability to clean the world of stench and rottenness came with taboo. While grateful to the Vulture for ridding them of contamination, it is likely people feared and detested them for touching the same object. The Ancient Egyptians reconciled this conflict in the mother goddess Nekhbet.
The goddess Nekhbet was the protective deity of southern Egypt and often took on Vulture form. In paintings and engravings from 3,200 BC we find her hovering watchfully over the heads of kings or, with her wings spread wide, over queens giving birth. She gave protection to royals as seen by the ornate Vultures headdresses they wore. But the mother goddess as Vulture had a very strange role in the culture’s mythology and religion. As “Terrible Mother” she offered both shelter and protection but at the same time the death-bringing, corpse-devouring goddess of death. The Ancient Egyptians saw Life/Death as two sides of the same coin and Nekhbet perfectly captures the dual role of Vultures in her associations with female, life-giving energy and death.
But isn’t this all a long way from Andalucía? Well, two things suggest it might not be that far: Vulture culture and rock-tombs. The Egyptian influence on Spain and Portugal can be seen at the mysterious rock cut tombs at the Sanctuary of Panóias in northern Portugal. This is a largely forgotten temple to Serápis, the Graeco-Egyptian god of the underworld and resurrection. Latin inscriptions next to the sarcophagi shaped tombs read
“To the Gods and Goddesses of this sacred place. The victims sacrifice themselves, and are killed in this place. The viscera are burned in the square cavities in front. Blood is poured here to the side for the small cavities. It was established by Gaius C. Calpurnius Rufinus, a member of the senatorial order”
The sacrifices made by the cult to Serápis at Panóias were symbols of rebirth, acknowledging the dual role Life/Death. Hundreds of rock-carved tombs, similar to those at Panóias, litter the hills of the Cádiz province. These enigmatic sites are attractive precisely because they are so mysterious. Lacking in inscriptions, we know little about their function or origins. These empty sarcophagi lie open to the sky, filled with rainwater and decades of archaeological frustration. Often they have panoramic views of the mountains or oceans, are near a spring or water source and, most crucially, near vulture colonies.
The rock tombs of Betis, for example, are only 14km from the Straits and just beneath a limestone outcrop called Cerro de Bartolo. Some of the young vultures migrating over the Straits would have nested at this colony. Prime position overlooking these rock-tombs. Many of us would recoil at the idea of sky burial and early Christians saw it as the ultimate punishment. But there are those who revel in the idea. When in his poem Vulture Robinson Jeffers plays dead on a hillside, I imagine him lying down in one of these graves –
“To be eaten by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes– What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life after death”
Perhaps Vultures are the key to understanding these mysterious tombs in the sierras of Cádiz. The proximity of these rock tombs to the Griffon Vulture colonies point towards their use as places of symbolic ritual, an “enskyment” transmuting earthly bodies to air, reconciling birth and death in rebirth.
While Vultures no longer has god-status, we are rediscovering that which our ancestors clearly knew and awarding them ‘keystone species’ status. They cut down disease transmission and act as carcass recyclers. Protecting Vultures means protection of the entire European mountain ecosystems. Vultures offer us the key to examining age-old human questions of life, death and regeneration. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the awe we felt watching their migration over The Straits. We were witnessing an event older than the rock tombs, more ancient than Nekhbet and the Egyptian gods, something that continues to pierce us right to our core.
Eddi Pitcher is author of Wild Guide Portugal and lives in Cádiz, researching her new book, Wild Guide Andalucía and leading cultural tours in Spain and Portugal. We are very honoured to have her on board! Contact us about enriching your bespoke wildlife trip with some fascinating local cultural and historical highlights with Eddi!
Read our award-winning blog about how a sudden drop in the wind on an autumn day in Andalucía inspires heart-stoppingly spectacular mass avian movement, but also provokes thought on travel, conservation and global change…
Fourteen kilometres of sea and sky are all that separate two continents. At 9am, the Mediterranean sun is already warming the air and sparkling on the calm waters. It’s early autumn, and this narrow – but potentially deadly – stretch of sea is all that stands between countless millions of birds and the next leg of their journey to African wintering grounds.
It’s been windy all week in The Strait of Gibraltar, making the crossing too dangerous for larger birds. Without the help of uplifting coastal air currents, they must power all the way, or face drowning. They’ve been stranded in the avian departure lounge for days and they’re hungry and desperate to continue their journey.
As mid-morning arrives, thermals form over the rocky coastline, and they’re finally cleared for take-off! In minutes, the sky fills with birds of prey. Eagles, Kites, Harriers and Honey Buzzards, swirl together in almost incomprehensible numbers and barge south along the suddenly congested flyway.
Chirpy European Bee-eaters pass over in vocal family groups, fifty at a time, quipping and chatting excitedly like they’re off on holiday. Clouds of thousands of White Storks form, sparkling black-and-white as the flock circles around on itself, turning the air currents to art.
The incredible spectacle continues all day, ending with streams of late arrivals racing over in their hundreds, seemingly experiencing `flyway rage´, desperate to reach Africa before sundown.
This breath-taking migratory marvel is beyond compare! During one rapturous, raptor-filled day at Spain’s most southerly point, I’ve counted over 20,000 soaring birds making the commute to the northern coast of Morocco – a mere fraction of the 450,000 that will pass through here in a season.
Imagine looking up from your tapas in Tarifa town and seeing layers upon layers of birds gliding overhead, stretching as far as the eyes can see in every direction, including ‘up’. It’s not surprising that this experience has the power to reduce many folk to tears!
