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!
July can be a quiet time for the UK-based Birder, with young and moulting birds skulking in full leaved bushes and trees, quiet and notoriously hard to find.
Southern Spain is perhaps not the first place that springs to mind for birding in midsummer but it in fact holds many delights! And, in the time it takes to cross Norfolk (and about the same cost!), you could be in the Straits of Gibraltar taking some of them in!
Because of its strategic position at the gateway of two continents, Andalusia is a unique blend of Europe and Africa. This southernmost Spanish province is the most biodiverse region not only in Spain but the whole of Europe, and it stays relatively cool due to the sea breezes.
So if you´re after a snapshot of superb resident species in intertidal, wetland, farmland, woodland and urban habitats, accompanied with fantastic tapas, passionate discussions, and welcoming people, come join us for a weekend to remember!
Here´s five reasons why…
Meet the locals!
We really do have some star local species waiting for you here in the Straits!
A successful reintroduction programme of the Critically Endangered Northern Bald Ibis took place here in 2008, and we should be able to see these engaging and quirky birds at their nesting colony or grazing on surrounding farmland.
Nipping into the beautiful Old Town of Tarifa, we´ll be able to enjoy the antics of our local Lesser Kestrel colony, swooping and reeling around the Moorish fort.
We can also hope for a great selection of raptors including Griffon Vultures, Egyptian Vultures, Bonelli’s and Spanish Imperial Eagles, Short-toed and Booted Eagles and Black-winged Kites.
Visits to wetlands should yield a host of waders including Sanderling, Red Knot, Dunlin, Little Stint, Bar and Black-tailed Godwit passing through, amongst the breeding Collared Pratincoles, Common Ringed and Kentish Plover.
There are many seabirds such as Sandwich, Little and Caspian Terns, Slender-billed Gull and the once extremely rare Audouin’s Gull. We should also get views of Eurasian Spoonbill and Greater Flamingo as well as Western Osprey and Purple Swamphen.
Other resident Spanish specialities include Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit, Western Bonelli´s Warbler – the list goes on!
2. Add an African twist to your Spanish list!
The mere nine miles that separates Spain from Africa has proved to be no boundary for some plucky African species! Here you can add the unexpected to your Spanish list.
Two typically African Swift species choose the Iberian peninsula as one of their very localised breeding sites in Europe – Little and White-rumped. It’s one of the very few places in Europe you can see all five of our breeding Swift species!
You can also encounter Common Bulbul, Rüppell´s Vulture, Marbled and White-headed Duck and Red-knobbed Coot, all unusual ´ticks´to find this side of the Straits.
3. Migration early days
Perhaps surprisingly, at this time of year, the return to Africa has already begun for some species, and we should start to see flocks of White Storks and Black Kites crossing the Straits.
Groups of super-sized Alpine Swift should be passing overhead on their early morning passage flight, moving through from their mountain breeding grounds to their sub-Saharan wintering areas.
In fact almost anything can turn up here during the early days of autumn migration, as passerines collect amongst the shady trees to gather strength for their southwards crossing of the Straits.
4. Bugs and beasts galore!
As moist air from the Mediterranean Sea passes through the Straits, it gathers in clouds and falls as dew high up on the Cork Oak forests of the Alcornocales Natural Park.
The unique nature of this unusual cloud forest means the streams and brooks in this area continue to run long after the rest of Spain is dry. This phenomenon makes this a superb area for invertebrates, amphibians and reptiles throughout the year.
We should see gorgeous Monarch butterflies, Two-tailed Pashas, Four-spotted Emerald and Copper Demoiselle all in flight, as well as a host of fascinating frogs, toads and lizards to be spotted.
5. All the other things!
Sunshine, sangria, tapas, vino tinto, local hams and cheeses, ice cold beer in chilled glasses, relaxed people, gorgeous scenery, empty beaches… Do we really need go on?!
Recently we hosted a group from Wensum Valley Bird Society from Norfolk, UK at the end of April. We delighted in Birding on Two Continents with them and as with all our trips we became the best of friends in travel and adventure! If you have a group, bird / wildlife club or simply a group of friends and want an adventure that suits your budget and exceeds your expectations, simply contact us for further information.
Here are some of the trip highlights in the fabulous team’s own words!..
The weather was being very contrary at the start of our trip, and we left the UK in the middle of a heatwave. We were hosted by Inglorious Bustards at the lovely Huerta Grande lodge, where Nightingales and Firecrests made their presence known immediately. Our first full day in Spain found us on top of the Sierra de la Plata, near Bolonia, in a howling gale and temperatures more suited to the English winter. Fortunately it didn’t actually rain, and in fact it didn’t stop us from seeing some exciting birds. We were all thrilled to see Woodchat Shrikes on the way up the mountain, and these lovely birds became frequent sightings throughout the week. On parking at the top we were greeted by a Blue Rock Thrush, and a pair of Griffon Vultures on the cliff.
