We often think of the Straits of Gibraltar as a barrier to be overcome, a great leap of faith for the hundreds of thousands of birds that must move between the land masses of Africa and Europe. But through the eons, other vast, invisible migrations have gone almost unseen in the dark depths beneath the sparkling surface.
Here we chat to our friend Aurelio Morales, owner of family-run cetacean-watching company Marina Blue, to find out why, for marine mammals, “The Strait of Gibraltar is a vast underwater canyon – a great corridor that links the Mediterranean and the Atlantic”
Aurelio has spent twenty-two years of his life around the marine fauna of the Strait of Gibraltar. “There is something special about this place that hooks me. Two seas, two tectonic plates, two continents, two prevailing winds… Each outing is completely different. There is no one equal to the other, since the weather and light changes, the behaviour of the species varies throughout the days”
His trips are full of encounters with our local resident delphids – Common, Striped and Bottlenose Dolphins, highly-sociable Long-finned Pilot Whales, and even Orcas in summer – but he is particularly fascinated by the mysterious movements and spectacular sudden appearances of the area’s two migrant species – Fin Whales and Sperm Whales.
“We have so many experiences with these two species that never cease to amaze me. We have seen on many occasions Sperm Whales jumping right out of the water, dragging a large body of water as if it were an explosion in the sea. We have witnessed fascinating interactions between Sperm Whales, Long-finned Pilot Whales and Bottlenose Dolphins. Yellow-legged Gulls will perch on top of a resting whale and clean its dead skin. We have seen Hammerhead Sharks circling them while they rest on the surface.”
But although they are seen regularly and often with great intimacy from Aurelio’s small yacht Miamita, much remains unknown about the movements of these two peaceful giants of the seas.
“We consider Sperm Whales to be semi-residents here. They spend long periods in the Strait feeding, mostly on deep sea squid.”
“In the Strait we almost invariably see adult males of up to 15m in length – and occasionally younger males of around 7-10m. They use this underwater corridor for their movements to and from feeding and mating areas.”
Male and female Sperm Whales generally don’t hang out. The males are loners, found in higher latitude cold waters, whilst the females, calves and young adults form gregarious and relatively sedentary groups in tropical and temperate seas. They meet up only to mate, with the males performing seasonal migrations. They find each other across vast distances – their huge jelly-filled heads directing and amplifying their song to volumes louder than a jet engine.
Research in 2011 used photo-cataloguing of tail flukes – from which individuals can reliably be identified – to compare Straits whales with records from across the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Of 47 Sperm Whales identified here, fifteen could be traced travelling throughout the western Mediterranean, a straight-line distance of up to a thousand miles.
The fact that none of “our” Sperm Whales from this study were recorded in the Atlantic supports existing genetic evidence of an isolated sub-population within the Mediterranean Sea. Believed to contain fewer than 2,500 mature individuals, the Mediterranean population is considered ‘endangered’, based on IUCN Red List criteria.
However, Sperm Whale social groups, with females and calves, do turn up in the Strait from time to time. We recall an incredible experience in September 2017, watching a group of ten females and young whales. They were grouped tightly together in a “marguerite formation”, where the group surrounds a weak or injured individual with their tails pointing outward, enabling them to protect it from attackers. The gathering seemed to emanate tension and anxiety, as the sea around them boiled with curious dolphins and seabirds eyed them suspiciously from above.
The happening was during a series of strong hurricanes over the Atlantic. Could this troubled group have been Atlantic in origin, having come into The Straits to shelter?
There is clearly more work to be done, says Aurelio. “Collaborative studies are currently being carried out between different companies, associations and scientists to verify that the same species seen in the Strait are being seen in other places such as the Canary Islands and Azores.”
Fin whales, the world´s second-largest living creatures, can reach lengths of up to 25m. They used to be abundant in the Strait of Gibraltar and nearby Atlantic areas until their rapid collapse due to intense whaling at the beginning of the 20th century. They are now considered endangered.
Evidence gathered from fifteen years’ worth of photo-identification suggest that some of the Fin Whales seen in the Mediterranean are actually of Atlantic stock. A small community of them have been observed migrating through the Strait of Gibraltar, with remarkable seasonal directionality. They head to the Atlantic Ocean in May-October and the Mediterranean Sea in November-April. Observations of young whales exiting the Mediterranean Sea mainly in May-July suggest that at least part of this community is likely to calve in the basin, probably near the Balearic Islands.
