Fourteen Kilometres of Joy and Sorrow

Travel Blogger of the Year

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

 

 

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

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

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

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juvenile Black Kite © Inglorious Bustards

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

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

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

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Migrating White Storks © Inglorious Bustards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A view across The Straits © Inglorious Bustards

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

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

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

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

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

A Swift Weekend to Remember

4 Days. 5 Swift Species. 135 bird species. 13 Spain ticks. 5 world Lifers.  And aside from the numbers, this trip offered just a superb weekend of birding in Andalusia with our guest John, in wetland, farmland, woodland and mountain habitats, giving fantastic views of all the wealth of breeding bird species the area has to offer!

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Little Swift © Inglorious Bustards

White-rumped, Little and Alpine Swifts shone out from the astonishing masses of Pallid and Common Swifts, day-roosting Red-necked Nightjars and Tawny Owls caused us much hushed excitement, and we enjoyed encountering all the other hard-to-see specialities of the area, such as Rufous Bushchat, Common Bulbul, Red-knobbed Coot, White-headed Duck, Red-crested Pochard, Audouin´s Gull, Black-eared Wheatear and Northern Bald Ibis.

Butterflies and reptiles were also super-abundant in the perfect weather, as was tasty food, cold beer and good company! This was to be a swift weekend to remember!

On the farmlands of La Janda, the air was absolutely filled with enormous flocks of several thousand feeding Pallid and Common Swifts, with a mass emergence of Red-veined Darters making up the larger part of their airborne feast.  As we enjoyed our first picnic lunch, we were joined by a Great Spotted Cuckoo, while a Short-toed Eagle, a Western Marsh Harrier and several early-migrating Black Kites drifted overhead.

Moving to a higher area of the farm we stopped at a patch of bushes.  A quick search with our optics in the undergrowth and the leaf litter and we were looking at a gorgeous Red-necked Nightjar!  We looked on in hushed awe, taking great care not to disturb this beautiful bird as it rested.

Red-necked Nightjar
Red-necked Nightjar © Inglorious Bustards

We enjoyed the brilliant value Egret colony with Little and Cattle Egrets nearly ready to fledge, pootling around the trees like little arboreal chickens. A single Black-crowned Night Heron also caught our eye.  We also had views of Sand Martins, singing Turtle Doves, and over fifty European Bee-eaters, as well as Glossy Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Green and Wood Sandpiper amongst others.

To celebrate a great day, we took John for a night out in Tarifa!  Here we added Common Bulbul to John´s Spain list and enjoyed the antics of the town´s Lesser Kestrel colony currently full of newly fledged youngsters.

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Look up! Birds & Beer in Tarifa Town

We enjoyed superb Spanish/Mediterranean cuisine, made from locally sourced organic ingredients at Tarifa Ecocenter, before trying a pint or two of ale from the local microbrewery!

Wandering through a local Cork Oak and Wild Olive dehesa, beautifully cool in the shade, we found many newly-fledged birds, accompanied by their parents.  These included Corn Buntings, Woodchat Shrikes, Common Nightingales and Sardinian Warblers.  There were also large numbers of Spotted Flycatchers, part of an early passage south.

Pausing at a site that looked good for warblers, we tuned into a song of short, melancholy phrases – a Rufous Bushchat was singing!  This was our main target for the morning, and with a bit of patience and careful following of the sounds we managed to get astonishing views of this glamorous Chat. Another for the Spain list…

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A Rufous-tailed Bushchat encounter!

While Niki & Simon prepared a lunch of delicious local salads, olives, meats and cheeses – not to mention a nice cold Cruzcampo beer – John enjoyed watching Black-eared Wheatears, Thekla and Crested Larks, Crag Martins, Short-toed Eagles, Griffon Vultures, Northern Ravens and a Peregrine Falcon overhead, and a couple of Monarch butterflies, at a mountainside site known as La Peña.

picnic at la Peña
Picnic at La Peña

A fantastic afternoon´s birding at the disused saltpans of Barbate awaited!  A great selection of roosting seabirds including Sandwich Terns, Audouin´s, Slender-billed and Mediterranean Gulls greeted us when we arrived.  Kentish Plovers, Pied Avocets and Common Redshanks were super-numerous, and after a little searching we found several Collared Pratincoles and a Eurasian Stone Curlew.  Short-toed Larks and Iberian Yellow Wagtails were there, and a fab Little Owl watched us from the fence.  We enjoyed watching fearless, noisy Little Terns seeing off marauding Yellow-legged Gulls from their nesting colony.