Lesser Kestrels were nesting on the top. As the Vultures and Kestrels swirled around us, enjoying the strong wind, the really exciting birds were seen. A pair of Egyptian Vultures! What is more they are really beautiful, pale birds, something I never expected to say of a Vulture. They are clearly nesting here, to the delight of Simon, and most of us got pictures of them. Chicks of the Griffon Vultures were too seen and photographed. A Booted Eagle and two Short-toed Eagles also put in an appearance.
A coffee stop at Bolonia was not only enlivened by my first Zitting Cisticola, but also by a cavalcade of around 40 motorbikes, their approach heralded by much hooting and honking! The highlight of our stop at Barbate, a wetland area, had to be the beautiful Collared Pratincoles, which nest there in numbers. Other birds did try to upstage them though. The first I hardly dare mention. It was a Red-necked Nightjar, for which we owe thanks to Alan, who unwittingly flushed it. Sadly he didn’t see the bird himself, and he was remorselessly teased about it for the rest of the week. The other was a Little Bustard, which was heard calling nearby. Another favourite bird that we were to see more of was the Iberian Yellow Wagtail, a bright and beautiful grey-headed sub-species. Add in the Corn Buntings, Crag Martins, Cirl Buntings and Kentish Plovers, among others, and you will see that we had a great first day.
7.30a.m saw us queueing for the 8 a.m ferry from Algeciras to Morocco. It hadn’t been a very smooth crossing, however the African sunshine was welcoming us. Once waved through it was only 20 mins to Oued Marsa, a truck stop high on a splendid viz-mig spot for a second breakfast. What we really yearned for were big mugs of builders tea, sadly not on offer, but Moroccan mint and orange blossom tea made for the perfect alternative.
What happened next was a once in a lifetime birding moment, something every birder dreams about. First out of the fog came hundreds of BLACK KITES, interspersed with WHITE & BLACK STORKS, HONEY BUZZARDS, MONTAGU’S HARRIERS, SPARROWHAWKS, BOOTED EAGLES (both morphs), SHORT-TOED EAGLES, KESTRELS & BEE EATERS, all kettling and trying to gain height for their crossing. We watched a female HONEY BUZZARD set off, lose confidence, turn around and head back, and then set off again, disappearing into the horizon, well on her way into Europe.
A cry of “SPOTTED FLY over here” turned our eyes to the ground. Soon all our group were shouting “REDSTART”, WILLOW WARBLER”, “GARDEN WARBLER”, “WOODCHAT SHRIKE”, “IBERIAN CHIFFCHAFF” in unison. The most unusual find was a pair of BLACK-CROWNED TCHAGRA.
Our host Simon said that the best migration here was with an Easterly. How right he was. In a brief 30 minute stop we reckoned we saw 28 species that had been grounded by the Levante wind. The skies were dripping migrants. It seemed to be the case of name the bird and it will be there somewhere. I have never seen anything like it in my life. A truly memorable birding moment.
Reluctantly we climbed back into our vehicles for the two hour drive to Merga Zerja wetlands, a tidal lagoon located on the Atlantic coast. Once the home of Slender-billed Curlew, last seen there in 1995, its threatened wildlife is under pressure from ever increasing agricultural expansion.
More mint tea was consumed at a restaurant overlooking the lagoon as we waited for our boats, and we marvelled at the aerial antics of CASPIAN and SANDWICH TERNS, AUDOUIN’S and YELLOW-LEGGED GULLS were dotted on the Lagoon shore. GLOSSY IBIS flew past in formation.
We picked our way through the lagoon-side fish market, the fisherman seemingly preferred to sell direct from their boats, rather than the tailor made brick building. Plenty of waders were on the lagoon shores. Umpteen WHIMBREL, splendid GREY PLOVERS, DUNLIN, CURLEW, and OYSTERCATCHERS. GREATER FLAMINGOES glinted in the distance. RED-RUMPED and BARN SWALLOWS, COMMON & PALLID SWIFTS danced above our heads.
Back on land we pulled into a small wood at the edge of the Lagoon, lazily scanning for NORTHERN LAPWINGS and MARSH HARRIERS as we devoured our picnic lunch.
