Craniacs!

“Cranes are the stuff of magic, whose voices penetrate the atmosphere of the world’s wilderness areas, from arctic tundra to the South African veld, and whose footprints have been left on the wetlands of the world for the past 60 million years or more”

Andalucía is an important wintering and stopover point for migrating Common Cranes, so in winter we are often lucky enough to be surrounded by the magical, musical voices which Paul A Johnsgard speaks of in the above quote.

As a small part of our commitment to our Flyway Promise conservation effort (and because we love Cranes!) we´ve been spending some time surveying with Grupo de Trabajo y Conservación de la Grulla Comun en Extremadura (Grus Extremadura for short).

As well as education and conservation work, this organisation has been working to bring together data about Common Cranes passing through the Iberian Peninsula since 2014, both by collating ad hoc records and managing two peninsula-wide surveys in December and January of each winter.  They also have an incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic WhatsApp group – it seems Crane enthusiasts are as gregarious as the birds themselves!

The overwintering Red-knobbed coot at La Janda (a personal friend!) © Inglorious Bustards

And so, we found ourselves spending the end of a glorious winter´s day on our home patch at the farmlands of La Janda, enjoying local treats in the form of Spanish Imperial Eagle, Black-winged Kites, Short-eared Owl, Western Swamphens, Spanish Sparrows, White and Black Storks, a Red-knobbed Coot that´s been hanging out, Penduline Tits and Eurasian Bluethroats.  Counting the Cranes, we were treated to the evening fanfares of those bugling beauties as they came in to roost around us in long, wavy lines.

The spectacle of large numbers of gregarious birds, gathering together during a huge journey, is always an uplifting one, and is brought even more to life by the spark of an individual story.  One young Crane grazing on rice stubbles with its family wore a nice bit of bling, in the form of colour rings on its legs.  Checking out the colour code, we found this youngster and its family had joined us from Teuva in Finland, having travelled a distance of around 4,600 km.

Their journey, made with extended family and friends from their home wetlands, probably started in August or September.  Joining up with other travelling birds from around Scandinavia as they went, they most likely crossed the Baltic Sea to Sweden, then moved south through northern Germany, wetland-hopping all the way.  In France they may well have taken a break at the Lac du Der (a reservoir) in Chantecoq with thousands of others, before crossing the Pyrenees through the valleys of Navarra and western Aragon.

A stop at Zaragoza´s famous Gallocanta Lagoon – usually for a few days – is an annual pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds.  Winter numbers usually peak at over 100,000.  To see and hear these gatherings on an icy dawn is a beautiful experience which we have missed a lot in 2020!  I can only imagine what it must feel like for a young Common Crane from Finland joining this throng for the first time!

Many Common Cranes then continue to the central parts of Extremadura where they rest and feed, using this area as a corridor to the rest of Iberia – Portugal, Cordoba, Sevilla, Doñana and our own La Janda, from where some birds cross The Straits of Gibraltar to winter in Morocco.

On our first survey we counted 732 – much lower than the usual 1,200 or so recorded in the December census (in fact only yesterday we counted 1,407) – but a beautiful sight nonetheless.  Adverse weather across central Spain may well have held the birds back or made them choose other sites – just days later there were reports of hundreds more arriving from the North.  All in all that evening, our Ibergrus compañeros counted 11,361 individuals in Andalucía – a little higher than usual – and a grand total of 238,361 birds in Spain.

Common Cranes are nothing if not adaptable.  Despite threats from draining of wetlands, agricultural intensification, and danger from collisions and electrocutions by power infrastructure, their western European population has trebled in the last 20 years.  They have seemingly embraced modern agriculture, augmenting their winter acorn feasts in traditional Spanish dehesa (Holm Oak pasture) with plenty of extra treats from rice and maize stubbles.

However, the fate of our youngster´s eastern cousins provides a cautionary tale. Had s/he hatched a few hundred kilometres further east, the journey might have been a very different one.  Changes in land use since the collapse of the former Soviet Union are proving too fast and too great for the Crane community to adapt to.  Resulting population declines are only made worse by persecution, hunting and pesticide poisoning.

