Icons of Migration – How White Storks Have Inspired the Study of Migration for Centuries

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!

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White Storks heading to Africa – July 2020 © Inglorious Bustards

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.

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Collective flight trajectories and synchronization in circling direction. (a),(b) Flock trajectories of migrating storks showing different flight types (circling and gliding). Grey arrows show flight direction. Tracks are colour-coded based on horizontal path curvature. The thermal is drifting with the wind resulting in distorted trajectories even if the bird flies in a perfect circle relative to the moving air (c) Curvature against time for each individual. Arrows at the top depict time delays between switches relative to first individual. (d) Horizontal trajectories of birds that switched their circling direction.

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!

Get some migration inspiration in your life!  Get in touch for day trips or bespoke tours this autumn, or give yourself a trip to look forward to, taking in Migration and Cetaceans in 2021 or beyond…

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The group reach optimal height and reach for Africa © Inglorious Bustards

 

 

 

 

Fourteen Kilometres of Joy and Sorrow

Travel Blogger of the Year

Read our award-winning blog about how a sudden drop in the wind on an autumn day in Andalucía inspires heart-stoppingly spectacular mass avian movement, but also provokes thought on travel, conservation and global change…

 

 

Fourteen kilometres of sea and sky are all that separate two continents. At 9am, the Mediterranean sun is already warming the air and sparkling on the calm waters. It’s early autumn, and this narrow – but potentially deadly – stretch of sea is all that stands between countless millions of birds and the next leg of their journey to African wintering grounds.

It’s been windy all week in The Strait of Gibraltar, making the crossing too dangerous for larger birds. Without the help of uplifting coastal air currents, they must power all the way, or face drowning. They’ve been stranded in the avian departure lounge for days and they’re hungry and desperate to continue their journey.

As mid-morning arrives, thermals form over the rocky coastline, and they’re finally cleared for take-off! In minutes, the sky fills with birds of prey. Eagles, Kites, Harriers and Honey Buzzards, swirl together in almost incomprehensible numbers and barge south along the suddenly congested flyway.

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juvenile Black Kite © Inglorious Bustards

Chirpy European Bee-eaters pass over in vocal family groups, fifty at a time, quipping and chatting excitedly like they’re off on holiday. Clouds of thousands of White Storks form, sparkling black-and-white as the flock circles around on itself, turning the air currents to art.

The incredible spectacle continues all day, ending with streams of late arrivals racing over in their hundreds, seemingly experiencing `flyway rage´, desperate to reach Africa before sundown.

This breath-taking migratory marvel is beyond compare! During one rapturous, raptor-filled day at Spain’s most southerly point, I’ve counted over 20,000 soaring birds making the commute to the northern coast of Morocco – a mere fraction of the 450,000 that will pass through here in a season. 

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Migrating White Storks © Inglorious Bustards

Imagine looking up from your tapas in Tarifa town and seeing layers upon layers of birds gliding overhead, stretching as far as the eyes can see in every direction, including ‘up’. It’s not surprising that this experience has the power to reduce many folk to tears! 

But it also has the power to provoke thought, about travel, conservation and global change.  With so much at stake, how do we help these feathered wanderers fulfil the yearly promise of return?  Must the joy of watching wildlife inevitably encourage consumption of the planet’s resources? How can our passion for travel and wildlife be channelled into a positive outcome for the environment?  How can we turn “eco-tourism” into a promise, rather than an oxymoron?

Even in the face of a global pandemic, we must not forget that climate change is still the biggest emergency facing our planet and the biggest threat to our survival, and that of so many other species. But it is easy to condemn travel, while conveniently ignoring agriculture and spiralling consumerism as major contributors to the emissions that cause global warming.

For many species, habitat loss, intensive agriculture and localised threats are the immediate emergency. Without travel, protected areas lose their economic value and habitats are forgotten. The voice to protect them inevitably becomes drowned out as they become meaningless to most, something you can only see on telly.

Without travel, we lose support for countless local conservation organisations, community businesses, and sustainable ecotourism endeavours, working hard to effect change at grassroots level. So too we lose understanding of our connection to the habitats, landscapes and cultures that Nature’s nomads pass through. 

From a conservation standpoint, the concept of saving species across flyways is an important one. After all, there’s no point fixing things for a wandering bird in its breeding grounds alone without giving it a helping hand across its entire migratory range. Places like The Strait of Gibraltar are rare, not just for their importance and natural beauty, but for their power to open people’s minds to migration and the interconnectedness of things.

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A view across The Straits © Inglorious Bustards

By the end of November most of the birds of prey have passed through, and the skies of my home seem a little empty. But winter in The Strait brings its own visitors. Northerners seeking a bit of winter sun arrive in their thousands. Cranes fly in raggedly lines over the rice fields, bugling to one another. Tiny Chiff-chaffs and Blackcaps scuttle around the wild olive trees, waiting for the lengthening days to carry them back north.

