“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.
This week, along with our friends and conservation partners at Fundación Migres, we counted just a handful of European Honey Buzzards crossing The Straits of Gibraltar on their migratory journey. Picked out from amongst thousands of Booted and Short-toed Eagles, Eurasian Sparrowhawks, Black Storks and Griffon Vultures, each one of these gorgeous birds merited close attention to their detailed and variable plumage. Not least because at this point of the year, we never know which one will be the last we’ll see until Spring!
“Honey Season” is definitely drawing to a close and these numbers are very different to those we observed during the peak in late August / early September, when we counted over 47,000 birds crossing in just one week!
These tail-enders are the last few of the 85,000 or so that will have passed through here this autumn. This is more than the breeding population of western Europe, so it’s clear that something interesting is going on!
Spring counts of birds heading north across The Straits yield far smaller numbers – typically around 15-17,000.
Ornithologists have speculated for some time about the reason for the discrepancy in numbers. It seems – as you might imagine – that the populations that breed in north and western Europe migrate back and forth along the route that brings them through here. However in autumn, their numbers are augmented by their eastern cousins.
Research published in 2019 used satellite telemetry to follow a single adult male European Honey Buzzard, tagged in Hungary, over three years of its life. It supports the theory that many of these eastern birds follow an incredible anti-clockwise loop migration, spanning vast areas of Europe, to travel between their breeding and wintering grounds.
Once the breeding season is done for another year, the priority for these nomads is understandably getting to their wintering grounds as safely as possible. Heading to Africa via The Straits of Gibraltar is definitely the long way round, adding over 2,300 km to the trip compared to a direct route. Each autumn, the male in the study (let’s call him István!) covered an astounding 7,046km from Hungary to his favoured wintering site in North Cameroon in around 43 days.
The study also measured how much the bird was compensating for crosswinds – in other words, actively choosing his route. It revealed he worked extremely hard to stay en route to The Straits, only drifting passively for about 10% of his journey across Europe.
The advantage of this mammoth detour is to allow István to avoid the risks associated with trying to cover many miles of thermal-less water crossing the Central Mediterranean. Our 14 km sea crossing at Tarifa is nothing to these bad-ass flyers! Their compact structure, intermediate between harriers (Circus spp) and true buzzards (Buteo spp) lends itself to powered flying and leaves them somewhat less reliant on thermals than longer-winged raptors. It’s no wonder that we see them crossing in seemingly treacherous conditions, powering out across The Straits in large groups while longer-winged birds like Short-toed Eagles cling nervously to the coastal hills!
Once safely over the sea and into Africa, István spent relatively little effort compensating for wind direction while crossing The Sahara, spending over half the crossing simply drifting effortlessly over this perilous wasteland. Thanks to this and other studies, we are starting to understand that these incredible birds plan their routes not only to avoid threats but also to connect with anticipated weather conditions, such as helpful prevailing winds. Totally amazing!
István took his time on his way south to his African R&R spot. Of those 43 days, 12 of them were spent on chill-out stops! Spring however, is a different matter altogether. Speed is everything, and the race is on to return home as fast as possible and secure the most optimal breeding site.
This leads István and many like him to make a beeline (sorry!) for the breeding grounds, foregoing the relative safety of The Straits of Gibraltar and taking their chances on longer sea crossings. He flew all the way back to Hungary in just 23 days, resting for only six and slicing almost 1,500 km off his journey, crossing the Mediterranean via Tunisia’s Cap Bon Peninsula, Sicily, Italy and Albania.
Meanwhile here in The Straits, we would have been seeing almost exclusively those birds heading to north and west Europe – including France, the Netherlands, and even the UK.
