For All Souls Day, friend and colleague Eddi – the original Culture Vulture on the Inglorious Bustards team – reflects on a recent trip to experience the awe-inspiring Griffon Vulture migration, and gain understanding of their liminal nature in local lore…
The Strait of Gibraltar last Saturday morning was calm, suspended between us and Morocco. A calm day perfect for the Griffon Vulture migration, but the skies were empty. Then, like some blessing from birders’ heaven, we found ourselves in the flight path of up to three thousand Vultures. Catching the thermals, they spiralled up before soaring across the 14km Strait. This is the diciest moment of their migration to the Sahel and our adrenaline rocketed when their column fell closer to us. Suddenly these immense birds soared metres from our heads. Claws, feathers, bone, a glinting eye were almost within touch.
Vultures have been loathed and detested throughout most of western history, written off as nature’s ghastly gourmet feasting on carrion. Charles Darwin called them “disgusting birds that wallow in putridity”. Long associated with death, battles and rotting meat, in our cultural imagination the Vulture is earthly and gothic, belonging to the nether worlds and giving “material form to the idea of a dark angel.” Swooping over the body of a loved one, it is easy to see how much this awesome bird would look like death itself.
As we stood under their thermal on Saturday we could see their bulkiness, their physicality. Over 2,000 birds weighing up to 11kg each is literally tonnes of flesh in the sky.
Yet for all their earthiness, in the air they are in their element. Transgressive, the Griffon Vulture lives between heaven and earth, building their nests in the highest rocks and crossing continents while still young. Both Christianity and Ancient Greek cultures have figured them as messengers between humans and gods. The Greeks saw them as “from some foreign and unknown land”, often flocking to and predicting the site of battle. In Christianity Vultures were bad omens appearing at sites of destruction “where the slain are, there the Vulture is.” (Job 39:30) But it was the ancient Egyptians who recognised their liminal state and deified them.
In Ancient Egypt Vultures were valued for their abilities as carrion eaters. In such a hot climate, where dead flesh rots very quickly the bird was important for the health of the people. So much so that one Pharaoh decreed the death penalty for anyone who killed a Vulture, making them the first ever protected species. But this ability to clean the world of stench and rottenness came with taboo. While grateful to the Vulture for ridding them of contamination, it is likely people feared and detested them for touching the same object. The Ancient Egyptians reconciled this conflict in the mother goddess Nekhbet.
The goddess Nekhbet was the protective deity of southern Egypt and often took on Vulture form. In paintings and engravings from 3,200 BC we find her hovering watchfully over the heads of kings or, with her wings spread wide, over queens giving birth. She gave protection to royals as seen by the ornate Vultures headdresses they wore. But the mother goddess as Vulture had a very strange role in the culture’s mythology and religion. As “Terrible Mother” she offered both shelter and protection but at the same time the death-bringing, corpse-devouring goddess of death. The Ancient Egyptians saw Life/Death as two sides of the same coin and Nekhbet perfectly captures the dual role of Vultures in her associations with female, life-giving energy and death.
But isn’t this all a long way from Andalucía? Well, two things suggest it might not be that far: Vulture culture and rock-tombs. The Egyptian influence on Spain and Portugal can be seen at the mysterious rock cut tombs at the Sanctuary of Panóias in northern Portugal. This is a largely forgotten temple to Serápis, the Graeco-Egyptian god of the underworld and resurrection. Latin inscriptions next to the sarcophagi shaped tombs read
“To the Gods and Goddesses of this sacred place. The victims sacrifice themselves, and are killed in this place. The viscera are burned in the square cavities in front. Blood is poured here to the side for the small cavities. It was established by Gaius C. Calpurnius Rufinus, a member of the senatorial order”
The sacrifices made by the cult to Serápis at Panóias were symbols of rebirth, acknowledging the dual role Life/Death. Hundreds of rock-carved tombs, similar to those at Panóias, litter the hills of the Cádiz province. These enigmatic sites are attractive precisely because they are so mysterious. Lacking in inscriptions, we know little about their function or origins. These empty sarcophagi lie open to the sky, filled with rainwater and decades of archaeological frustration. Often they have panoramic views of the mountains or oceans, are near a spring or water source and, most crucially, near vulture colonies.
