“Cranes are the stuff of magic, whose voices penetrate the atmosphere of the world’s wilderness areas, from arctic tundra to the South African veld, and whose footprints have been left on the wetlands of the world for the past 60 million years or more”
Andalucía is an important wintering and stopover point for migrating Common Cranes, so in winter we are often lucky enough to be surrounded by the magical, musical voices which Paul A Johnsgard speaks of in the above quote.
As a small part of our commitment to our Flyway Promise conservation effort (and because we love Cranes!) we´ve been spending some time surveying with Grupo de Trabajo y Conservación de la Grulla Comun en Extremadura (Grus Extremadura for short).
As well as education and conservation work, this organisation has been working to bring together data about Common Cranes passing through the Iberian Peninsula since 2014, both by collating ad hoc records and managing two peninsula-wide surveys in December and January of each winter. They also have an incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic WhatsApp group – it seems Crane enthusiasts are as gregarious as the birds themselves!
And so, we found ourselves spending the end of a glorious winter´s day on our home patch at the farmlands of La Janda, enjoying local treats in the form of Spanish Imperial Eagle, Black-winged Kites, Short-eared Owl, Western Swamphens, Spanish Sparrows, White and Black Storks, a Red-knobbed Coot that´s been hanging out, Penduline Tits and Eurasian Bluethroats. Counting the Cranes, we were treated to the evening fanfares of those bugling beauties as they came in to roost around us in long, wavy lines.
The spectacle of large numbers of gregarious birds, gathering together during a huge journey, is always an uplifting one, and is brought even more to life by the spark of an individual story. One young Crane grazing on rice stubbles with its family wore a nice bit of bling, in the form of colour rings on its legs. Checking out the colour code, we found this youngster and its family had joined us from Teuva in Finland, having travelled a distance of around 4,600 km.
Their journey, made with extended family and friends from their home wetlands, probably started in August or September. Joining up with other travelling birds from around Scandinavia as they went, they most likely crossed the Baltic Sea to Sweden, then moved south through northern Germany, wetland-hopping all the way. In France they may well have taken a break at the Lac du Der (a reservoir) in Chantecoq with thousands of others, before crossing the Pyrenees through the valleys of Navarra and western Aragon.
A stop at Zaragoza´s famous Gallocanta Lagoon – usually for a few days – is an annual pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds. Winter numbers usually peak at over 100,000. To see and hear these gatherings on an icy dawn is a beautiful experience which we have missed a lot in 2020! I can only imagine what it must feel like for a young Common Crane from Finland joining this throng for the first time!
Many Common Cranes then continue to the central parts of Extremadura where they rest and feed, using this area as a corridor to the rest of Iberia – Portugal, Cordoba, Sevilla, Doñana and our own La Janda, from where some birds cross The Straits of Gibraltar to winter in Morocco.
On our first survey we counted 732 – much lower than the usual 1,200 or so recorded in the December census (in fact only yesterday we counted 1,407) – but a beautiful sight nonetheless. Adverse weather across central Spain may well have held the birds back or made them choose other sites – just days later there were reports of hundreds more arriving from the North. All in all that evening, our Ibergrus compañeros counted 11,361 individuals in Andalucía – a little higher than usual – and a grand total of 238,361 birds in Spain.
Common Cranes are nothing if not adaptable. Despite threats from draining of wetlands, agricultural intensification, and danger from collisions and electrocutions by power infrastructure, their western European population has trebled in the last 20 years. They have seemingly embraced modern agriculture, augmenting their winter acorn feasts in traditional Spanish dehesa (Holm Oak pasture) with plenty of extra treats from rice and maize stubbles.
However, the fate of our youngster´s eastern cousins provides a cautionary tale. Had s/he hatched a few hundred kilometres further east, the journey might have been a very different one. Changes in land use since the collapse of the former Soviet Union are proving too fast and too great for the Crane community to adapt to. Resulting population declines are only made worse by persecution, hunting and pesticide poisoning.
The habitats of the Common Crane are highly susceptible to climatic change. As the world heats, affecting seasonal water levels and food availability, we are seeing them arriving earlier at their breeding areas, abandoning them earlier in summer, passing earlier through post-breeding stopover sites, and wintering further north.
If traditional migration routes become untenable due to lost wetland stopovers and land use changes, they must develop new ones, as they have done across parts of southern Germany and central Spain in recent years. It is our job to look after the habitat that is left, so there is always a place for those magical voices and footprints.
