Read our award-winning blog about how a sudden drop in the wind on an autumn day in Andalucía inspires heart-stoppingly spectacular mass avian movement, but also provokes thought on travel, conservation and global change…
Fourteen kilometres of sea and sky are all that separate two continents. At 9am, the Mediterranean sun is already warming the air and sparkling on the calm waters. It’s early autumn, and this narrow – but potentially deadly – stretch of sea is all that stands between countless millions of birds and the next leg of their journey to African wintering grounds.
It’s been windy all week in The Strait of Gibraltar, making the crossing too dangerous for larger birds. Without the help of uplifting coastal air currents, they must power all the way, or face drowning. They’ve been stranded in the avian departure lounge for days and they’re hungry and desperate to continue their journey.
As mid-morning arrives, thermals form over the rocky coastline, and they’re finally cleared for take-off! In minutes, the sky fills with birds of prey. Eagles, Kites, Harriers and Honey Buzzards, swirl together in almost incomprehensible numbers and barge south along the suddenly congested flyway.
Chirpy European Bee-eaters pass over in vocal family groups, fifty at a time, quipping and chatting excitedly like they’re off on holiday. Clouds of thousands of White Storks form, sparkling black-and-white as the flock circles around on itself, turning the air currents to art.
The incredible spectacle continues all day, ending with streams of late arrivals racing over in their hundreds, seemingly experiencing `flyway rage´, desperate to reach Africa before sundown.
This breath-taking migratory marvel is beyond compare! During one rapturous, raptor-filled day at Spain’s most southerly point, I’ve counted over 20,000 soaring birds making the commute to the northern coast of Morocco – a mere fraction of the 450,000 that will pass through here in a season.
Imagine looking up from your tapas in Tarifa town and seeing layers upon layers of birds gliding overhead, stretching as far as the eyes can see in every direction, including ‘up’. It’s not surprising that this experience has the power to reduce many folk to tears!
But it also has the power to provoke thought, about travel, conservation and global change. With so much at stake, how do we help these feathered wanderers fulfil the yearly promise of return? Must the joy of watching wildlife inevitably encourage consumption of the planet’s resources? How can our passion for travel and wildlife be channelled into a positive outcome for the environment? How can we turn “eco-tourism” into a promise, rather than an oxymoron?
Even in the face of a global pandemic, we must not forget that climate change is still the biggest emergency facing our planet and the biggest threat to our survival, and that of so many other species. But it is easy to condemn travel, while conveniently ignoring agriculture and spiralling consumerism as major contributors to the emissions that cause global warming.
For many species, habitat loss, intensive agriculture and localised threats are the immediate emergency. Without travel, protected areas lose their economic value and habitats are forgotten. The voice to protect them inevitably becomes drowned out as they become meaningless to most, something you can only see on telly.
Without travel, we lose support for countless local conservation organisations, community businesses, and sustainable ecotourism endeavours, working hard to effect change at grassroots level. So too we lose understanding of our connection to the habitats, landscapes and cultures that Nature’s nomads pass through.
From a conservation standpoint, the concept of saving species across flyways is an important one. After all, there’s no point fixing things for a wandering bird in its breeding grounds alone without giving it a helping hand across its entire migratory range. Places like The Strait of Gibraltar are rare, not just for their importance and natural beauty, but for their power to open people’s minds to migration and the interconnectedness of things.
By the end of November most of the birds of prey have passed through, and the skies of my home seem a little empty. But winter in The Strait brings its own visitors. Northerners seeking a bit of winter sun arrive in their thousands. Cranes fly in raggedly lines over the rice fields, bugling to one another. Tiny Chiff-chaffs and Blackcaps scuttle around the wild olive trees, waiting for the lengthening days to carry them back north.
Then one day in February conditions are suddenly right, and the first arrivals of spring are coming! Huge columns of Black Kites will be visible surging from the northern coast of Morocco, as if someone has popped open a bottle of champagne. Seemingly within minutes they’re arriving to the clifftops above Tarifa – my ringside seat for this migratory dance!