“The Mediterranean is a semi-closed sea with warmer temperatures, so it would make sense that females raise their calves there until they gain enough weight to move to cooler feeding areas.” says Aurelio.
But, he says, there are many threats to these amazing creatures as they try to navigate the busiest shipping lane in the world.
“The greatest dangers for these large cetaceans are almost always related to human presence. The Strait is the only channel that connects the Atlantic with the Med and carries massive shipping traffic. Whales are injured colliding with large ships, and noise pollution interferes with echo-location, and therefore migration. Pollution from oil spills and plastic waste is another great problem that these animals face with this unbridled progress that prevails over the conservation of Nature.”
As a wildlife tour operator, and erstwhile skipper for the Ministry of the Environment, he feels a great sense of responsibility to make sure Marina Blue’s own effects on the environmental are only positive, in line with our own #FlywayPromise.
“There are thankfully many legal requirements to operate here, in terms of good practices regarding cetacean observation and compliance with EU emissions regulations and speed limits, which we naturally comply with. But we also have our own manual of good practices, guided by our own conscience and respect for Nature!”
“Marina Blue works in and for the Strait, with small groups of no more than ten people per trip to minimise our impact. We separate and reduce all our waste. We enjoy the animals with the utmost respect, quietly, allowing them to come to us if they wish. We must always bear in mind that we do not own this planet.”
We love heading out with Aurelio and his crew during selected trips, because of the intimacy of the encounters allowed by such a small vessel, but also because of his obvious deep connection and passion for the wildlife we are hoping to observe. With each spell-binding sighting of one of these incredible animals, we learn a little more about how to protect them.
Our Strait Birding & Cetaceans spring migration spectacular is coming soon, and there are still spaces available! Here´s a flavour of what happened last time…
“The clouds were low and moody, and the winds pretty strong, but the intrepid Black Kites had decided, “Stuff it! This will do!”. One by one, and then by the dozen, they started to appear out of the clouds, wings beating like crazy and some barely making land! We watched, hearts in mouths as two individuals struggled right in front of us, so close we could almost have dragged them in with a well-flung lasso!
There are no thermals over the sea, which is what makes crossing it so treacherous for soaring birds. Though barely metres from land, they were having to use the diagonal wind to gain lift, increasing the length of their journey many times. Then, after what seemed like an age they hit land and instantly found a thermal, taking them from a couple of metres above the sea to a couple of hundred metres above the land within seconds! We cheered them on with a massive amount of relief!
“Exhilarated, we headed down to the village for a coffee. But our break was not to be an uneventful one! Suddenly a break appeared between two large clouds over Punta Carnero and Gibraltar, effectively creating a sunlit channel of warm air which stretched right from the coast of Morocco to just above our heads!
This was the moment they – and we – had been waiting for! Necking our coffee we took up position by the sea wall as they began to arrive. Over the next hour or so we witnessed an immense river of raptors and storks arriving from Africa. Three hundred Black Kites, twenty Griffon Vultures, three hundred Short-toed Eagles, over a hundred Booted Eagles, 38 Black Storks, thirty or more Western Marsh Harriers and a sprinkling of Egyptian Vultures, Montagu´s Harriers, Eurasian Sparrowhawks and Lesser Kestrels poured over us in one of Nature´s most uplifting and vibrant spectacles. We abandoned all plans and ate our picnic right there, barely finding a quiet moment between migratory waves to grab a plate of food!”
This trip, running 28th March – 3rd April 2020, is not to be missed! Check out further information on our website here for your ringside seat to the greatest show on Earth…
We´re readying ourselves for our annual pilgrimage to UK Birdfair, and we hope to see you there! As you ready for the off and decide what to put in your butties, have a look at this profile of our good friends at Tarifa Ecocenter, participants in our #FlywayPromise, whose philosophy that “The fork is the most powerful tool to change the planet” chimes so strongly with our own…
In the Straits of Gibraltar we find ourselves at the epicentre of a great journey, that takes avian migrants over thousands of miles of landscapes and habitats where, irrespective of political borders, they must find food and safe passage to sustain them on their journey.
Our work over years for the RSPB, attempting to reverse the fortunes of UK, European and African farmland wildlife, has made us recognise the power of our own food choices and how it can affect the availability of habitat for these birds, and all the other wildlife whose lives depend on our decisions about how we manage land.
The Ecocenter is not just a superb vegetarian restaurant, it is a local hub for eco-consciousness. The organic produce shop and meeting spaces are a sociable place designed to encourage the exchange of ideas. Here you can partake in delicious, sustainably-sourced meals, much of the produce for which comes from their sister project, Molino de Guadalmesi – an organic farm, community centre, and eco-lodge situated in a beautifully-restored water mill.