Dave Grundy – leading authority on Andalusian moths and expert guide for Inglorious Bustards’ Mothing The Straits holiday – tells us about this phenomenal eruption of Gypsy Moths!
So, what’s the most moths you’ve ever had in your moth trap? And what’s the most of one species? I’ve heard talk of 750 Large Yellow Underwings (Noctua pronuba) in one trap in the UK and maybe as many as 2,000 total moths in the trap of all species?
Well this month I have had an interesting time with numbers of moths of one species in particular – the Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar). It causes economic damage to forestry in North America – where it was introduced – and also on a local level in Europe.
There has been a population explosion in The Straits of Gibraltar area of Andalucía, from Algeciras to Tarifa along the coast and up to about 8 kilometres inland. Beyond that, the species is flying but does not appear to be in any large numbers (we saw only 36 across 6 traps near San Roque on 27th June).
I was first aware of the larvae back on 17th May 2020 when I recorded at least 10 in my notebook when trapping at Huerta Grande, Pelayo, Andalucía, with José Manuel Gaona Ríos. We then went to Bosque de Niebla trapping on 5th June 2020 with Rafael Rodriguez Pino when my notebook just says “millions of caterpillars stripping the oak trees of all leaves”. This must have a massive effect on the ecology of other insect species dependent on the leaves and also on bird life and others dependent on the trees and insects.
But is this a phenomenon to be celebrated as a marvel of nature or to be horrified about? Could climate change be a factor? This event, which occurs cyclically every few years, is now occurring more and more often, coinciding with periods of drought. I don’t know what the answer is. However, I am definitely not a fan of attempts to eradicate on a large scale as this causes damage to so much other wildlife at the same time.
Next I saw my first ever male Gypsy Moth in Spain on 6th June 2020 – what a stunning creature when fresh and new! This was at Centro Internacional de Migración de Aves (CIMA), Tarifa, where we do not have the oak tree foodplants for the larvae to feed on, but they disperse here looking for females, which struggle to fly far from their original location.
Numbers then began to increase with 325 recorded on 15th June 2020 and 673 on 17th June and then a stunning estimated 5,000 to one trap on 19th June in calmer weather – this was ridiculous! An estimated 4,940 came to one trap on 20th June and then numbers have been up and down since, with more on calm nights and less on windy nights.
My peak count was on 28th June 2020 when I estimated 24,850 between 5 traps and 10,900 in just one of those traps! Moth recording becomes a nightmare and I even had to wear my COVID mask because of all the scales in the air! I believe and hope we are now near the peak in numbers, so I can return to normal moth-trapping soon!
But yet, how spectacular! At nearby sights just north of Tarifa I have recorded over 5,000 at La Peña and over 1800 at Punta Paloma. And to put the numbers into perspective I have now recorded since February in Spain a total of over 650 species and over 106,000 moths, but of those 60,690 have been of Gypsy Moth adult males since 6th June 2020!
Going out to a restaurant isn’t something we’ve been able to do a lot of recently, but today we were thrilled to be invited to an eatery with a difference! The menu didn’t really appeal – we’re all for trying new things but offal, rotten eggs and cow dung are a bit too avant-garde even for our tastes! The thrill of the invite came purely from the chance to rub shoulders with the celebrity guests…
For this beastly bistro has been set up with one purpose in mind – the conservation of the Endangered Egyptian Vulture – or Alimoche as they are known in Spain.
With its starkly-contrasting wing pattern, wedge-shaped tail and yolk-coloured face, this gorgeous bird must surely be one of the most eye-catching scavengers in the world. It is both sensitive and intelligent, using pebbles to break eggs, sticks to wind wool, and staying faithful to partners and nest sites over long periods. Incredible travellers, migrating birds can cover over 300 miles in a single day along the East Atlantic Flyway, until they reach the southern edge of the Sahara, as much as 3400 miles from their summer home.
Sadly, the same old story of human destruction applies to this species as to many others. Their numbers have declined dramatically – in Europe, over 50% have been lost in the last three generations. Throughout their nomadic year they face many dangers. The disastrous effects of the terrible twins threats of habitat destruction and agricultural change are exacerbated by lead and pesticide accumulation, persecution, collisions with power lines, intentional and accidental poisoning.
Around our base, in the Campo de Gibraltar and La Janda area, we are lucky enough to host a small breeding population of this stunning bird – five of the remaining 1400 pairs in Europe.