They have travelled from the moist forests of Africa, across the Sahelian scrublands and the Sahara, over temples, mosques and churches. They have overcome unstable and ever-widening deserts, persecution, pollution, habitat loss, and finally crossed this mere fourteen kilometres of sea and sky at the meeting of two continents. For me there is no bigger joy than a promise of return fulfilled.
When you´re mentally logging the ID features of a lifer or gazing at thermalling raptors, how much thought do you give to what you´re looking through..?
Of the thirty optics companies that were examined in the 2018 Ethical Consumer report entitled “Shooting Wildlife II”, 83% were found to specifically market to hunters as well as birders. And a disappointing 13 of these actively glamourise trophy hunting in their promotional material, including targets like lions and bears.
That´s why we´re proud to be ambassadors for Viking Optical – a British-based company which is one of only a handful of companies that produce high quality optics solely for the wildlife-watching market. They too have nature at their heart, and we love the personal contact, trust and compassion involved in working with them. They really put their optics where their mouth is, enabling us to loan binoculars to volunteers monitoring the raptor migration here, across the Straits of Gibraltar, to bird-watching newcomers, and to budding young Gambian ornithologists.
We caught up with Stuart Gillies, Viking Optical´s front man and top birder, to get his take on migration, conservation and Flyway Birding…
As a birder since childhood (over 40 years now!) and living not far from the coast in Edinburgh, I’ve always been fascinated with migration – from the childishly naïve question to my dad one December “Why aren’t there any Swallows” to looking for the first returning local Yellow Wagtails in Spring and hoping for some continental strays in autumn – it seems a natural preoccupation for UK birders.
However, this parochial obsession with ‘our’ birds was soon replaced by the nagging questions – where are they coming from and where are they going when they leave us?
There has been a great deal of attention placed upon migration flyways as so many species are compelled to follow certain geographical corridors for various reasons and rising public awareness of not just the natural perils of undertaking such arduous journeys but, crucially, increasing negative pressures from human activity.
I’ve seen enormous population crashes in iconic species such as Turtle Dove in my lifetime. Although this is depressing, what is very heartening is the resolve of the global birding and conservation community to highlight the issue, raising not only awareness but also funds to tackle urgent problems and to, incredibly importantly, provide reliable data in order to accurately assess trends.
This is where Viking Optical can help. I have worked for this UK based optical company for 23 years and, with a background in conservation work myself, have been very proud to be part of their commitment to conservation work as optics supplier to the RSPB for over 20 years, Birdlife International species champion for 2 critically endangered birds, joint main sponsor of Birdfair for the past 15 years and optics sponsors for many public engagement projects and young birders/environmentalists.
Inglorious Bustards´ work immediately struck a chord with me. So much more than a tour company – it is crystal clear that conservation is at the core of everything they do including carbon offset, donating 10% from Gambian tours to local projects, sourcing local produce to name but a few – culminating recently in the recognition by Terra Incognita who promote “responsible tour operators who conserve wildlife, support local people and educate their guests”.
We are very happy and proud to participate in their #FlywayPromise initiative by providing optics for migration counters at Tarifa and also for trainee guides in the Gambia.
To find out more about Viking Optical, our products and what we do please see here – www.vikingoptical.co.uk – or come and visit us in the Optics Marquee at Birdfair, 16-18 August 2019.
The Inglorious Bustards have a challenge! As conservationists, we are only too aware of the environmental impact of the activities associated with our business. We want to share with you the joy of watching wildlife all along the East Atlantic flyway, but in doing so we inevitably encourage consumption of the planet´s resources. Our challenge as a responsible ecotourism operator is to ensure that our activities can be channelled into a positive outcome for the environment. We want to make sure that, when you travel with us, you´ll be benefitting, not exploiting the wildlife we see together. On our trips, “eco-tourism” is a promise, not an oxymoron.