“Sharing food connects people of all ages and backgrounds. Each meal gives you the opportunity to make a conscious decision about how you impact your health, your environment and our common future.”
Community member Johnny Azpilicueta is just back from a spot of global travelling and idea-sharing on sustainable living, so we grabbed the chance to catch up with him over a chickpea burger and a slurp of local organic IPA.
The thing that strikes me as we chat is the dual themes of connectivity and positive action that runs through everything they do – connecting people with where our food comes from, connecting them with the provenance and consequences of every food choice we make, connecting the food on our plate with the very field or animal it came from .
Johnny says: “I wonder what it would be like if people could see directly in the moment what the consequences of their choices are. Like, people don´t like animals and birds to be shot but if they are choosing unsustainable food they may as well be pulling the trigger themselves. I wonder what it would be like if every time they took a bite a bird fell from the sky in front of them, or every time they threw away a piece of plastic suddenly there was a dead dolphin right there next to them. What we want to do is to make people really see through all the complexity of their choices and help them make better ones that have better outcomes from the planet.”
Johnny is the driving force behind Tarifa´s hugely successful participation in World Clean up Day – one of the biggest civic movements of our time, where in 2018 a massive day of social environmental action saw a staggering 18 million people in 157 countries out picking up litter.
“ I find it is proving to be such a very unifying activity. Protecting the planet is full of complex issues but it seems that everyone has in common that they want their home to be clean, and it is something that can really bring people together in making positive action. It´s inspiring, it can lead to even bigger things.”
The concept of Flyway scale conservation is no stranger to Johnny either. “I have been in the Straits for 15 years and every time I look up and see these birds coming from all over Europe to cross to Africa, I feel connected. I feel this connection with Nature, I feel connected with how all the different parts of the world are connected and to the people who are trying to make these journeys too.
“What I think is that we have to allow these birds to cross like a pathway of organic farms all across the flyway, so they can eat healthy… Here we are making a Flyway Promise to support the kind of agriculture that is beneficial to these animals.”
Findings presented at the IPCC in October 2018 were striking and conclusive. While everyone talks about reducing electricity consumption and aviation, it seems that we are still ignoring the scientific findings that show beyond doubt 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. Thanks to the bright idea of our friends at Huerta Grande Ecolodge to include “meat-free Mondays” in our trips, we are working with our accommodation and catering providers across the board to offer at least one meat-free day one very trip.
On selected tours, we visit the Molino de Guadalmesí 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!
We want to make the choice to eat ethically an irresistible one! And thanks to the passion and talent of people like the folk at Molino de Guadalmesi and Tarifa Ecocenter, that doesn’t have to be difficult.
Come and see us in Marquee 1 Stand 28 at Birdfair this weekend, and come to the event´s Hobby Lecture Theatre, Sunday, 3.30pm to hear more about our #FlywayPromise and how we are striving to make ecotourism a genuine force for positive environmental change.
We all know that turbines and soaring birds don’t mix. So what is being done to help our avian nomads as they pass these whirring legions marching across the Estrecho Natural Park, one of the most important raptor migration bottlenecks in the world? We report on the Compensatory Measures Project, just one strand of the immensely important work carried out by our conservation partners, Fundación Migres.
As we round the corner of the coast road, in the hills high above Tarifa, most of our tour groups let out a gasp of awe at the stunning views of Morocco. This is often closely followed by a gasp of shock, as their gaze falls on the imposing ranks of wind turbines lining some of the coastal hillsides.
At just nine miles wide, here the Strait of Gibraltar is at its narrowest point between Europe and Africa, making it the chosen crossing point for over 300 million migratory birds, journeying between these continents twice a year.
A humungous sixty percent of Europe’s raptor population passes through here, as well as virtually its entire population of White Storks. Swifts also cross here in staggering numbers, with more than 400,000 passing through the area during peak times. This migratory spectacle is one of the most uplifting, life-affirming natural events we have ever seen, and simply has to be experienced to be believed.
With some 350 different species recorded, the list of birds in the area is extensive. At migration times there are Honey Buzzards, Western Ospreys, Red-rumped and Barn Swallows, Sand and House Martins, Pallid, Common and Alpine Swifts, Common and Great Spotted Cuckoos, races of Yellow Wagtail, Western Bonelli’s Warblers, Common and Iberian Chiffchaffs, Golden Orioles and Turtle Doves amongst many others.