But here they face the peril of our local windfarms. Despite the fantastically successful work of our partners at Fundación Migres to reduce raptor collisions, in recent years there have been some strikes involving Egyptians from the local population. The presence of ornithologist “spotters” on the farms – such a successful strategy for protecting Griffon Vultures and other species – is simply not enough for these birds. The deaths were few, but with such a tiny population, any such losses are desperately significant, and pose a risk to the birds’ future in the area. It was clear a new approach was needed.
In 2018, Fundación Migres started piloting the creation of supplementary feeding points near to Egyptian Vulture territories. The idea was that if the birds could find “easy” food at strategic points near their nests, they would no longer take risks foraging near turbines. Turbine strikes of foraging adults would be reduced or hopefully even eliminated.
Suitable sites for supplementary feeding have to be well-located – close to one or more Egyptian Vulture territories, with a clear route to the nest that avoids windfarms. They have to be easily accessible for the feeding team, yet be quiet, safe places, away from human disturbance. Experts at Fundación Migres identified several such sites and began feeding, eventually narrowing their efforts down to the two most successful locations.
Unlike Griffon Vultures, which have evolved to work together to rip open and devour large carrion items, Egyptian Vultures love to pick up the scraps! For this reason, they get given the piltracos – small items of meat waste and offal collected from local butchers in the Tarifa area.
In one of life’s rare win-win situations, the butchers also save the money they would otherwise pay for a waste disposal service. The meat is transferred in authorized containers to the supplementary feeding points, where it is put out four times a week.
So this morning, we stood in a secluded field while our friend and colleague Alejandro dished up 90kg of waste meat, guts, bones and other unspeakable titbits, accompanied by soothing background music from Cirl Buntings, Turtle Doves and Common Nightingales!
As well as the main feast of meat scraps, the team also puts out attractive side dishes like eggs and cow dung! For an Egyptian Vulture, these accompaniments are simply to die for – they are rich in the carotene pigments they need to give them that gorgeous yolky-yellow face.
To measure the success of the project, the sites are checked daily and activity is also monitored using camera-traps. Many of the birds are tagged or ringed, so a detailed picture can be built up of which individuals or pairs come to the sites and how long they spend there.
At the same time, in the wind farms, the “spotters” collect information on any birds that fly nearby. This means that the team can make a direct comparison between days when food is laid out or not, to see if it reduces the birds’ presence in or around the windfarms.
Preliminary results of the pilot are very promising. Since the trial began, there have been no deaths of local birds on the windfarms. The supplementary feeding points have significantly reduced the number of birds recorded near wind farms, massively reducing the risk of collision. This is especially important while they have chicks are in the nest, and adult foraging is particularly intense.
The fringe benefits of the project have also been impressive! It seems word has got around about the hottest table in town, and the team are recording non-local Egyptian vultures and many other species coming to the feeding sites, including Griffon Vultures, Cinereous Vultures, Black Kites, Common Buzzards, Northern Goshawks and more.
At the moment one of the area’s local celebrities is also putting in an appearance every day. A stunning adult Rüppell’s Vulture – supposed to be in sub-Saharan Africa but currently hanging out with our local Griffon Vulture colony and attempting to mate. Earlier in the Spring other vagrant individuals were recorded too, as this species gradually gains a foothold in Europe.
The project is supervised by the Andalucían Government and is coordinated with their vulture conservation team. It is currently financed by the wind power companies. In academic terms the project is still in early days, and nothing will be published until data has been collected for several years and the effectiveness of the measure can be properly evaluated.
In the meantime, it may not have a Michelin star or serve many vegetarian options, but Café Alimoche is definitely our new favourite eatery!
Thanks to our conservation partners and colleagues at Fundación Migres for the invite and our continued partnership.
If you love Vultures, you´ll love our Ronda & The Straits trip, timed to coincide with the virtually unknown spectacle of the Griffon Vulture migration across The Straits of Gibraltar. Check it out here and get in touch to find out more – we´re currently taking no-obligation provisional bookings for 2020.
Somewhere in a parallel universe, this weekend Dave Grundy and I would just have been saying goodbye to a group of moth-ers and wildlife lovers, having spent a week enjoying Andalucía’s lepidopteran delights!
Here’s a heartfelt message from renowned moth expert Dave, as well as some stunning photos to look back on from the excellent trip he hosted here in 2019…
So, this week I am sad, even though I am living in Andalucía and able to look at some great moths every morning, with beautiful sunshine as well! That’s because with fellow leader Niki Williamson, I should have been hosting ten moth enthusiasts last week, to show them the moths of Andalucía in our holiday called Mothing the Straits!