The habitats of the Common Crane are highly susceptible to climatic change.  As the world heats, affecting seasonal water levels and food availability, we are seeing them arriving earlier at their breeding areas, abandoning them earlier in summer, passing earlier through post-breeding stopover sites, and wintering further north.

If traditional migration routes become untenable due to lost wetland stopovers and land use changes, they must develop new ones, as they have done across parts of southern Germany and central Spain in recent years.  It is our job to look after the habitat that is left, so there is always a place for those magical voices and footprints.

Common Crane census data (18.12.20) © Grus Extremadura

 

A Wing In Each World

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. 

A young Griffon Vulture eyes up the continent of Africa! © Inglorious Bustards

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. 

Griffon Vultures rising on the thermals to cross The Straits © Inglorious Bustards

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. 

A young Griffon Vulture drifts right over our heads before it continues its pilgrimage to The Sahel © Inglorious Bustards

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!

Saying “Később találkozunk!” to the Honey Buzzards!

This week, along with our friends and conservation partners at Fundación Migres, we counted just a handful of European Honey Buzzards crossing The Straits of Gibraltar on their migratory journey.  Picked out from amongst thousands of Booted and Short-toed Eagles, Eurasian Sparrowhawks, Black Storks and Griffon Vultures, each one of these gorgeous birds merited close attention to their detailed and variable plumage.  Not least because at this point of the year, we never know which one will be the last we’ll see until Spring!

Adult female (old?) European Honey Buzzard eyes up Africa © Inglorious Bustards

“Honey Season” is definitely drawing to a close and these numbers are very different to those we observed during the peak in late August / early September, when we counted over 47,000 birds crossing in just one week!

These tail-enders are the last few of the 85,000 or so that will have passed through here this autumn.  This is more than the breeding population of western Europe, so it’s clear that something interesting is going on!

Spring counts of birds heading north across The Straits yield far smaller numbers – typically around 15-17,000.

Ornithologists have speculated for some time about the reason for the discrepancy in numbers.  It seems – as you might imagine – that the populations that breed in north and western Europe migrate back and forth along the route that brings them through here.  However in autumn, their numbers are augmented by their eastern cousins.

Research published in 2019 used satellite telemetry to follow a single adult male European Honey Buzzard, tagged in Hungary, over three years of its life.  It supports the theory that many of these eastern birds follow an incredible anti-clockwise loop migration, spanning vast areas of Europe, to travel between their breeding and wintering grounds.

Autumn (yellow) and Spring (red) migration routes from; Repeated large scale loop migrations of an adult European Honey Buzzard. N Agostini et al, 2019

Once the breeding season is done for another year, the priority for these nomads is understandably getting to their wintering grounds as safely as possible.  Heading to Africa via The Straits of Gibraltar is definitely the long way round, adding over 2,300 km to the trip compared to a direct route.  Each autumn, the male in the study (let’s call him István!) covered an astounding 7,046km from Hungary to his favoured wintering site in North Cameroon in around 43 days.

The study also measured how much the bird was compensating for crosswinds – in other words, actively choosing his route.  It revealed he worked extremely hard to stay en route to The Straits, only drifting passively for about 10% of his journey across Europe.

The advantage of this mammoth detour is to allow István to avoid the risks associated with trying to cover many miles of thermal-less water crossing the Central Mediterranean.  Our 14 km sea crossing at Tarifa is nothing to these bad-ass flyers!  Their compact structure, intermediate between harriers (Circus spp) and true buzzards (Buteo spp) lends itself to powered flying and leaves them somewhat less reliant on thermals than longer-winged raptors.  It’s no wonder that we see them crossing in seemingly treacherous conditions, powering out across The Straits in large groups while longer-winged birds like Short-toed Eagles cling nervously to the coastal hills!

juvenile European Honey Buzzard © Inglorious Bustards

Once safely over the sea and into Africa, István spent relatively little effort compensating for wind direction while crossing The Sahara, spending over half the crossing simply drifting effortlessly over this perilous wasteland.  Thanks to this and other studies, we are starting to understand that these incredible birds plan their routes not only to avoid threats but also to connect with anticipated weather conditions, such as helpful prevailing winds. Totally amazing!

