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.
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.
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.
July can be a quiet time for the UK-based Birder, with young and moulting birds skulking in full leaved bushes and trees, quiet and notoriously hard to find.
Southern Spain is perhaps not the first place that springs to mind for birding in midsummer but it in fact holds many delights! And, in the time it takes to cross Norfolk (and about the same cost!), you could be in the Straits of Gibraltar taking some of them in!
Because of its strategic position at the gateway of two continents, Andalusia is a unique blend of Europe and Africa. This southernmost Spanish province is the most biodiverse region not only in Spain but the whole of Europe, and it stays relatively cool due to the sea breezes.
So if you´re after a snapshot of superb resident species in intertidal, wetland, farmland, woodland and urban habitats, accompanied with fantastic tapas, passionate discussions, and welcoming people, come join us for a weekend to remember!
Here´s five reasons why…
Meet the locals!
We really do have some star local species waiting for you here in the Straits!
A successful reintroduction programme of the Critically Endangered Northern Bald Ibis took place here in 2008, and we should be able to see these engaging and quirky birds at their nesting colony or grazing on surrounding farmland.
Nipping into the beautiful Old Town of Tarifa, we´ll be able to enjoy the antics of our local Lesser Kestrel colony, swooping and reeling around the Moorish fort.
We can also hope for a great selection of raptors including Griffon Vultures, Egyptian Vultures, Bonelli’s and Spanish Imperial Eagles, Short-toed and Booted Eagles and Black-winged Kites.
Visits to wetlands should yield a host of waders including Sanderling, Red Knot, Dunlin, Little Stint, Bar and Black-tailed Godwit passing through, amongst the breeding Collared Pratincoles, Common Ringed and Kentish Plover.
There are many seabirds such as Sandwich, Little and Caspian Terns, Slender-billed Gull and the once extremely rare Audouin’s Gull. We should also get views of Eurasian Spoonbill and Greater Flamingo as well as Western Osprey and Purple Swamphen.
Other resident Spanish specialities include Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit, Western Bonelli´s Warbler – the list goes on!
2. Add an African twist to your Spanish list!
The mere nine miles that separates Spain from Africa has proved to be no boundary for some plucky African species! Here you can add the unexpected to your Spanish list.
Two typically African Swift species choose the Iberian peninsula as one of their very localised breeding sites in Europe – Little and White-rumped. It’s one of the very few places in Europe you can see all five of our breeding Swift species!
You can also encounter Common Bulbul, Rüppell´s Vulture, Marbled and White-headed Duck and Red-knobbed Coot, all unusual ´ticks´to find this side of the Straits.
3. Migration early days
Perhaps surprisingly, at this time of year, the return to Africa has already begun for some species, and we should start to see flocks of White Storks and Black Kites crossing the Straits.
Groups of super-sized Alpine Swift should be passing overhead on their early morning passage flight, moving through from their mountain breeding grounds to their sub-Saharan wintering areas.
In fact almost anything can turn up here during the early days of autumn migration, as passerines collect amongst the shady trees to gather strength for their southwards crossing of the Straits.
4. Bugs and beasts galore!
As moist air from the Mediterranean Sea passes through the Straits, it gathers in clouds and falls as dew high up on the Cork Oak forests of the Alcornocales Natural Park.
The unique nature of this unusual cloud forest means the streams and brooks in this area continue to run long after the rest of Spain is dry. This phenomenon makes this a superb area for invertebrates, amphibians and reptiles throughout the year.
We should see gorgeous Monarch butterflies, Two-tailed Pashas, Four-spotted Emerald and Copper Demoiselle all in flight, as well as a host of fascinating frogs, toads and lizards to be spotted.
5. All the other things!
Sunshine, sangria, tapas, vino tinto, local hams and cheeses, ice cold beer in chilled glasses, relaxed people, gorgeous scenery, empty beaches… Do we really need go on?!
Recently we hosted a group from Wensum Valley Bird Society from Norfolk, UK at the end of April. We delighted in Birding on Two Continents with them and as with all our trips we became the best of friends in travel and adventure! If you have a group, bird / wildlife club or simply a group of friends and want an adventure that suits your budget and exceeds your expectations, simply contact us for further information.
Here are some of the trip highlights in the fabulous team’s own words!..
The weather was being very contrary at the start of our trip, and we left the UK in the middle of a heatwave. We were hosted by Inglorious Bustards at the lovely Huerta Grande lodge, where Nightingales and Firecrests made their presence known immediately. Our first full day in Spain found us on top of the Sierra de la Plata, near Bolonia, in a howling gale and temperatures more suited to the English winter. Fortunately it didn’t actually rain, and in fact it didn’t stop us from seeing some exciting birds. We were all thrilled to see Woodchat Shrikes on the way up the mountain, and these lovely birds became frequent sightings throughout the week. On parking at the top we were greeted by a Blue Rock Thrush, and a pair of Griffon Vultures on the cliff.