For young birds though, the picture is very different. These risk-averse autumn routes are learned in later life, by following experienced adult birds. In its first year, a Honey Buzzard is effectively abandoned by its parents, which leave the breeding grounds on average 1-2 weeks earlier. It can only follow its innate sense of direction, which leads it SSW, to launch itself at whatever water body or desert it finds in its way! Only the strong – and lucky – survive. One in three young Honey Buzzards will die on their first migration while crossing the Sahara. The area of Africa where they end up wintering – and to which they will eventually become site-faithful – is largely determined by winds and chance.
After such a large investment in rearing the young Honey, this seems like some pretty harsh parental treatment! However, as always, everything makes sense in the light of evolution. Every day adults delay their own journey, and every day they would lose en route accompanying slower, less-skilled juveniles decreases their own survival chances. This more supportive parental behaviour would soon fail as a strategy. Evolution has moulded this behaviour – effectively sacrificing one in three young birds who will die on migration without guidance – to ensure that the successful adult optimises its chance of survival and lives to breed another season.
This absentee parenting strategy has certainly worked for István! He was first tagged as an adult in 2014, and is still going strong. On 7 September this year – amongst 9,499 other individuals – we observed a tagged bird crossing The Straits, who we subsequently learned had travelled to us from Hungary! I hope it was István, and I’ll be thinking of him and his epic journey ahead.
It’s hard to explain the power of a day like today to someone who’s never witnessed it.
The strong easterly levante wind dropped away last night, leaving behind a low ceiling of cloud. This is high migration season, and we arrived at the coast at first light with Pepe and Teresa, to find Black Kites and European Honey Buzzards already leaving by the hundred, driven and desperate to continue south across The Straits of Gibraltar.
They are joined by Booted Eagles and Short-toed Eagles in almost inconceivable numbers – as the day heats up it becomes impossible to find a spot of sky which doesn’t have a raptor in it.
Birds are crossing or not crossing, cruising up and down the coast or powering out to sea, from every direction and at every conceivable altitude, a complete three-dimensional extravaganza.
A great cloud of birds gathering over the coast reveal themselves to be over 600 Short-toed Eagles.
Groups of European Honey Buzzards in their extraordinary variety of plumages, mixed with Booted Eagles and Black Kites, tumble up and down the coast.
Concentrating on each bird, enjoying individual behaviours which bely a story, observing details which give information on age and gender, and being completely absorbed by the spectacle of each group which passes swirling overhead, time simply ceases to exist.
Among the airborne pandemonium of the more numerous species, there were Egyptian Vultures, Marsh Harriers, Sparrowhawks, Montagu’s Harriers, Black Storks and a Red Kite. Suddenly we would find ourselves looking at an Atlas Long-legged Buzzard or an Eleonora’s Falcon, dragged into the phenomenon from the African side of The Straits.
A group of over three hundred White Storks tried again and again to find the right moment to cross, passing so low over our heads that you could sense the power of their wings, and hear their feathers brush the air.
These raptors and soaring birds have journeyed from all over Western Europe to collect in one spot in one glorious moment, searching thermals, sharing the sky – a great concentration of life in this one single extraordinary place.
My human mind always searches for meaning, for analogies, lessons and morals, but in the end comes the uplifting realisation, that there are none – we were simply witnesses to a huge amalgamation of life, driven on by its own persistence – and what can be more joyous than that?
Even in a place so packed full of natural migratory wonder as The Straits of Gibraltar, there are few sights as wow-inducing as a flock of hundreds – if not thousands – of migrating White Storks. As they move along the coast in huge, glittering black and white columns, tracing the patterns of the thermals they ride, they really are the epitome of visible migration!
These flamboyant voyagers capture the imagination and curiosity, and have been inspiring research into migration for hundreds of years. Back in 1822, a White Stork turned up in the German village of Klütz with what was clearly an exotic spear lodged through its neck. It turned out to be from central Africa. At a time when it was still commonly believed that Barn Swallows spent the winter hibernating in the bottom of muddy ponds, this Pfeilstorch – ‘Arrow Stork’ – opened our eyes to the possibility of incredible avian journeys, and migration science was born!
