This week, along with our friends and conservation partners at Fundación Migres, we counted just a handful of European Honey Buzzards crossing The Straits of Gibraltar on their migratory journey. Picked out from amongst thousands of Booted and Short-toed Eagles, Eurasian Sparrowhawks, Black Storks and Griffon Vultures, each one of these gorgeous birds merited close attention to their detailed and variable plumage. Not least because at this point of the year, we never know which one will be the last we’ll see until Spring!
“Honey Season” is definitely drawing to a close and these numbers are very different to those we observed during the peak in late August / early September, when we counted over 47,000 birds crossing in just one week!
These tail-enders are the last few of the 85,000 or so that will have passed through here this autumn. This is more than the breeding population of western Europe, so it’s clear that something interesting is going on!
Spring counts of birds heading north across The Straits yield far smaller numbers – typically around 15-17,000.
Ornithologists have speculated for some time about the reason for the discrepancy in numbers. It seems – as you might imagine – that the populations that breed in north and western Europe migrate back and forth along the route that brings them through here. However in autumn, their numbers are augmented by their eastern cousins.
Research published in 2019 used satellite telemetry to follow a single adult male European Honey Buzzard, tagged in Hungary, over three years of its life. It supports the theory that many of these eastern birds follow an incredible anti-clockwise loop migration, spanning vast areas of Europe, to travel between their breeding and wintering grounds.
Once the breeding season is done for another year, the priority for these nomads is understandably getting to their wintering grounds as safely as possible. Heading to Africa via The Straits of Gibraltar is definitely the long way round, adding over 2,300 km to the trip compared to a direct route. Each autumn, the male in the study (let’s call him István!) covered an astounding 7,046km from Hungary to his favoured wintering site in North Cameroon in around 43 days.
The study also measured how much the bird was compensating for crosswinds – in other words, actively choosing his route. It revealed he worked extremely hard to stay en route to The Straits, only drifting passively for about 10% of his journey across Europe.
The advantage of this mammoth detour is to allow István to avoid the risks associated with trying to cover many miles of thermal-less water crossing the Central Mediterranean. Our 14 km sea crossing at Tarifa is nothing to these bad-ass flyers! Their compact structure, intermediate between harriers (Circus spp) and true buzzards (Buteo spp) lends itself to powered flying and leaves them somewhat less reliant on thermals than longer-winged raptors. It’s no wonder that we see them crossing in seemingly treacherous conditions, powering out across The Straits in large groups while longer-winged birds like Short-toed Eagles cling nervously to the coastal hills!
Once safely over the sea and into Africa, István spent relatively little effort compensating for wind direction while crossing The Sahara, spending over half the crossing simply drifting effortlessly over this perilous wasteland. Thanks to this and other studies, we are starting to understand that these incredible birds plan their routes not only to avoid threats but also to connect with anticipated weather conditions, such as helpful prevailing winds. Totally amazing!
István took his time on his way south to his African R&R spot. Of those 43 days, 12 of them were spent on chill-out stops! Spring however, is a different matter altogether. Speed is everything, and the race is on to return home as fast as possible and secure the most optimal breeding site.
This leads István and many like him to make a beeline (sorry!) for the breeding grounds, foregoing the relative safety of The Straits of Gibraltar and taking their chances on longer sea crossings. He flew all the way back to Hungary in just 23 days, resting for only six and slicing almost 1,500 km off his journey, crossing the Mediterranean via Tunisia’s Cap Bon Peninsula, Sicily, Italy and Albania.
Meanwhile here in The Straits, we would have been seeing almost exclusively those birds heading to north and west Europe – including France, the Netherlands, and even the UK.
For young birds though, the picture is very different. These risk-averse autumn routes are learned in later life, by following experienced adult birds. In its first year, a Honey Buzzard is effectively abandoned by its parents, which leave the breeding grounds on average 1-2 weeks earlier. It can only follow its innate sense of direction, which leads it SSW, to launch itself at whatever water body or desert it finds in its way! Only the strong – and lucky – survive. One in three young Honey Buzzards will die on their first migration while crossing the Sahara. The area of Africa where they end up wintering – and to which they will eventually become site-faithful – is largely determined by winds and chance.