We call this concept #FlywayBirding. We have turned traditional so-called “eco-tourism” on its head, putting conservation action and education at the very heart of what we do, not just as a guilt-assuaging afterthought to our trips. We´ve thought hard about how to bring a completely fresh approach to delivering wildlife holidays from a sustainable standpoint, making only a positive impact on our surroundings. And we’ve worked extremely hard to build some fantastic partnerships to help us!
Here is how we’re doing it – our #FlywayPromise to you.
We encourage sustainable land use.
Our work over decades for the RSPB, attempting to reverse the fortunes of UK, European and African farmland wildlife, has made us recognise the power of food choice and how it can affect the plight of declining species.
Latest findings presented at the IPCC in October 2018 were striking and conclusive. While everyone talks about electricity generation and fossil fuel consumption, it is an oft-ignored fact 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. We want to make the choice to eat ethically an irresistible one! Don’t worry though, carnivores! Meat is of course available as normal throughout our tours, and you’ll never be denied the chance to try some of the delicious locally-produced meat dishes our destinations are famous for.
We are also extremely proud to have teamed up with the Tarifa Ecocenter. Operating under the slogan “The fork is the most powerful tool to change the planet.”, the Ecocenter is not just a superb vegetarian restaurant, it is a local hub for eco-consciousness. Here you can partake in delicious, sustainably-sourced meals, made with produce from local wildlife-friendly farms. The organic produce shop and meeting spaces are a sociable place designed to encourage the exchange of ideas. We love working in partnership with them, along with their sister project, Molino de Guadalmesi – an organic farm, community centre, eatery and eco-lodge situated in a beautifully-restored water mill. On selected tours, we visit the mill 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!
Our picnics always contain seasonal local produce from small farmers. In all of our destinations, we are lucky enough to find a wealth of small artisanal producers, many of whom are organic. In 2019 we will source at least 50% of the fresh goods in our picnics from them. Our aim is to increase this to 75+% by 2020. Luckily, local extensively grazed goats´ and sheeps´ cheeses are invariably superb, and Andalusian organic tomatoes and peppers are quite simply world-beaters! Our picnic fruit and vegetables for our Straits-based tours are now sourced wherever possible from the Tarifa Eco-centre, being grown locally on their farm. In all of our trips to Africa, we source fresh from local markets and village traders.
We minimise packaging waste.
It seems that after many years of campaigning, the horror of the extent of our plastic consumption has finally entered the public consciousness, and changes might actually be made. Our history of avoidance, reuse and recycling of plastic goes back many years, but when we are out cetacean-watching on the Straits enjoying copious marine life, we are certainly pleased to be part of the current wave!
Thanks to our locally-produced food sourcing, the excess of packaging associated with supermarkets is immediately eliminated. When we buy dry and other goods, we buy in bulk and manage their use carefully, thus reducing both food and packaging waste. Luckily Niki is from Yorkshire originally, so thrift comes naturally!
We ask our clients to bring their own water bottles which are filled from taps or potable mountain springs. In countries outside the EU where tap water is not drinkable, we buy large containers and decant into personal bottles to reduce plastic waste.
We minimise our in-country transport emissions.
In Spain, we minimise the emissions associated with our in-country transport by use of modern, fuel-efficient vehicles. Our minibus is a Renault Trafic, known as being one of the most economical vans on the market, returning an impressive mpg of 50, with further features such as Stop & Start, Cruise Control and ECO mode adding to its green credentials.
Our focus on hosting trips along the glorious East Atlantic Flyway means that we are able to arrive at 90% of our tour destinations to meet you without boarding a flight ourselves.
We know our areas well, so we are also able to apply careful route-planning to minimise driving distances between sites.
Unlike some carbon-offsetting schemes, this is not simply a case of absolving guilt by shoving some trees in an ill-thought-out location! WLT funds the purchase or lease of threatened land to create nature reserves, protecting both habitats and their wildlife. By protecting and restoring threatened forest in key areas of conservation importance, CO₂ emissions are prevented and carbon storage enhanced.To make projects like this work, this fore-sighted organisation includes, rather than excludes local communities. It funds partner NGOs to employ local people as reserve rangers, sustainably managing some of the world’s most threatened habitats and the animals found within them.