At any time of year, birds in the area include Crag Martins, Blue Rock Thrushes, Crested and Thekla Larks, Lesser Kestrels, Tawny, Little and sometimes Eagle Owls. A wide range of nesting raptors, including Bonelli’s Eagles, Short-toed Eagles, Common Kestrels and Peregrine Falcons are common in the area. Around Tarifa there are colonies of Griffon and Egyptian vultures, the most southerly in the Iberian peninsula, with 70+ pairs of Griffon Vultures and six pairs of Egyptian Vultures breeding in 2017.
So how did these feathered millions end up running the gauntlet of the wind farms, adding to the perils they already face?
Back in 1993, when the area was still military land, the original two windfarms were commissioned, approved and built. The 20 MW Planta Eólica del Sur (PESUR) project and the 10 MW Energía Eólica del Estrecho (EEE) farm totalled 269 turbines. They were straight away mired in controversy, with local conservation groups and independent experts presenting evidence in 1994 of high avian death tolls(1). The corpses of 13 different species were allegedly found at the wind farms, either killed on impact or by electrocution on power cables, including an Eagle Owl, White Storks and Lesser Kestrels.
A random corpse count of Griffon Vultures stood at around 30, with some apparently decapitated by the blades. Counter-claims at the time by the wind company’s managing directors suggested that the yearly death count was never higher than twelve birds in total, and others presented figures as low as two birds.
In some cases it was alleged that no real impact study regarding the birds was ever carried out. It was even alleged that, while risk assessments were carried out based on presence of resident birds, the experts simply ‘forgot’ to account for the hundreds of thousands of migrating soaring birds that pass through twice a year!
Spain had (and still has) an ambitious plan for alternative energy generation, and the Tarifa area was to be its spearhead. Development of a proposed 2000+ turbines in the area were to provide a sizeable chunk of Spain’s 20% renewable energy target by 2020.
One can only imagine what it would have been like to be a fly on the wall in the many meetings that must have taken place, leading up to the declaration of the area as a Natural Park in 2003. With the area now protected, and acknowledged as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International, extensive study and intensive mitigation work would be needed to reduce the negative effects of existing farms and prevent the creation of new ones in high-risk areas.
Enter Fundación Migres. This private non-profit organisation had been monitoring the area’s extraordinary migration event with daily counts during peak times since 1997.
In 2003, the companies whose memberships form the Tarifa Wind Power Association (AET) signed agreements with Fundación Migres to work on the Compensatory Measures Project for La Janda Windfarms, dramatically expanding their remit.
During the seventeen year project, their task was to find ways to reduce bird mortality in the windfarms, find out the effect of the farms on local raptor populations, and establish recovery programmes for more affected species, as well as raising awareness locally about environmental conservation and renewable energy.
The high-quality, independent science they have generated since their inception has added considerably to the world’s knowledge on wind farms and their effects on birds. It is helping develop better protocols for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) and mitigation measures to reduce turbine collisions.
Their work has generated both disturbing and promising results. A three-year study of 20 operational wind farms took place between 2005 and 2008, as the 323 turbines gradually came online(2). Over the study period, the research team found 596 dead birds – a devastating 1.33 birds per turbine per year, which is among the highest rates of wind farm mortality ever published. 36% of the dead were raptors and included 23 Common Kestrels, 13 Lesser Kestrels and 16 Short-toed Eagles.
By far the worst affected bird was the Griffon Vulture, with 138 found dead during the course of the study. Other studies suggest that most birds of prey can detect and actively avoid turbines without too much problem(3), but alas for the Griffon Vulture, for all its aerial prowess, agility is not one of its strong points. The bird relies on air currents and thermals to travel and has relatively weak flight, making evasive manoeuvres difficult.
All of these high-mortality wind farms had had EIAs carried out according to accepted methodology, had been accepted as low-risk areas, and had been licensed according to the law. The way raptors use the air currents and topography of an area is complex. It seemed site-scale EIAs based on bird abundance did not account for this, so could not adequately predict the threat level of proposed turbines.
However, interestingly, the study also found that the vast majority of these deaths could be attributed to a very small number of turbines. A new study was undertaken(4) – what if, by controlling function of these high-risk turbines, bird mortality could be reduced?
During 2006, body counts on 13 windfarms with 296 turbines had illustrated that most of the deaths were being caused by just ten turbines, distributed amongst six windfarms.