After such a large investment in rearing the young Honey, this seems like some pretty harsh parental treatment! However, as always, everything makes sense in the light of evolution. Every day adults delay their own journey, and every day they would lose en route accompanying slower, less-skilled juveniles decreases their own survival chances. This more supportive parental behaviour would soon fail as a strategy. Evolution has moulded this behaviour – effectively sacrificing one in three young birds who will die on migration without guidance – to ensure that the successful adult optimises its chance of survival and lives to breed another season.
This absentee parenting strategy has certainly worked for István! He was first tagged as an adult in 2014, and is still going strong. On 7 September this year – amongst 9,499 other individuals – we observed a tagged bird crossing The Straits, who we subsequently learned had travelled to us from Hungary! I hope it was István, and I’ll be thinking of him and his epic journey ahead.
As COVID-19 remains under control in Spain and cases continue to dwindle, we are extremely pleased that we can now begin to safely deliver our day trips and tours! With the announcement of Europe-wide “air bridges” on 4 July, international travel to Spain from many countries is now available with stringent health precautions en route but no self-quarantine measures at either end of the trip.
This spring in The Straits of Gibraltar, one of the world’s most breath-taking migratory spectacles passed by almost unobserved. But whilst we were all sequestered away, Nature carried on regardless, and now these same birds that passed by so spectacularly unseen are preparing to make their journey to their sub-Saharan wintering grounds, new offspring in tow!
The Strait of Gibraltar is the point at which Africa and Europe are at their closest, and is the epicentre for one of the world’s most spectacular bird migrations. Every year, millions of birds make the 14 km sea crossing, making use of uplifts and thermals rising off the Rock of Gibraltar and the stunning Moroccan peak of Jebel Musa. An estimated 300,000 raptors and other soaring birds pass over this rugged terrain during autumn, as well as untold thousands of other journeying passerines and seabirds.
As well as the star attraction, a boat trip into the Straits itself will let you get close and personal with our resident cetacean species – Common, Bottlenose and Striped Dolphins and Long-finned Pilot Whale. Even migrating Fin, Sperm Whales and Orca are possible here.
There’s plenty more to explore among the area’s superb habitats, which include salt pans, intertidal areas, freshwater wetlands, low intensity farmland, Mediterranean scrub, precipitous rock faces and the woodlands of Los Alcornocales Natural Park, Europe’s largest Cork Oak forest. The diversity and wealth of avian and other wildlife in this beautifully unspoilt area of Spain really is astounding!
Couple this with tranquil accommodation in an eco-lodge at the edge of the Natural Park itself, the chance to enjoy the picturesque streets and Moorish fortifications of the Old Town of Tarifa, and of course the chance to sample some of Andalucía’s best local sustainably-produced food and wine, and you really do have a trip that’s Strait-up fantastic!
We can’t stress enough that the health and safety of our clients and avoiding the spread of coronavirus in wider society have been and always will be our top priorities. We are proud to have been awarded a badge of approval for our COVID-19 Risk Prevention Protocol from both the Spanish Ministry for Industry, Commerce & Tourism, and by the local Junta de Andalucía for both tourism and “active tourism” specifically.
These badges mean you can book with confidence that we are fully compliant with official guidance set out by these organisations, and have in place a stringent COVID-19 Risk Prevention Protocol.
Additionally, we receive training and take advice from our independent risk prevention consultants, Quirón Prevención.
Upon booking and arrival, you will receive a comprehensive guide on measures taken and your own responsibilities. Here’s a summary of the measures we’re currently taking to protect you and others, which we´ll update periodically:
When we meet you, we’ll go over our COVID-19 Risk Prevention Protocol in detail, and introduce you to the whereabouts of hand-sanitiser and thermometer. Sadly, there’ll be no hugging!
You can expect our minibus to have been thoroughly cleaned using recommended virucidal products before the start of the trip, and at the end of each day, and to display clear signage about hygiene, self-protection and distance guidelines.
We ourselves will also be thoroughly scrubbed and wearing clean clothes that have been washed at >60ºC.
Only two seats per row in the minibus will be occupied, meaning you’ll be sharing with a maximum of five other people. Wearing of facemasks will be mandatory during journeys. You’ll always have the same seat.
If you have your own vehicle, you may use it to follow us if you’d prefer.
