Braving the Blades & the work of Fundación Migres

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.

contemplation (c) Niki Williamson
Griffon Vulture surveys The Straits © Inglorious Bustards

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.

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Monitoring the Straits © Inglorious Bustards

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.

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An Egyptian Vulture checks in © Inglorious Bustards

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.

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Short-toed Eagle © Inglorious Bustards

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.

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Mega migration White Storks and Black Kites © Inglorious Bustards

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.

Want to get involved? You can help out Fundación Migres by volunteering to be part of their monitoring programmes or donating  – see www.fundacionmigres.org for details.

(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

Flyway Promise

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.

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Migrating White Storks © Inglorious Bustards

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 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.

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Declines in the European Turtle Dove can be directly linked to intensive agriculture © Inglorious Bustards

 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.

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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!

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Of all the hazardous materials littering our seas today, plastic poses one of the greatest threats – Long-finned Pilot Whales © Inglorious Bustards

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.

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Lovely Jane and The Bustard-bus !

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.

What we can´t eliminate, we offset.   

Inglorious Bustards have pledged to offset unavoidable carbon emissions through World Land Trust’s (WLT) Carbon Balanced programme.

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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.

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Red-necked Nightjar © Inglorious Bustards

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.

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Inglorious Bustard – Bubacarr in The Gambia using his super Viking Binoculars!

Viking-logos-2014_1 copyThat´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:

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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.

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Inglorious Bustard and Migres front-man Alejandro monitors the passage of soaring Birds © Inglorious Bustards

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-logoMarisma 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!

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Sustainable, traditional management of the salt pans for the environment, nature and people © Inglorious Bustards

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Based at Kotu Creek, near Brufut, The Gambia 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.

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The Gambia Birdwatchers Association discussing their conservation priorities and work © Inglorious Bustards

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.

Welcome to #FlywayBirding!

It’s always a joy to observe birds in any location, but what if there was a way to experience their whole journey? We’re currently bucking the avian trend and heading north to Birdfair where, as well as enjoying a fab weekend with friends old and new, we’ll be introducing folk to the concept of Flyway Birding

It´s not that long since we largely believed that Barn Swallows hibernated underwater.  Rumours of ´lumps of torpid swallows´ being ´found beneath the ice´ still persisted in rural communities as late as 1867, over thirty years after Darwin had embarked on his world-changing voyages of discovery aboard The Beagle.

Wallcreeper © Inglorious Bustards

Happily for the inquisitive, this great era of discovery opened the world up to ‘travelling naturalists’ – the earliest nature bloggers if you like – exploring the natural world, sharing observations of migration and opening the minds of the folk waiting excitedly at home.  The discoveries continue – thanks initially to bird-ringing and more recently to affordable radio- and satellite-tracking technologies, our understanding of migratory birds´ journeys grows all the time.

With this understanding, the concept of saving species across flyways has now gained traction in the conservation world.  After all, there´s no point fixing things for a wandering bird in its breeding grounds alone without giving it a helping hand across its entire migratory range.  Programmes like the RSPB´s Birds Without Borders recognise the complex nature of the threats faced by a bird whose life cycle involves traversing half the globe.

Fun and birding in the Pyrenees © Inglorious Bustards

Take that most iconic of British summertime birds, the Turtle Dove.  A drastic reduction in UK breeding success is at the root of their decline and must be remedied by more Nature-friendly management of our farmland.  But while their productivity in the UK is so desperately low, we must also find ways to help Turtle Doves meet the challenges they face elsewhere in the world, such as illegal and legal hunting, the ever-widening and unstable Sahara, and threats to their wintering habitats, also from intensive farming.

These are the kind of projects we at the Inglorious Bustards camp spent a great deal of time, passion and energy working on during our time at the RSPB.  We´ve been lucky enough to travel with the birds and gain a deep connection to their journey, seeing the similarities and differences between the habitats, landscapes and cultures they pass through.

Migrating White Storks © Inglorious Bustards

Now we´ve taken a sideways step, conservation is still very much in our hearts and we want to make sure it continues to be central to everything we do.  We want to use our passion to open people´s minds to the immeasureable wonder of migration.

And so, one day while sipping a cold beer overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar, watching literally thousands of raptors pour south over our heads to Africa we got to thinking… What if, through our trips, we could take you on a migratory bird´s journey?  We could show you all the outstanding birds and wildlife of the East Atlantic Flyway!

