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

Punk Is Not Dead!

 

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A loving pair of Northern Bald Ibis © Inglorious Bustards

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

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

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

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Northern Bald Ibis © Inglorious Bustards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spanish born Northern Bald Ibis © Inglorious Bustards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mega migration fest!

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

New Year, New Patch

After a particularly rock and roll New Years Eve, consisting of Toy Story 3, slippers and a bottle of Limoncello, we blew off the old cobwebs this week by exploring our new patch in the bright 2018 sunshine.

We’ve recently moved to the village of Facinas, just along the coast from our accommodation partners at Huerta Grande ecolodge, where we’ve spent a most enjoyable year being log cabin dwellers!  Our new base is a pretty pueblo blancowith cobbled streets, which spills down the side of a rocky outcrop and overlooks the wetlands and low intensity farmland of La Janda.

Wandering up through the pastureland, passing the occasional herd of free-roving goats, sheep, cattle and donkeys beneath the shade of a mature Cork Oak tree, we also passed Cattle Egrets, Black Redstarts, Corn and Cirl Buntings, Sardinian Warblers and dozens of wintering Common Chiffchaffs.

About 20 minutes up the hill from our home, a spring, known locally as ´El Chorrito´, gushes out of the mountain.  There´s almost always somebody there filling bottles with the pure water, and we took the chance to stop for a freshen-up there, watch the local Grey Wagtail and see Short-toed Treecreepers and Hawfinches moving through the trees.

As the Cork Oak forest became denser, we were in Los Alcornacales Parque Natural proper, and numerous Firecrests, Crested Tits and enthusiastically drumming Great Spotted Woodpeckers joined the avifauna.  We could see Griffon Vultures circling overhead, having left their roosts on the rocks just up the hill.  Even from this height we could hear the bubbling calls of the many thousands of Common Cranes wintering on the rice paddies of La Janda.

Another half hour up and we were watching European Nuthatch in the trees and Dartford Warblers darting through the scrubby clearings.  And then, calling loudly, four Rock Buntings in the Stone Pines! Superb!

As we reached the very top of our bir of Monte Facinas, some 400m above sea level, there, sat on top of the very highest rocky pinnacle like a little blue glacé cherry on top of a celebratory New Year´s cake, was a male Blue Rock Thush singing its heart out to welcome in 2018!

It was a great start to the year, not only for the engaging selection of resident and wintering birds we saw, but also for the promise of those to come – in a few weeks this hillside will be stuffed with Western Bonelli´s Warblers, Iberian Chiffchaffs, Nightingales and Golden Orioles, and the skies full of Black Kites, Short-toed and Booted Eagles making their way north to populate Europe!

2018? Bring it on, please!

Let us show you our home!  We still have a couple of places left for our Spring migration tour in March – please do contact us for more info or sign up to our free enewsletter to keep up to date with news from the Straits!

What a year!

Sitting atop the cliffs outside of Tarifa today, we happily wiled away the final daylight hours of 2017 pretty much as we began, gazing out over the narrow stretch of water that separates Europe from Africa, at the epicentre of the East Atlantic Flyway!

We were there in the hope of grabbing an extra couple of species to add to our Spanish year list, but between waves of Balearic Shearwaters and Northern Gannets, we also grabbed the time to reflect on a truly brilliant birding year!

Here, in no particular order, are our highlights! Were you there..? If not, why not?!

  1. Migration, migration, migration!
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Short-toed Eagle © Inglorious Bustards

As a destination to see the sky dark with many thousands of soaring birds, The Straits of Gibraltar is hard to beat!  The movement never really stops, but twice a year we get to enjoy this spectacle at its peak, and share it with you!  Here‘s how we got on this year! And if that whets your appetite, we still have a couple of places left for our Spring migration tour

2.  Wallcreepers, Lammergeiers and more in the Pyrenees.

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Wallcreeper © Inglorious Bustards

A fabulous trip, exploring the wintery Spanish Pyrenees for some truly breath-taking mountain birding and a whole bunch of laughs!  This tour will feature as part of our new Brassic Birding range, for adventurous birders on a budget – watch this space and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date!