We would have completed six days’ worth of glorious mothing – and a further four days enjoying the area’s birds and other wildlife for those that wished to stay on. But unfortunately, due to the coronavirus situation we had to cancel this year’s holiday. I am really gutted not to have been looking at moths with these people!
And I am sad because I am never happier than when I am sharing moths with other people and I’ve not been able to do that since lockdown began! So, I thought I would do the next best thing and show you some photos of the fantastic selection of the moths we saw on this trip in 2019, as well as some of the sites and the crack team of moth-ers!
Hopefully they will inspire you to consider coming with us on the same Mothing the Straits holiday next year – we already have announced dates for 2 – 7 May 2021. But book early because places are already filling fast. Take a look at further details here, and download the checklist and trip summary here.
Again, like this year, you will have the optional extra of being able to stay on for four more days and take advantage of a birding and wildlife-watching extension. Over half the people booking on the moth tour usually book for the extension as well! And this is a stunning part of the world to view wildlife, famous for its migrating raptors, cetaceans, butterflies and reptiles as well as its moths!
So, although I’m sad about this year, I’m already looking forward to next year, why not give it a try and maybe I will see you next May?!
We hope you can join us! We are currently accepting no-obligation provisional bookings on future trips – contact us to express an interest or to find out more information on this or any of our trips.
We have noisy neighbours! However, far from being an annoyance they are very welcome – even if some of them do decide they want to sing all through the night!
Today is International Dawn Chorus Day, held annually on the first Sunday in May. We are all encouraged to rise early and listen to bird song. But if you slept through your alarm, don’t worry – we didn’t!
We made some recordings of our noisy friends from our village in Andalucía to help you celebrate Dawn Chorus Day. To get the full immersive experience, we suggest you grab some headphones and have a listen!
Firstly a gorgeous Common Nightingale. Just listen to those sweet tones! But also wait for the piping notes (‘pew-pew-pew-pew’). Then the immediate return to that distinctive liquid and rapid melody. You may also be able to hear the scratchy warble of the Sardinian Warbler in the background?
Next, the not-very-well-named Melodious Warbler! You can hear lots of clicks, whistles and rapid scratchy notes. If you listen carefully there’s also the distinctive jangling song of a Corn Bunting, the ‘zips‘ of a Zitting Cisticola and some ‘chipping ‘ from the House Sparrows.
We are living through some of the most noise-pollution free dawn choruses for a generation – leave us a comment and let us know what you’ve been hearing!
A young Italian called Michele caused a frisson of excitement here in The Straits last month, turning up safe and well after being missing in Africa since mid-November! Not long after his reappearance he was on his adventures again, awaiting fine weather on the northern shores of Morocco before jetting across the Straits and spending the night just outside Sevilla.
The plucky individual is a young Short-toed Eagle, satellite-tagged in 2019 as part of a collaboration between MEDRAPTORS, the Vertebrate Zoology Group at the University of Alicante (Spain), and tag providers Tecnosmart. He is a second-generation project participant – his father Egidio was one of seven young eagles tagged between 2010 and 2013, who reached adulthood and bred successfully in 2019 while still transmitting data.
This father-son team continue to shed light on the surprising and convoluted migration of Short-toed Eagles from Italy. The two-kilo eagles wear their tiny GPS tags on their backs, and the fascinating story they tell has confirmed what many suspected. Instead of beginning the journey to their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa by heading directly south to Tunisia, they start with a 1600-mile flight north and west, right up through the Italian Peninsula and across southern France, before crossing the Pyrenees and migrating down through the length of the Iberian Peninsula, more than doubling their journey distance to Africa´s shores.
The reason? it´s all about wings and Straits.
The long, elegant wings of this beautiful raptor mean it is perfectly adapted for soaring on air thermals, and it can do so for many hours, expending very little energy. But where there is no rising air – such as over expanses of water – the bird must beat those long wings to stay airborne, and becomes quickly exhausted.
Leaving the south-western point of Sicily, where Italy is at its closest to Africa, the bird would have to fly almost 100 miles to the next bit of land – an impossibility for such a long-winged raptor. So Italian Short-toed Eagles have learned to go directly against their strong instinct to head south, forcing themselves to fly north in order to eventually arrive in southern Spain. Here the mere 8.5-mile sea crossing at The Straits of Gibraltar presents much less of a challenge to a healthy, experienced bird choosing the right weather conditions.