We balance all the CO₂ emissions associated with our staff flights and all in-country travel and accommodation associated with our tours. In 2018, we offset over 24 tonnes of CO₂, funds for which went directly to acquiring and preserving threatened forest habitat. We are also encouraging you to offset your own holiday flights through WLT. Currently this can be done directly through their website, but in early 2019 we will be introducing an option to our booking form allowing you to offset as you book your trip!
We encourage respectful wildlife-watching.
For the prosperity of the species that we enjoy watching so much, and for our own ongoing enjoyment, it is imperative that we avoid disturbing the wildlife we are trying to see.
We never flush birds. The reward of seeing a Red-necked Nightjar or a Tawny Owl at rest after patient and quiet searching from afar is so much greater than glimpsing one fly away after some idiot has just booted it out of the undergrowth! For ground-nesters such as the Moroccan Marsh Owl, we now only offer trips outside the breeding season, and time our site visits to maximise the chance of finding the birds active rather than roosting.
We use fieldcraft to find passerines. Usually with a little patience and listening, it is perfectly possible to find the bird you are looking for. On the very rare occasions we choose to use a tape, we do so sensitively, always adhering to the guidelines published in the article “The Proper Use of Playback in Birding” by Sibley et al.
Where we work through other companies, for example for cetacean-watching boat trips or to look for Iberian Lynx, we only work with reputable firms who have non-intrusive wildlife-watching protocols in place.
We challenge the unethical.
While we as individuals have no problem with sustainable subsistence hunting within local communities, we personally find hunting for so-called ‘sport’ abhorrent, and unsustainable trophy hunting completely unacceptable. The hunting industry seems to be out of control, able to damage ecosystems and illegally kill native wildlife with impunity. Of the thirty optics companies that were examined in the 2018 Ethical Consumer report entitled “Shooting Wildlife II”, 83% were found to specifically market to hunters as well as birders. And a disappointing 13 of these actively glamorise trophy hunting in their promotional material, including targets like lions and bears.
That´s why we´re proud to be ambassadors for Viking Optical – a British-based company which is one of only a handful of companies that produce high quality optics solely for the wildlife-watching market. They too have nature at their heart and support a variety of conservation projects including being RSPB Species Champions for two critically endangered birds and long-time sponsors of the Birdfair. We love the personal contact, trust and compassion involved in working with them. They really put their optics where their mouth is, enabling us to loan binoculars to volunteers monitoring the raptor migration across the Straits of Gibraltar, to bird-watching newcomers, and to budding young Gambian ornithologists.
Phew! Now that we´ve minimised our own impact on the environment as much as we can, it´s time to add positive actions!
We support local conservation projects.
All across the East Atlantic Flyway, there are passionate individuals and local NGOs running brilliant small-scale conservation initiatives, making immediate positive differences for their local wildlife. As our company grows, so does our ability to contribute to their efforts. Our portfolio of projects expands all the time, and you can read more on our website, but here´s a taster:
The Migres Foundation is a private non-profit scientific and cultural foundation, focused on the preservation and enhancement of natural heritage in the Straits of Gibraltar.
Migres has run a long-term monitoring program of bird migration through the Strait of Gibraltar since 1997, making it the greatest sustained effort for monitoring migratory birds in Europe, and is immensely important in monitoring population change and migratory patterns in many avian species, including endangered species such as Egyptian Vultures and Balearic Shearwaters.
The body of scientific research generated by Migres on interactions between soaring birds and wind turbines has global importance.
They also perform research and awareness programs, carry out advanced ornithological training activities and environmental education, organise conferences, and encourage activities promoting sustainable local development and nature tourism in general.
We work closely with Migres in assisting with monitoring, fundraising and promotional activities using our wealth of experience gained whilst working for the RSPB.