3.  Birding on Two Continents!

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Moussier’s Redstart © Inglorious Bustards

With only 14km between us and Africa, it’d be rude not to go now and again!  This Spring we showed some lovely folk the best of migration from both sides of the Straits, as well as superb resident species like Northern Bald Ibis, Moussier’s Redstart and Moroccan Marsh Owl.  Read our adventures here, and check out the dates and itinerary for 2018 here!

4.  Field Trip fun

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We love catering for large field trip groups, because the conservationists of the future deserve a field trip somewhere both fascinating and sunny!  This year was no exception and we had a great time with the excellent students of Bangor Uni and the University of South Wales.  If you are looking for a well-organised good value trip for a large group, please contact us!

5.  Vulture extravaganza

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Rüppell’s Vulture © Inglorious Bustards

Our group was treated to fabulous scenery, top notch cuisine by an award-winning chef, and star birds like Black Wheatear, Rock Bunting and Alpine Accentor, against a backdrop of thousands of migrating Griffon Vultures – just wow! More here! And check out the plan for next year’s trip here!

6.  Birdfair

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Conservation hero and giver of geat hugs, Mark Avery stopped by

Always lovely to catch up with friends old and new at the UK’s annual ‘Birder’s Glastonbury’! Here‘s how we got on!

7.  Dovestep 3

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We were proud to host Turtle Dove conservation warrior and legend Jonny Rankin and his crew in The Straits in February, as he embarked on his third epic journey, walking across Spain – more here

8.  Eleonoras Falcons, Cream-coloured Coursers and more in Northern Morocco

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Eleonora’s Falcon © Inglorious Bustards

Taking wildlife photography artist Tony Mills around Essaouira and Oualidia in search of some star Moroccan species was a great adventure, full of wildlife, culture and food!  Read about our adventure here, and check out the tour itinerary for next June!

9.  The Gambia

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Egyptian Plover © Inglorious Bustards

Another of our favourite places on Earth, this year we got to travel the whole length of the Gambia river, bringing our clients up close and personal with such delights as Egyptian Plover, Bearded Barbet, Adamawa Turtle Dove, Carmine Bee-eater and a rainbow of other species!  Have a look at our exploits here, and remember there’s still chance to join us in February and avoid those winter blues!

To all our friends old and new, we’d like to wish you a very happy new year, and we hope to see you in person at the centre of the world in 2018!

 

You wait all morning then 9,000 turn up at once!

Rush hour for the East Atlantic Flyway started late yesterday, but Blimey, was it a busy one!

It was a dank start, with cloudy raptor-less skies that were more like England than southern Spain! Indeed, as we looked over to the Rock of Gibraltar, it was actually raining in the UK!

We were volunteering again today, helping Fundacion Migres with their long-running migration monitoring programme.

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A European Honey Buzzard descends through the cloud layer © Inglorious Bustards

The sullen morning gave us chance to appreciate another aspect of migration – the wild olive scrub around El Algorrobo watchpoint was hosting loads of migrant passerines like Common Redstart, Spotted Flycatchers, Golden Orioles and many Phylloscopus warblers, resting on their way south.  The morning rush hour saw dozens of Hirundines, Common, Pallid and Alpine Swift racing through.

But it was 11.45am that the climatic traffic lights turned green for raptors! The sky was suddenly full of Honey Buzzards, kettling in their hundreds and barging south along the now congested flyway.

 

Male European Honey Buzzard © Wader World
Honey Buzzards descend from the grey! © Inglorious Bustards

The chirpiest of the travelers were the European Bee-eaters. So many passed over, quipping like kids on a school bus, and some buzzed right over and around our group, prompting so many ‘Ooooh’s and ‘Aaaah’s that we almost forgot to count them!