While southerly migratory behaviour is innate, the study shows that this northerly trek must be learnt. First-year birds follow an adult who has already learnt the circuitous route to avoid the sea. Around 20% of first-year birds get it wrong and follow their hearts south, ending up wintering on Sicily because there is no more “south” to fly.
Michele was named after the late Michele Panuccio, the raptor researcher who studied the species for several years and promoted the tagging of Egidio’s first son, who was tagged a few weeks after he passed away. He left the nest site at the end of September, several days before his father, presumably following another adult bird. No doubt aided by years of experience, Egidio left late but made the journey in considerably less time. By the end of October, he had already arrived in Mauritania while Michele was still taking it easy in Extremadura!
When the lazy adolescent did finally make the crossing, the signal from his tracker was soon lost as he moved out of areas with the mobile coverage necessary to follow him. For the research team, there was nothing more to do except wait and hope that he had found his way to the wintering grounds safely. So when his tracker was spotted on the move again earlier this month, it must have been a tremendous relief!
His northward crossing of the Straits was unusual behaviour for such a young bird, as non-breeders would normally stay in Africa for another year, “finding themselves” until they come of age. Interestingly though, back in the day, dad Egidio was also a precocious exception to this rule – he too returned to the breeding grounds as a one-year-old.
This year, seven-year-old Egidio was no less keen to breed, and started his migration back to Italy as early as mid-February, arriving there by 12 March! In early March we spent some absolutely joyous days here in the Straits of Gibraltar, watching raptors arrive across the narrowest stretch of sea between Europe and Africa. We clapped them all as they arrived on our shores! We´d love to think that Egidio was one of them…
With thanks to Ugo Mellone of MEDRAPTORS and Universidad de Alicante for kindly giving permission for citation and reproduction of maps and data.
Agostini N., Baghino L., Coleiro C., Corbi F. & Premuda G. 2002. Circuitous autumn migration in the Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus). Journal of Raptor Research 36: 111-114
Mellone U., Limiñana, R., Mallìa E. & Urios V. 2011. Extremely detoured migration in an inexperienced bird: interplay of transport costs and social interactions. Journal of Avian Biology 42: 468-472
Mellone U., Lucia G., Mallìa E., Urios V., 2016. Individual variation in orientation promotes a 3000-km latitudinal change in wintering grounds in a long-distance migratory raptor. Ibis DOI: 10.1111/ibi.12401
Panuccio, M., Agostini, N. & Premuda, G. 2012. Ecological barriers promote risk minimization and social learning in migrating short-toed snake eagles. Ethology Ecology and Evolution 24: 74-80.
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.
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 partnersFundación 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.
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.
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!
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.
We often think of the Straits of Gibraltar as a barrier to be overcome, a great leap of faith for the hundreds of thousands of birds that must move between the land masses of Africa and Europe. But through the eons, other vast, invisible migrations have gone almost unseen in the dark depths beneath the sparkling surface.
Here we chat to our friend Aurelio Morales, owner of family-run cetacean-watching company Marina Blue, to find out why, for marine mammals, “The Strait of Gibraltar is a vast underwater canyon – a great corridor that links the Mediterranean and the Atlantic”
Aurelio has spent twenty-two years of his life around the marine fauna of the Strait of Gibraltar. “There is something special about this place that hooks me. Two seas, two tectonic plates, two continents, two prevailing winds… Each outing is completely different. There is no one equal to the other, since the weather and light changes, the behaviour of the species varies throughout the days”
His trips are full of encounters with our local resident delphids – Common, Striped and Bottlenose Dolphins, highly-sociable Long-finned Pilot Whales, and even Orcas in summer – but he is particularly fascinated by the mysterious movements and spectacular sudden appearances of the area’s two migrant species – Fin Whales and Sperm Whales.
“We have so many experiences with these two species that never cease to amaze me. We have seen on many occasions Sperm Whales jumping right out of the water, dragging a large body of water as if it were an explosion in the sea. We have witnessed fascinating interactions between Sperm Whales, Long-finned Pilot Whales and Bottlenose Dolphins. Yellow-legged Gulls will perch on top of a resting whale and clean its dead skin. We have seen Hammerhead Sharks circling them while they rest on the surface.”
But although they are seen regularly and often with great intimacy from Aurelio’s small yacht Miamita, much remains unknown about the movements of these two peaceful giants of the seas.