Their great size, conspicuous presence and predictable return to nest sites makes White Storks fantastic candidates for study, and extensive ringing (banding) programmes were already underway as early as 1906. From then until the onset of the Second World War, about 100,000 mainly juvenile birds were ringed, resulting in over 2,000 long-distance recoveries of birds reported between 1908 and 1954. To this day, this wealth of information is arguably the foundation of what we know about where they travel and the routes they take.
White Storks breed extensively across Europe. Almost like a watershed, there is a line that runs right through the middle of Germany, along which the westward-flyers separate from the eastward-flyers. The eastern route leads over the Balkans, the Gulf of Iskenderun, the countries of the Middle East over to East, Central and South Africa. The White Storks we see here, crossing over The Straits in such spectacular fashion have come from west of that line, their migration leading them down through France and the Iberian Peninsula to concentrate at this point.
For a bird with such a large wing span, flapping flight uses around 23 times more energy than gliding. Since there are no thermals over the sea, they are driven to seek out the very shortest distance between land masses. That means that, in an average autumn season, 150,000 White Storks of all ages – pretty much the entire western European population – are pushed towards this one point, looking for their moment to cross the 14 km (9 miles) of sea to Africa. This gives rise to the spectacle of these huge gatherings, spiralling upwards on rising warm air until they emerge up to 1500 m above the ground and then gliding out into the blue.
From here they continue their journey south into Morocco, across the Sahara and down to their wintering grounds in central Africa. In fact, having cheered them on in The Straits, we often get to see them again when we travel to The Gambia each December!
In the 90’s came satellite-tagging technology, a new way of gathering information about birds that was set to change the way we understand so many things. Technology tends to be larger when new and unrefined – some of the earliest tags were the size of a brick! Since a tag is required to be below 3% of a bird’s bodyweight to avoid hindering it, these gigantic nomads with their fascinating journeys presented the ideal species to take this new toy out for a spin!
This opened up the opportunity to study a whole new world of detail not just about migratory routes, but about migratory behaviour. White Storks usually migrate in mixed groups of both adults and younger birds. A number of studies have followed the fortunes of young Storks making their first migration without adults to follow, in order to look at the innate-ness – or not – of the journey plan.
Although their in-born sense of direction takes them vaguely in a south-westerly direction, if displaced by weather conditions they are unable to orientate themselves with any precision and many never fully migrate. This is very different to small passerines, which migrate more-or-less alone, often by night, following an inherited map and with no guidance from adults.
The high importance of this social inheritance makes a great deal of sense. As a day-flying, soaring bird, the efficiency of their route is heavily reliant on thermals generated by local topography. They follow adults to learn an exact route – a kind of thermal highway – which on future travels they will be able to recognise visually and be sure of the optimum journey.
Tags also give us more information on the temporal nature of migration in these birds. It turns out they treat it rather like a nine-to-five, flying for around 8-10 hours every day when the air is warmest, before resting until the following morning. They barely take a day off, covering the 4,000 km (2,700 mile) journey from northern breeding grounds to sub-saharan Africa in two to three weeks. Rather than feeding up before migration like some birds, Storks evidently snack en route only to meet their immediate needs, and lose weight on the journey. Presumably when you’re reliant on literally being lighter than air, every invertebrate over-indulgence counts!
As satellite tags become lighter, cheaper and more precise, the insights they give us become ever-more fascinating. In 2018 a project set out to explore how White Storks navigate thermals as a group by analysing individual high-resolution GPS trajectories of individual Storks during circling events.
A thermal is a complex, drifting, constantly changing column of air. To thermal efficiently, birds need to adjust their flight speed and circling radius to find, and remain close to, the centre of the thermal where updraft is highest. Thanks to the precision of the data obtained from the tags, we are able to see that Storks navigate the thermal based not only on their own perception of the airflow in their immediate surroundings, but also on a complex series of social interactions, reacting to the movement changes of Storks within their nearby subgroup, as well as the leaders of the group at the highest vertical point in the thermal.