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Audouin´s Gull © Inglorious Bustards

A slightly earlier start one day gave us time to enjoy the avian wonders of the Bay of Cadiz, and the eastern side of Doñana National Park!  En route, mooching peacefully about on dew-covered grass, we found five brilliant and quirky Northern Bald Ibis!  One of the ten most endangered birds in the world, these charismatic individuals are doing well here in Andalusia, several generations in to a successful reintroduction project.

At a harbourfront complex on the Bay of Cadiz, we stopped for a coffee and were greeted by a swirling mass of Common Swifts. Amongst the screaming we heard a giggle, and sure enough there was a Little Swift!  As we sat down with a cuppa we counted at least six amongst the mélé, allaying our fears that the colony had suffered a wipeout during March´s storms.

papping Little Swifts
papping Little Swifts!

At the Bonanza saltpans, copious microfauna in the traditionally-harvested salt pans made them glow an extraordinary iridescent pink.  The pans were teeming with Slender-billed Gulls, Greater Flamingoes, Kentish Plover, Common Redshank and Pied Avocet. A couple of Dunlin signalled that here too, the southbound migration had already begun.  Little Terns, a Gull-billed Tern and an Audouin´s Gull were also seen, as well as Iberian Yellow Wagtails.

Salt Pans
Salt Pans
Kentish Plover
Kentish Plover © Inglorious Bustards

Some unassuming roadside irrigation ponds in Colorado made for some simply fantastic birding.  There were several White-headed Ducks and Red-crested Pochards with ducklings, Ferruginous Duck as well as Little Bittern, Common Waxbill, Black-crowned Night Heron, Common Kingfisher and Great Reed Warbler.  And there, right at the day´s end, skulking in the shade, was a single Red-knobbed Coot, knobs glowing in the occasional shaft of sunlight!  Another much sought-after Spain tick for John, and his third Lifer of the day!

In the shade of Cork Oaks, Laurels and conifers at a local huerta we enjoyed the sights and sounds of Short-toed Treecreepers, Crested Tits, Iberian Chiffchaffs and Firecrests while Speckled Woods and Purple Hairstreaks flitted through the canopy.  And, after some careful peering up through branches, we managed to find a day-roosting Tawny Owl!  A superb bird to see in daylight at the best of times, made all the sweeter for being a Spain tick for John.

And for our grand finale, at a reservoir site in the Alcornacales Natural Park, we achieved extraordinary views of a pair of White-rumped Swifts!  A joyous little bird, with quite a different jizz to its larger cousins.  We spent some time enjoying their comings and goings and were further rewarded when John picked out an Alpine Swift amongst the throng, completing our Swift Grand Slam!

Then all too soon it was time to take John to his flight at Gibraltar airport.  On the way we discussed our trip and found that, as well as seeing all five Swift species and a wealth of other fantastic wildlife, we had also smashed John’s target and got his Spain list to 254!  An enjoyable and memorable weekend all round – thanks John!

If you´re looking to escape the summer birding lull in the UK, this is the trip for you!  Birding the Straits of Gibraltar at this time gives you access to a wealth of breeding species that can´t be seen anywhere else in Europe!  Take a look at the Swift Weekender 2018 trip report to see what we mean!  Join us in 2019 for a Swift Weekender

Team Swift
Team Swift

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!

 

5 reasons you should make a Swift decision this July!

 

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Male Lesser Kestrel © Inglorious Bustards 

July can be a quiet time for the UK-based Birder, with young and moulting birds skulking in full leaved bushes and trees, quiet and notoriously hard to find.

Southern Spain is perhaps not the first place that springs to mind for birding in midsummer but it in fact holds many delights!  And, in the time it takes to cross Norfolk (and about the same cost!), you could be in the Straits of Gibraltar taking some of them in!