But it also has the power to provoke thought, about travel, conservation and global change. With so much at stake, how do we help these feathered wanderers fulfil the yearly promise of return? Must the joy of watching wildlife inevitably encourage consumption of the planet’s resources? How can our passion for travel and wildlife be channelled into a positive outcome for the environment? How can we turn “eco-tourism” into a promise, rather than an oxymoron?
Even in the face of a global pandemic, we must not forget that climate change is still the biggest emergency facing our planet and the biggest threat to our survival, and that of so many other species. But it is easy to condemn travel, while conveniently ignoring agriculture and spiralling consumerism as major contributors to the emissions that cause global warming.
For many species, habitat loss, intensive agriculture and localised threats are the immediate emergency. Without travel, protected areas lose their economic value and habitats are forgotten. The voice to protect them inevitably becomes drowned out as they become meaningless to most, something you can only see on telly.
Without travel, we lose support for countless local conservation organisations, community businesses, and sustainable ecotourism endeavours, working hard to effect change at grassroots level. So too we lose understanding of our connection to the habitats, landscapes and cultures that Nature’s nomads pass through.
From a conservation standpoint, the concept of saving species across flyways is an important one. After all, there’s no point fixing things for a wandering bird in its breeding grounds alone without giving it a helping hand across its entire migratory range. Places like The Strait of Gibraltar are rare, not just for their importance and natural beauty, but for their power to open people’s minds to migration and the interconnectedness of things.
By the end of November most of the birds of prey have passed through, and the skies of my home seem a little empty. But winter in The Strait brings its own visitors. Northerners seeking a bit of winter sun arrive in their thousands. Cranes fly in raggedly lines over the rice fields, bugling to one another. Tiny Chiff-chaffs and Blackcaps scuttle around the wild olive trees, waiting for the lengthening days to carry them back north.
Then one day in February conditions are suddenly right, and the first arrivals of spring are coming! Huge columns of Black Kites will be visible surging from the northern coast of Morocco, as if someone has popped open a bottle of champagne. Seemingly within minutes they’re arriving to the clifftops above Tarifa – my ringside seat for this migratory dance!
They have travelled from the moist forests of Africa, across the Sahelian scrublands and the Sahara, over temples, mosques and churches. They have overcome unstable and ever-widening deserts, persecution, pollution, habitat loss, and finally crossed this mere fourteen kilometres of sea and sky at the meeting of two continents. For me there is no bigger joy than a promise of return fulfilled.
As we ready ourselves for the post-nuptial migration here in the Straits of Gibraltar, our thoughts turn to these great travellers’ wintering grounds where we will soon make our annual pilgrimage and follow in their footsteps.
The juxtaposition of Sahelian scrub habitat and The Gambia River gives a unique biosphere in this area of Africa. Rather than being dominated by Sahel like that of its neighbouring Countries, it is a mixture of moist forest and Sahel and that is a great draw for migrants as well as stunning resident species.
Let us introduce you to some of the line-up!
The Egyptian Plover is the only member of the genus Pluvianus, also referred to (wrongly) as the Crocodile Bird due to its proposed symbiotic relationships with Crocodiles. According to the ancient Greek historian, orator and author Herodotus, the crocodiles lie on the shore with their mouths open and the bird flies into the crocodiles’ mouths so as to feed on decaying meat lodged between the crocodiles’ teeth! However no known modern day observations or photographic evidence of this behaviour exists! Although Herodotus did also comment on furry ants the size of foxes in the Persian Empire !
The Adamawa Turtle Dove has a disjunct population, very little seems to be known about this species, hardly anything exists on its feeding habits and it probably requires further census work to ascertain its preferred habitat and populations.
In case you were wondering……Adamawa was a subordinate kingdom of the Sultanate of Sokoto which also included much of northern Cameroon. The name “Adamawa” originates from the founder of the kingdom Modibo Adama.
If you can whistle like a Pearl-spotted Owlet you are likely to bring in a lot of interest from other forest avian dwellers who want to give you a hard time ! It is a fairly common inhabitant of The Gambia forests and forest edge and we often hear and see them at our sustainable locally-run accommodation. As they often hunt during the day – usually from a perch searching for small mammals, birds and insects – they tend to draw a crowd, as birds love to mob them!
The Turacos are in the family Musophagidae literally meaning “banana-eaters” – which is fairly apt as they eat fruits, flowers and buds. These birds can be at times hard to find amongst the treetops of the dense forests, but will often come to water, as we provided here. Offering it a reliable drinking source and watching from a respectable distance ensured our group got some fabulous views.
The adult male Standard-winged Nightjar pictured here (his standards are out of view) has a totally mental wing ornament during the breeding season which consists of a broad central flight feather on each wing elongated to 38 cm, much longer than the bird’s body. 20 cm or more of this is bare shaft then a feather at the end. In normal flight, these feathers trail behind, but in display flight they are raised vertically like….well…like standards…or flags!…A crazy example of sexual selection!
Interestingly there have been studies by Malte Andersson in 1982 of the elongate display feathers in male Widowbirds. Tail feathers of some males were shortened by one-half, and some other males were ‘enhanced’ by gluing the distal half harvested from the first half. The study showed that birds with shortened tail feathers were less attractive than control (unaltered) males, while females preferred the ‘super’ males over the controls.
Clearly female Standard-winged Nightjars like those standards..!
In early 1979 maltreated Chimpanzees from captivity were brought to the Gambia and introduced to the islands 300km upriver on the River Gambia.
Wild chimpanzees disappeared from The Gambia in the early 1900’s, but there are now more than 100 chimpanzees living free on three islands in four separate social groups.
