On a rainy afternoon we found ourselves reminiscing about our superb trip to beautiful Doñana earlier this year, in all its wintery wonder! It was perhaps the perfect antidote for our guests that week for their Northern European January.
Thousands of wintering waders, wildfowl and wetland birds filled the lagoons, ponds and saltpans, including Red-knobbed Coot, Marbled Duck, White-headed Duck, Black-winged Stilt, Little Stint, Caspian Terns, Slender-billed Gulls, Common Ringed, Little Ringed, Grey and Kentish Plover, Black-crowned Night Herons, White and Black Storks, Common Cranes, Glossy Ibis, Greater Flamingoes and Purple Swamphens.
As well as treats like showy Bluethroats, Little Swifts, Eurasian Hoopoes, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, Black-winged Kites, Booted Eagles, Iberian Grey Shrikes and a sneaky Lesser Flamingo, the group were lucky enough to encounter both of Doñana’s most famed Iberian endemics. In two wholly different experiences we shared the briefest of moments with an evaporating Iberian Lynx – soon followed by outstanding views of no less than SIX Spanish Imperial Eagles!
It is hard to know how we packed so much into just five days!
But we did, and we still had plenty of time to enjoy every species at a relaxed pace, sample sustainably-produced local food during picnics in the sun, and get to know the sandy streets and bar-side hitching posts of El Rocío.
As the world starts to think about arriving to a brave “new normal”, we all need something to look forward to. As well as thinking back, we’re looking forward to seeing you in the future, and we’re currently taking no-obligation, flexible bookings on this and other trips for 2020 and 2021.
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!