We could also show you the beauty of the immense journey, sweeping past cream teas outside stone chapels in twee country lanes, over white-washed villages amidst olive groves on sunbathed hillsides, through minarets and mint teahouses, down to the simple dwellings and explosive foliage of the Gambian forests.

#FlywayBirding breakfast © Inglorious Bustards

We could show you the fun of experiencing other cultures through supporting local businesses, conservation NGOs and ecotourism endeavours, having a laugh with the locals and bringing you closer to the country you´re in.

And we could show you the challenges facing these birds and alert you to the work of our Flyway Family partners across the globe – groups like the Dovestep collective, raising money for Operation Turtle Dove who work hard to persuade farmers to leave space for Nature, Fundacion Migres doing extraordinary monitoring and scientific work to mitigate for the windfarms in the Straits of Gibraltar, Tarifa Ecocenter spreading the message of sustainable farming through amazing food and Champions of the Flyway combatting illegal hunting everywhere.

Egyptian Plover © Inglorious Bustards

It sounded like a plan!  The concept of #FlywayBirding was born!

That´s what it means to us, but what will it mean to you..?

Well, in a nutshell, #FlywayBirding is…

…thrilling at the sight of local specialities like Wallcreepers in the Pyrenees, Rufous Bushchats in Andalusia, Moussiers Redstarts in the Rif Mountains of Morocco, Moroccan Marsh Owls on the shores of the Merja Zerga lagoon and Egyptian Plovers on the verdant riverbanks of The Gambia, while becoming aware of the constant ebb and flow of Swallows, Swifts, Wagtails and Warblers, all familiar but strangely out of context.

…kicking off your flipflops in a carefully-selected reclining deckchair and supping an ice-cold beer as literally thousands of Honey Buzzards, Black Kites, Short-toed and Booted Eagles and White Storks pour overhead.

…helping save the planet over a delicious locally-sourced meal!  Whether it´s exceptional fresh fruit, veg, cheeses and hams in Spain, mouth-watering tagines in Morocco or a spicy domoda in the Gambia…

…greeting thousands of Turtle Doves on a sultry day in The Gambia and learning how to ensure their journey back home is a safe one.

…thrilling at clouds of Pallid and Little Swifts screaming around the minarets of a mosque and noting the Common Swifts, probably on their way back to a city near you.

…appreciating that the sweep of subtle differences across the flyway – the brightness of an African Blue Tit, the astounding array of Yellow Wagtail races, the Iberian birds with closer relatives in Africa than in Europe – are the intricate stepping stones to whole new species.

…enjoying the laughs and banter we have with the people we meet, sharing our enthusiasm for nature and adventures across cultures and landscapes.

…relaxing, enjoying and marvelling at the wildlife around you, satisfied in the knowledge that your trip is contributing to its future existence.

Upriver in  The Gambia © Inglorious Bustards

Imagine the delight in discovering that, far from being somewhere in a frozen torpid lump, our Barn Swallows were awake and well and whizzing through the skies of some foreign land!  Here at the Inglorious Bustards, we´re all about the delight of discovery!  Now you know what it is, won´t you join us for some #FlywayBirding..?

Want to hear more? We’ll be at BirdFair in Rutland this weekend. We’d love to see you at Stand 28, Marquee 1, or at our talk in Hobby Lecture Theatre at 9.30am, Friday. Come say Hi!

This blog was first published by our good friends Blue Sky Wildlife on 23/07/2018

AvianAir is now cleared for take-off!

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!

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White Stork bedlam! Can you find the Black Kites? © Inglorious Bustards

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!

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Final call! This juvenile Black Kite is clear for take off ! via Morocco it will head for sub-saharan Africa © Inglorious Bustards

Arriving from:

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.

Departing to:

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

…..AND ….RELAX!

 

Punk Is Not Dead!

 

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A loving pair of Northern Bald Ibis © Inglorious Bustards

Sitting proudly on a nest made of twigs, old wet wipes and what appears to be a leopard-print thong, the bird blinks at the downdraft of a passing truck, shakes the irridescent mohawk sprouting haphazardly out of the back of its raw-looking bald head, and returns to the task of tending its extraordinary metallic green and purple-brown plumage with what genuinely looks like pride.