How amazing to think that each Stork is effectively acting as an individual sensor, such that the whole flock becomes a distributed sensory array. In this way, they explore and gather information on the thermal as a group, effectively mapping its structure and enabling them to use the optimal airflow within it.
From solving ancient mysteries to changing our perception of collective movement, to simply turning a good day into an amazing one, these really are inspirational birds. And they are pouring over our heads at the moment here in The Straits! We’re thrilled to be assisting as always our conservation partners, Fundación Migres, with the annual autumn migration count – to date over 38,000 of them have made the crossing, and we look forward to many more inspirational moments in coming weeks!
When it comes to Ethical Birding Ecotours, it turns out we´re Top of the Pops!
We’re more than just a birding tour company. We care about the wildlife we showcase, the local communities we visit and the opportunities for education through exploration. That’s why we’re excited to announce that we’ve made it into the Top Ethical Birding Ecotours 2019 list!
This unique list is generated by a global community of travellers, bloggers, conservationists, tour guides, birders and ecotourism operators, and curated by Terra Incognita – a social enterprise seeking to promote the best examples of ethical ecotourism worldwide. We’re part of a group of over 70 incredible birding tours from across the globe.
First launched in 2018, the list has grown in its second year to include tours in 40 countries.
“With every new tour we discover, we’re amazed to see what operators are doing to have a positive impact on the planet through tourism,” said Dr Nick Askew of Terra Incognita. “Eventually we hope to showcase ethical tour experiences in every country worldwide.”
Tour operators on the list are doing everything from partnering with conservation charities and donating to conservation projects, to offsetting the carbon emissions generated by their business activities and encouraging their guests to do the same during their travels. Some are contributing to conservation research, while others are empowering local people through environmental education and capacity building, supporting future conservation ambassadors.
The list includes a transparent explanation of how all tours contribute to conservation, local communities and education and is open to reviews from guests who’ve participated in the tours.
“It’s exciting to discover ecotourism operators that see sustainability as a fundamental way of doing business, rather than just a marketing strategy or checklist”, said Kristi Foster of Terra Incognita.
“Rather than take away from a tour, guests can join in that creative, innovative process. These tours are experiences where everyone involved learns and grows”, she added.
The Top Ethical Birding Ecotours 2019 list was launched during the British Birdfair 2019 – an annual event for birdwatchers that supports BirdLife International.
Bird experiences highlighted range from Golden-collared Manakin leks in Panama, to reintroduced blue ducks in New Zealand, to searching for Uganda’s iconic Shoebill by canoe. You can even see the autumn Vulture migration across the Strait of Gibraltar, with as many as 2,300 birds recorded in a single hour.
With tours in 40 countries across six continents you can find inspiration to explore a new corner of the world or discover an ethical experience closer to home.
You can view the Ethical Birding Ecotours 2019 list at www.terra-incognita.travel and join a movement to create positive change for people and planet through travel.
We´re readying ourselves for our annual pilgrimage to UK Birdfair, and we hope to see you there! As you ready for the off and decide what to put in your butties, have a look at this profile of our good friends at Tarifa Ecocenter, participants in our #FlywayPromise, whose philosophy that “The fork is the most powerful tool to change the planet” chimes so strongly with our own…
In the Straits of Gibraltar we find ourselves at the epicentre of a great journey, that takes avian migrants over thousands of miles of landscapes and habitats where, irrespective of political borders, they must find food and safe passage to sustain them on their journey.
Our work over years for the RSPB, attempting to reverse the fortunes of UK, European and African farmland wildlife, has made us recognise the power of our own food choices and how it can affect the availability of habitat for these birds, and all the other wildlife whose lives depend on our decisions about how we manage land.
The Ecocenter is not just a superb vegetarian restaurant, it is a local hub for eco-consciousness. The organic produce shop and meeting spaces are a sociable place designed to encourage the exchange of ideas. Here you can partake in delicious, sustainably-sourced meals, much of the produce for which comes from their sister project, Molino de Guadalmesi – an organic farm, community centre, and eco-lodge situated in a beautifully-restored water mill.