Thanks to the nature of our passion, we’ll be mostly outside and away from crowds! Group sizes will be also be small. In the event that we can’t maintain appropriate social distance, facemasks will be worn.
We’ll encourage you to bring your own protective masks and hand sanitiser for frequent use, but we’ll always have a stock of these available for your use.
We’ll encourage you to bring your own optical equipment and not share this. We can however still lend out disinfected binoculars for your personal use during the trip. Although we cannot share scopes, we have digi-scoping equipment that will allow you to see without coming into contact with the scope. As always, we will have field guides with us, which we can show.
We have stringent procedures in place should anyone – including us – fall ill during the trip.
Any accommodation used or hostelry establishments visited are known and trusted, and verified to also have a COVID-19 Risk Prevention Protocol in place.
Our legendary picnic lunch will be provided as usual – hygienically prepared, served on disinfected reusable crockery to avoid plastic waste and stuffed full of locally sourced, sustainably produced and delicious ingredients!
We are also keeping a close eye on international travel advice from the World Health Organisation, Spanish government and relevant Foreign Offices.
We hope that with everyone’s collaboration this situation will continue to improve and we will see you soon in The Straits and beyond to enjoy the best of #FlywayBirding.
We still have limited availability remaining on our Straits of Gibraltar – Bird Migration & Cetaceans scheduled departure tour, 26th August – 1st September 2020. We also have selected availability for day tours or bespoke trips throughout the Autumn migration season! We are happy to take no-financial-obligation provisional bookings for future tours – just contact us to register your interest and talk further.
Somewhere in a parallel universe, this weekend Dave Grundy and I would just have been saying goodbye to a group of moth-ers and wildlife lovers, having spent a week enjoying Andalucía’s lepidopteran delights!
Here’s a heartfelt message from renowned moth expert Dave, as well as some stunning photos to look back on from the excellent trip he hosted here in 2019…
So, this week I am sad, even though I am living in Andalucía and able to look at some great moths every morning, with beautiful sunshine as well! That’s because with fellow leader Niki Williamson, I should have been hosting ten moth enthusiasts last week, to show them the moths of Andalucía in our holiday called Mothing the Straits!
We would have completed six days’ worth of glorious mothing – and a further four days enjoying the area’s birds and other wildlife for those that wished to stay on. But unfortunately, due to the coronavirus situation we had to cancel this year’s holiday. I am really gutted not to have been looking at moths with these people!
And I am sad because I am never happier than when I am sharing moths with other people and I’ve not been able to do that since lockdown began! So, I thought I would do the next best thing and show you some photos of the fantastic selection of the moths we saw on this trip in 2019, as well as some of the sites and the crack team of moth-ers!
Hopefully they will inspire you to consider coming with us on the same Mothing the Straits holiday next year – we already have announced dates for 2 – 7 May 2021. But book early because places are already filling fast. Take a look at further details here, and download the checklist and trip summary here.
Again, like this year, you will have the optional extra of being able to stay on for four more days and take advantage of a birding and wildlife-watching extension. Over half the people booking on the moth tour usually book for the extension as well! And this is a stunning part of the world to view wildlife, famous for its migrating raptors, cetaceans, butterflies and reptiles as well as its moths!
So, although I’m sad about this year, I’m already looking forward to next year, why not give it a try and maybe I will see you next May?!
We hope you can join us! We are currently accepting no-obligation provisional bookings on future trips – contact us to express an interest or to find out more information on this or any of our trips.
A young Italian called Michele caused a frisson of excitement here in The Straits last month, turning up safe and well after being missing in Africa since mid-November! Not long after his reappearance he was on his adventures again, awaiting fine weather on the northern shores of Morocco before jetting across the Straits and spending the night just outside Sevilla.
The plucky individual is a young Short-toed Eagle, satellite-tagged in 2019 as part of a collaboration between MEDRAPTORS, the Vertebrate Zoology Group at the University of Alicante (Spain), and tag providers Tecnosmart. He is a second-generation project participant – his father Egidio was one of seven young eagles tagged between 2010 and 2013, who reached adulthood and bred successfully in 2019 while still transmitting data.