With less than 500 birds remaining in the wild, the Northern Bald Ibis is a bird on the brink. But with a successful reintroduction underway right here in Andalusia, it seems punk really isn’t dead…

For the sixth year running, a small group of Northern Bald Ibises are doing well at Barca de la Vejer in Cadiz province. Bizarrely nesting right beside an ‘A’ road next to a car park and a couple of ventas, this is perhaps not the most picturesque of locations for one of the world’s most endangered birds, but it’s almost certainly the most viewable.

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Northern Bald Ibis © Inglorious Bustards

With their nest site so urban and public, their confiding behaviour when feeding on nearby pastureland, and their seeming air of slightly baffled contentment, it’s easy to forget just how fragile their existence actually is, and how much work has gone into ensuring their successful establishment as a breeding bird in Andalusia.

Declared extinct in Syria 70 years ago, a small breeding population was traced near Palmyra in 2002 thanks to local knowledge of Bedouin tribesmen, only to be declared extinct again in 2016 after the one remaining female failed to return from migration.

In Turkey, numbers crashed from 400 to just 10 birds between 1982 and 1986. The fact that this population long outlasted the species in the rest of Europe (it had vanished from its heartlands in the mountains of Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Spain by the 17th Century) is connected with celebration of this bird’s religious significance, endowed as it is with the role of guiding Haji pilgrims to Mecca. How ironic that, to prevent its complete disappearance from Turkey, they are now taken into captivity at the end of the breeding season for safety, to prevent their Mecca-bound migration.

In Morocco the population of this strange, punk-like creature is split between colonies around Souss-Massa National Park and the Oued Tamri north of Agadir. These birds number only 500 between them and are the only remnant wild population left.

The reasons for their decline are all tragically familiar – reduction of food availability through agricultural intensification, pesticide and rodenticide poisoning, hunting pressure and nest-robbing have all played their part. This sociable cliff-nester has seemingly scuppered itself due to its attraction to human habitation, which nowadays tends to expand quickly and swallow up potential breeding grounds.

Hope for the future of the Northern Bald Ibis comes in the form of reintroduction programmes, such as Andalusia’s Proyecto Eremita, the one that has resulted in the above roadside bird with a penchant for leopard-print!

The project is a partnership between the Junta de Andalusia, the Spanish Ministry of Defence, and the Zoobotánico de Jeréz, with the assistance of the Doñana Biological Station, Spanish research council CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas) and volunteers from the Cádiz Natural History Society.

Unlike other reintroduction programmes in Europe, which have tried to create migratory populations (The Scharnstein Project in Austria attempted to teach a migration route to Tuscany by training the birds to follow ultralight planes!), the aims of Proyecto Eremita are more down-to-earth.

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Spanish born Northern Bald Ibis © Inglorious Bustards

It seeks to create a sedentary population of birds, self-sustaining in number, without the need for supplementary feeding. The original phase of the project from 2003-2012 also aimed to learn about the best methods of chick rearing and release, to inform the intended future expansion of the programme.

Chicks were hand-reared from eggs originated from various zoos across Europe. After extensive field habitat evaluations, the first 30 birds were released on military land in La Janda district in 2004 and a further 160 boosted their numbers over the next five years until 2009.

First success came when a pair laid two eggs in 2008. Since then the colony has been steadily growing, from 9 breeding pairs in 2011, 10 in 2012 and 15 in 2013 to 23 breeding pairs in 2014, which successfully raised 25 chicks.

In 2014 the total population was 78 wild birds, distributed between two colonies, five breeding pairs having split from the original one along the cliffs of the Atlantic coast to form the quirky roadside extravaganza at La Barca de Vejer.

But they’re not out of the woods – or indeed the car park – just yet. With a death rate slightly too high and reproductive success slightly too low, population modelling carried out on 2012 figures shows that, without the ongoing addition of 20-30 released birds each year, the population would gradually dwindle to extinction in around 20 years.

With a population this small, chance can play a large part in survival. In the early years of the project, around 50% of deaths were caused by fatal encounters with power lines. Work to repair and improve the lines and their supports was undertaken in high risk areas, and if this continues to be successful a sustainable population will be well within reach.