“Sharing food connects people of all ages and backgrounds. Each meal gives you the opportunity to make a conscious decision about how you impact your health, your environment and our common future.”
Community member Johnny Azpilicueta is just back from a spot of global travelling and idea-sharing on sustainable living, so we grabbed the chance to catch up with him over a chickpea burger and a slurp of local organic IPA.
The thing that strikes me as we chat is the dual themes of connectivity and positive action that runs through everything they do – connecting people with where our food comes from, connecting them with the provenance and consequences of every food choice we make, connecting the food on our plate with the very field or animal it came from .
Johnny says: “I wonder what it would be like if people could see directly in the moment what the consequences of their choices are. Like, people don´t like animals and birds to be shot but if they are choosing unsustainable food they may as well be pulling the trigger themselves. I wonder what it would be like if every time they took a bite a bird fell from the sky in front of them, or every time they threw away a piece of plastic suddenly there was a dead dolphin right there next to them. What we want to do is to make people really see through all the complexity of their choices and help them make better ones that have better outcomes from the planet.”
Johnny is the driving force behind Tarifa´s hugely successful participation in World Clean up Day – one of the biggest civic movements of our time, where in 2018 a massive day of social environmental action saw a staggering 18 million people in 157 countries out picking up litter.
“ I find it is proving to be such a very unifying activity. Protecting the planet is full of complex issues but it seems that everyone has in common that they want their home to be clean, and it is something that can really bring people together in making positive action. It´s inspiring, it can lead to even bigger things.”
The concept of Flyway scale conservation is no stranger to Johnny either. “I have been in the Straits for 15 years and every time I look up and see these birds coming from all over Europe to cross to Africa, I feel connected. I feel this connection with Nature, I feel connected with how all the different parts of the world are connected and to the people who are trying to make these journeys too.
“What I think is that we have to allow these birds to cross like a pathway of organic farms all across the flyway, so they can eat healthy… Here we are making a Flyway Promise to support the kind of agriculture that is beneficial to these animals.”
Findings presented at the IPCC in October 2018 were striking and conclusive. While everyone talks about reducing electricity consumption and aviation, it seems that we are still ignoring the scientific findings that show beyond doubt 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. Thanks to the bright idea of our friends at Huerta Grande Ecolodge to include “meat-free Mondays” in our trips, we are working with our accommodation and catering providers across the board to offer at least one meat-free day one very trip.
On selected tours, we visit the Molino de Guadalmesí 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!
We want to make the choice to eat ethically an irresistible one! And thanks to the passion and talent of people like the folk at Molino de Guadalmesi and Tarifa Ecocenter, that doesn’t have to be difficult.
Come and see us in Marquee 1 Stand 28 at Birdfair this weekend, and come to the event´s Hobby Lecture Theatre, Sunday, 3.30pm to hear more about our #FlywayPromise and how we are striving to make ecotourism a genuine force for positive environmental change.
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
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 pick a favourite time of year here in the Straits, at the very epicentre of migration , the midway point of a million avian journeys. At the moment we’re crazy about Spring!
We are midway into Spring migration, when every day yields new – often unexpected – treasures. There´s always a feeling of anticipation when you step outside – the air is fresh, the short heavy showers and the bright sun bring the hillsides to life with a riot of colourful wildflowers.
The Black Kites as ever began determinedly pouring through in late February. It seems nothing can stop these dark, determined bad-ass birds – they were recorded crossing the Straits in a Force 8 a few days ago! As the season progresses, their numbers are swelled by increasing numbers of Short-toed Eagles, Egyptian Vultures, Sparrowhawks, Booted Eagles, and Montagu’s Harriers – often exhausted, always spectacular.