István took his time on his way south to his African R&R spot. Of those 43 days, 12 of them were spent on chill-out stops!  Spring however, is a different matter altogether.  Speed is everything, and the race is on to return home as fast as possible and secure the most optimal breeding site.

This leads István and many like him to make a beeline (sorry!) for the breeding grounds, foregoing the relative safety of The Straits of Gibraltar and taking their chances on longer sea crossings.  He flew all the way back to Hungary in just 23 days, resting for only six and slicing almost 1,500 km off his journey, crossing the Mediterranean via Tunisia’s Cap Bon Peninsula, Sicily, Italy and Albania.

Meanwhile here in The Straits, we would have been seeing almost exclusively those birds heading to north and west Europe – including France, the Netherlands, and even the UK.

For young birds though, the picture is very different.  These risk-averse autumn routes are learned in later life, by following experienced adult birds.  In its first year, a Honey Buzzard is effectively abandoned by its parents, which leave the breeding grounds on average 1-2 weeks earlier.  It can only follow its innate sense of direction, which leads it SSW, to launch itself at whatever water body or desert it finds in its way!  Only the strong – and lucky – survive.  One in three young Honey Buzzards will die on their first migration while crossing the Sahara.  The area of Africa where they end up wintering – and to which they will eventually become site-faithful – is largely determined by winds and chance.

Adult male European Honey Buzzard © Inglorious Bustards

After such a large investment in rearing the young Honey, this seems like some pretty harsh parental treatment!  However, as always, everything makes sense in the light of evolution.  Every day adults delay their own journey, and every day they would lose en route accompanying slower, less-skilled juveniles decreases their own survival chances.  This more supportive parental behaviour would soon fail as a strategy.  Evolution has moulded  this behaviour – effectively sacrificing one in three young birds who will die on migration without guidance – to ensure that the successful adult optimises its chance of survival and lives to breed another season.

This absentee parenting strategy has certainly worked for István!  He was first tagged as an adult in 2014, and is still going strong.  On 7 September this year – amongst 9,499 other individuals – we observed a tagged bird crossing The Straits, who we subsequently learned had travelled to us from Hungary!  I hope it was István, and I’ll be thinking of him and his epic journey ahead.

Safe travel to The Straits is back!

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!

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Honey Buzzard © Inglorious Bustards

We’re thrilled that, this autumn, we’ll be able bring you right to your front row seats at Nature’s greatest show either for a day or bespoke trip, or as part of a scheduled departure tour.

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.

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Long-finned Pilot Whale © Inglorious Bustards

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!

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Short-toed Eagle © Inglorious Bustards

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.Guía Visual Por Un Turismo Seguro con SARS-CoV2

 

RESOLUCION JUNTA ANDALUCIA SEGURA STONK

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.

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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.

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Black Kite © Inglorious Bustards

 

Breakfast with Vultures!

Going out to a restaurant isn’t something we’ve been able to do a lot of recently, but today we were thrilled to be invited to an eatery with a difference!  The menu didn’t really appeal – we’re all for trying new things but offal, rotten eggs and cow dung are a bit too avant-garde even for our tastes!  The thrill of the invite came purely from the chance to rub shoulders with the celebrity guests…

For this beastly bistro has been set up with one purpose in mind – the conservation of the Endangered Egyptian Vulture – or Alimoche as they are known in Spain.

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Egyptian Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

With its starkly-contrasting wing pattern, wedge-shaped tail and yolk-coloured face, this gorgeous bird must surely be one of the most eye-catching scavengers in the world.  It is both sensitive and intelligent, using pebbles to break eggs, sticks to wind wool, and staying faithful to partners and nest sites over long periods. Incredible travellers, migrating birds can cover over 300 miles in a single day along the East Atlantic Flyway, until they reach the southern edge of the Sahara, as much as 3400 miles from their summer home.