Janis Carter who was instrumental in leading the project had to initially demonstrate which foods were safe, led foraging expeditions, and communicated through chimp vocalisations. Janis knew that if the chimps’ return to the wild was to be successful, she too would have to limit contact with humans. The chimps were let loose on the island. She slept in a cage.
Famously Janis accompanied a Chimpanzee named Lucy to The Gambia, Lucy was owned by the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma. Lucy was reared as if she were a human child, teaching her to eat with cutlery, dress herself, flip through magazines, and sit in a chair at the dinner table. She was taught sign language and for years she was unable to relate to the other Chimpanzees in the rehabilitation centre. After her return to the wild Lucy showed many signs of depression, including refusal to eat, and expressed sadness and hurt via sign language.
The Abyssinian Roller is likely to be encountered anywhere within the Sahelian habitats of The Gambia and perch prominently in trees or bushes making photographs like this possible. Rather surprisingly it is believed that the population trend for this species is on the up as it exploits urban areas and agriculture.
The White-backed Night Heron is a secretive species often found in dense Mangrove and being strictly nocturnal it makes it all the more harder to find particularly as it is rarely found at feeding areas less than one hour after sunset and usually returning to day-roosts 15–30 minutes prior to dawn.
Very little is known of its eating habits although its likely to prey upon small fish, amphibians, molluscs, crustaceans and perhaps flying ants, flies and other insects.
The Malachite Kingfisher is commonly found in areas of freshwater including ditches, ponds and streams. We quite frequently find them alongside rice paddies. There is an exceptional record of a nest site nest 4 m down a well shaft but they normally nest in a bank side within a dug tunnel 25–125 cm long excavated by both pairs. The nest-chamber is going to whiff a bit as it is often lined with fish bones and regurgitated arthropod exoskeletons!…..yum!
The Gambia recently began the process of returning to its membership of the Commonwealth and formally presented its application to re-join to the Secretary-General on 22nd January 2018. The Gambia officially rejoined the Commonwealth on 8th February 2018.
With a population of just over two million people The Gambia is Africa’s smallest nation. Around 75% of people live in the cities and towns and as you journey upriver leaving behind the beach tourists you realise just how poor The Gambia is, with a third of the population surviving below the United Nations poverty line of $1.25 a day.
However inland the subsistence farming management gives rise to a huge array of wildlife not seen in neighbouring countries due to their intensity of agriculture. Long term fallows are the norm, long rotations with forested edges and even rotational scrub development which gives an amazing heterogeneity and a boom of habitats for both resident and migratory species alike. Here it is possible to find roosts of Turtle Doves several hundred strong as they are drawn to the array of seed available for them both from agricultural spillage and more natural sources. The River Gambia dominates and perhaps this availability of freshwater combined with food resources makes this area a magnet to wintering Turtle Doves.
Having worked in The Gambia over a number of years on conservation projects and being the original members of #TeamPeanut we have forged great relationships and fully support and continue to work in partnership with the Gambia Bird Watchers Association. (GBA)
Inglorious Bustards work closely with GBA, giving project advice and consultation. We are now donating 10% of our profits from all our Gambia trips to supporting their high quality, objective-led work.
These relationships enable us to give a unique visit to The Gambia and the least explored avian delights as well as ensuring that we leave behind us positive impacts for nature, the environment and its people.
We still have availability on this years departure 2nd – 12th December and we hope to see you there!
It´s hard to believe six weeks have passed since we were basking in the warmth and loveliness of The Gambia, with our fantastic group from Honeyguides Wildlife Holidays! It´s also hard to capture in words the resplendent riot of colour and life that was packed into our trip to this tiny West African gem!
As we followed the gleaming Gambia River inland, we left our European existences behind and ensconced ourselves in rural life, exploring sparkling coastal creeks, tranquil mangrove swamps teeming freshwater lakes, verdant forests and life-rich Sahelian heath, dotted with unimaginably ancient Baobab trees.
Our adventure brought us up close to stunning local specialities such as Egyptian Plover, African Finfoot, White-backed Night Heron, Adamawa Turtle Dove, Hadada Ibis, Northern Anteater Chat, White-shouldered Black Tit, Cinnamon-breasted Rock Bunting and Four-banded Sandgrouse.
Our days were filled with eye-poppingly colourful flora and fauna, including seven glittering species of Sunbirds, six glamorous species of Bee-eaters, four Rollers, six Kingfishers, Barbets, Turacos and Exclamatory Paradise Whydahs that sailed through the air like tiny shooting stars!
Rivers and jungles held Hippopotamus, Nile Crocodile, Guinea Baboons, Red Patas, Red Colobus and Green Monkeys.
Our 31 raptor species included Long-crested Eagle, Bateleur, African Hawk Eagle, Beaudouin´s, Western Banded and Brown Snake Eagle, African Harrier Hawk, Shikra and Dark Chanting Goshawk, many of which were swirling in huge numbers around a raging bushfire!
Add to this the welcoming and generous Gambian people, the vibrancy of their culture, music and clothing, and the delicious West African food, and you may start to get a picture of why it´s so easy to fall for ‘Africa´s Smiling Coast’!
If you need brightening up, take a minute to read our full Honeyguides trip report – hopefully it´ll be all the incentive you need to join us! We´re already looking forward to heading back this December, or stay tuned for a 2020 repeat trip with Honeyguides…
The Inglorious Bustards have a challenge! As conservationists, we are only too aware of the environmental impact of the activities associated with our business. We want to share with you the joy of watching wildlife all along the East Atlantic flyway, but in doing so we inevitably encourage consumption of the planet´s resources. Our challenge as a responsible ecotourism operator is to ensure that our activities can be channelled into a positive outcome for the environment. We want to make sure that, when you travel with us, you´ll be benefitting, not exploiting the wildlife we see together. On our trips, “eco-tourism” is a promise, not an oxymoron.