The rock tombs of Betis, for example, are only 14km from the Straits and just beneath a limestone outcrop called Cerro de Bartolo. Some of the young vultures migrating over the Straits would have nested at this colony. Prime position overlooking these rock-tombs. Many of us would recoil at the idea of sky burial and early Christians saw it as the ultimate punishment. But there are those who revel in the idea. When in his poem Vulture Robinson Jeffers plays dead on a hillside, I imagine him lying down in one of these graves –
“To be eaten by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes– What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life after death”
Perhaps Vultures are the key to understanding these mysterious tombs in the sierras of Cádiz. The proximity of these rock tombs to the Griffon Vulture colonies point towards their use as places of symbolic ritual, an “enskyment” transmuting earthly bodies to air, reconciling birth and death in rebirth.
While Vultures no longer has god-status, we are rediscovering that which our ancestors clearly knew and awarding them ‘keystone species’ status. They cut down disease transmission and act as carcass recyclers. Protecting Vultures means protection of the entire European mountain ecosystems. Vultures offer us the key to examining age-old human questions of life, death and regeneration. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the awe we felt watching their migration over The Straits. We were witnessing an event older than the rock tombs, more ancient than Nekhbet and the Egyptian gods, something that continues to pierce us right to our core.
Eddi Pitcher is author of Wild Guide Portugal and lives in Cádiz, researching her new book, Wild Guide Andalucía and leading cultural tours in Spain and Portugal. We are very honoured to have her on board! Contact us about enriching your bespoke wildlife trip with some fascinating local cultural and historical highlights with Eddi!
It’s hard to explain the power of a day like today to someone who’s never witnessed it.
The strong easterly levante wind dropped away last night, leaving behind a low ceiling of cloud. This is high migration season, and we arrived at the coast at first light with Pepe and Teresa, to find Black Kites and European Honey Buzzards already leaving by the hundred, driven and desperate to continue south across The Straits of Gibraltar.
They are joined by Booted Eagles and Short-toed Eagles in almost inconceivable numbers – as the day heats up it becomes impossible to find a spot of sky which doesn’t have a raptor in it.
Birds are crossing or not crossing, cruising up and down the coast or powering out to sea, from every direction and at every conceivable altitude, a complete three-dimensional extravaganza.
A great cloud of birds gathering over the coast reveal themselves to be over 600 Short-toed Eagles.
Groups of European Honey Buzzards in their extraordinary variety of plumages, mixed with Booted Eagles and Black Kites, tumble up and down the coast.
Concentrating on each bird, enjoying individual behaviours which bely a story, observing details which give information on age and gender, and being completely absorbed by the spectacle of each group which passes swirling overhead, time simply ceases to exist.
Among the airborne pandemonium of the more numerous species, there were Egyptian Vultures, Marsh Harriers, Sparrowhawks, Montagu’s Harriers, Black Storks and a Red Kite. Suddenly we would find ourselves looking at an Atlas Long-legged Buzzard or an Eleonora’s Falcon, dragged into the phenomenon from the African side of The Straits.
A group of over three hundred White Storks tried again and again to find the right moment to cross, passing so low over our heads that you could sense the power of their wings, and hear their feathers brush the air.
These raptors and soaring birds have journeyed from all over Western Europe to collect in one spot in one glorious moment, searching thermals, sharing the sky – a great concentration of life in this one single extraordinary place.
My human mind always searches for meaning, for analogies, lessons and morals, but in the end comes the uplifting realisation, that there are none – we were simply witnesses to a huge amalgamation of life, driven on by its own persistence – and what can be more joyous than that?
Even in a place so packed full of natural migratory wonder as The Straits of Gibraltar, there are few sights as wow-inducing as a flock of hundreds – if not thousands – of migrating White Storks. As they move along the coast in huge, glittering black and white columns, tracing the patterns of the thermals they ride, they really are the epitome of visible migration!
These flamboyant voyagers capture the imagination and curiosity, and have been inspiring research into migration for hundreds of years. Back in 1822, a White Stork turned up in the German village of Klütz with what was clearly an exotic spear lodged through its neck. It turned out to be from central Africa. At a time when it was still commonly believed that Barn Swallows spent the winter hibernating in the bottom of muddy ponds, this Pfeilstorch – ‘Arrow Stork’ – opened our eyes to the possibility of incredible avian journeys, and migration science was born!