As of June 2016, the wild population was holding steady at around 80 birds and the exceptional recent breeding season means hopes are high for the future of the species. Some interesting movements have also been observed, with up to six birds being seen crossing the Straits to explore Morocco, where, who knows, they may be rebelliously building another colony next to some other roadside café.

Here at The Inglorious Bustards camp, we’ve been lucky enough to visit these birds frequently as the 2018 breeding season progresses. It’s easy to endow these characterful birds with human emotions, and we never tire of bringing people here to watch them.

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Sometimes you got to get some support for the perfect picture! © Inglorious Bustards

We love to see their joyous interactions with their mates on receipt of yet another bit of detritus to be built in to the nest, their intense irritation at the jackdaws dodging their unwieldy bills as they steal morsels of nesting material, and their unmistakeable tenderness towards their growing chicks, which only a mother could love, resembling as they do badly-plucked miniature turkeys.

As well for as their antics, they’re well worth a view to show solidarity with Vejer’s locals and their justified pride in this bizarrely-located nesting colony. As birds go, not a lot about the Northern Bald Ibis makes sense, but they’ve chosen it, they’re rocking it, and it looks like they’re here to stay.

You have to see these incredible birds to believe them! We still have a limited amount of spaces available on our Autumn Migration and Cetaceans tour, during which we´ll visit the avian kings and queens of punk at their colony, as well as taking our place in the moshpit for the greatest avian migration show on earth!

This is an abridged version of our article that previously appeared in the journal of the Andalusia Bird Society, ‘Birds of Andalucìa’, vol 6 issue 3, Summer 2017.

Mega migration fest!

We’ve made no secret of the fact that here at the Inglorious Bustards we are self confessed migration junkies! We are in total amazement of the constant flow of migration here in the Straits and that is why we chose to base ourselves here! We have shared some magnificent experiences this last year collaborating with Migres in conducting counts or witnessing mega migration events with visiting migration lovers like you!
We are very proud to support and contribute in a small way to the ongoing work of Fundación Migres.
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Seabird monitoring in collaboration with Migres
Here is an amazing update on the autumn migration in 2017 from Migres migration guru and our good friend Alejandro Onrubia (with his kind permission):
 
“Since 5th of July to 5th of December, expert ornithologists from Migres Foundation helped by 50 collaborators, have counted every day migratory birds passing the Straits of Gibraltar.
 
During this period, 390,100 soaring birds, including 127,000 Storks and 262,000 Raptors belonging to 33 different species were registered flying south from the watchpoints of Cazalla and Algarrobo, located on the Spanish side of the Straits of Gibraltar.
 
The commonest species were Black Kite (133,000 individuals), White Stork (124,000), Honey Buzzard (71,000), Booted Eagle (29,000) and Short-toed Eagle (18,000), with also good numbers of some endangered species as Black Stork (3,700) and Egyptian Vulture (2,300). Among non-soaring bird species some tens of herons, spoobills, and more than 315,000 small birds (passerines and allies) of 61 species have been recorded, including 23,000 European Bee-eaters, 35,000 Swifts (4 species), 1,000 Larks (5 species), 46,000 swallows and martins (5 species), 5,000 Pipits and Wagtails (8 species), 188,000 Finches (10 species), 2,500 Starlings (2 species) and 13,000 Sparrows (4 species). Likewise, 237,000 seabirds of 36 species have been recorded, including 215,000 Cory’s Shearwaters, 7,300 Balearic Shearwaters, 7,400 Gannets, 4.800 Gulls and Terns (10 species), 300 Skuas (3 species), 1.500 Razorbills and Puffins, and 700 wildfowl (8 species)”
 
WOW! Thank you to Migres for their continued excellent work and we hope in our own small way we helped!
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Happy times with great people doing great work – Migres and the Inglorious Bustards together on a mega day for Honey Buzzard passage! …..Our eyes hurt!
 
If you’d like to find out more about the excellent work of Migres and support their efforts or take part in their upcoming conference then please take a look here!
Booking a tour with us will give you the chance to directly contribute to their work and also witness the very best of this migration fest!

Vulture science, a call for joined up conservation

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Griffon Vultures © Inglorious Bustards

There is little doubt that Vultures are amazing, despite the completely unfounded bad press they sometimes receive  Here in the Straits we are blessed with them being a garden bird for us! Not only we do we get to witness their amazing antics and all important ecological functions, but twice yearly we watch as masses of them stream through the Straits in biblical proportions. This is the only place in the world where such an event occurs!  It is amazing!