However the day was not over yet. Simon had a “special bird” he hoped we would see at dusk. The secret location was alongside a fruit farm, producing strawberries, blackberries and potatoes for M & S and Waitrose. Quietly and in single file we followed Simon down the edge of a furrowed field, glimpsing ZITTING CISTICOLAS and SERIN on our way. Our target was the vulnerable MOROCCAN MARSH OWL, more and more of its habitat being claimed by the fruit farmers. Preparing for a long wait, we were startled when suddenly there it was, rising out of the reeds in front of us.
By sheer chance and good luck I was actually looking in the right direction, camera in hand. click, click, click. Not brilliant photos, but a brilliant momento. Satisfied, we turned around and headed back towards the vans. Liz and I stopped for a few minutes to admire a LITTLE OWL scowling out of his dead tree at us. We didn’t realise two male and a female MONTAGU’S HARRIERS were displaying behind us, and a COMMON QUAIL was lurking…….
……We had had the best possible day.
Our first full day in Morocco, at Larache a town on the Atlantic coast. After a good night’s sleep in our hotel, breakfast was taken in a restaurant across the road. Freshly squeezed orange juice, flat bread, pancakes, honey, fried eggs, cheese and more olives. Hot drinks of milky coffee and sweet mint tea, both served in glasses.
Simon had advised us to bring cameras and binoculars across the newly refurbished plaza, Place de la Liberation, to the old arches opposite, and there in the corners were Little Swifts nests, these had been there for decades with Swifts repairing and building on to them. Swifts were busy feeding chicks and took little notice of us.
Checking out of the hotel and back in the minibuses we drove along the run-down beach and seafront area to the Loukkos river and along to the marshes. A couple of stops revealed Little and Cattle Egrets, Turtle Doves, Bee-eaters, Greater Flamingos, Savi’s Warblers in full song at the top on reeds, Red-crested Pochard, Marsh Harrier, Black-winged Stilts, Cetti’s Warblers, Brown-throated Martins, Red-knobbed Coots, Great White Egrets, Zitting Cisticolas, a single Purple Swamphen, an elusive Great Reed Warbler, Short-toed Eagle, Black Kites and the list went on!
By early afternoon we had arrived at the little bustling town of Bni Arouss. Several old white Mercedes taxis, heavily-laden donkeys, butchers shops with lamb carcasses hung in the open air and busy barbers shops. Having found a local to mind the minibuses our guides soon organised lunch. The eatery had sawdust on the floor, a home-made BBQ outside and inside about enough space to sit us and space for the cook to prepare our food. Flat breads, two types of spiced beans, grilled sardines, strips of beef and lamb mint balls, chips, water and mint tea, all very tasty.
Back on the road to the Bouhachem Forest a forest of Pine trees, Cork oaks and Wild Olive trees. Our first stop was for a troupe of Barbary Macaques to look at us, this made a change and the dominant male never took his eyes off us. As we walked, stopping here and there, Booted Eagle, Ravens, Long-legged Buzzards, a Short-toed Treecreeper, African Blue Tits, Atlas Pied Flycatchers, Firecrests, Desert Grey Shrikes, Griffon Vultures but best of all with excellent viewsfour Levaillant’s Green Woodpeckers, three seen well the fourth heard.
As [a] member of the wonderfully enjoyable WVBS trip to Spain and Morocco … I thought I would share some of my highlights of the trip.
Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker…Picus vaillantii………………………tick
Northern Morocco was quite a surprise in terms of its vegetation and lushness. The Bouhachem forest in the Rif mountains of North Morocco is wonderful mixed woodland: the ubiquitous Cork Oak, but also cedar, pine, fir and cypress. It seems relatively unspoilt and has recently been assigned status as a “parc-naturel” so hopefully there will be some form of protection against the ongoing spread of developed land creep and technology.
So there we were, on a lonely forest road sitting in the van watching a troupe of Barbary Macaques entertaining themselves. (This population was the originator of the macaques in Gibraltar). But as entertaining as these were as soon as David and Simon, the guide, saw a Woodpecker fly into a tree in their midst, there was an eruption of bodies out of the van to try to spy it. Before too long Simon had it in his scope and we were treated to great views of a Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker, its beautiful green back straight in front of us against the trunk of a pine tree. While we were congratulating ourselves on our luck to see this we heard another calling off stage right and shortly after heard drumming fairly close by. With luck I was able to spot this one in another tree drumming against some dead wood on part of the trunk.
After everyone had a chance to see this we then saw another Levaillant’s Woodpecker buzzing it and then them both flying off stage left across the road. So we got great views of two, calling and drumming and a good barney to boot.