We call this concept #FlywayBirding. We have turned traditional so-called “eco-tourism” on its head, putting conservation action and education at the very heart of what we do, not just as a guilt-assuaging afterthought to our trips. We´ve thought hard about how to bring a completely fresh approach to delivering wildlife holidays from a sustainable standpoint, making only a positive impact on our surroundings. And we’ve worked extremely hard to build some fantastic partnerships to help us!
Here is how we’re doing it – our #FlywayPromise to you.
We encourage sustainable land use.
Our work over decades for the RSPB, attempting to reverse the fortunes of UK, European and African farmland wildlife, has made us recognise the power of food choice and how it can affect the plight of declining species.
Latest findings presented at the IPCC in October 2018 were striking and conclusive. While everyone talks about electricity generation and fossil fuel consumption, it is an oft-ignored fact that by far the best way of having a positive impact on our planet is to change what we eat. Currently 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. We want to make the choice to eat ethically an irresistible one! Don’t worry though, carnivores! Meat is of course available as normal throughout our tours, and you’ll never be denied the chance to try some of the delicious locally-produced meat dishes our destinations are famous for.
We are also extremely proud to have teamed up with the Tarifa Ecocenter. Operating under the slogan “The fork is the most powerful tool to change the planet.”, the Ecocenter is not just a superb vegetarian restaurant, it is a local hub for eco-consciousness. Here you can partake in delicious, sustainably-sourced meals, made with produce from local wildlife-friendly farms. The organic produce shop and meeting spaces are a sociable place designed to encourage the exchange of ideas. We love working in partnership with them, along with their sister project, Molino de Guadalmesi – an organic farm, community centre, eatery and eco-lodge situated in a beautifully-restored water mill. On selected tours, we visit the mill 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!
Our picnics always contain seasonal local produce from small farmers. In all of our destinations, we are lucky enough to find a wealth of small artisanal producers, many of whom are organic. In 2019 we will source at least 50% of the fresh goods in our picnics from them. Our aim is to increase this to 75+% by 2020. Luckily, local extensively grazed goats´ and sheeps´ cheeses are invariably superb, and Andalusian organic tomatoes and peppers are quite simply world-beaters! Our picnic fruit and vegetables for our Straits-based tours are now sourced wherever possible from the Tarifa Eco-centre, being grown locally on their farm. In all of our trips to Africa, we source fresh from local markets and village traders.
We minimise packaging waste.
It seems that after many years of campaigning, the horror of the extent of our plastic consumption has finally entered the public consciousness, and changes might actually be made. Our history of avoidance, reuse and recycling of plastic goes back many years, but when we are out cetacean-watching on the Straits enjoying copious marine life, we are certainly pleased to be part of the current wave!
Thanks to our locally-produced food sourcing, the excess of packaging associated with supermarkets is immediately eliminated. When we buy dry and other goods, we buy in bulk and manage their use carefully, thus reducing both food and packaging waste. Luckily Niki is from Yorkshire originally, so thrift comes naturally!
We ask our clients to bring their own water bottles which are filled from taps or potable mountain springs. In countries outside the EU where tap water is not drinkable, we buy large containers and decant into personal bottles to reduce plastic waste.
We minimise our in-country transport emissions.
In Spain, we minimise the emissions associated with our in-country transport by use of modern, fuel-efficient vehicles. Our minibus is a Renault Trafic, known as being one of the most economical vans on the market, returning an impressive mpg of 50, with further features such as Stop & Start, Cruise Control and ECO mode adding to its green credentials.
Our focus on hosting trips along the glorious East Atlantic Flyway means that we are able to arrive at 90% of our tour destinations to meet you without boarding a flight ourselves.
We know our areas well, so we are also able to apply careful route-planning to minimise driving distances between sites.
Unlike some carbon-offsetting schemes, this is not simply a case of absolving guilt by shoving some trees in an ill-thought-out location! WLT funds the purchase or lease of threatened land to create nature reserves, protecting both habitats and their wildlife. By protecting and restoring threatened forest in key areas of conservation importance, CO₂ emissions are prevented and carbon storage enhanced.To make projects like this work, this fore-sighted organisation includes, rather than excludes local communities. It funds partner NGOs to employ local people as reserve rangers, sustainably managing some of the world’s most threatened habitats and the animals found within them.
We balance all the CO₂ emissions associated with our staff flights and all in-country travel and accommodation associated with our tours. In 2018, we offset over 24 tonnes of CO₂, funds for which went directly to acquiring and preserving threatened forest habitat. We are also encouraging you to offset your own holiday flights through WLT. Currently this can be done directly through their website, but in early 2019 we will be introducing an option to our booking form allowing you to offset as you book your trip!
We encourage respectful wildlife-watching.
For the prosperity of the species that we enjoy watching so much, and for our own ongoing enjoyment, it is imperative that we avoid disturbing the wildlife we are trying to see.
We never flush birds. The reward of seeing a Red-necked Nightjar or a Tawny Owl at rest after patient and quiet searching from afar is so much greater than glimpsing one fly away after some idiot has just booted it out of the undergrowth! For ground-nesters such as the Moroccan Marsh Owl, we now only offer trips outside the breeding season, and time our site visits to maximise the chance of finding the birds active rather than roosting.
We use fieldcraft to find passerines. Usually with a little patience and listening, it is perfectly possible to find the bird you are looking for. On the very rare occasions we choose to use a tape, we do so sensitively, always adhering to the guidelines published in the article “The Proper Use of Playback in Birding” by Sibley et al.