Sadly, the same old story of human destruction applies to this species as to many others. Their numbers have declined dramatically – in Europe, over 50% have been lost in the last three generations. Throughout their nomadic year they face many dangers.  The disastrous effects of the terrible twins threats of habitat destruction and agricultural change are exacerbated by lead and pesticide accumulation, persecution, collisions with power lines, intentional and accidental poisoning.

Around our base, in the Campo de Gibraltar and La Janda area, we are lucky enough to host a small breeding population of this stunning bird – five of the remaining 1400 pairs in Europe.

But here they face the peril of our local windfarms.  Despite the fantastically successful work of our partners at Fundación Migres to reduce raptor collisions, in recent years there have been some strikes involving Egyptians from the local population.  The presence of ornithologist “spotters” on the farms – such a successful strategy for protecting Griffon Vultures and other species – is simply not enough for these birds.  The deaths were few, but with such a tiny population, any such losses are desperately significant, and pose a risk to the birds’ future in the area. It was clear a new approach was needed.

In 2018, Fundación Migres started piloting the creation of supplementary feeding points near to Egyptian Vulture territories. The idea was that if the birds could find “easy” food at strategic points near their nests, they would no longer take risks foraging near turbines.  Turbine strikes of foraging adults would be reduced or hopefully even eliminated.

Suitable sites for supplementary feeding have to be well-located – close to one or more Egyptian Vulture territories, with a clear route to the nest that avoids windfarms. They have to be easily accessible for the feeding team, yet be quiet, safe places, away from human disturbance. Experts at Fundación Migres identified several such sites and began feeding, eventually narrowing their efforts down to the two most successful locations.

Unlike Griffon Vultures, which have evolved to work together to rip open and devour large carrion items, Egyptian Vultures love to pick up the scraps!  For this reason, they get given the piltracos – small items of meat waste and offal collected from local butchers in the Tarifa area.

In one of life’s rare win-win situations, the butchers also save the money they would otherwise pay for a waste disposal service. The meat is transferred in authorized containers to the supplementary feeding points, where it is put out four times a week.

So this morning, we stood in a secluded field while our friend and colleague Alejandro dished up 90kg of waste meat, guts, bones and other unspeakable titbits, accompanied by soothing background music from Cirl Buntings, Turtle Doves and Common Nightingales!

As well as the main feast of meat scraps, the team also puts out attractive side dishes like eggs and cow dung! For an Egyptian Vulture, these accompaniments are simply to die for – they are rich in the carotene pigments they need to give them that gorgeous yolky-yellow face. 

To measure the success of the project, the sites are checked daily and activity is also monitored using camera-traps.  Many of the birds are tagged or ringed, so a detailed picture can be built up of which individuals or pairs come to the sites and how long they spend there.

At the same time, in the wind farms, the “spotters” collect information on any birds that fly nearby.  This means that the team can make a direct comparison between days when food is laid out or not, to see if it reduces the birds’ presence in or around the windfarms.

Preliminary results of the pilot are very promising. Since the trial began, there have been no deaths of local birds on the windfarms.  The supplementary feeding points have significantly reduced the number of birds recorded near wind farms, massively reducing the risk of collision. This is especially important while they have chicks are in the nest, and adult foraging is particularly intense.

The fringe benefits of the project have also been impressive!  It seems word has got around about the hottest table in town, and the team are recording non-local Egyptian vultures and many other species coming to the feeding sites, including Griffon Vultures, Cinereous Vultures, Black Kites, Common Buzzards, Northern Goshawks and more.

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Griffon Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

At the moment one of the area’s local celebrities is also putting in an appearance every day.  A stunning adult Rüppell’s Vulture – supposed to be in sub-Saharan Africa but currently hanging out with our local Griffon Vulture colony and attempting to mate. Earlier in the Spring other vagrant individuals were recorded too, as this species gradually gains a foothold in Europe.