Not so unusual to see a Nightingale but what did seem to me unusual was that we heard Nightingales practically everywhere we went, loud and long, day and night, protected areas and not. There is just so much good habitat: wasteland and scrub. So the Nightingale does not seem to be at risk (yet) in its heartland areas. But it made me think about how little land is available to them in the UK now and how hard it will be to maintain them at the edge of their range. Maybe Mr Gove will solve it all with his new environmental policy…….But it really was a treat to hear them singing so much and I did eventually get great views of one singing near our dining area at Huerta Grande our base camp in Spain.
Crested Tit …. Lophophanes cristatus….tick Firecrest….Regulus ignicapilla….tick
Both on the same tree whilst I was having breakfast at Huerta Grande. How nice was that!
Thekla Lark……Galerida theklae…………………tick
We were at a likely-looking site of grazing and common land with patches of scrub and Iberian Broom. I was idly looking at a Crested Lark and asked the guide what the bird next to it was. He easily identified this as a juvenile Stonechat but suggested I look more closely at the Crested Lark, its distinct breast streaking and its more upright stance. While I was trying to take in this upright posture, the Lark started lowering its breast to the dusty ground and going round in circles. Was it dust bathing? After several circles Liz suddenly shouted “there’s a snake” and a Horseshoe Whip snake at least a metre long weaved its way past the bird and on across the grass into the undergrowth. Did this explain the bird’s strange behaviour? Who knows.
My highlights of the trip in no particular order:
A lovely friendly bunch of people to spend time with
Waking to the wonderful song of Nightingales
Standing by a truck stop watching hundreds of raptors debating whether to brave the Levante wind and cross the Straits
Weird, wonderful and rare birds: Egyptian Vulture, Northern Bald Ibis, Moroccan Marsh Owl, Levaillant’s Woodpecker.
Cartwheel sized flatbreads, fried fish and copious beans
Little Swifts’ feathery nests in the Larache plaza
Eating chewy snails from a market stall in the blue city
Scarce Swallowtail butterfly – and a Common too
White Storks sharing their nests with sparrows and
starlings – imagine Edward Lear’s Old Man With A
An enormous Common Toad on my doorstep!
Lesser Kestrels oblivious to tourists visiting the Castle
Thanks to the Inglorious Bustards.
At the risk of introducing a more melancholy note I would like to mention some of the conservation concerns that I have been pondering since we got back:
Slender-billed Curlew – Shortly after crossing the Straits of Gibraltar we drove to a river estuary where we took two small fishing boats out onto the river. Apart from being a very pleasant excursion, this site has a very sad birding significance as the last known recorded site of the Slender-billed Curlew, now believed to be extinct. Hassan, our local guide, is credited with being one of the last observers to record the bird. There is a local café, beloved of visiting birders, in which the bird log records scores of annual sightings some years ago, then dozens, then a few, and finally none…..We saw lots of Whimbrel, a few Common Curlew, but no Slender-billed. This is a species that has become extinct in our lifetime. Ouch….
Nightingales – The wonderful gardens around our accommodation in Huerta Grande in Spain, and the hotel near Chefchaouen in Morocco, rang to the glorious song of many male Nightingales. They kept us awake at night, and woke us up in the mornings – and never have I been so pleased to suffer insomnia! This bird seems to thrive in less intensively farmed and developed areas in Europe, where the locals are less inclined to be so tidy. There are probably greater numbers of insects, and less Deer browsing the understorey. Whatever the cause, we are about to lose this fabulous bird from the UK where numbers may have declined by as much as 90%. Surely, something must be done to halt then reverse this decline.
Moroccan Marsh Owl – Simon, our leader, took us to an area bordering a river estuary. We drove down farm tracks past fields and greenhouses where fruit and vegetables were being farmed intensively, almost entirely for the British market. One multinational farming company was responsible for draining and then eating up much of the land in this area to grow strawberries for our supermarkets. We were met on the edge of the cultivated area by Hassan and another local who knew exactly where to find a Marsh Owl and what a fantastic bird this is, but now very rare, and if the farming company continue to swallow up the limited marshland habitat, the last few birds will be forced out of this area.
Northern Bald Ibis – These birds have been reintroduced into Spain and had chosen a nest site in some cliffs just above a relatively busy road. An Eagle Owl had wiped out all but one of the chicks last year, so the owl had been captured and relocated out of harm’s way. I asked Simon if there was any risk from egg collectors stealing, as these birds are so rare (this is currently their only European nest site). No, he said, as the local villagers are very proud of “their” Bald Ibis colony, and anyone threatening it would be likely to be dealt with quite harshly! This colony is small, but with care, will continue to prosper and hopefully grow in numbers.