 

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European Bee-eaters quipping noisily straight passed us, I forgot to take a photo until they were on their way! © Inglorious Bustards

But it was the last couple hours of the count that really blew our minds! Late arrivals finally getting past bad weather in the Pyrenees were racing over in their hundreds, seemingly experiencing flyway rage, desperate to reach Africa before sundown. At around 3pm, after a busy but relaxed days counting, our group was suddenly silent except for whirring clickers and the barking of things like “10 Milanos Negros!”, “234 Abejeiros!”, “Aguila Calzada! Aguila Calzada!”

All in all we counted 9,081 birds commuting to Africa in just one day, at just one watch point, a mere fraction of the 250,000+ raptors and 400,000 Swifts that will pass through here this season.

Fundacion Migres have been carrying out this exceptional monitoring programme since 1997, making it one of the greatest sustained efforts in Europe. Today we were privileged to count alongside Alejandro, Migres’s Flyway Veteran.  He has been with the programme since the beginning, and now leads it.

They are keen for volunteers to help with the counts – people like Alberto – a professional musician and birder from Madrid who was with us yesterday.  He will be with Migres for the minimum placement of 1 week, during which he can stay at their accommodation at the Centro Internacional de Migracion de Aves near Tarifa and receive full training.

Fancy gazing at a bit of mega migration? Don’t worry, this was only the beginning! Find out about volunteering with Fundacion Migres here. Or come see #FlywayBirding in action with us next Spring or Autumn!

Raptors before the eyes

It’s a disconcerting feeling when you shut your eyes and you can still see hundreds of raptor silhouettes passing in front of them!

We’ve spent the day volunteering with Fundacion Migres as part of their long-standing migration monitoring programne – we reckon this must be a common side effect!

Marina, Martina and the Inglorious Bustards

With very little wind, but heavy low cloud to start with, it’s been a strange day for movement. Early doors saw dozens of hundreds of assorted raptors forming in large lazy kettles and rolling up and down the coast.
Simon spies on Gibraltar

It gave us a while to find our feet in terms of monitoring protocol, and to find even deeper admiration for Migres staff Marina and Martina, their quick eyes, organised approach and the intense, almost telepathic communication between them!
Enthusiastic and skilled teachers, they were chatty and friendly yet never missing a bird.

As the day wore on, many Short-toed Eagles continued to mooch around the valleys, giving stunning views, sunlit from the south against a black sky.

Egyptian Vultures, Sparrowhawks, quipping Bee-eaters and some dapper Montagu’s Harriers provided further highlights.

Black Kites and Booted Eagles were passing over us in droves but today, The Honey Buzzard was king – they streamed over all day in groups of 30 or more, and by 3.30 we were receiving reports from Morocco that they were arriving at the the iconic rock monolith of the Jebel Musa.

The pace was constant but relaxed – we even found time to have bit of fun with an Egyptian Mantis determined to learn the salient ID features of a Honey Buzzard!

Fundacion Migres have been carrying out this exceptional monitoring programme since 1997, making it one of the greatest sustained efforts in Europe.  It has generated much important research and conservation protocols for migrating soaring birds and the challenges they face.

We were happy to help (at least we hope we were helpful!) and to add our numbers to today’s count, which we’ll hopefully hear the results of soon! Sure we’ll see most of them again when we close our eyes to sleep!

Fancy gazing at a bit of mega-migration?! Migres welcome seasonal volunteers, who can stay at their Centro Internacional de Migracion de Aves near Tarifa. Or come see #FlywayBirding in action with us next Spring or Autumn!

Fill up your Swift page!

Common. Pallid. Alpine. Little. White-rumped. This time next year, your list of European breeding swifts could be complete!  During our exciting new Swift Weekender tour, we endeavour to bring you together with all five species of that most aerially superb genus, the Swift, all over the course of a weekend of fantastic and varied birding!