Where we work through other companies, for example for cetacean-watching boat trips or to look for Iberian Lynx, we only work with reputable firms who have non-intrusive wildlife-watching protocols in place.
We challenge the unethical.
While we as individuals have no problem with sustainable subsistence hunting within local communities, we personally find hunting for so-called ‘sport’ abhorrent, and unsustainable trophy hunting completely unacceptable. The hunting industry seems to be out of control, able to damage ecosystems and illegally kill native wildlife with impunity. Of the thirty optics companies that were examined in the 2018 Ethical Consumer report entitled “Shooting Wildlife II”, 83% were found to specifically market to hunters as well as birders. And a disappointing 13 of these actively glamorise trophy hunting in their promotional material, including targets like lions and bears.
That´s why we´re proud to be ambassadors for Viking Optical – a British-based company which is one of only a handful of companies that produce high quality optics solely for the wildlife-watching market. They too have nature at their heart and support a variety of conservation projects including being RSPB Species Champions for two critically endangered birds and long-time sponsors of the Birdfair. We love the personal contact, trust and compassion involved in working with them. They really put their optics where their mouth is, enabling us to loan binoculars to volunteers monitoring the raptor migration across the Straits of Gibraltar, to bird-watching newcomers, and to budding young Gambian ornithologists.
Phew! Now that we´ve minimised our own impact on the environment as much as we can, it´s time to add positive actions!
We support local conservation projects.
All across the East Atlantic Flyway, there are passionate individuals and local NGOs running brilliant small-scale conservation initiatives, making immediate positive differences for their local wildlife. As our company grows, so does our ability to contribute to their efforts. Our portfolio of projects expands all the time, and you can read more on our website, but here´s a taster:
The Migres Foundation is a private non-profit scientific and cultural foundation, focused on the preservation and enhancement of natural heritage in the Straits of Gibraltar.
Migres has run a long-term monitoring program of bird migration through the Strait of Gibraltar since 1997, making it the greatest sustained effort for monitoring migratory birds in Europe, and is immensely important in monitoring population change and migratory patterns in many avian species, including endangered species such as Egyptian Vultures and Balearic Shearwaters.
The body of scientific research generated by Migres on interactions between soaring birds and wind turbines has global importance.
They also perform research and awareness programs, carry out advanced ornithological training activities and environmental education, organise conferences, and encourage activities promoting sustainable local development and nature tourism in general.
We work closely with Migres in assisting with monitoring, fundraising and promotional activities using our wealth of experience gained whilst working for the RSPB.
Marisma 21 is an organisation devoted to the restoration of the salt marshes in the Bay of Cadiz, on the south western coast of Spain. The salt marsh is an important ecological area and Marisma 21’s objectives are the recovery and holistic revitalisation of the salt pans using artisanal salt production methods. This not only ensures the maintenance of the macro-flora in the salt pans, an important food source for migratory wading birds, but enhances the local environment for aquatic salt-loving species.
The sympathetic management and hand-harvesting of the pans not only generates multiple benefits for wildlife, it also brings employment to the area in the form of salt production work and nature tourism.
On selected tours, we offer you the opportunity to dine on site at the salt pans, watching breeding Little Terns and Kentish Plovers while eating delicious freshly-cooked tortillitas de camarrones, and shrimps fished from the salt pans just moments before! You´ll have the opportunity to support their work by taking home some souvenir salt, an incredibly tasty product you´ll also get to sample at our picnics!
Based at Kotu Creek, near Brufut, TheGambia Birdwatchers Association was established in 2007. It provides a headquarters for the area´s bird guides, trains the next generation of ornithologists, and carries out excellent project-based conservation work, including utilising local volunteers in the restoration of mangrove swamp habitat. In The Gambia, many important forests are community-owned, and GBA are instrumental in setting up community reserves, training bird guides in the villages and enabling them to benefit from the preservation of forest habitat through well-thought-out ecotourism.
Inglorious Bustards work closely with GBA, giving project advice and consultation. From 2019, we will be donating 10% of our profits from all our Gambia trips to supporting their high quality, objective-led work.
So there it is, our #FlywayPromise. We hope you like it! We are constantly striving to find new ways to use our passion for #FlywayBirding to make the planet a better place. Our hope is not to be different, but that others will rise to this challenge too.
July can be a quiet time for the UK-based Birder, with young and moulting birds skulking in full leaved bushes and trees, quiet and notoriously hard to find.
Southern Spain is perhaps not the first place that springs to mind for birding in midsummer but it in fact holds many delights! And, in the time it takes to cross Norfolk (and about the same cost!), you could be in the Straits of Gibraltar taking some of them in!
Because of its strategic position at the gateway of two continents, Andalusia is a unique blend of Europe and Africa. This southernmost Spanish province is the most biodiverse region not only in Spain but the whole of Europe, and it stays relatively cool due to the sea breezes.
So if you´re after a snapshot of superb resident species in intertidal, wetland, farmland, woodland and urban habitats, accompanied with fantastic tapas, passionate discussions, and welcoming people, come join us for a weekend to remember!
Here´s five reasons why…
Meet the locals!
We really do have some star local species waiting for you here in the Straits!
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.
Nipping into the beautiful Old Town of Tarifa, we´ll be able to enjoy the antics of our local Lesser Kestrel colony, swooping and reeling around the Moorish fort.
We can also hope for a great selection of raptors including Griffon Vultures, Egyptian Vultures, Bonelli’s and Spanish Imperial Eagles, Short-toed and Booted Eagles and Black-winged Kites.