“We consider Sperm Whales to be semi-residents here. They spend long periods in the Strait feeding, mostly on deep sea squid.”
“In the Strait we almost invariably see adult males of up to 15m in length – and occasionally younger males of around 7-10m. They use this underwater corridor for their movements to and from feeding and mating areas.”
Male and female Sperm Whales generally don’t hang out. The males are loners, found in higher latitude cold waters, whilst the females, calves and young adults form gregarious and relatively sedentary groups in tropical and temperate seas. They meet up only to mate, with the males performing seasonal migrations. They find each other across vast distances – their huge jelly-filled heads directing and amplifying their song to volumes louder than a jet engine.
Research in 2011 used photo-cataloguing of tail flukes – from which individuals can reliably be identified – to compare Straits whales with records from across the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Of 47 Sperm Whales identified here, fifteen could be traced travelling throughout the western Mediterranean, a straight-line distance of up to a thousand miles.
The fact that none of “our” Sperm Whales from this study were recorded in the Atlantic supports existing genetic evidence of an isolated sub-population within the Mediterranean Sea. Believed to contain fewer than 2,500 mature individuals, the Mediterranean population is considered ‘endangered’, based on IUCN Red List criteria.
However, Sperm Whale social groups, with females and calves, do turn up in the Strait from time to time. We recall an incredible experience in September 2017, watching a group of ten females and young whales. They were grouped tightly together in a “marguerite formation”, where the group surrounds a weak or injured individual with their tails pointing outward, enabling them to protect it from attackers. The gathering seemed to emanate tension and anxiety, as the sea around them boiled with curious dolphins and seabirds eyed them suspiciously from above.
The happening was during a series of strong hurricanes over the Atlantic. Could this troubled group have been Atlantic in origin, having come into The Straits to shelter?
There is clearly more work to be done, says Aurelio. “Collaborative studies are currently being carried out between different companies, associations and scientists to verify that the same species seen in the Strait are being seen in other places such as the Canary Islands and Azores.”
Fin whales, the world´s second-largest living creatures, can reach lengths of up to 25m. They used to be abundant in the Strait of Gibraltar and nearby Atlantic areas until their rapid collapse due to intense whaling at the beginning of the 20th century. They are now considered endangered.
Evidence gathered from fifteen years’ worth of photo-identification suggest that some of the Fin Whales seen in the Mediterranean are actually of Atlantic stock. A small community of them have been observed migrating through the Strait of Gibraltar, with remarkable seasonal directionality. They head to the Atlantic Ocean in May-October and the Mediterranean Sea in November-April. Observations of young whales exiting the Mediterranean Sea mainly in May-July suggest that at least part of this community is likely to calve in the basin, probably near the Balearic Islands.
“The Mediterranean is a semi-closed sea with warmer temperatures, so it would make sense that females raise their calves there until they gain enough weight to move to cooler feeding areas.” says Aurelio.
But, he says, there are many threats to these amazing creatures as they try to navigate the busiest shipping lane in the world.
“The greatest dangers for these large cetaceans are almost always related to human presence. The Strait is the only channel that connects the Atlantic with the Med and carries massive shipping traffic. Whales are injured colliding with large ships, and noise pollution interferes with echo-location, and therefore migration. Pollution from oil spills and plastic waste is another great problem that these animals face with this unbridled progress that prevails over the conservation of Nature.”
As a wildlife tour operator, and erstwhile skipper for the Ministry of the Environment, he feels a great sense of responsibility to make sure Marina Blue’s own effects on the environmental are only positive, in line with our own #FlywayPromise.
“There are thankfully many legal requirements to operate here, in terms of good practices regarding cetacean observation and compliance with EU emissions regulations and speed limits, which we naturally comply with. But we also have our own manual of good practices, guided by our own conscience and respect for Nature!”
“Marina Blue works in and for the Strait, with small groups of no more than ten people per trip to minimise our impact. We separate and reduce all our waste. We enjoy the animals with the utmost respect, quietly, allowing them to come to us if they wish. We must always bear in mind that we do not own this planet.”
We love heading out with Aurelio and his crew during selected trips, because of the intimacy of the encounters allowed by such a small vessel, but also because of his obvious deep connection and passion for the wildlife we are hoping to observe. With each spell-binding sighting of one of these incredible animals, we learn a little more about how to protect them.