The project is supervised by the Andalucían Government and is coordinated with their vulture conservation team.  It is currently financed by the wind power companies.  In academic terms the project is still in early days, and nothing will be published until data has been collected for several years and the effectiveness of the measure can be properly evaluated.

In the meantime, it may not have a Michelin star or serve many vegetarian options, but Café Alimoche is definitely our new favourite eatery!

Thanks to our conservation partners and colleagues at Fundación Migres for the invite and our continued partnership.

If you love Vultures, you´ll love our Ronda & The Straits trip, timed to coincide with the virtually unknown spectacle of the Griffon Vulture migration across The Straits of Gibraltar.  Check it out here and get in touch to find out more – we´re currently taking no-obligation provisional bookings for 2020.

 

A tale of two Eagles

A young Italian called Michele caused a frisson of excitement here in The Straits last month, turning up safe and well after being missing in Africa since mid-November! Not long after his reappearance he was on his adventures again, awaiting fine weather on the northern shores of Morocco before jetting across the Straits and spending the night just outside Sevilla.

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Short-toed Eagle © Inglorious Bustards

The plucky individual is a young Short-toed Eagle, satellite-tagged in 2019 as part of a collaboration between MEDRAPTORS, the Vertebrate Zoology Group at the University of Alicante (Spain), and tag providers Tecnosmart. He is a second-generation project participant – his father Egidio was one of seven young eagles tagged between 2010 and 2013, who reached adulthood and bred successfully in 2019 while still transmitting data.

This father-son team continue to shed light on the surprising and convoluted migration of Short-toed Eagles from Italy. The two-kilo eagles wear their tiny GPS tags on their backs, and the fascinating story they tell has confirmed what many suspected. Instead of beginning the journey to their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa by heading directly south to Tunisia, they start with a 1600-mile flight north and west, right up through the Italian Peninsula and across southern France, before crossing the Pyrenees and migrating down through the length of the Iberian Peninsula, more than doubling their journey distance to Africa´s shores.

The reason? it´s all about wings and Straits.

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Michele’s journey – 2019 autumn migration in red and 2020 spring migration in green
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Egidio’s migrations – autumn in red, spring in yellow, 2020 spring in green

The long, elegant wings of this beautiful raptor mean it is perfectly adapted for soaring on air thermals, and it can do so for many hours, expending very little energy. But where there is no rising air – such as over expanses of water – the bird must beat those long wings to stay airborne, and becomes quickly exhausted.

Leaving the south-western point of Sicily, where Italy is at its closest to Africa, the bird would have to fly almost 100 miles to the next bit of land – an impossibility for such a long-winged raptor. So Italian Short-toed Eagles have learned to go directly against their strong instinct to head south, forcing themselves to fly north in order to eventually arrive in southern Spain. Here the mere 8.5-mile sea crossing at The Straits of Gibraltar presents much less of a challenge to a healthy, experienced bird choosing the right weather conditions.

While southerly migratory behaviour is innate, the study shows that this northerly trek must be learnt. First-year birds follow an adult who has already learnt the circuitous route to avoid the sea. Around 20% of first-year birds get it wrong and follow their hearts south, ending up wintering on Sicily because there is no more “south” to fly.

Michele was named after the late Michele Panuccio, the raptor researcher who studied the species for several years and promoted the tagging of Egidio’s first son, who was tagged a few weeks after he passed away. He left the nest site at the end of September, several days before his father, presumably following another adult bird. No doubt aided by years of experience, Egidio left late but made the journey in considerably less time. By the end of October, he had already arrived in Mauritania while Michele was still taking it easy in Extremadura!

When the lazy adolescent did finally make the crossing, the signal from his tracker was soon lost as he moved out of areas with the mobile coverage necessary to follow him. For the research team, there was nothing more to do except wait and hope that he had found his way to the wintering grounds safely. So when his tracker was spotted on the move again earlier this month, it must have been a tremendous relief!

His northward crossing of the Straits was unusual behaviour for such a young bird, as non-breeders would normally stay in Africa for another year, “finding themselves” until they come of age. Interestingly though, back in the day, dad Egidio was also a precocious exception to this rule – he too returned to the breeding grounds as a one-year-old.