Their great size, conspicuous presence and predictable return to nest sites makes White Storks fantastic candidates for study, and extensive ringing (banding) programmes were already underway as early as 1906. From then until the onset of the Second World War, about 100,000 mainly juvenile birds were ringed, resulting in over 2,000 long-distance recoveries of birds reported between 1908 and 1954. To this day, this wealth of information is arguably the foundation of what we know about where they travel and the routes they take.
White Storks breed extensively across Europe. Almost like a watershed, there is a line that runs right through the middle of Germany, along which the westward-flyers separate from the eastward-flyers. The eastern route leads over the Balkans, the Gulf of Iskenderun, the countries of the Middle East over to East, Central and South Africa. The White Storks we see here, crossing over The Straits in such spectacular fashion have come from west of that line, their migration leading them down through France and the Iberian Peninsula to concentrate at this point.
For a bird with such a large wing span, flapping flight uses around 23 times more energy than gliding. Since there are no thermals over the sea, they are driven to seek out the very shortest distance between land masses. That means that, in an average autumn season, 150,000 White Storks of all ages – pretty much the entire western European population – are pushed towards this one point, looking for their moment to cross the 14 km (9 miles) of sea to Africa. This gives rise to the spectacle of these huge gatherings, spiralling upwards on rising warm air until they emerge up to 1500 m above the ground and then gliding out into the blue.
From here they continue their journey south into Morocco, across the Sahara and down to their wintering grounds in central Africa. In fact, having cheered them on in The Straits, we often get to see them again when we travel to The Gambia each December!
In the 90’s came satellite-tagging technology, a new way of gathering information about birds that was set to change the way we understand so many things. Technology tends to be larger when new and unrefined – some of the earliest tags were the size of a brick! Since a tag is required to be below 3% of a bird’s bodyweight to avoid hindering it, these gigantic nomads with their fascinating journeys presented the ideal species to take this new toy out for a spin!
This opened up the opportunity to study a whole new world of detail not just about migratory routes, but about migratory behaviour. White Storks usually migrate in mixed groups of both adults and younger birds. A number of studies have followed the fortunes of young Storks making their first migration without adults to follow, in order to look at the innate-ness – or not – of the journey plan.
Although their in-born sense of direction takes them vaguely in a south-westerly direction, if displaced by weather conditions they are unable to orientate themselves with any precision and many never fully migrate. This is very different to small passerines, which migrate more-or-less alone, often by night, following an inherited map and with no guidance from adults.
The high importance of this social inheritance makes a great deal of sense. As a day-flying, soaring bird, the efficiency of their route is heavily reliant on thermals generated by local topography. They follow adults to learn an exact route – a kind of thermal highway – which on future travels they will be able to recognise visually and be sure of the optimum journey.
Tags also give us more information on the temporal nature of migration in these birds. It turns out they treat it rather like a nine-to-five, flying for around 8-10 hours every day when the air is warmest, before resting until the following morning. They barely take a day off, covering the 4,000 km (2,700 mile) journey from northern breeding grounds to sub-saharan Africa in two to three weeks. Rather than feeding up before migration like some birds, Storks evidently snack en route only to meet their immediate needs, and lose weight on the journey. Presumably when you’re reliant on literally being lighter than air, every invertebrate over-indulgence counts!
As satellite tags become lighter, cheaper and more precise, the insights they give us become ever-more fascinating. In 2018 a project set out to explore how White Storks navigate thermals as a group by analysing individual high-resolution GPS trajectories of individual Storks during circling events.
A thermal is a complex, drifting, constantly changing column of air. To thermal efficiently, birds need to adjust their flight speed and circling radius to find, and remain close to, the centre of the thermal where updraft is highest. Thanks to the precision of the data obtained from the tags, we are able to see that Storks navigate the thermal based not only on their own perception of the airflow in their immediate surroundings, but also on a complex series of social interactions, reacting to the movement changes of Storks within their nearby subgroup, as well as the leaders of the group at the highest vertical point in the thermal.
How amazing to think that each Stork is effectively acting as an individual sensor, such that the whole flock becomes a distributed sensory array. In this way, they explore and gather information on the thermal as a group, effectively mapping its structure and enabling them to use the optimal airflow within it.
From solving ancient mysteries to changing our perception of collective movement, to simply turning a good day into an amazing one, these really are inspirational birds. And they are pouring over our heads at the moment here in The Straits! We’re thrilled to be assisting as always our conservation partners, Fundación Migres, with the annual autumn migration count – to date over 38,000 of them have made the crossing, and we look forward to many more inspirational moments in coming weeks!