We all know that turbines and soaring birds don’t mix. So what is being done to help our avian nomads as they pass these whirring legions marching across the Estrecho Natural Park, one of the most important raptor migration bottlenecks in the world? We report on the Compensatory Measures Project, just one strand of the immensely important work carried out by our conservation partners, Fundación Migres.
As we round the corner of the coast road, in the hills high above Tarifa, most of our tour groups let out a gasp of awe at the stunning views of Morocco. This is often closely followed by a gasp of shock, as their gaze falls on the imposing ranks of wind turbines lining some of the coastal hillsides.
At just nine miles wide, here the Strait of Gibraltar is at its narrowest point between Europe and Africa, making it the chosen crossing point for over 300 million migratory birds, journeying between these continents twice a year.
A humungous sixty percent of Europe’s raptor population passes through here, as well as virtually its entire population of White Storks. Swifts also cross here in staggering numbers, with more than 400,000 passing through the area during peak times. This migratory spectacle is one of the most uplifting, life-affirming natural events we have ever seen, and simply has to be experienced to be believed.
With some 350 different species recorded, the list of birds in the area is extensive. At migration times there are Honey Buzzards, Western Ospreys, Red-rumped and Barn Swallows, Sand and House Martins, Pallid, Common and Alpine Swifts, Common and Great Spotted Cuckoos, races of Yellow Wagtail, Western Bonelli’s Warblers, Common and Iberian Chiffchaffs, Golden Orioles and Turtle Doves amongst many others.
At any time of year, birds in the area include Crag Martins, Blue Rock Thrushes, Crested and Thekla Larks, Lesser Kestrels, Tawny, Little and sometimes Eagle Owls. A wide range of nesting raptors, including Bonelli’s Eagles, Short-toed Eagles, Common Kestrels and Peregrine Falcons are common in the area. Around Tarifa there are colonies of Griffon and Egyptian vultures, the most southerly in the Iberian peninsula, with 70+ pairs of Griffon Vultures and six pairs of Egyptian Vultures breeding in 2017.
So how did these feathered millions end up running the gauntlet of the wind farms, adding to the perils they already face?
Back in 1993, when the area was still military land, the original two windfarms were commissioned, approved and built. The 20 MW Planta Eólica del Sur (PESUR) project and the 10 MW Energía Eólica del Estrecho (EEE) farm totalled 269 turbines. They were straight away mired in controversy, with local conservation groups and independent experts presenting evidence in 1994 of high avian death tolls(1). The corpses of 13 different species were allegedly found at the wind farms, either killed on impact or by electrocution on power cables, including an Eagle Owl, White Storks and Lesser Kestrels.
A random corpse count of Griffon Vultures stood at around 30, with some apparently decapitated by the blades. Counter-claims at the time by the wind company’s managing directors suggested that the yearly death count was never higher than twelve birds in total, and others presented figures as low as two birds.
In some cases it was alleged that no real impact study regarding the birds was ever carried out. It was even alleged that, while risk assessments were carried out based on presence of resident birds, the experts simply ‘forgot’ to account for the hundreds of thousands of migrating soaring birds that pass through twice a year!
Spain had (and still has) an ambitious plan for alternative energy generation, and the Tarifa area was to be its spearhead. Development of a proposed 2000+ turbines in the area were to provide a sizeable chunk of Spain’s 20% renewable energy target by 2020.
One can only imagine what it would have been like to be a fly on the wall in the many meetings that must have taken place, leading up to the declaration of the area as a Natural Park in 2003. With the area now protected, and acknowledged as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International, extensive study and intensive mitigation work would be needed to reduce the negative effects of existing farms and prevent the creation of new ones in high-risk areas.
Enter Fundación Migres. This private non-profit organisation had been monitoring the area’s extraordinary migration event with daily counts during peak times since 1997.
In 2003, the companies whose memberships form the Tarifa Wind Power Association (AET) signed agreements with Fundación Migres to work on the Compensatory Measures Project for La Janda Windfarms, dramatically expanding their remit.
During the seventeen year project, their task was to find ways to reduce bird mortality in the windfarms, find out the effect of the farms on local raptor populations, and establish recovery programmes for more affected species, as well as raising awareness locally about environmental conservation and renewable energy.
The high-quality, independent science they have generated since their inception has added considerably to the world’s knowledge on wind farms and their effects on birds. It is helping develop better protocols for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) and mitigation measures to reduce turbine collisions.