Visits to wetlands should yield a host of waders including 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 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 and Greater Flamingo as well as Western Osprey and Purple Swamphen.
Other resident Spanish specialities include Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit, Western Bonelli´s Warbler – the list goes on!
2. Add an African twist to your Spanish list!
The mere nine miles that separates Spain from Africa has proved to be no boundary for some plucky African species! Here you can add the unexpected to your Spanish list.
Two typically African Swift species choose the Iberian peninsula as one of their very localised breeding sites in Europe – Little and White-rumped. It’s one of the very few places in Europe you can see all five of our breeding Swift species!
You can also encounter Common Bulbul, Rüppell´s Vulture, Marbled and White-headed Duck and Red-knobbed Coot, all unusual ´ticks´to find this side of the Straits.
3. Migration early days
Perhaps surprisingly, at this time of year, the return to Africa has already begun for some species, and we should start to see flocks of White Storks and Black Kites crossing the Straits.
Groups of super-sized Alpine Swift should be passing overhead on their early morning passage flight, moving through from their mountain breeding grounds to their sub-Saharan wintering areas.
In fact almost anything can turn up here during the early days of autumn migration, as passerines collect amongst the shady trees to gather strength for their southwards crossing of the Straits.
4. Bugs and beasts galore!
As moist air from the Mediterranean Sea passes through the Straits, it gathers in clouds and falls as dew high up on the Cork Oak forests of the Alcornocales Natural Park.
The unique nature of this unusual cloud forest means the streams and brooks in this area continue to run long after the rest of Spain is dry. This phenomenon makes this a superb area for invertebrates, amphibians and reptiles throughout the year.
We should see gorgeous Monarch butterflies, Two-tailed Pashas, Four-spotted Emerald and Copper Demoiselle all in flight, as well as a host of fascinating frogs, toads and lizards to be spotted.
5. All the other things!
Sunshine, sangria, tapas, vino tinto, local hams and cheeses, ice cold beer in chilled glasses, relaxed people, gorgeous scenery, empty beaches… Do we really need go on?!
Recently we hosted a group from Wensum Valley Bird Society from Norfolk, UK at the end of April. We delighted in Birding on Two Continents with them and as with all our trips we became the best of friends in travel and adventure! If you have a group, bird / wildlife club or simply a group of friends and want an adventure that suits your budget and exceeds your expectations, simply contact us for further information.
Here are some of the trip highlights in the fabulous team’s own words!..
The weather was being very contrary at the start of our trip, and we left the UK in the middle of a heatwave. We were hosted by Inglorious Bustards at the lovely Huerta Grande lodge, where Nightingales and Firecrests made their presence known immediately. Our first full day in Spain found us on top of the Sierra de la Plata, near Bolonia, in a howling gale and temperatures more suited to the English winter. Fortunately it didn’t actually rain, and in fact it didn’t stop us from seeing some exciting birds. We were all thrilled to see Woodchat Shrikes on the way up the mountain, and these lovely birds became frequent sightings throughout the week. On parking at the top we were greeted by a Blue Rock Thrush, and a pair of Griffon Vultures on the cliff.
Lesser Kestrels were nesting on the top. As the Vultures and Kestrels swirled around us, enjoying the strong wind, the really exciting birds were seen. A pair of Egyptian Vultures! What is more they are really beautiful, pale birds, something I never expected to say of a Vulture. They are clearly nesting here, to the delight of Simon, and most of us got pictures of them. Chicks of the Griffon Vultures were too seen and photographed. A Booted Eagle and two Short-toed Eagles also put in an appearance.
A coffee stop at Bolonia was not only enlivened by my first Zitting Cisticola, but also by a cavalcade of around 40 motorbikes, their approach heralded by much hooting and honking! The highlight of our stop at Barbate, a wetland area, had to be the beautiful Collared Pratincoles, which nest there in numbers. Other birds did try to upstage them though. The first I hardly dare mention. It was a Red-necked Nightjar, for which we owe thanks to Alan, who unwittingly flushed it. Sadly he didn’t see the bird himself, and he was remorselessly teased about it for the rest of the week. The other was a Little Bustard, which was heard calling nearby. Another favourite bird that we were to see more of was the Iberian Yellow Wagtail, a bright and beautiful grey-headed sub-species. Add in the Corn Buntings, Crag Martins, Cirl Buntings and Kentish Plovers, among others, and you will see that we had a great first day.
7.30a.m saw us queueing for the 8 a.m ferry from Algeciras to Morocco. It hadn’t been a very smooth crossing, however the African sunshine was welcoming us. Once waved through it was only 20 mins to Oued Marsa, a truck stop high on a splendid viz-mig spot for a second breakfast. What we really yearned for were big mugs of builders tea, sadly not on offer, but Moroccan mint and orange blossom tea made for the perfect alternative.
What happened next was a once in a lifetime birding moment, something every birder dreams about. First out of the fog came hundreds of BLACK KITES, interspersed with WHITE & BLACK STORKS, HONEY BUZZARDS, MONTAGU’S HARRIERS, SPARROWHAWKS, BOOTED EAGLES (both morphs), SHORT-TOED EAGLES, KESTRELS & BEE EATERS, all kettling and trying to gain height for their crossing. We watched a female HONEY BUZZARD set off, lose confidence, turn around and head back, and then set off again, disappearing into the horizon, well on her way into Europe.
A cry of “SPOTTED FLY over here” turned our eyes to the ground. Soon all our group were shouting “REDSTART”, WILLOW WARBLER”, “GARDEN WARBLER”, “WOODCHAT SHRIKE”, “IBERIAN CHIFFCHAFF” in unison. The most unusual find was a pair of BLACK-CROWNED TCHAGRA.