This father-son team continue to shed light on the surprising and convoluted migration of Short-toed Eagles from Italy. The two-kilo eagles wear their tiny GPS tags on their backs, and the fascinating story they tell has confirmed what many suspected. Instead of beginning the journey to their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa by heading directly south to Tunisia, they start with a 1600-mile flight north and west, right up through the Italian Peninsula and across southern France, before crossing the Pyrenees and migrating down through the length of the Iberian Peninsula, more than doubling their journey distance to Africa´s shores.
The reason? it´s all about wings and Straits.
The long, elegant wings of this beautiful raptor mean it is perfectly adapted for soaring on air thermals, and it can do so for many hours, expending very little energy. But where there is no rising air – such as over expanses of water – the bird must beat those long wings to stay airborne, and becomes quickly exhausted.
Leaving the south-western point of Sicily, where Italy is at its closest to Africa, the bird would have to fly almost 100 miles to the next bit of land – an impossibility for such a long-winged raptor. So Italian Short-toed Eagles have learned to go directly against their strong instinct to head south, forcing themselves to fly north in order to eventually arrive in southern Spain. Here the mere 8.5-mile sea crossing at The Straits of Gibraltar presents much less of a challenge to a healthy, experienced bird choosing the right weather conditions.
While southerly migratory behaviour is innate, the study shows that this northerly trek must be learnt. First-year birds follow an adult who has already learnt the circuitous route to avoid the sea. Around 20% of first-year birds get it wrong and follow their hearts south, ending up wintering on Sicily because there is no more “south” to fly.
Michele was named after the late Michele Panuccio, the raptor researcher who studied the species for several years and promoted the tagging of Egidio’s first son, who was tagged a few weeks after he passed away. He left the nest site at the end of September, several days before his father, presumably following another adult bird. No doubt aided by years of experience, Egidio left late but made the journey in considerably less time. By the end of October, he had already arrived in Mauritania while Michele was still taking it easy in Extremadura!
When the lazy adolescent did finally make the crossing, the signal from his tracker was soon lost as he moved out of areas with the mobile coverage necessary to follow him. For the research team, there was nothing more to do except wait and hope that he had found his way to the wintering grounds safely. So when his tracker was spotted on the move again earlier this month, it must have been a tremendous relief!
His northward crossing of the Straits was unusual behaviour for such a young bird, as non-breeders would normally stay in Africa for another year, “finding themselves” until they come of age. Interestingly though, back in the day, dad Egidio was also a precocious exception to this rule – he too returned to the breeding grounds as a one-year-old.
This year, seven-year-old Egidio was no less keen to breed, and started his migration back to Italy as early as mid-February, arriving there by 12 March! In early March we spent some absolutely joyous days here in the Straits of Gibraltar, watching raptors arrive across the narrowest stretch of sea between Europe and Africa. We clapped them all as they arrived on our shores! We´d love to think that Egidio was one of them…
With thanks to Ugo Mellone of MEDRAPTORS and Universidad de Alicante for kindly giving permission for citation and reproduction of maps and data.
Agostini N., Baghino L., Coleiro C., Corbi F. & Premuda G. 2002. Circuitous autumn migration in the Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus). Journal of Raptor Research 36: 111-114
Mellone U., Limiñana, R., Mallìa E. & Urios V. 2011. Extremely detoured migration in an inexperienced bird: interplay of transport costs and social interactions. Journal of Avian Biology 42: 468-472
Mellone U., Lucia G., Mallìa E., Urios V., 2016. Individual variation in orientation promotes a 3000-km latitudinal change in wintering grounds in a long-distance migratory raptor. Ibis DOI: 10.1111/ibi.12401
Panuccio, M., Agostini, N. & Premuda, G. 2012. Ecological barriers promote risk minimization and social learning in migrating short-toed snake eagles. Ethology Ecology and Evolution 24: 74-80.
Read our award-winning blog about how a sudden drop in the wind on an autumn day in Andalucía inspires heart-stoppingly spectacular mass avian movement, but also provokes thought on travel, conservation and global change…
Fourteen kilometres of sea and sky are all that separate two continents. At 9am, the Mediterranean sun is already warming the air and sparkling on the calm waters. It’s early autumn, and this narrow – but potentially deadly – stretch of sea is all that stands between countless millions of birds and the next leg of their journey to African wintering grounds.