During the challenging sea crossing of a windy Spring day, there is many a captivating individual struggle to watch unfold. One moment of drama saw us glued to our scopes at the peril of a small male Sparrowhawk, flying full tilt towards the coast pursued by seven or more Yellow-legged Gulls trying to knock it into the sea. Twice they clumped it from above so hard it clipped the waves. But twice it flipped over, talons bared, and grappled a Gull into the sea into return. We couldn´t see how it was going to survive this persistent mobbing but the plucky little fellow made it to the coast, and we cheered!
The coast west of Tarifa is quite developed, but blessed with many unassuming areas of urban parkland. It´s fantastic to stroll through the park at La Linea on a Spring morning after westerly winds, to find the tamarisks and olive trees dripping with Common Whitethroats, Subalpine and Western Bonelli´s Warblers, while Northern Wheatears and Common Redstarts forage on the ground amongst children playing on the swings and people throwing balls for their dogs.
In the coastal scrub of Los Alcornacales Natural Park, every day brings a new wave. Early on, the Great Spotted Cuckoos flush through on their way to find their corvid surrogate chick-rearers. One day there are suddenly stacks of Tawny Pipits, then the next day Black-eared Wheatears and Woodchat Shrikes adorn every fence and bush as they decide whether to stay local or reach a step further.
Not long after that, the hills are alive with the sound of the squelchy song of Common Nightingales. Amongst the constant ebb and flow of Barn Swallows, suddenly there are Red-rumped Swallows too, and on an afternoon stroll around the coastal valleys you´ll find yourself surrounded by sudden swarms of feeding Pallid and Common Swifts.
A recent extended period of strong easterlies, generated by a low pressure system over Morocco and the Middle East, brought some surprises this year with Lesser and Greater Spotted Eagles crossing the Straits and a number of Pallid Harriers recorded in Spain. We also yet again found a Yellow-browed Warbler at our eco-lodge base, Huerta Grande, this time apparently heading north on its parallel migratory trajectory!
It´s hard to beat that uplifting moment when you become aware of a distant excited chirruping, which gradually becomes louder until the air around you is full of European Bee-eaters, travelling in colourful, exuberant family groups. They always give the impression that they´re on their way to a party!
And there is so much more to come! The first Honey Buzzards have been recorded and we wait in anticipation of their spectacular passage numbering over 100,000 birds. Soon the Golden Orioles will sweeten the air, Rufous Scrub Robin will brighten the scrub and the cryptic beauty of the Red-necked Nightjar will touch the eye of those patient enough to quietly look.
It´s so good here! And it´s decided, Spring is definitely our favourite season! Well, until Summer that is!
It’s always a joy to observe birds in any location, but what if there was a way to experience their whole journey? We’re currently bucking the avian trend and heading north to Birdfair where, as well as enjoying a fab weekend with friends old and new, we’ll be introducing folk to the concept of Flyway Birding…
It´s not that long since we largely believed that Barn Swallows hibernated underwater. Rumours of ´lumps of torpid swallows´ being ´found beneath the ice´ still persisted in rural communities as late as 1867, over thirty years after Darwin had embarked on his world-changing voyages of discovery aboard The Beagle.
Happily for the inquisitive, this great era of discovery opened the world up to ‘travelling naturalists’ – the earliest nature bloggers if you like – exploring the natural world, sharing observations of migration and opening the minds of the folk waiting excitedly at home. The discoveries continue – thanks initially to bird-ringing and more recently to affordable radio- and satellite-tracking technologies, our understanding of migratory birds´ journeys grows all the time.
With this understanding, the concept of saving species across flyways has now gained traction in the conservation world. 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. Programmes like the RSPB´s Birds Without Borders recognise the complex nature of the threats faced by a bird whose life cycle involves traversing half the globe.
Take that most iconic of British summertime birds, the Turtle Dove. A drastic reduction in UK breeding success is at the root of their decline and must be remedied by more Nature-friendly management of our farmland. But while their productivity in the UK is so desperately low, we must also find ways to help Turtle Doves meet the challenges they face elsewhere in the world, such as illegal and legal hunting, the ever-widening and unstable Sahara, and threats to their wintering habitats, also from intensive farming.