During 2008–2009, the team implemented a selective stopping program – when Vultures were observed near these deadliest turbines they were simply turned off till the threat had passed. Encouragingly, the Vulture mortality rate was reduced by 50% with only these ten turbines involved. The consequent reduction in total energy production for the wind farms was just 0.07% per year, a small price to pay.
This successful strategy was expanded to other high-risk turbines. When a high number of raptors are passing through, or individual birds are in danger – especially Griffon Vultures or the Critically Endangered Egyptian Vulture – the turbines are simply turned off.
With Migres-trained wind farm ‘watchmen’ on high alert, the whole shutdown process – from spotting a risk, to phoning it in, to stopping the relevant turbine – takes less than two minutes. The annual mortality – previously exceeding 200 vultures – has been reduced by 60% across the whole area(4). The accidents happen mostly during the autumn migration period when young birds – both resident and from all over Europe – are passing through the area. Though this is still a horrible price to pay for clean energy, this level of loss is at least thought to be sustainable from a population size point of view.
The process is far from perfect. A locally-breeding Egyptian Vulture was killed by a turbine last year, and two the year before. A drifting radio-tagged Lesser Spotted Eagle also hit a turbine, but seemingly recovered its wits and moved on, after sitting dazed in one spot for two days. We ourselves have been devastated to witness a majestic Honey Buzzard, hanging on an air current, lose control for just a brief second and get sucked backwards into the blades. And this is without even touching on the as yet unmitigated effects the turbines have on bats and other wildlife.
The end of the windfarm cooperation project in 2020 is fast approaching, putting the future of the turbine-stopping measures in doubt. With funding for Fundación Migres in decline, also at stake is one of the greatest sustained efforts for monitoring migratory birds in Europe, not to mention the invaluable research they generate.
It can be hard to believe that wind farm development was ever given the go-ahead in such a key area for the birds of the East Atlantic flyway. But it’s important not to forget the bigger picture. Many more birds are killed by traffic, power lines, radio and television towers, glass windows, and due to human activities such as poisoning and illegal shooting, not to mention habitat destruction.
Badly located as they are, the ever-spinning blades of the Straits supply around 20% of Andalusia’s power. Like all locally-damaging ‘renewable energy’ sources, they are there because of our insatiable appetite for consumption – of fossil fuels, of meat, of stuff we just don’t need. As the planet warms, ecosystems are disrupted and the Sahara creeps ever larger. For the millions of avian nomads that pass the turbines unharmed, the biggest peril is whether they still have breeding and wintering habitat to go to.
(1) Watts-Hosmer (1994) Bird deaths prompt rethink on windfarming in Spain. Windpower Monthly (2) De Lucas et al (2012) Weak relationship between risk assessment studies and recorded mortality in wind farms. Journal of Applied Ecology (3) De Lucas et al (2004) The effects of a wind farm on birds in a migration point: the Strait of Gibraltar. Biodiversity and Conservation (4) De Lucas et al (2012) Griffon vulture mortality at wind farms in southern Spain: Distribution of fatalities and active mitigation measures. Biological Conservation
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.
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!
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 AndalusiaBird Society, ‘Birds of Andalucìa’, vol 6 issue 3, Summer2017.
Recently we hosted a group from Wensum Valley Bird Society from Norfolk, UK at the end of April. We delighted in Birding on Two Continents with them and as with all our trips we became the best of friends in travel and adventure! If you have a group, bird / wildlife club or simply a group of friends and want an adventure that suits your budget and exceeds your expectations, simply contact us for further information.
Here are some of the trip highlights in the fabulous team’s own words!..
The weather was being very contrary at the start of our trip, and we left the UK in the middle of a heatwave. We were hosted by Inglorious Bustards at the lovely Huerta Grande lodge, where Nightingales and Firecrests made their presence known immediately. Our first full day in Spain found us on top of the Sierra de la Plata, near Bolonia, in a howling gale and temperatures more suited to the English winter. Fortunately it didn’t actually rain, and in fact it didn’t stop us from seeing some exciting birds. We were all thrilled to see Woodchat Shrikes on the way up the mountain, and these lovely birds became frequent sightings throughout the week. On parking at the top we were greeted by a Blue Rock Thrush, and a pair of Griffon Vultures on the cliff.
Lesser Kestrels were nesting on the top. As the Vultures and Kestrels swirled around us, enjoying the strong wind, the really exciting birds were seen. A pair of Egyptian Vultures! What is more they are really beautiful, pale birds, something I never expected to say of a Vulture. They are clearly nesting here, to the delight of Simon, and most of us got pictures of them. Chicks of the Griffon Vultures were too seen and photographed. A Booted Eagle and two Short-toed Eagles also put in an appearance.