Because of its strategic position at the gateway of two continents, Andalusia is a unique blend of Europe and Africa.  This southernmost Spanish province is the most biodiverse region not only in Spain but the whole of Europe, and it stays relatively cool due to the sea breezes.

So if you´re after  a snapshot of superb resident species in intertidal, wetland, farmland, woodland and urban habitats, accompanied with fantastic tapas, passionate discussions, and welcoming people, come join us for a weekend to remember!

 

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Northern Bald Ibis  © Inglorious Bustards

 

Here´s five reasons why…

  1.  Meet the locals!

We really do have some star local species waiting for you here in the Straits!

A successful reintroduction programme of the Critically Endangered Northern Bald Ibis took place here in 2008, and we should be able to see these engaging and quirky birds at their nesting colony or grazing on surrounding farmland.

Nipping into the beautiful Old Town of Tarifa, we´ll be able to enjoy the antics of our local Lesser Kestrel colony, swooping and reeling around the Moorish fort.

We can also hope for a great selection of raptors including Griffon Vultures, Egyptian Vultures, Bonelli’s and Spanish Imperial Eagles, Short-toed and Booted Eagles and Black-winged Kites.

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Collared Pratincole © Inglorious Bustards

Visits to wetlands should yield a host of waders including Sanderling, Red Knot, Dunlin, Little Stint, Bar and Black-tailed Godwit passing through, amongst the breeding Collared Pratincoles, Common Ringed and Kentish Plover.

There are many seabirds such as Sandwich, Little and Caspian Terns, Slender-billed Gull and the once extremely rare Audouin’s Gull. We should also get views of Eurasian Spoonbill and Greater Flamingo as well as Western Osprey and Purple Swamphen. 

Other resident Spanish specialities include Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit, Western Bonelli´s Warbler – the list goes on!

2.  Add an African twist to your Spanish list!

The mere nine miles that separates Spain from Africa has proved to be no boundary for some plucky African species!  Here you can add the unexpected to your Spanish list.

Two typically African Swift species choose the Iberian peninsula as one of their very localised breeding sites in Europe – Little and White-rumped. It’s one of the very few places in Europe you can see all five of our breeding Swift species!

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White-rumped Swift © Inglorious Bustards

You can also encounter Common Bulbul, Rüppell´s Vulture, Marbled and White-headed Duck and Red-knobbed Coot, all unusual ´ticks´to find this side of the Straits.

3. Migration early days

Perhaps surprisingly, at this time of year, the return to Africa has already begun for some species, and we should start to see flocks of White Storks and Black Kites crossing the Straits. 

Groups of super-sized Alpine Swift should be passing overhead on their early morning passage flight, moving through from their mountain breeding grounds to their sub-Saharan wintering areas.

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Tumbling Alpine Swift © Inglorious Bustards

In fact almost anything can turn up here during the early days of autumn migration, as passerines collect amongst the shady trees to gather strength for their southwards crossing of the Straits.

4. Bugs and beasts galore!

As moist air from the Mediterranean Sea passes through the Straits, it gathers in clouds and falls as dew high up on the Cork Oak forests of the Alcornocales Natural Park.

The unique nature of this unusual cloud forest means the streams and brooks in this area continue to run long after the rest of Spain is dry.  This phenomenon makes this a superb area for invertebrates, amphibians and reptiles throughout the year.

We should see gorgeous Monarch butterflies, Two-tailed Pashas, Four-spotted Emerald and Copper Demoiselle all in flight, as well as a host of fascinating frogs, toads and lizards to be spotted.

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Monarch Butterfly © Inglorious Bustards

5.  All the other things!

Sunshine, sangria, tapas, vino tinto, local hams and cheeses, ice cold beer in chilled glasses, relaxed people, gorgeous scenery, empty beaches… Do we really need go on?!

See you there!  Swift Weekender Tour – 13th July – 16th July 2018 – £595 for 4 days 

 

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Birding in the Straits in midsummer offers free seats in prime positions  © Inglorious Bustards