Lesser Kestrels were nesting on the top. As the Vultures and Kestrels swirled around us, enjoying the strong wind, the really exciting birds were seen. A pair of Egyptian Vultures! What is more they are really beautiful, pale birds, something I never expected to say of a Vulture. They are clearly nesting here, to the delight of Simon, and most of us got pictures of them. Chicks of the Griffon Vultures were too seen and photographed. A Booted Eagle and two Short-toed Eagles also put in an appearance.
A coffee stop at Bolonia was not only enlivened by my first Zitting Cisticola, but also by a cavalcade of around 40 motorbikes, their approach heralded by much hooting and honking! The highlight of our stop at Barbate, a wetland area, had to be the beautiful Collared Pratincoles, which nest there in numbers. Other birds did try to upstage them though. The first I hardly dare mention. It was a Red-necked Nightjar, for which we owe thanks to Alan, who unwittingly flushed it. Sadly he didn’t see the bird himself, and he was remorselessly teased about it for the rest of the week. The other was a Little Bustard, which was heard calling nearby. Another favourite bird that we were to see more of was the Iberian Yellow Wagtail, a bright and beautiful grey-headed sub-species. Add in the Corn Buntings, Crag Martins, Cirl Buntings and Kentish Plovers, among others, and you will see that we had a great first day.
7.30a.m saw us queueing for the 8 a.m ferry from Algeciras to Morocco. It hadn’t been a very smooth crossing, however the African sunshine was welcoming us. Once waved through it was only 20 mins to Oued Marsa, a truck stop high on a splendid viz-mig spot for a second breakfast. What we really yearned for were big mugs of builders tea, sadly not on offer, but Moroccan mint and orange blossom tea made for the perfect alternative.
What happened next was a once in a lifetime birding moment, something every birder dreams about. First out of the fog came hundreds of BLACK KITES, interspersed with WHITE & BLACK STORKS, HONEY BUZZARDS, MONTAGU’S HARRIERS, SPARROWHAWKS, BOOTED EAGLES (both morphs), SHORT-TOED EAGLES, KESTRELS & BEE EATERS, all kettling and trying to gain height for their crossing. We watched a female HONEY BUZZARD set off, lose confidence, turn around and head back, and then set off again, disappearing into the horizon, well on her way into Europe.
A cry of “SPOTTED FLY over here” turned our eyes to the ground. Soon all our group were shouting “REDSTART”, WILLOW WARBLER”, “GARDEN WARBLER”, “WOODCHAT SHRIKE”, “IBERIAN CHIFFCHAFF” in unison. The most unusual find was a pair of BLACK-CROWNED TCHAGRA.
Our host Simon said that the best migration here was with an Easterly. How right he was. In a brief 30 minute stop we reckoned we saw 28 species that had been grounded by the Levante wind. The skies were dripping migrants. It seemed to be the case of name the bird and it will be there somewhere. I have never seen anything like it in my life. A truly memorable birding moment.
Reluctantly we climbed back into our vehicles for the two hour drive to Merga Zerja wetlands, a tidal lagoon located on the Atlantic coast. Once the home of Slender-billed Curlew, last seen there in 1995, its threatened wildlife is under pressure from ever increasing agricultural expansion.
More mint tea was consumed at a restaurant overlooking the lagoon as we waited for our boats, and we marvelled at the aerial antics of CASPIAN and SANDWICH TERNS, AUDOUIN’S and YELLOW-LEGGED GULLS were dotted on the Lagoon shore. GLOSSY IBIS flew past in formation.
We picked our way through the lagoon-side fish market, the fisherman seemingly preferred to sell direct from their boats, rather than the tailor made brick building. Plenty of waders were on the lagoon shores. Umpteen WHIMBREL, splendid GREY PLOVERS, DUNLIN, CURLEW, and OYSTERCATCHERS. GREATER FLAMINGOES glinted in the distance. RED-RUMPED and BARN SWALLOWS, COMMON & PALLID SWIFTS danced above our heads.
Back on land we pulled into a small wood at the edge of the Lagoon, lazily scanning for NORTHERN LAPWINGS and MARSH HARRIERS as we devoured our picnic lunch.