Our host Simon said that the best migration here was with an Easterly. How right he was. In a brief 30 minute stop we reckoned we saw 28 species that had been grounded by the Levante wind. The skies were dripping migrants. It seemed to be the case of name the bird and it will be there somewhere. I have never seen anything like it in my life. A truly memorable birding moment.
Reluctantly we climbed back into our vehicles for the two hour drive to Merga Zerja wetlands, a tidal lagoon located on the Atlantic coast. Once the home of Slender-billed Curlew, last seen there in 1995, its threatened wildlife is under pressure from ever increasing agricultural expansion.
More mint tea was consumed at a restaurant overlooking the lagoon as we waited for our boats, and we marvelled at the aerial antics of CASPIAN and SANDWICH TERNS, AUDOUIN’S and YELLOW-LEGGED GULLS were dotted on the Lagoon shore. GLOSSY IBIS flew past in formation.
We picked our way through the lagoon-side fish market, the fisherman seemingly preferred to sell direct from their boats, rather than the tailor made brick building. Plenty of waders were on the lagoon shores. Umpteen WHIMBREL, splendid GREY PLOVERS, DUNLIN, CURLEW, and OYSTERCATCHERS. GREATER FLAMINGOES glinted in the distance. RED-RUMPED and BARN SWALLOWS, COMMON & PALLID SWIFTS danced above our heads.
Back on land we pulled into a small wood at the edge of the Lagoon, lazily scanning for NORTHERN LAPWINGS and MARSH HARRIERS as we devoured our picnic lunch.
However the day was not over yet. Simon had a “special bird” he hoped we would see at dusk. The secret location was alongside a fruit farm, producing strawberries, blackberries and potatoes for M & S and Waitrose. Quietly and in single file we followed Simon down the edge of a furrowed field, glimpsing ZITTING CISTICOLAS and SERIN on our way. Our target was the vulnerable MOROCCAN MARSH OWL, more and more of its habitat being claimed by the fruit farmers. Preparing for a long wait, we were startled when suddenly there it was, rising out of the reeds in front of us.
By sheer chance and good luck I was actually looking in the right direction, camera in hand. click, click, click. Not brilliant photos, but a brilliant momento. Satisfied, we turned around and headed back towards the vans. Liz and I stopped for a few minutes to admire a LITTLE OWL scowling out of his dead tree at us. We didn’t realise two male and a female MONTAGU’S HARRIERS were displaying behind us, and a COMMON QUAIL was lurking…….
……We had had the best possible day.
Our first full day in Morocco, at Larache a town on the Atlantic coast. After a good night’s sleep in our hotel, breakfast was taken in a restaurant across the road. Freshly squeezed orange juice, flat bread, pancakes, honey, fried eggs, cheese and more olives. Hot drinks of milky coffee and sweet mint tea, both served in glasses.
Simon had advised us to bring cameras and binoculars across the newly refurbished plaza, Place de la Liberation, to the old arches opposite, and there in the corners were Little Swifts nests, these had been there for decades with Swifts repairing and building on to them. Swifts were busy feeding chicks and took little notice of us.
Checking out of the hotel and back in the minibuses we drove along the run-down beach and seafront area to the Loukkos river and along to the marshes. A couple of stops revealed Little and Cattle Egrets, Turtle Doves, Bee-eaters, Greater Flamingos, Savi’s Warblers in full song at the top on reeds, Red-crested Pochard, Marsh Harrier, Black-winged Stilts, Cetti’s Warblers, Brown-throated Martins, Red-knobbed Coots, Great White Egrets, Zitting Cisticolas, a single Purple Swamphen, an elusive Great Reed Warbler, Short-toed Eagle, Black Kites and the list went on!
By early afternoon we had arrived at the little bustling town of Bni Arouss. Several old white Mercedes taxis, heavily-laden donkeys, butchers shops with lamb carcasses hung in the open air and busy barbers shops. Having found a local to mind the minibuses our guides soon organised lunch. The eatery had sawdust on the floor, a home-made BBQ outside and inside about enough space to sit us and space for the cook to prepare our food. Flat breads, two types of spiced beans, grilled sardines, strips of beef and lamb mint balls, chips, water and mint tea, all very tasty.
Back on the road to the Bouhachem Forest a forest of Pine trees, Cork oaks and Wild Olive trees. Our first stop was for a troupe of Barbary Macaques to look at us, this made a change and the dominant male never took his eyes off us. As we walked, stopping here and there, Booted Eagle, Ravens, Long-legged Buzzards, a Short-toed Treecreeper, African Blue Tits, Atlas Pied Flycatchers, Firecrests, Desert Grey Shrikes, Griffon Vultures but best of all with excellent viewsfour Levaillant’s Green Woodpeckers, three seen well the fourth heard.
As [a] member of the wonderfully enjoyable WVBS trip to Spain and Morocco … I thought I would share some of my highlights of the trip.
Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker…Picus vaillantii………………………tick
Northern Morocco was quite a surprise in terms of its vegetation and lushness. The Bouhachem forest in the Rif mountains of North Morocco is wonderful mixed woodland: the ubiquitous Cork Oak, but also cedar, pine, fir and cypress. It seems relatively unspoilt and has recently been assigned status as a “parc-naturel” so hopefully there will be some form of protection against the ongoing spread of developed land creep and technology.