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.
Dave Grundy – leading authority on Andalusian moths and expert guide for Inglorious Bustards’ Mothing The Straits holiday – tells us about this phenomenal eruption of Gypsy Moths!
So, what’s the most moths you’ve ever had in your moth trap? And what’s the most of one species? I’ve heard talk of 750 Large Yellow Underwings (Noctua pronuba) in one trap in the UK and maybe as many as 2,000 total moths in the trap of all species?
Well this month I have had an interesting time with numbers of moths of one species in particular – the Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar). It causes economic damage to forestry in North America – where it was introduced – and also on a local level in Europe.
There has been a population explosion in The Straits of Gibraltar area of Andalucía, from Algeciras to Tarifa along the coast and up to about 8 kilometres inland. Beyond that, the species is flying but does not appear to be in any large numbers (we saw only 36 across 6 traps near San Roque on 27th June).
I was first aware of the larvae back on 17th May 2020 when I recorded at least 10 in my notebook when trapping at Huerta Grande, Pelayo, Andalucía, with José Manuel Gaona Ríos. We then went to Bosque de Niebla trapping on 5th June 2020 with Rafael Rodriguez Pino when my notebook just says “millions of caterpillars stripping the oak trees of all leaves”. This must have a massive effect on the ecology of other insect species dependent on the leaves and also on bird life and others dependent on the trees and insects.
But is this a phenomenon to be celebrated as a marvel of nature or to be horrified about? Could climate change be a factor? This event, which occurs cyclically every few years, is now occurring more and more often, coinciding with periods of drought. I don’t know what the answer is. However, I am definitely not a fan of attempts to eradicate on a large scale as this causes damage to so much other wildlife at the same time.
Next I saw my first ever male Gypsy Moth in Spain on 6th June 2020 – what a stunning creature when fresh and new! This was at Centro Internacional de Migración de Aves (CIMA), Tarifa, where we do not have the oak tree foodplants for the larvae to feed on, but they disperse here looking for females, which struggle to fly far from their original location.
Numbers then began to increase with 325 recorded on 15th June 2020 and 673 on 17th June and then a stunning estimated 5,000 to one trap on 19th June in calmer weather – this was ridiculous! An estimated 4,940 came to one trap on 20th June and then numbers have been up and down since, with more on calm nights and less on windy nights.
My peak count was on 28th June 2020 when I estimated 24,850 between 5 traps and 10,900 in just one of those traps! Moth recording becomes a nightmare and I even had to wear my COVID mask because of all the scales in the air! I believe and hope we are now near the peak in numbers, so I can return to normal moth-trapping soon!
But yet, how spectacular! At nearby sights just north of Tarifa I have recorded over 5,000 at La Peña and over 1800 at Punta Paloma. And to put the numbers into perspective I have now recorded since February in Spain a total of over 650 species and over 106,000 moths, but of those 60,690 have been of Gypsy Moth adult males since 6th June 2020!
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.
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.
At the gateway between Europe and Africa, there is biodiversity galore! Avian migration is the most visible and celebrated, and we spend a lot of our time looking up. But to never look down would be to miss out on so much, including some of the best moth-trapping opportunities in Europe. That´s why, with the help of acclaimed international moth expert Dave Grundy, we´ll be running a trip in May 2019 to look more closely at the gorgeous local nocturnal Lepidoptera under our very noses!
We caught up with Dave to ask him about all things moth-y, and more!
So Dave, what drew you to the Straits? Why would you recommend it to British moth-ers?
The Straits is just an amazing place! There are so many moths and a higher diversity all year round, and it’s all in brilliant scenery with great hospitality from local Andalusian people!
I first started coming here simply to extend the mothing season. I was fed up of opening traps in the cold to find none, or maybe one moth huddled in the corner of the trap, so I headed south, to look forward to opening a trap and finding 60 species in it!
I got hooked, really – it is a real biodiversity hotspot at the crossroads of two continents, the far south of Spain in Europe and the far north of Morocco in Africa. The geology is diverse due to the collision of two continents in geological time and this leads to a diversity of fauna and flora and of course this includes a very rich fauna of moths.