These are the kind of projects we at the Inglorious Bustards camp spent a great deal of time, passion and energy working on during our time at the RSPB. We´ve been lucky enough to travel with the birds and gain a deep connection to their journey, seeing the similarities and differences between the habitats, landscapes and cultures they pass through.
Now we´ve taken a sideways step, conservation is still very much in our hearts and we want to make sure it continues to be central to everything we do. We want to use our passion to open people´s minds to the immeasureable wonder of migration.
And so, one day while sipping a cold beer overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar, watching literally thousands of raptors pour south over our heads to Africa we got to thinking… What if, through our trips, we could take you on a migratory bird´s journey? We could show you all the outstanding birds and wildlife of the East Atlantic Flyway!
We could also show you the beauty of the immense journey, sweeping past cream teas outside stone chapels in twee country lanes, over white-washed villages amidst olive groves on sunbathed hillsides, through minarets and mint teahouses, down to the simple dwellings and explosive foliage of the Gambian forests.
And we could show you the challenges facing these birds and alert you to the work of our Flyway Family partners across the globe – groups like the Dovestep collective, raising money for Operation Turtle Dove who work hard to persuade farmers to leave space for Nature, Fundacion Migres doing extraordinary monitoring and scientific work to mitigate for the windfarms in the Straits of Gibraltar, Tarifa Ecocenter spreading the message of sustainable farming through amazing food and Champions of the Flyway combatting illegal hunting everywhere.
It sounded like a plan! The concept of #FlywayBirding was born!
That´s what it means to us, but what will it mean to you..?
Well, in a nutshell, #FlywayBirding is…
…thrilling at the sight of local specialities like Wallcreepers in the Pyrenees, Rufous Bushchats in Andalusia, Moussiers Redstarts in the Rif Mountains of Morocco, Moroccan Marsh Owls on the shores of the Merja Zerga lagoon and Egyptian Plovers on the verdant riverbanks of The Gambia, while becoming aware of the constant ebb and flow of Swallows, Swifts, Wagtails and Warblers, all familiar but strangely out of context.
…kicking off your flipflops in a carefully-selected reclining deckchair and supping an ice-cold beer as literally thousands of Honey Buzzards, Black Kites, Short-toed and Booted Eagles and White Storks pour overhead.
…helping save the planet over a delicious locally-sourced meal! Whether it´s exceptional fresh fruit, veg, cheeses and hams in Spain, mouth-watering tagines in Morocco or a spicy domoda in the Gambia…
…greeting thousands of Turtle Doves on a sultry day in The Gambia and learning how to ensure their journey back home is a safe one.
…thrilling at clouds of Pallid and Little Swifts screaming around the minarets of a mosque and noting the Common Swifts, probably on their way back to a city near you.
…appreciating that the sweep of subtle differences across the flyway – the brightness of an African Blue Tit, the astounding array of Yellow Wagtail races, the Iberian birds with closer relatives in Africa than in Europe – are the intricate stepping stones to whole new species.
…enjoying the laughs and banter we have with the people we meet, sharing our enthusiasm for nature and adventures across cultures and landscapes.
…relaxing, enjoying and marvelling at the wildlife around you, satisfied in the knowledge that your trip is contributing to its future existence.
Imagine the delight in discovering that, far from being somewhere in a frozen torpid lump, our Barn Swallows were awake and well and whizzing through the skies of some foreign land! Here at the Inglorious Bustards, we´re all about the delight of discovery! Now you know what it is, won´t you join us for some #FlywayBirding..?
Want to hear more? We’ll be at BirdFair in Rutland this weekend. We’d love to see you at Stand 28, Marquee 1, or at our talk in Hobby Lecture Theatre at 9.30am, Friday. Come say Hi!