Because of its strategic position at the gateway of two continents, our home in Andalusia is a unique blend of European and African, with our beloved Apus species passing through on their way to and from breeding grounds, and the more typically African amongst them choosing the Iberian peninsula as one of their very localised breeding sites in Europe. It’s one of the very few places in Europe you can see them all!
This southernmost Spanish province is the most biodiverse region not only in Spain but the whole of Europe. So, set our swift-spotting against a background of superb resident species in intertidal, wetland, farmland, woodland and urban habitats, accompanied with fantastic tapas, passionate discussions, and welcoming people, and you’re looking at a weekend to remember!

From our delightful weekend base at Huerta Grande eco-resort, fast becoming known as the centre of birding in the Straits of Gibraltar, while searching the skies for Pallid, Alpine and Common Swifts, we’ll also explore our rich local surroundings in the Los Alcornacales natural park. As well as some cracking local avian specialities in the form of Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Firecrest, Crested Tit, Hawfinch and Short-toed Treecreeper, almost anything can turn up here during the early days of autumn migration, as passerines collect amongst the trees to gather strength for their southwards crossing of the Straits.

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We’ll also go out on the town in picturesque Tarifa, where we can encounter Common Bulbuls (another unusual European tick), urban Little Owls and breeding Lesser Kestrels. We’ll enjoy a stroll along the harbour front where, simply by looking up we’ll be able to see Pallid Swifts galore and pick out Common Swifts on passage crossing over this historic town.

Around teeming local farmland and wetland sites, we’ll look out for a veritable takeaway menu of delights, including many hundreds of White Stork and Glossy Ibis, Collared Pratincole, Purple Swamphen, Black-winged Kite, Short-toed, Booted, Spanish Imperial and Bonelli’s Eagle, Black Kite, Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Spanish Sparrow, Tawny Pipit, and Calandra, Crested and Short-toed Lark.  A successful reintroduction programme of the Critically Endangered Northern Bald Ibis took place here in 2008, and we should be able to see these engaging and quirky birds at their nesting colony or grazing on surrounding farmland.

You won’t mind missing the sport this weekend for a visit to a tiny breeding colony of White-rumped Swift. Several pairs of this typically African breeding species have found and occupied a collection of old Red-rumped Swallow nests nearby, making this area one of only a handful of European sites for this fabulous little bird. As well as unintrusively visiting the nest site we will enjoy them feeding over nearby open water, mixed in with many Common and Pallid Swifts, several species of swallow and martin, and hopefully also enjoy views of locally breeding Western Osprey.

Little Swift is another typically African species, better known in the souks and medinas of Marrakech. But again, for this tiny Apus the Straits have proved no barrier, and we will be able to make a Sunday afternoon saunter to the local seaside near Cadiz to enjoy their aerial antics.

Cadiz Bay is also home to some exceptional coastal marshes and sensitively-managed salt pans. We’ll explore the creeks and lagoons of this very special area, with its ever-changing selection of wetland birds. At this time of year the southerly migration has already begun for many waders, and we can hope to see Sanderling, Red Knot, Dunlin, Little Stint, Bar- and Black-tailed Godwit passing through, amongst the breeding Collared Pratincoles, Common Ringed and Kentish Plover.  There are also many seabirds such as Sandwich, Little and Caspian Terns, Slender-billed Gull and the once extremely rare Audouin’s Gull. We should also get views of Eurasian Spoonbill, Greater Flamingo and Western Osprey.

A relaxed Sunday dinner Spanish-style enjoying chef Juan Carlos’s traditional Andalusian fare, and a glass or two of local sherry should sooth all thoughts of the coming week, and instead of heading to work on Monday morning, you’ll be enjoying our local Monarch and Two-tailed Pasha butterflies, Copper Demoiselles and Four-spotted Emeralds before flying out over the spectacular Rock of Gibraltar.

Fancy getting set for the weekend with us? Check out our tour here, and sign up for our e-newsletter so you can always keep up-to-date with new tours!  And please, come and chat to us at Birdfair, Marquee 1, Stand 28.  Be swift!