Then one day in February conditions are suddenly right, and the first arrivals of spring are coming! Huge columns of Black Kites will be visible surging from the northern coast of Morocco, as if someone has popped open a bottle of champagne. Seemingly within minutes they’re arriving to the clifftops above Tarifa – my ringside seat for this migratory dance!

They have travelled from the moist forests of Africa, across the Sahelian scrublands and the Sahara, over temples, mosques and churches. They have overcome unstable and ever-widening deserts, persecution, pollution, habitat loss, and finally crossed this mere fourteen kilometres of sea and sky at the meeting of two continents. For me there is no bigger joy than a promise of return fulfilled.

Inspired by the brief to write about “My Favourite Place On Earth”, this blog first appeared under the title “Fourteen Kilometres Between Two Continents – 450,000 Soaring Birds Can’t Be Wrong!“, as part of Terra Incognita’s Travel Blogger of the Year 2020 competition.  It was placed in the Top 10 out of over 150 entries, by a panel of 20 judges including world-renowned travel bloggers, writers, conservationists and ethical organisations.

Maybe you´d like to experience the joy and sorrow for yourself?  Look no further than our migration tours and give yourself something to look forward to…

Mysterious migrations of the deep!

We often think of the Straits of Gibraltar as a barrier to be overcome, a great leap of faith for the hundreds of thousands of birds that must move between the land masses of Africa and Europe. But through the eons, other vast, invisible migrations have gone almost unseen in the dark depths beneath the sparkling surface.

Here we chat to our friend Aurelio Morales, owner of family-run cetacean-watching company Marina Blue, to find out why, for marine mammals, “The Strait of Gibraltar is a vast underwater canyon – a great corridor that links the Mediterranean and the Atlantic”

Aurelio has spent twenty-two years of his life around the marine fauna of the Strait of Gibraltar. “There is something special about this place that hooks me. Two seas, two tectonic plates, two continents, two prevailing winds… Each outing is completely different. There is no one equal to the other, since the weather and light changes, the behaviour of the species varies throughout the days”

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Bottlenose Dolphin © Inglorious Bustards

His trips are full of encounters with our local resident delphids – Common, Striped and Bottlenose Dolphins, highly-sociable Long-finned Pilot Whales, and even Orcas in summer – but he is particularly fascinated by the mysterious movements and spectacular sudden appearances of the area’s two migrant species – Fin Whales and Sperm Whales.

“We have so many experiences with these two species that never cease to amaze me. We have seen on many occasions Sperm Whales jumping right out of the water, dragging a large body of water as if it were an explosion in the sea. We have witnessed fascinating interactions between Sperm Whales, Long-finned Pilot Whales and Bottlenose Dolphins. Yellow-legged Gulls will perch on top of a resting whale and clean its dead skin. We have seen Hammerhead Sharks circling them while they rest on the surface.”

But although they are seen regularly and often with great intimacy from Aurelio’s small yacht Miamita, much remains unknown about the movements of these two peaceful giants of the seas.

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Out with Marina Blue!

“We consider Sperm Whales to be semi-residents here. They spend long periods in the Strait feeding, mostly on deep sea squid.”

“In the Strait we almost invariably see adult males of up to 15m in length – and occasionally younger males of around 7-10m. They use this underwater corridor for their movements to and from feeding and mating areas.”

Male and female Sperm Whales generally don’t hang out. The males are loners, found in higher latitude cold waters, whilst the females, calves and young adults form gregarious and relatively sedentary groups in tropical and temperate seas. They meet up only to mate, with the males performing seasonal migrations. They find each other across vast distances – their huge jelly-filled heads directing and amplifying their song to volumes louder than a jet engine.

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Sperm Whale © Inglorious Bustards

Research in 2011 used photo-cataloguing of tail flukes – from which individuals can reliably be identified – to compare Straits whales with records from across the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Of 47 Sperm Whales identified here, fifteen could be traced travelling throughout the western Mediterranean, a straight-line distance of up to a thousand miles.

The fact that none of “our” Sperm Whales from this study were recorded in the Atlantic supports existing genetic evidence of an isolated sub-population within the Mediterranean Sea. Believed to contain fewer than 2,500 mature individuals, the Mediterranean population is considered ‘endangered’, based on IUCN Red List criteria.

However, Sperm Whale social groups, with females and calves, do turn up in the Strait from time to time. We recall an incredible experience in September 2017, watching a group of ten females and young whales. They were grouped tightly together in a “marguerite formation”, where the group surrounds a weak or injured individual with their tails pointing outward, enabling them to protect it from attackers. The gathering seemed to emanate tension and anxiety, as the sea around them boiled with curious dolphins and seabirds eyed them suspiciously from above.