This year, seven-year-old Egidio was no less keen to breed, and started his migration back to Italy as early as mid-February, arriving there by 12 March! In early March we spent some absolutely joyous days here in the Straits of Gibraltar, watching raptors arrive across the narrowest stretch of sea between Europe and Africa. We clapped them all as they arrived on our shores! We´d love to think that Egidio was one of them…

With thanks to Ugo Mellone of MEDRAPTORS and Universidad de Alicante for kindly giving permission for citation and reproduction of maps and data.

REFERENCES

Agostini N., Baghino L., Coleiro C., Corbi F. & Premuda G. 2002. Circuitous autumn migration in the Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus). Journal of Raptor Research 36: 111-114

Mellone U., Limiñana, R., Mallìa E. & Urios V. 2011. Extremely detoured migration in an inexperienced bird: interplay of transport costs and social interactions. Journal of Avian Biology 42: 468-472

Mellone U., Lucia G., Mallìa E., Urios V., 2016. Individual variation in orientation promotes a 3000-km latitudinal change in wintering grounds in a long-distance migratory raptor. Ibis DOI: 10.1111/ibi.12401

Panuccio, M., Agostini, N. & Premuda, G. 2012. Ecological barriers promote risk minimization and social learning in migrating short-toed snake eagles. Ethology Ecology and Evolution 24: 74-80.

Boosting the Count

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 partners Fundación 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.

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Whirring clickers as raptors come in from all directions © Inglorious Bustards 

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.

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Egyptian Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

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!

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eBird data (www.ebird.org) and Google Maps

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.

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The Inglorious Bustards / Fundación Migres clan! © Inglorious Bustards

Braving the Blades & the work of Fundación Migres

We all know that turbines and soaring birds don’t mix. So what is being done to help our avian nomads as they pass these whirring legions marching across the Estrecho Natural Park, one of the most important raptor migration bottlenecks in the world?  We report on the Compensatory Measures Project, just one strand of the immensely important work carried out by our conservation partners, Fundación Migres.

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

As we round the corner of the coast road, in the hills high above Tarifa, most of our tour groups let out a gasp of awe at the stunning views of Morocco. This is often closely followed by a gasp of shock, as their gaze falls on the imposing ranks of wind turbines lining some of the coastal hillsides. 

At just nine miles wide, here the Strait of Gibraltar is at its narrowest point between Europe and Africa, making it the chosen crossing point for over 300 million migratory birds, journeying between these continents twice a year.

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Monitoring the Straits © Inglorious Bustards

A humungous sixty percent of Europe’s raptor population passes through here, as well as virtually its entire population of White Storks. Swifts also cross here in staggering numbers, with more than 400,000 passing through the area during peak times. This migratory spectacle is one of the most uplifting, life-affirming natural events we have ever seen, and simply has to be experienced to be believed.

With some 350 different species recorded, the list of birds in the area is extensive. At migration times there are Honey Buzzards, Western Ospreys, Red-rumped and Barn Swallows, Sand and House Martins, Pallid, Common and Alpine Swifts, Common and Great Spotted Cuckoos, races of Yellow Wagtail, Western Bonelli’s Warblers, Common and Iberian Chiffchaffs, Golden Orioles and Turtle Doves amongst many others.

At any time of year, birds in the area include Crag Martins, Blue Rock Thrushes, Crested and Thekla Larks, Lesser Kestrels, Tawny, Little and sometimes Eagle Owls. A wide range of nesting raptors, including Bonelli’s Eagles, Short-toed Eagles, Common Kestrels and Peregrine Falcons are common in the area. Around Tarifa there are colonies of Griffon and Egyptian vultures, the most southerly in the Iberian peninsula, with 70+ pairs of Griffon Vultures and six pairs of Egyptian Vultures breeding in 2017.

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An Egyptian Vulture checks in © Inglorious Bustards

So how did these feathered millions end up running the gauntlet of the wind farms, adding to the perils they already face?