The mothing sites are great and from a totally different biogeographic area – trapping Mediterranean olive scrub and cork oak forest in an area where new moth species are likely to be discovered! What’s not to get excited about?
We know you´re often to be found trapping at Europe´s most southerly point at Fundacion Migrés coastal HQ. And also enjoying a pizza at top veggie restaurant Tarifa Ecocenter! Any other favourite hangouts in the area?
I love to stay at Huerta Grande up in the hills above Tarifa. From there you can step into both the coastal Natural Park of the Straits with its olive scrub and coastal habitats and inland to Los Alcornocales Natural Park, which is on inland hills cloaked in humid cork oak woodland.
There´s birds to enjoy too, for those that like that sort of thing! The Straits is probably most famous for its twice-yearly raptor migration event during which 250,000 soaring birds pour across the sea. Plus there´s loads of nice resident birds in local coastal, wetland and woodland habitats. You get things like Crested Tit and Short-toed Treecreeper just hanging around the log cabins at Huerta Grande!
We remember coming to inspect a trap with you and you showed us our first Giant Peacock Moth. Europe´s biggest moth! It was mega! What are some of the other cool species you’ve trapped in Andalusía?
There´s so many! Goldwing, Passenger, Alchymist, Latin, Pale Shoulder, Striped Hawk, Lydd Beauty, Four-spotted, Eutelia adulatrix, Porter’s Rustic and Speckled Footman to name just a few.
I don´t really have a favourite but I do like Lemonia philopalus, a lot! Why? – is more difficult to say – big and furry and stripy with amazing wing and antennae patterns. And also crazily it needs heavy rain to come out – and this is because it pupates in the soil and needs the soil softened by rain to emerge!
For the newcomer, how does mothing with a local expert help?
Mothing in Spain is difficult, if not impossible for non-local people who don´t at least have mothing friends here. You need a moth-trapping licence, which is expensive and really difficult to fill in – in Spanish, of course!
Best to hook up with somebody who has all the kit and permissions, so you don´t have to worry about it. I have the all the paperwork and licences you need for trapping. I have the permissions off local landowners to trap in the area. I bring lots of traps here from Britain in my van – so when people come mothing with me they have access to five or more moth traps every night to see what is inside – and no need to bring your own trap! If you fly out here, you would be lucky to squeeze one trap into your suitcase.
Over the ten years I´ve been coming here I´ve been lucky enough to make some great friends in the local mothing community – a group I´m working hard to build! I´ve got lots of gen now on where the good sites are for moths. It´s been fascinating building up experience trapping in olive groves, or cork oak forests or sand dunes by the sea. There are so many special moths to see! I feel I can now say I know the moths of the area as well as anyone. Which is handy for people on the trip, as the main moth books are in Spanish, and many of the moths we´ll see only have a scientific name!
What’s the Spanish word for moth?
The fancy way of saying it is mariposa nocturna which of course translates as “night butterfly”. However I´m trying to bring the word polilla into popular use. It´s a Spanish word for moth, but it actually has negative connotations – it´s usually used to describe the kind of critters that munch their way through your clothes! It makes people laugh when you describe yourself as a moth-studier by using the word polillero, which is why I like it!
Are you excited about running our 2019 Mothing the Straits trip? What does it have in store for the group?
Of course I am! I´ve run loads of successful field courses before, but an actual moth-ing holiday?! As far as I know it´s a first!
Every night we´ll have one or more traps within walking distance of the log cabins at Huerta Grande, plus we will head out into nearby habitats each night to set up another five traps. Each night we will do this in very different habitats within a few miles of our base.
Then we come back for a lovely three course meal of typical local food with plenty of wine and beer!
Then every morning we will head back out to check the traps and this will probably take us the whole morning including photographing the most exciting moths. After that there´s time for picnic lunch, siesta, local exploration, whatever you like, before we set off again in the evening!
The trip actually also coincides with the area´s massive raptor migration. Tens of thousands of Honey Buzzards will be crossing the Straits daily, alongside other raptors like Short-toed and Booted Eagles. I know some of the people that have already booked on my trip are also extending their stay a bit to watch migrating raptors and do some excellent local birding with you two!
Thanks Dave! Sounds amazing! So tell us, where can people find out more about this ground-breaking moth-trapping holiday?
There´s full details on the website tour page, and you can have a look at my profile there too! There´s not many places left though, so don´t hang about!
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.