Marisma 21 is an organisation devoted to the restoration of the salt marshes in the Bay of Cadiz, on the south western coast of Spain. The salt marsh is an important ecological area and Marisma 21’s objectives are the recovery and holistic revitalisation of the salt pans using artisanal salt production methods. This not only ensures the maintenance of the macro-flora in the salt pans, an important food source for migratory wading birds, but enhances the local environment for aquatic salt-loving species.
The sympathetic management and hand-harvesting of the pans not only generates multiple benefits for wildlife, it also brings employment to the area in the form of salt production work and nature tourism.
On selected tours, we offer you the opportunity to dine on site at the salt pans, watching breeding Little Terns and Kentish Plovers while eating delicious freshly-cooked tortillitas de camarrones, and shrimps fished from the salt pans just moments before! You´ll have the opportunity to support their work by taking home some souvenir salt, an incredibly tasty product you´ll also get to sample at our picnics!
Based at Kotu Creek, near Brufut, TheGambia Birdwatchers Association was established in 2007. It provides a headquarters for the area´s bird guides, trains the next generation of ornithologists, and carries out excellent project-based conservation work, including utilising local volunteers in the restoration of mangrove swamp habitat. In The Gambia, many important forests are community-owned, and GBA are instrumental in setting up community reserves, training bird guides in the villages and enabling them to benefit from the preservation of forest habitat through well-thought-out ecotourism.
Inglorious Bustards work closely with GBA, giving project advice and consultation. From 2019, we will be donating 10% of our profits from all our Gambia trips to supporting their high quality, objective-led work.
So there it is, our #FlywayPromise. We hope you like it! We are constantly striving to find new ways to use our passion for #FlywayBirding to make the planet a better place. Our hope is not to be different, but that others will rise to this challenge too.
With migration curtailed by several days of strong easterlies (strong enough to bring a tree down on the Bustard-mobile, but that’s another story!), and many thousands of soaring birds anxious to make the journey south, this week it became a little like a crowded airport departure lounge here in the Straits!
Flocks of Black Kites and White Storks numbering in the thousands have been tumbling up and down the coast, and hanging in the air, making it look like someone just shook a snow globe!
When your journey’s delayed by bad weather, there’s only so many times you can visit Sock Shop and Sunglasses Hut. After much milling about, these birds have been collecting in huge super-flocks in the valleys – presumably the equivalent of the Wetherspoons!
But today, as we sat down to monitor the migration with our conservation partners Fundacion Migres, it became apparent that the great air-traffic controller in the sky had finally granted them a clear take off to Morocco!
The Straits of Gibraltar is one of the greatest bottlenecks for the East Atlantic Flyway. The Black Kites zooming over our heads have come from all over Western Europe and move south across a broad front, crossing here and at Italy’s Straits of Messina. White Storks are more reliant on soaring, and find the sea at Messina too wide. The entirety of Europe’s migrating population will cross here.
For the White Storks it’s a relatively short-haul flight, for a winter break in North Africa. The powerfully-flying Black Kites head further, across the Sahara to countries like The Gambia and Senegal. They will be the first to return, and we look forward to seeing them arrive from February onwards.
Our day passed in a whir of clickers and plenty of exclamations at the sheer volumes of birds swirling past us. We finally had a chance to take stock for a moment in the afternoon and realised that we had already counted 18,000 birds! Yes, eighteen thousand! By the time we left, we could see black-and-white blobs before our eyes and our final count was 19,488 White Storks, Black Kites, Booted Eagles, Short-toes Eagles, Montagu’s Harriers and Egyptian Vultures for the day!
Days like this happen throughout the Autumn (and Spring!) – if you’ve not experienced this yet (or even if you have!) then you should head for a departure lounge near you and join us this August for some serious #FlywayBirding!!
…..oh! ….You may want to know the actual totals?…so here goes (take a deep breath!!)….
11,670 White Storks
7,748 Black Kites
5 Egyptian Vultures
16 Booted Eagles
3 Montagu’s Harriers
41 Short-toed Eagles
2 Common Buzzards
3 Lesser Kestrels