Janet and I cannot thank Simon and Niki from Inglorious Bustards enough for hosting such a brilliant week. And we are very grateful to our six colleagues from the club that were such good company throughout. I would love to visit the area again, and, who knows, maybe a Red-necked Nightjar will appear….!?
Just a short ferry trip away from Tarifa, Northern Morocco offers superb birding opportunities, putting a trip to North Africa´s teeming wetlands, ancient forests and towering mountains within easy reach of a Spanish wildlife holiday.
This we were keen to demonstrate to our good friends Iain and Janet so, as the sun rose on our ferry, speeding across the narrow stretch of water that separates Europe and Africa, we stood up on deck and watched Tangiers looming rapidly towards us!
Pretty much the first bird of the trip was a House Bunting, singing merrily away from a harbour front window, letting us know we had definitely arrived in Africa!
A short drive through expansive Moroccan countryside and we were soon sharing a mint tea with Hassan, our local guide during our boat trip out onto the famous Merja Zerga lagoon.
Out on the lagoon, it was gull paradise! Among the many Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, there were numerous smart-looking Audouin´s and Slender-Billed Gulls, as well as a couple of Mediterranean Gulls and a lone second-year Common Gull, an unusual bird for the area.
We had hit the tide perfectly, high enough to explore the whole lagoon but low enough that there was plenty of exposed mud, hooching with waders! Birding from a sandbank in the middle of the lagoon, we could see huge flocks of thousands of them swirling over the flats including Common, Grey and Kentish Plovers, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, Redshank, and Greenshank, while on the mud we could see Eurasian Curlews,
Eurasian Spoonbills, Greater Flamingos, a handful of Red Knot, and a handsome Western Osprey perched up on a wooden pole.
After a picnic lunch, Hassan took us to a site where local graziers had been seeing Moroccan Marsh Owl activity. He told us other recent visiting birders hadn’t managed to see the bird, but after a while of searching and waiting, there they were! Not one, but two gorgeous individuals emerged from a field of short grass and flew overhead, giving us superb views of their beautifully-patterned primary feathers. One then settled on top of a pile of grass cuttings and sat looking into our very souls for what seemed like an age!
Elated, we returned to our hotel in Larache, encountered a group of thirty migrating Black Kites on the journey. After a bit of time to relax and explore, we headed out to celebrate our fabulous day at our favourite restaurant, specialising in fresh locally-caught seafood.
Next morning, we headed to nearby Loukkos wetlands, today shrouded rather atmospherically in mist. As it lifted it revealed a wealth of avian life – an enormous gull roost, containing yesterday’s Common Gull suddenly dispersed, leaving behind many Glossy Ibis, Black-Winged Stilts, Black-tailed Godwits, Common Snipe and Red-crested Pochard, among the Eurasian Spoonbills and Greater Flamingos.
Thirty Black Kites suddenly erupted out of their roost in nearby trees, and we wondered if they were the same birds we had seen yesterday, following us on our journey.
Soon it was time to travel on, up through the mystical Cork Oak forests of Bouhachem. Here we hoped to find one of our main target birds. Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker was to be a lifer for Janet – no pressure then!
We spent some time searching the sunlit glades where Eurasian Nuthatches, Short-toed Treecreepers, Firecrests and African Blue Tits and Chaffinches foraged. And sure enough, not long after a distant call was heard, a flutter of wings announced the arrival of our woodpecker, which proceeded to perch on a tree trunk and eyeball Janet, as if to say “tickable enough for ya?!”
Then our whirlwind adventure took us up into the mountain town of Chefchouen. After seeking out a beer to celebrate our woodpecker, we enjoyed working up our appetite for tagine by wandering the town’s famous blue streets.
A morning jaunt up into the craggy landscape of the Talassamtane National Park brought us mountain birds galore! A strong supporting cast of Black Wheatears, Blue Rock Thrushes and Rock Buntings got our attention in time for an appearance by the stunning star, a gorgeous male Moussier’s Redstart! Fit!
Talassamtane National Park
Blue Rock Thrush
Back of camera Moussier´s Redstart
But by mid-afternoon we were already on our way back to Spain, enjoying dozens of Cory’s Shearwaters, an Arctic Skua and a surprise appearance by a Sperm Whale on the short trip!
Sitting outside a bar in Tarifa that evening, sipping a cold beer while we reflected on our mini-adventure, we looked up to see a stream of thirty Black Kites, in off the sea from Africa, streaming over our heads. We´d love to think these were the same birds again, engaged in their own mini-adventure between two continents!