A coffee stop at Bolonia was not only enlivened by my first Zitting Cisticola, but also by a cavalcade of around 40 motorbikes, their approach heralded by much hooting and honking! The highlight of our stop at Barbate, a wetland area, had to be the beautiful Collared Pratincoles, which nest there in numbers. Other birds did try to upstage them though. The first I hardly dare mention. It was a Red-necked Nightjar, for which we owe thanks to Alan, who unwittingly flushed it. Sadly he didn’t see the bird himself, and he was remorselessly teased about it for the rest of the week. The other was a Little Bustard, which was heard calling nearby. Another favourite bird that we were to see more of was the Iberian Yellow Wagtail, a bright and beautiful grey-headed sub-species. Add in the Corn Buntings, Crag Martins, Cirl Buntings and Kentish Plovers, among others, and you will see that we had a great first day.
7.30a.m saw us queueing for the 8 a.m ferry from Algeciras to Morocco. It hadn’t been a very smooth crossing, however the African sunshine was welcoming us. Once waved through it was only 20 mins to Oued Marsa, a truck stop high on a splendid viz-mig spot for a second breakfast. What we really yearned for were big mugs of builders tea, sadly not on offer, but Moroccan mint and orange blossom tea made for the perfect alternative.
What happened next was a once in a lifetime birding moment, something every birder dreams about. First out of the fog came hundreds of BLACK KITES, interspersed with WHITE & BLACK STORKS, HONEY BUZZARDS, MONTAGU’S HARRIERS, SPARROWHAWKS, BOOTED EAGLES (both morphs), SHORT-TOED EAGLES, KESTRELS & BEE EATERS, all kettling and trying to gain height for their crossing. We watched a female HONEY BUZZARD set off, lose confidence, turn around and head back, and then set off again, disappearing into the horizon, well on her way into Europe.
A cry of “SPOTTED FLY over here” turned our eyes to the ground. Soon all our group were shouting “REDSTART”, WILLOW WARBLER”, “GARDEN WARBLER”, “WOODCHAT SHRIKE”, “IBERIAN CHIFFCHAFF” in unison. The most unusual find was a pair of BLACK-CROWNED TCHAGRA.
Our host Simon said that the best migration here was with an Easterly. How right he was. In a brief 30 minute stop we reckoned we saw 28 species that had been grounded by the Levante wind. The skies were dripping migrants. It seemed to be the case of name the bird and it will be there somewhere. I have never seen anything like it in my life. A truly memorable birding moment.
Reluctantly we climbed back into our vehicles for the two hour drive to Merga Zerja wetlands, a tidal lagoon located on the Atlantic coast. Once the home of Slender-billed Curlew, last seen there in 1995, its threatened wildlife is under pressure from ever increasing agricultural expansion.
More mint tea was consumed at a restaurant overlooking the lagoon as we waited for our boats, and we marvelled at the aerial antics of CASPIAN and SANDWICH TERNS, AUDOUIN’S and YELLOW-LEGGED GULLS were dotted on the Lagoon shore. GLOSSY IBIS flew past in formation.
We picked our way through the lagoon-side fish market, the fisherman seemingly preferred to sell direct from their boats, rather than the tailor made brick building. Plenty of waders were on the lagoon shores. Umpteen WHIMBREL, splendid GREY PLOVERS, DUNLIN, CURLEW, and OYSTERCATCHERS. GREATER FLAMINGOES glinted in the distance. RED-RUMPED and BARN SWALLOWS, COMMON & PALLID SWIFTS danced above our heads.
Back on land we pulled into a small wood at the edge of the Lagoon, lazily scanning for NORTHERN LAPWINGS and MARSH HARRIERS as we devoured our picnic lunch.
However the day was not over yet. Simon had a “special bird” he hoped we would see at dusk. The secret location was alongside a fruit farm, producing strawberries, blackberries and potatoes for M & S and Waitrose. Quietly and in single file we followed Simon down the edge of a furrowed field, glimpsing ZITTING CISTICOLAS and SERIN on our way. Our target was the vulnerable MOROCCAN MARSH OWL, more and more of its habitat being claimed by the fruit farmers. Preparing for a long wait, we were startled when suddenly there it was, rising out of the reeds in front of us.