It’s been windy all week in The Strait of Gibraltar, making the crossing too dangerous for larger birds. Without the help of uplifting coastal air currents, they must power all the way, or face drowning. They’ve been stranded in the avian departure lounge for days and they’re hungry and desperate to continue their journey.
As mid-morning arrives, thermals form over the rocky coastline, and they’re finally cleared for take-off! In minutes, the sky fills with birds of prey. Eagles, Kites, Harriers and Honey Buzzards, swirl together in almost incomprehensible numbers and barge south along the suddenly congested flyway.
Chirpy European Bee-eaters pass over in vocal family groups, fifty at a time, quipping and chatting excitedly like they’re off on holiday. Clouds of thousands of White Storks form, sparkling black-and-white as the flock circles around on itself, turning the air currents to art.
The incredible spectacle continues all day, ending with streams of late arrivals racing over in their hundreds, seemingly experiencing `flyway rage´, desperate to reach Africa before sundown.
This breath-taking migratory marvel is beyond compare! During one rapturous, raptor-filled day at Spain’s most southerly point, I’ve counted over 20,000 soaring birds making the commute to the northern coast of Morocco – a mere fraction of the 450,000 that will pass through here in a season.
Imagine looking up from your tapas in Tarifa town and seeing layers upon layers of birds gliding overhead, stretching as far as the eyes can see in every direction, including ‘up’. It’s not surprising that this experience has the power to reduce many folk to tears!
But it also has the power to provoke thought, about travel, conservation and global change. With so much at stake, how do we help these feathered wanderers fulfil the yearly promise of return? Must the joy of watching wildlife inevitably encourage consumption of the planet’s resources? How can our passion for travel and wildlife be channelled into a positive outcome for the environment? How can we turn “eco-tourism” into a promise, rather than an oxymoron?
Even in the face of a global pandemic, we must not forget that climate change is still the biggest emergency facing our planet and the biggest threat to our survival, and that of so many other species. But it is easy to condemn travel, while conveniently ignoring agriculture and spiralling consumerism as major contributors to the emissions that cause global warming.
For many species, habitat loss, intensive agriculture and localised threats are the immediate emergency. Without travel, protected areas lose their economic value and habitats are forgotten. The voice to protect them inevitably becomes drowned out as they become meaningless to most, something you can only see on telly.
Without travel, we lose support for countless local conservation organisations, community businesses, and sustainable ecotourism endeavours, working hard to effect change at grassroots level. So too we lose understanding of our connection to the habitats, landscapes and cultures that Nature’s nomads pass through.
From a conservation standpoint, the concept of saving species across flyways is an important one. After all, there’s no point fixing things for a wandering bird in its breeding grounds alone without giving it a helping hand across its entire migratory range. Places like The Strait of Gibraltar are rare, not just for their importance and natural beauty, but for their power to open people’s minds to migration and the interconnectedness of things.
By the end of November most of the birds of prey have passed through, and the skies of my home seem a little empty. But winter in The Strait brings its own visitors. Northerners seeking a bit of winter sun arrive in their thousands. Cranes fly in raggedly lines over the rice fields, bugling to one another. Tiny Chiff-chaffs and Blackcaps scuttle around the wild olive trees, waiting for the lengthening days to carry them back north.
Then one day in February conditions are suddenly right, and the first arrivals of spring are coming! Huge columns of Black Kites will be visible surging from the northern coast of Morocco, as if someone has popped open a bottle of champagne. Seemingly within minutes they’re arriving to the clifftops above Tarifa – my ringside seat for this migratory dance!
They have travelled from the moist forests of Africa, across the Sahelian scrublands and the Sahara, over temples, mosques and churches. They have overcome unstable and ever-widening deserts, persecution, pollution, habitat loss, and finally crossed this mere fourteen kilometres of sea and sky at the meeting of two continents. For me there is no bigger joy than a promise of return fulfilled.
The eBird database just received a significant boost, in the form of information on almost two million migrating birds from our conservation partners, Fundación Migres!
Many is the joyous day we’ve spent with our conservation partnersFundación Migres, helping with the autumn migration count, gazing up spellbound as literally thousands of raptors migrate over our heads. Horizontal in deck chairs, to the casual observer the team of volunteers must look super-relaxed, but often this couldn’t be farther from the truth! Raptor species and sections of sky have been allocated, clickers have been distributed, and now it is our responsibility to painstakingly count the mind-boggling numbers of migrating soaring birds crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, ensuring our contribution to the Migres legacy is a worthy one.