Their work has generated both disturbing and promising results. A three-year study of 20 operational wind farms took place between 2005 and 2008, as the 323 turbines gradually came online(2). Over the study period, the research team found 596 dead birds – a devastating 1.33 birds per turbine per year, which is among the highest rates of wind farm mortality ever published. 36% of the dead were raptors and included 23 Common Kestrels, 13 Lesser Kestrels and 16 Short-toed Eagles.
By far the worst affected bird was the Griffon Vulture, with 138 found dead during the course of the study. Other studies suggest that most birds of prey can detect and actively avoid turbines without too much problem(3), but alas for the Griffon Vulture, for all its aerial prowess, agility is not one of its strong points. The bird relies on air currents and thermals to travel and has relatively weak flight, making evasive manoeuvres difficult.
All of these high-mortality wind farms had had EIAs carried out according to accepted methodology, had been accepted as low-risk areas, and had been licensed according to the law. The way raptors use the air currents and topography of an area is complex. It seemed site-scale EIAs based on bird abundance did not account for this, so could not adequately predict the threat level of proposed turbines.
However, interestingly, the study also found that the vast majority of these deaths could be attributed to a very small number of turbines. A new study was undertaken(4) – what if, by controlling function of these high-risk turbines, bird mortality could be reduced?
During 2006, body counts on 13 windfarms with 296 turbines had illustrated that most of the deaths were being caused by just ten turbines, distributed amongst six windfarms.
During 2008–2009, the team implemented a selective stopping program – when Vultures were observed near these deadliest turbines they were simply turned off till the threat had passed. Encouragingly, the Vulture mortality rate was reduced by 50% with only these ten turbines involved. The consequent reduction in total energy production for the wind farms was just 0.07% per year, a small price to pay.
This successful strategy was expanded to other high-risk turbines. When a high number of raptors are passing through, or individual birds are in danger – especially Griffon Vultures or the Critically Endangered Egyptian Vulture – the turbines are simply turned off.
With Migres-trained wind farm ‘watchmen’ on high alert, the whole shutdown process – from spotting a risk, to phoning it in, to stopping the relevant turbine – takes less than two minutes. The annual mortality – previously exceeding 200 vultures – has been reduced by 60% across the whole area(4). The accidents happen mostly during the autumn migration period when young birds – both resident and from all over Europe – are passing through the area. Though this is still a horrible price to pay for clean energy, this level of loss is at least thought to be sustainable from a population size point of view.
The process is far from perfect. A locally-breeding Egyptian Vulture was killed by a turbine last year, and two the year before. A drifting radio-tagged Lesser Spotted Eagle also hit a turbine, but seemingly recovered its wits and moved on, after sitting dazed in one spot for two days. We ourselves have been devastated to witness a majestic Honey Buzzard, hanging on an air current, lose control for just a brief second and get sucked backwards into the blades. And this is without even touching on the as yet unmitigated effects the turbines have on bats and other wildlife.
The end of the windfarm cooperation project in 2020 is fast approaching, putting the future of the turbine-stopping measures in doubt. With funding for Fundación Migres in decline, also at stake is one of the greatest sustained efforts for monitoring migratory birds in Europe, not to mention the invaluable research they generate.
It can be hard to believe that wind farm development was ever given the go-ahead in such a key area for the birds of the East Atlantic flyway. But it’s important not to forget the bigger picture. Many more birds are killed by traffic, power lines, radio and television towers, glass windows, and due to human activities such as poisoning and illegal shooting, not to mention habitat destruction.
Badly located as they are, the ever-spinning blades of the Straits supply around 20% of Andalusia’s power. Like all locally-damaging ‘renewable energy’ sources, they are there because of our insatiable appetite for consumption – of fossil fuels, of meat, of stuff we just don’t need. As the planet warms, ecosystems are disrupted and the Sahara creeps ever larger. For the millions of avian nomads that pass the turbines unharmed, the biggest peril is whether they still have breeding and wintering habitat to go to.
(1) Watts-Hosmer (1994) Bird deaths prompt rethink on windfarming in Spain. Windpower Monthly (2) De Lucas et al (2012) Weak relationship between risk assessment studies and recorded mortality in wind farms. Journal of Applied Ecology (3) De Lucas et al (2004) The effects of a wind farm on birds in a migration point: the Strait of Gibraltar. Biodiversity and Conservation (4) De Lucas et al (2012) Griffon vulture mortality at wind farms in southern Spain: Distribution of fatalities and active mitigation measures. Biological Conservation