Much of the conservation work of Vultures is to be lauded, as there has been a lot of work to recover numbers of these enigmatic birds and important eco-system service providers throughout Europe, but there is clearly much more needed to be done (such as the removal of the licencing of veterinary diclofenac within the EU).

Most of us will remember the outbreak of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), an animal disease at its peak between 1986 and 1990.  As well as being transmitted through the food chain, the disease could also be spread through the presence of dead infected cattle. Following the outbreak, in 2001 the EU prohibited the abandoment of livestock carcasses in the field. This action clearly would have an impact on scavenging Vultures, therefore was not applied mandatorially across EU member states.  This allowed for each member state to adopt their own regulations concerning livestock carcass disposal, allowing the issue to be dealt with at a local level, but consistent with the overriding principles to tackle the disease issues.

Spain is home to c. 95% of European Vultures and here farmers can leave some carcasses where Vultures occur. This obviously benefits the birds but also farmers and tax-payers too, saving time, money and environmental costs from incineration. In contrast to this approach, the Portugese government decided that removal of livestock carcasses is still required, save for a few specific licenced Vulture feeding stations.

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Griffon Vultures © Inglorious Bustards

The authors of a recently published paper in Biological Conservation (Volume 219, March 2018, Pages 46–52) observed that there was an abrupt decline in the number of Vulture locations across the Spanish-Portuguese border.  Modelling showed that this was unlikely to be related to differences in land cover or topography, but simply on differences in carrion resource availability, namely carcasses from extensive livestock husbandry.

Vultures are capable of exploiting huge areas in search of food, and often will perform transnational flights. Yet, despite broadly similar habitats and their abilty to transverse countries, both Griffon and Cinerous Vultures of Spanish origin were rarely located in Portugal as these maps of GPS tracked birds below show from the study.

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Locations recorded near the Spainish / Portugal border of GPS tracked a) Griffon Vultures and b) Cinereous Vultures.

Griffon Vultures were marked in two populations: 30 adult birds in the Ebro Valley, northern Spain, and 30 adult birds in Guadalquivir Valley, southern Spain. Cinereous Vultures (11 fledglings) were marked in Cabañeros National Park, central Spain.

One potential problem with this study was that the authors did not track Vultures from Portuguese breeding colonies, which are mainly located close to the border and thus might use the Portuguese areas more than individuals breeding in Spain. However, some previous although limited GPS tracking of both Cinereous and Griffon Vultures tagged in Portugal has shown that the individuals tend to cross the border to feed in Spain, which is line with the results of this study.

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Cinereous Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

Griffon and Cinereous Vultures are known to differ in food resources used. Griffon Vultures are very much dependent upon carcasses of domestic livestock, where the diet of Cinerous Vulture is broader, including the remains of smaller mammals and sometimes even live prey. This difference in feeding behaviour for us is demonstrated in the GPS maps, showing a much closer need for Griffon Vultures to stick to Spain whereas there are some broader transnational flights (although limited) by Cinerous Vultures.

The findings of this study are also unlikely to be influenced by habitat differences across borders as anyone who has visited both the areas Alentejo (Portugal) and Extremadura (Spain) will testify.  Dehesa habitat  – known to be good for both species – is relatively widespread across both the areas.

One thing is for certain – this study shows the need for continued research on vulnerable Vulture species and this should be extended to other species such as Egptian Vultures. Telemetry data is providing new insights into the movements of species and how they utilise the landscape and for highly mobile Vultures, this is invaluable information to form cross border conservation prorities and techniques.

There is a need to evaluate the potential ecological consequences of the implementation of restrictive husbandry and sanitary policies, especially when they affect highly mobile, endangered species such as Vultures. It also serves the point that conservation should not observe borders and that joined-up conservation implementation – especially for endangered Vulture species – is required and that is something that the EU has within its gift to pursue.

 

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The observation of an Egyptian Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

 

Invisible barriers: Differential sanitary regulations constrain vulture movements across country borders

Eneko Arrondoa,⁎, Marcos Moleóna,b, Ainara Cortés-Avizandaa,g, José Jiménezc, Pedro Bejad,e, José A. Sánchez-Zapataf, José A. Donázara

Biological Conservation (Volume 219, March 2018, Pages 46–52)