By sheer chance and good luck I was actually looking in the right direction, camera in hand. click, click, click. Not brilliant photos, but a brilliant momento. Satisfied, we turned around and headed back towards the vans. Liz and I stopped for a few minutes to admire a LITTLE OWL scowling out of his dead tree at us. We didn’t realise two male and a female MONTAGU’S HARRIERS were displaying behind us, and a COMMON QUAIL was lurking…….
……We had had the best possible day.
Our first full day in Morocco, at Larache a town on the Atlantic coast. After a good night’s sleep in our hotel, breakfast was taken in a restaurant across the road. Freshly squeezed orange juice, flat bread, pancakes, honey, fried eggs, cheese and more olives. Hot drinks of milky coffee and sweet mint tea, both served in glasses.
Simon had advised us to bring cameras and binoculars across the newly refurbished plaza, Place de la Liberation, to the old arches opposite, and there in the corners were Little Swifts nests, these had been there for decades with Swifts repairing and building on to them. Swifts were busy feeding chicks and took little notice of us.
Checking out of the hotel and back in the minibuses we drove along the run-down beach and seafront area to the Loukkos river and along to the marshes. A couple of stops revealed Little and Cattle Egrets, Turtle Doves, Bee-eaters, Greater Flamingos, Savi’s Warblers in full song at the top on reeds, Red-crested Pochard, Marsh Harrier, Black-winged Stilts, Cetti’s Warblers, Brown-throated Martins, Red-knobbed Coots, Great White Egrets, Zitting Cisticolas, a single Purple Swamphen, an elusive Great Reed Warbler, Short-toed Eagle, Black Kites and the list went on!
By early afternoon we had arrived at the little bustling town of Bni Arouss. Several old white Mercedes taxis, heavily-laden donkeys, butchers shops with lamb carcasses hung in the open air and busy barbers shops. Having found a local to mind the minibuses our guides soon organised lunch. The eatery had sawdust on the floor, a home-made BBQ outside and inside about enough space to sit us and space for the cook to prepare our food. Flat breads, two types of spiced beans, grilled sardines, strips of beef and lamb mint balls, chips, water and mint tea, all very tasty.
Back on the road to the Bouhachem Forest a forest of Pine trees, Cork oaks and Wild Olive trees. Our first stop was for a troupe of Barbary Macaques to look at us, this made a change and the dominant male never took his eyes off us. As we walked, stopping here and there, Booted Eagle, Ravens, Long-legged Buzzards, a Short-toed Treecreeper, African Blue Tits, Atlas Pied Flycatchers, Firecrests, Desert Grey Shrikes, Griffon Vultures but best of all with excellent viewsfour Levaillant’s Green Woodpeckers, three seen well the fourth heard.
As [a] member of the wonderfully enjoyable WVBS trip to Spain and Morocco … I thought I would share some of my highlights of the trip.
Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker…Picus vaillantii………………………tick
Northern Morocco was quite a surprise in terms of its vegetation and lushness. The Bouhachem forest in the Rif mountains of North Morocco is wonderful mixed woodland: the ubiquitous Cork Oak, but also cedar, pine, fir and cypress. It seems relatively unspoilt and has recently been assigned status as a “parc-naturel” so hopefully there will be some form of protection against the ongoing spread of developed land creep and technology.
So there we were, on a lonely forest road sitting in the van watching a troupe of Barbary Macaques entertaining themselves. (This population was the originator of the macaques in Gibraltar). But as entertaining as these were as soon as David and Simon, the guide, saw a Woodpecker fly into a tree in their midst, there was an eruption of bodies out of the van to try to spy it. Before too long Simon had it in his scope and we were treated to great views of a Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker, its beautiful green back straight in front of us against the trunk of a pine tree. While we were congratulating ourselves on our luck to see this we heard another calling off stage right and shortly after heard drumming fairly close by. With luck I was able to spot this one in another tree drumming against some dead wood on part of the trunk.
After everyone had a chance to see this we then saw another Levaillant’s Woodpecker buzzing it and then them both flying off stage left across the road. So we got great views of two, calling and drumming and a good barney to boot.
Not so unusual to see a Nightingale but what did seem to me unusual was that we heard Nightingales practically everywhere we went, loud and long, day and night, protected areas and not. There is just so much good habitat: wasteland and scrub. So the Nightingale does not seem to be at risk (yet) in its heartland areas. But it made me think about how little land is available to them in the UK now and how hard it will be to maintain them at the edge of their range. Maybe Mr Gove will solve it all with his new environmental policy…….But it really was a treat to hear them singing so much and I did eventually get great views of one singing near our dining area at Huerta Grande our base camp in Spain.