So there we were, on a lonely forest road sitting in the van watching a troupe of Barbary Macaques entertaining themselves. (This population was the originator of the macaques in Gibraltar). But as entertaining as these were as soon as David and Simon, the guide, saw a Woodpecker fly into a tree in their midst, there was an eruption of bodies out of the van to try to spy it. Before too long Simon had it in his scope and we were treated to great views of a Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker, its beautiful green back straight in front of us against the trunk of a pine tree. While we were congratulating ourselves on our luck to see this we heard another calling off stage right and shortly after heard drumming fairly close by. With luck I was able to spot this one in another tree drumming against some dead wood on part of the trunk.
After everyone had a chance to see this we then saw another Levaillant’s Woodpecker buzzing it and then them both flying off stage left across the road. So we got great views of two, calling and drumming and a good barney to boot.
Not so unusual to see a Nightingale but what did seem to me unusual was that we heard Nightingales practically everywhere we went, loud and long, day and night, protected areas and not. There is just so much good habitat: wasteland and scrub. So the Nightingale does not seem to be at risk (yet) in its heartland areas. But it made me think about how little land is available to them in the UK now and how hard it will be to maintain them at the edge of their range. Maybe Mr Gove will solve it all with his new environmental policy…….But it really was a treat to hear them singing so much and I did eventually get great views of one singing near our dining area at Huerta Grande our base camp in Spain.
Crested Tit …. Lophophanes cristatus….tick Firecrest….Regulus ignicapilla….tick
Both on the same tree whilst I was having breakfast at Huerta Grande. How nice was that!
Thekla Lark……Galerida theklae…………………tick
We were at a likely-looking site of grazing and common land with patches of scrub and Iberian Broom. I was idly looking at a Crested Lark and asked the guide what the bird next to it was. He easily identified this as a juvenile Stonechat but suggested I look more closely at the Crested Lark, its distinct breast streaking and its more upright stance. While I was trying to take in this upright posture, the Lark started lowering its breast to the dusty ground and going round in circles. Was it dust bathing? After several circles Liz suddenly shouted “there’s a snake” and a Horseshoe Whip snake at least a metre long weaved its way past the bird and on across the grass into the undergrowth. Did this explain the bird’s strange behaviour? Who knows.
My highlights of the trip in no particular order:
A lovely friendly bunch of people to spend time with
Waking to the wonderful song of Nightingales
Standing by a truck stop watching hundreds of raptors debating whether to brave the Levante wind and cross the Straits
Weird, wonderful and rare birds: Egyptian Vulture, Northern Bald Ibis, Moroccan Marsh Owl, Levaillant’s Woodpecker.
Cartwheel sized flatbreads, fried fish and copious beans
Little Swifts’ feathery nests in the Larache plaza
Eating chewy snails from a market stall in the blue city
Scarce Swallowtail butterfly – and a Common too
White Storks sharing their nests with sparrows and
starlings – imagine Edward Lear’s Old Man With A
An enormous Common Toad on my doorstep!
Lesser Kestrels oblivious to tourists visiting the Castle
Thanks to the Inglorious Bustards.
At the risk of introducing a more melancholy note I would like to mention some of the conservation concerns that I have been pondering since we got back:
Slender-billed Curlew – Shortly after crossing the Straits of Gibraltar we drove to a river estuary where we took two small fishing boats out onto the river. Apart from being a very pleasant excursion, this site has a very sad birding significance as the last known recorded site of the Slender-billed Curlew, now believed to be extinct. Hassan, our local guide, is credited with being one of the last observers to record the bird. There is a local café, beloved of visiting birders, in which the bird log records scores of annual sightings some years ago, then dozens, then a few, and finally none…..We saw lots of Whimbrel, a few Common Curlew, but no Slender-billed. This is a species that has become extinct in our lifetime. Ouch….
Nightingales – The wonderful gardens around our accommodation in Huerta Grande in Spain, and the hotel near Chefchaouen in Morocco, rang to the glorious song of many male Nightingales. They kept us awake at night, and woke us up in the mornings – and never have I been so pleased to suffer insomnia! This bird seems to thrive in less intensively farmed and developed areas in Europe, where the locals are less inclined to be so tidy. There are probably greater numbers of insects, and less Deer browsing the understorey. Whatever the cause, we are about to lose this fabulous bird from the UK where numbers may have declined by as much as 90%. Surely, something must be done to halt then reverse this decline.
Moroccan Marsh Owl – Simon, our leader, took us to an area bordering a river estuary. We drove down farm tracks past fields and greenhouses where fruit and vegetables were being farmed intensively, almost entirely for the British market. One multinational farming company was responsible for draining and then eating up much of the land in this area to grow strawberries for our supermarkets. We were met on the edge of the cultivated area by Hassan and another local who knew exactly where to find a Marsh Owl and what a fantastic bird this is, but now very rare, and if the farming company continue to swallow up the limited marshland habitat, the last few birds will be forced out of this area.
Northern Bald Ibis – These birds have been reintroduced into Spain and had chosen a nest site in some cliffs just above a relatively busy road. An Eagle Owl had wiped out all but one of the chicks last year, so the owl had been captured and relocated out of harm’s way. I asked Simon if there was any risk from egg collectors stealing, as these birds are so rare (this is currently their only European nest site). No, he said, as the local villagers are very proud of “their” Bald Ibis colony, and anyone threatening it would be likely to be dealt with quite harshly! This colony is small, but with care, will continue to prosper and hopefully grow in numbers.
Janet and I cannot thank Simon and Niki from Inglorious Bustards enough for hosting such a brilliant week. And we are very grateful to our six colleagues from the club that were such good company throughout. I would love to visit the area again, and, who knows, maybe a Red-necked Nightjar will appear….!?