The happening was during a series of strong hurricanes over the Atlantic. Could this troubled group have been Atlantic in origin, having come into The Straits to shelter?

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Sperm Whales defend themselves in a “marguerite” formation © Inglorious Bustards

There is clearly more work to be done, says Aurelio. “Collaborative studies are currently being carried out between different companies, associations and scientists to verify that the same species seen in the Strait are being seen in other places such as the Canary Islands and Azores.”

Fin whales, the world´s second-largest living creatures, can reach lengths of up to 25m. They used to be abundant in the Strait of Gibraltar and nearby Atlantic areas until their rapid collapse due to intense whaling at the beginning of the 20th century. They are now considered endangered.

Evidence gathered from fifteen years’ worth of photo-identification suggest that some of the Fin Whales seen in the Mediterranean are actually of Atlantic stock.  A small community of them have been observed migrating through the Strait of Gibraltar, with remarkable seasonal directionality. They head to the Atlantic Ocean in May-October and the Mediterranean Sea in November-April. Observations of young whales exiting the Mediterranean Sea mainly in May-July suggest that at least part of this community is likely to calve in the basin, probably near the Balearic Islands.

“The Mediterranean is a semi-closed sea with warmer temperatures, so it would make sense that females raise their calves there until they gain enough weight to move to cooler feeding areas.” says Aurelio.

But, he says, there are many threats to these amazing creatures as they try to navigate the busiest shipping lane in the world.

“The greatest dangers for these large cetaceans are almost always related to human presence. The Strait is the only channel that connects the Atlantic with the Med and carries massive shipping traffic. Whales are injured colliding with large ships, and noise pollution interferes with echo-location, and therefore migration. Pollution from oil spills and plastic waste is another great problem that these animals face with this unbridled progress that prevails over the conservation of Nature.”

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Long-finned Pilot Whale © Inglorious Bustards

As a wildlife tour operator, and erstwhile skipper for the Ministry of the Environment, he feels a great sense of responsibility to make sure Marina Blue’s own effects on the environmental are only positive, in line with our own #FlywayPromise.

“There are thankfully many legal requirements to operate here, in terms of good practices regarding cetacean observation and compliance with EU emissions regulations and speed limits, which we naturally comply with. But we also have our own manual of good practices, guided by our own conscience and respect for Nature!”

“Marina Blue works in and for the Strait, with small groups of no more than ten people per trip to minimise our impact. We separate and reduce all our waste. We enjoy the animals with the utmost respect, quietly, allowing them to come to us if they wish. We must always bear in mind that we do not own this planet.”

We love heading out with Aurelio and his crew during selected trips, because of the intimacy of the encounters allowed by such a small vessel, but also because of his obvious deep connection and passion for the wildlife we are hoping to observe. With each spell-binding sighting of one of these incredible animals, we learn a little more about how to protect them.

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The crew!

 

“The fork is the most powerful tool to change the planet” – Tarifa Ecocenter and the #FlywayPromise

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.

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Students from Bangor University enjoy a delicious vegetarian feast at Tarifa Ecocenter

That’s why we love our partnership with Tarifa Ecocenter and their sister project, the Molino de Guadalmesí.

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.”

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Johnny from Molino de Guadalmesi

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.

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Inglorious Bustards and friends after a morning´s hard work at World Clean Up Day 2018

“ 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 eatCurrently 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.

Crazy about Spring!

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.

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Short-toed Eagle making it into Europe © Inglorious Bustards

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.

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Red-necked Nightjar © Inglorious Bustards

It´s so good here! And it´s decided, Spring is definitely our favourite season! Well, until Summer that is!

Mothing at the gateway to Africa! A chat with moth-er extraordinaire @dgcountryside

At the gateway between Europe and Africa, there is biodiversity galore!  Avian migration is the most visible and celebrated, and we spend a lot of our time looking up.  But to never look down would be to miss out on so much, including some of the best moth-trapping opportunities in Europe.  That´s why, with the help of acclaimed international moth expert Dave Grundy, we´ll be running a trip in May 2019 to look more closely at the gorgeous local nocturnal Lepidoptera under our very noses!

We caught up with Dave to ask him about all things moth-y, and more!

So Dave, what drew you to the Straits? Why would you recommend it to British moth-ers?

The Straits is just an amazing place!  There are so many moths and a higher diversity all year round, and it’s all in brilliant scenery with great hospitality from local Andalusian people!

I first started coming here simply to extend the mothing season.  I was fed up of opening traps in the cold to find none, or maybe one moth huddled in the corner of the trap, so I headed south, to look forward to opening a trap and finding 60 species in it!

I got hooked, really – it is a real biodiversity hotspot at the crossroads of two continents, the far south of Spain in Europe and the far north of Morocco in Africa. The geology is diverse due to the collision of two continents in geological time and this leads to a diversity of fauna and flora and of course this includes a very rich fauna of moths.