Crested Tit …. Lophophanes cristatus….tick Firecrest….Regulus ignicapilla….tick
Both on the same tree whilst I was having breakfast at Huerta Grande. How nice was that!
Thekla Lark……Galerida theklae…………………tick
We were at a likely-looking site of grazing and common land with patches of scrub and Iberian Broom. I was idly looking at a Crested Lark and asked the guide what the bird next to it was. He easily identified this as a juvenile Stonechat but suggested I look more closely at the Crested Lark, its distinct breast streaking and its more upright stance. While I was trying to take in this upright posture, the Lark started lowering its breast to the dusty ground and going round in circles. Was it dust bathing? After several circles Liz suddenly shouted “there’s a snake” and a Horseshoe Whip snake at least a metre long weaved its way past the bird and on across the grass into the undergrowth. Did this explain the bird’s strange behaviour? Who knows.
My highlights of the trip in no particular order:
A lovely friendly bunch of people to spend time with
Waking to the wonderful song of Nightingales
Standing by a truck stop watching hundreds of raptors debating whether to brave the Levante wind and cross the Straits
Weird, wonderful and rare birds: Egyptian Vulture, Northern Bald Ibis, Moroccan Marsh Owl, Levaillant’s Woodpecker.
Cartwheel sized flatbreads, fried fish and copious beans
Little Swifts’ feathery nests in the Larache plaza
Eating chewy snails from a market stall in the blue city
Scarce Swallowtail butterfly – and a Common too
White Storks sharing their nests with sparrows and
starlings – imagine Edward Lear’s Old Man With A
An enormous Common Toad on my doorstep!
Lesser Kestrels oblivious to tourists visiting the Castle
Thanks to the Inglorious Bustards.
At the risk of introducing a more melancholy note I would like to mention some of the conservation concerns that I have been pondering since we got back:
Slender-billed Curlew – Shortly after crossing the Straits of Gibraltar we drove to a river estuary where we took two small fishing boats out onto the river. Apart from being a very pleasant excursion, this site has a very sad birding significance as the last known recorded site of the Slender-billed Curlew, now believed to be extinct. Hassan, our local guide, is credited with being one of the last observers to record the bird. There is a local café, beloved of visiting birders, in which the bird log records scores of annual sightings some years ago, then dozens, then a few, and finally none…..We saw lots of Whimbrel, a few Common Curlew, but no Slender-billed. This is a species that has become extinct in our lifetime. Ouch….
Nightingales – The wonderful gardens around our accommodation in Huerta Grande in Spain, and the hotel near Chefchaouen in Morocco, rang to the glorious song of many male Nightingales. They kept us awake at night, and woke us up in the mornings – and never have I been so pleased to suffer insomnia! This bird seems to thrive in less intensively farmed and developed areas in Europe, where the locals are less inclined to be so tidy. There are probably greater numbers of insects, and less Deer browsing the understorey. Whatever the cause, we are about to lose this fabulous bird from the UK where numbers may have declined by as much as 90%. Surely, something must be done to halt then reverse this decline.
Moroccan Marsh Owl – Simon, our leader, took us to an area bordering a river estuary. We drove down farm tracks past fields and greenhouses where fruit and vegetables were being farmed intensively, almost entirely for the British market. One multinational farming company was responsible for draining and then eating up much of the land in this area to grow strawberries for our supermarkets. We were met on the edge of the cultivated area by Hassan and another local who knew exactly where to find a Marsh Owl and what a fantastic bird this is, but now very rare, and if the farming company continue to swallow up the limited marshland habitat, the last few birds will be forced out of this area.
Northern Bald Ibis – These birds have been reintroduced into Spain and had chosen a nest site in some cliffs just above a relatively busy road. An Eagle Owl had wiped out all but one of the chicks last year, so the owl had been captured and relocated out of harm’s way. I asked Simon if there was any risk from egg collectors stealing, as these birds are so rare (this is currently their only European nest site). No, he said, as the local villagers are very proud of “their” Bald Ibis colony, and anyone threatening it would be likely to be dealt with quite harshly! This colony is small, but with care, will continue to prosper and hopefully grow in numbers.
Janet and I cannot thank Simon and Niki from Inglorious Bustards enough for hosting such a brilliant week. And we are very grateful to our six colleagues from the club that were such good company throughout. I would love to visit the area again, and, who knows, maybe a Red-necked Nightjar will appear….!?
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!
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!
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!