Back in 1993, when the area was still military land, the original two windfarms were commissioned, approved and built. The 20 MW Planta Eólica del Sur (PESUR) project and the 10 MW Energía Eólica del Estrecho (EEE) farm totalled 269 turbines. They were straight away mired in controversy, with local conservation groups and independent experts presenting evidence in 1994 of high avian death tolls(1). The corpses of 13 different species were allegedly found at the wind farms, either killed on impact or by electrocution on power cables, including an Eagle Owl, White Storks and Lesser Kestrels.

A random corpse count of Griffon Vultures stood at around 30, with some apparently decapitated by the blades. Counter-claims at the time by the wind company’s managing directors suggested that the yearly death count was never higher than twelve birds in total, and others presented figures as low as two birds.

In some cases it was alleged that no real impact study regarding the birds was ever carried out. It was even alleged that, while risk assessments were carried out based on presence of resident birds, the experts simply ‘forgot’ to account for the hundreds of thousands of migrating soaring birds that pass through twice a year!

Spain had (and still has) an ambitious plan for alternative energy generation, and the Tarifa area was to be its spearhead. Development of a proposed 2000+ turbines in the area were to provide a sizeable chunk of Spain’s 20% renewable energy target by 2020.

One can only imagine what it would have been like to be a fly on the wall in the many meetings that must have taken place, leading up to the declaration of the area as a Natural Park in 2003. With the area now protected, and acknowledged as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International, extensive study and intensive mitigation work would be needed to reduce the negative effects of existing farms and prevent the creation of new ones in high-risk areas.

Enter Fundación Migres. This private non-profit organisation had been monitoring the area’s extraordinary migration event with daily counts during peak times since 1997.
In 2003, the companies whose memberships form the Tarifa Wind Power Association (AET) signed agreements with Fundación Migres to work on the Compensatory Measures Project for La Janda Windfarms, dramatically expanding their remit.

During the seventeen year project, their task was to find ways to reduce bird mortality in the windfarms, find out the effect of the farms on local raptor populations, and establish recovery programmes for more affected species, as well as raising awareness locally about environmental conservation and renewable energy.

The high-quality, independent science they have generated since their inception has added considerably to the world’s knowledge on wind farms and their effects on birds. It is helping develop better protocols for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) and mitigation measures to reduce turbine collisions.

Their work has generated both disturbing and promising results.  A three-year study of 20 operational wind farms took place between 2005 and 2008, as the 323 turbines gradually came online(2). Over the study period, the research team found 596 dead birds – a devastating 1.33 birds per turbine per year, which is among the highest rates of wind farm mortality ever published. 36% of the dead were raptors and included 23 Common Kestrels, 13 Lesser Kestrels and 16 Short-toed Eagles.

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Short-toed Eagle © Inglorious Bustards

By far the worst affected bird was the Griffon Vulture, with 138 found dead during the course of the study. Other studies suggest that most birds of prey can detect and actively avoid turbines without too much problem(3), but alas for the Griffon Vulture, for all its aerial prowess, agility is not one of its strong points. The bird relies on air currents and thermals to travel and has relatively weak flight, making evasive manoeuvres difficult.

All of these high-mortality wind farms had had EIAs carried out according to accepted methodology, had been accepted as low-risk areas, and had been licensed according to the law. The way raptors use the air currents and topography of an area is complex. It seemed site-scale EIAs based on bird abundance did not account for this, so could not adequately predict the threat level of proposed turbines.

However, interestingly, the study also found that the vast majority of these deaths could be attributed to a very small number of turbines. A new study was undertaken(4) – what if, by controlling function of these high-risk turbines, bird mortality could be reduced?

During 2006, body counts on 13 windfarms with 296 turbines had illustrated that most of the deaths were being caused by just ten turbines, distributed amongst six windfarms.

During 2008–2009, the team implemented a selective stopping program – when Vultures were observed near these deadliest turbines they were simply turned off till the threat had passed. Encouragingly, the Vulture mortality rate was reduced by 50% with only these ten turbines involved. The consequent reduction in total energy production for the wind farms was just 0.07% per year, a small price to pay.