The mothing sites are great and from a totally different biogeographic area – trapping Mediterranean olive scrub and cork oak forest in an area where new moth species are likely to be discovered! What’s not to get excited about?

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Trapping in the campo © Dave Grundy

We know you´re often to be found trapping at Europe´s most southerly point at Fundacion Migrés coastal HQ.  And also enjoying a pizza at top veggie restaurant Tarifa Ecocenter!  Any other favourite hangouts in the area?

I love to stay at Huerta Grande up in the hills above Tarifa.  From there you can step into both the coastal Natural Park of the Straits with its olive scrub and coastal habitats and inland to Los Alcornocales Natural Park, which is on inland hills cloaked in humid cork oak woodland.

There´s birds to enjoy too, for those that like that sort of thing!  The Straits is probably most famous for its twice-yearly raptor migration event during which 250,000 soaring birds pour across the sea.  Plus there´s loads of nice resident birds in local coastal, wetland and woodland habitats.  You get things like Crested Tit and Short-toed Treecreeper just hanging around the log cabins at Huerta Grande!

We remember coming to inspect a trap with you and you showed us our first Giant Peacock Moth.  Europe´s biggest moth!  It was mega!  What are some of the other cool species you’ve trapped in Andalusía?

There´s so many! Goldwing, Passenger, Alchymist, Latin, Pale Shoulder, Striped Hawk, Lydd Beauty, Four-spotted, Eutelia adulatrix, Porter’s Rustic and Speckled Footman to name just a few.

 

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Latin © Dave Grundy

 

I don´t really have a favourite but I do like Lemonia philopalus, a lot! Why? – is more difficult to say – big and furry and stripy with amazing wing and antennae patterns. And also crazily it needs heavy rain to come out – and this is because it pupates in the soil and needs the soil softened by rain to emerge!

For the newcomer, how does mothing with a local expert help?

Mothing in Spain is difficult, if not impossible for non-local people who don´t at least have mothing friends here.  You need a moth-trapping licence, which is expensive and really difficult to fill in – in Spanish, of course!

Best to hook up with somebody who has all the kit and permissions, so you don´t have to worry about it.  I have the all the paperwork and licences you need for trapping.  I have the permissions off local landowners to trap in the area. I bring lots of traps here from Britain in my van – so when people come mothing with me they have access to five or more moth traps every night to see what is inside – and no need to bring your own trap! If you fly out here, you would be lucky to squeeze one trap into your suitcase.

Over the ten years I´ve been coming here I´ve been lucky enough to make some great friends in the local mothing community – a group I´m working hard to build!  I´ve got lots of gen now on where the good sites are for moths.  It´s been fascinating building up experience trapping in olive groves, or cork oak forests or sand dunes by the sea. There are so many special moths to see! I feel I can now say I know the moths of the area as well as anyone. Which is handy for people on the trip, as the main moth books are in Spanish, and many of the moths we´ll see only have a scientific name!

P1430303 Hoyosia codeti - San Carlos del Tiradero - 19-05-18
Hoyosia codeti © Dave Grundy

What’s the Spanish word for moth?

The fancy way of saying it is mariposa nocturna which of course translates as “night butterfly”.  However I´m trying to bring the word polilla into popular use.  It´s a Spanish word for moth, but it actually has negative connotations – it´s usually used to describe the kind of critters that munch their way through your clothes!  It makes people laugh when you describe yourself as a moth-studier by using the word polillero, which is why I like it!

Are you excited about running our 2019 Mothing the Straits trip? What does it have in store for the group?

Of course I am!  I´ve run loads of successful field courses before, but an actual moth-ing holiday?!  As far as I know it´s a first!

Every night we´ll have one or more traps within walking distance of the log cabins at Huerta Grande, plus we will head out into nearby habitats each night to set up another five traps. Each night we will do this in very different habitats within a few miles of our base.

Then we come back for a lovely three course meal of typical local food with plenty of wine and beer!

Then every morning we will head back out to check the traps and this will probably take us the whole morning including photographing the most exciting moths.  After that there´s time for picnic lunch, siesta, local exploration, whatever you like, before we set off again in the evening!

The trip actually also coincides with the area´s massive raptor migration.  Tens of thousands of Honey Buzzards will be crossing the Straits daily, alongside other raptors like Short-toed and Booted Eagles.  I know some of the people that have already booked on my trip are also extending their stay a bit to watch migrating raptors and do some excellent local birding with you two!

Thanks Dave! Sounds amazing! So tell us, where can people find out more about this ground-breaking moth-trapping holiday?

There´s full details on the website tour page, and you can have a look at my profile there too!  There´s not many places left though, so don´t hang about!

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Dave awaits!