This work of science and passion combined began over twenty years ago in 1997, making it one of the longest running avian migration monitoring programmes in Europe. The importance of the data it generates cannot be over-emphasised – around three-quarters of the soaring birds that breed in Europe pass through this migration bottleneck, including endangered species such as the Egyptian Vulture. The vast quantities of data generated by the counts carry a powerful amount of information about the fortunes of these birds.
And now, in a big step to make this data more available, several years’ worth have been digitised and uploaded to eBird! All the data generated by the Migres Program from the autumn monitoring campaigns for soaring birds (raptors and storks) 2012-2016 and seabirds 2012 -2013 is now on the site.
The data include over 90,000 records of over a million-and-a-half soaring birds of more than 35 species; and about 20,000 records of 200,000 seabirds of over 40 species. It is also a dataset of enormous qualitative value, having been collected in a systematic and standardised way over many years.
The data come from the daily counts that take place throughout the autumn from Cazalla and El Algarrobo bird observatories near Tarifa, Andalucía. The seabird census is carried out from the Isla de Las Palomas in Tarifa, within The Strait of Gibraltar Natural Park. All is now included in the data logged for the corresponding eBird “Hotspots”. It makes for quite an interesting view on screen – we can’t imagine there are many Hotspots that have been allocated over 30,000 checklists!
Once the counts are completed, the data becomes public information, provided for free to eBird by the Andalucian Environmental Information Network (REDIAM) of the Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning of the Andalusian Government. The massive volume of data for the years in question was then incorporated into the eBird database by the eBird Spain team.
The importance of the data from these seasonal counts cannot be overemphasised. Without a doubt, it is a first-rate contribution not only to the eBird database, but to the knowledge of avian migration at a national and global level.
Seeing those huge numbers on screen can never be quite as mind-blowing as seeing the phenomenon in person! We feel super-privileged to be involved with such an epic project, and to see the results of the hard work from the most skilled, knowledgeable and loveliest bunch of volunteers and staff you could wish to meet.
Fancy contributing to science from a deckchair?! Contact Fundación Migres about upcoming volunteer opportunities.
We 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
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 hard to believe six weeks have passed since we were basking in the warmth and loveliness of The Gambia, with our fantastic group from Honeyguides Wildlife Holidays! It´s also hard to capture in words the resplendent riot of colour and life that was packed into our trip to this tiny West African gem!
As we followed the gleaming Gambia River inland, we left our European existences behind and ensconced ourselves in rural life, exploring sparkling coastal creeks, tranquil mangrove swamps teeming freshwater lakes, verdant forests and life-rich Sahelian heath, dotted with unimaginably ancient Baobab trees.
Our adventure brought us up close to stunning local specialities such as Egyptian Plover, African Finfoot, White-backed Night Heron, Adamawa Turtle Dove, Hadada Ibis, Northern Anteater Chat, White-shouldered Black Tit, Cinnamon-breasted Rock Bunting and Four-banded Sandgrouse.
Our days were filled with eye-poppingly colourful flora and fauna, including seven glittering species of Sunbirds, six glamorous species of Bee-eaters, four Rollers, six Kingfishers, Barbets, Turacos and Exclamatory Paradise Whydahs that sailed through the air like tiny shooting stars!
Rivers and jungles held Hippopotamus, Nile Crocodile, Guinea Baboons, Red Patas, Red Colobus and Green Monkeys.
Our 31 raptor species included Long-crested Eagle, Bateleur, African Hawk Eagle, Beaudouin´s, Western Banded and Brown Snake Eagle, African Harrier Hawk, Shikra and Dark Chanting Goshawk, many of which were swirling in huge numbers around a raging bushfire!
Add to this the welcoming and generous Gambian people, the vibrancy of their culture, music and clothing, and the delicious West African food, and you may start to get a picture of why it´s so easy to fall for ‘Africa´s Smiling Coast’!
If you need brightening up, take a minute to read our full Honeyguides trip report – hopefully it´ll be all the incentive you need to join us! We´re already looking forward to heading back this December, or stay tuned for a 2020 repeat trip with Honeyguides…
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.