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Mega migration White Storks and Black Kites © Inglorious Bustards

This successful strategy was expanded to other high-risk turbines. When a high number of raptors are passing through, or individual birds are in danger – especially Griffon Vultures or the Critically Endangered Egyptian Vulture – the turbines are simply turned off.

With Migres-trained wind farm ‘watchmen’ on high alert, the whole shutdown process – from spotting a risk, to phoning it in, to stopping the relevant turbine – takes less than two minutes. The annual mortality – previously exceeding 200 vultures – has been reduced by 60% across the whole area(4). The accidents happen mostly during the autumn migration period when young birds – both resident and from all over Europe – are passing through the area. Though this is still a horrible price to pay for clean energy, this level of loss is at least thought to be sustainable from a population size point of view.

The process is far from perfect. A locally-breeding Egyptian Vulture was killed by a turbine last year, and two the year before. A drifting radio-tagged Lesser Spotted Eagle also hit a turbine, but seemingly recovered its wits and moved on, after sitting dazed in one spot for two days. We ourselves have been devastated to witness a majestic Honey Buzzard, hanging on an air current, lose control for just a brief second and get sucked backwards into the blades. And this is without even touching on the as yet unmitigated effects the turbines have on bats and other wildlife.

The end of the windfarm cooperation project in 2020 is fast approaching, putting the future of the turbine-stopping measures in doubt. With funding for Fundación Migres in decline, also at stake is one of the greatest sustained efforts for monitoring migratory birds in Europe, not to mention the invaluable research they generate.

It can be hard to believe that wind farm development was ever given the go-ahead in such a key area for the birds of the East Atlantic flyway. But it’s important not to forget the bigger picture. Many more birds are killed by traffic, power lines, radio and television towers, glass windows, and due to human activities such as poisoning and illegal shooting, not to mention habitat destruction.

Badly located as they are, the ever-spinning blades of the Straits supply around 20% of Andalusia’s power. Like all locally-damaging ‘renewable energy’ sources, they are there because of our insatiable appetite for consumption – of fossil fuels, of meat, of stuff we just don’t need. As the planet warms, ecosystems are disrupted and the Sahara creeps ever larger. For the millions of avian nomads that pass the turbines unharmed, the biggest peril is whether they still have breeding and wintering habitat to go to.

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

(1) Watts-Hosmer (1994) Bird deaths prompt rethink on windfarming in Spain. Windpower Monthly
(2) De Lucas et al (2012) Weak relationship between risk assessment studies and recorded mortality in wind farms. Journal of Applied Ecology
(3) De Lucas et al (2004) The effects of a wind farm on birds in a migration point: the Strait of Gibraltar. Biodiversity and Conservation
(4) De Lucas et al (2012) Griffon vulture mortality at wind farms in southern Spain: Distribution of fatalities and active mitigation measures. Biological Conservation

A Swift Weekend to Remember

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

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Little Swift © Inglorious Bustards

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

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

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

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

Red-necked Nightjar
Red-necked Nightjar © Inglorious Bustards

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

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

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Look up! Birds & Beer in Tarifa Town

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

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

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

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A Rufous-tailed Bushchat encounter!

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

picnic at la Peña
Picnic at La Peña

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

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Audouin´s Gull © Inglorious Bustards

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

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

papping Little Swifts
papping Little Swifts!

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

Salt Pans
Salt Pans
Kentish Plover
Kentish Plover © Inglorious Bustards

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

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

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

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

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

Team Swift
Team Swift

Welcome to #FlywayBirding!

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

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

Wallcreeper © Inglorious Bustards

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

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

Fun and birding in the Pyrenees © Inglorious Bustards

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

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

Migrating White Storks © Inglorious Bustards

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

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

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

#FlywayBirding breakfast © Inglorious Bustards

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

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

Egyptian Plover © Inglorious Bustards

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

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

Well, in a nutshell, #FlywayBirding is…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upriver in  The Gambia © Inglorious Bustards

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

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

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