However the day was not over yet. Simon had a “special bird” he hoped we would see at dusk. The secret location was alongside a fruit farm, producing strawberries, blackberries and potatoes for M & S and Waitrose. Quietly and in single file we followed Simon down the edge of a furrowed field, glimpsing ZITTING CISTICOLAS and SERIN on our way. Our target was the vulnerable MOROCCAN MARSH OWL, more and more of its habitat being claimed by the fruit farmers. Preparing for a long wait, we were startled when suddenly there it was, rising out of the reeds in front of us.
By sheer chance and good luck I was actually looking in the right direction, camera in hand. click, click, click. Not brilliant photos, but a brilliant momento. Satisfied, we turned around and headed back towards the vans. Liz and I stopped for a few minutes to admire a LITTLE OWL scowling out of his dead tree at us. We didn’t realise two male and a female MONTAGU’S HARRIERS were displaying behind us, and a COMMON QUAIL was lurking…….
……We had had the best possible day.
Our first full day in Morocco, at Larache a town on the Atlantic coast. After a good night’s sleep in our hotel, breakfast was taken in a restaurant across the road. Freshly squeezed orange juice, flat bread, pancakes, honey, fried eggs, cheese and more olives. Hot drinks of milky coffee and sweet mint tea, both served in glasses.
Simon had advised us to bring cameras and binoculars across the newly refurbished plaza, Place de la Liberation, to the old arches opposite, and there in the corners were Little Swifts nests, these had been there for decades with Swifts repairing and building on to them. Swifts were busy feeding chicks and took little notice of us.
Checking out of the hotel and back in the minibuses we drove along the run-down beach and seafront area to the Loukkos river and along to the marshes. A couple of stops revealed Little and Cattle Egrets, Turtle Doves, Bee-eaters, Greater Flamingos, Savi’s Warblers in full song at the top on reeds, Red-crested Pochard, Marsh Harrier, Black-winged Stilts, Cetti’s Warblers, Brown-throated Martins, Red-knobbed Coots, Great White Egrets, Zitting Cisticolas, a single Purple Swamphen, an elusive Great Reed Warbler, Short-toed Eagle, Black Kites and the list went on!
By early afternoon we had arrived at the little bustling town of Bni Arouss. Several old white Mercedes taxis, heavily-laden donkeys, butchers shops with lamb carcasses hung in the open air and busy barbers shops. Having found a local to mind the minibuses our guides soon organised lunch. The eatery had sawdust on the floor, a home-made BBQ outside and inside about enough space to sit us and space for the cook to prepare our food. Flat breads, two types of spiced beans, grilled sardines, strips of beef and lamb mint balls, chips, water and mint tea, all very tasty.
Back on the road to the Bouhachem Forest a forest of Pine trees, Cork oaks and Wild Olive trees. Our first stop was for a troupe of Barbary Macaques to look at us, this made a change and the dominant male never took his eyes off us. As we walked, stopping here and there, Booted Eagle, Ravens, Long-legged Buzzards, a Short-toed Treecreeper, African Blue Tits, Atlas Pied Flycatchers, Firecrests, Desert Grey Shrikes, Griffon Vultures but best of all with excellent viewsfour Levaillant’s Green Woodpeckers, three seen well the fourth heard.
As [a] member of the wonderfully enjoyable WVBS trip to Spain and Morocco … I thought I would share some of my highlights of the trip.
Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker…Picus vaillantii………………………tick
Northern Morocco was quite a surprise in terms of its vegetation and lushness. The Bouhachem forest in the Rif mountains of North Morocco is wonderful mixed woodland: the ubiquitous Cork Oak, but also cedar, pine, fir and cypress. It seems relatively unspoilt and has recently been assigned status as a “parc-naturel” so hopefully there will be some form of protection against the ongoing spread of developed land creep and technology.
So there we were, on a lonely forest road sitting in the van watching a troupe of Barbary Macaques entertaining themselves. (This population was the originator of the macaques in Gibraltar). But as entertaining as these were as soon as David and Simon, the guide, saw a Woodpecker fly into a tree in their midst, there was an eruption of bodies out of the van to try to spy it. Before too long Simon had it in his scope and we were treated to great views of a Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker, its beautiful green back straight in front of us against the trunk of a pine tree. While we were congratulating ourselves on our luck to see this we heard another calling off stage right and shortly after heard drumming fairly close by. With luck I was able to spot this one in another tree drumming against some dead wood on part of the trunk.
After everyone had a chance to see this we then saw another Levaillant’s Woodpecker buzzing it and then them both flying off stage left across the road. So we got great views of two, calling and drumming and a good barney to boot.
Not so unusual to see a Nightingale but what did seem to me unusual was that we heard Nightingales practically everywhere we went, loud and long, day and night, protected areas and not. There is just so much good habitat: wasteland and scrub. So the Nightingale does not seem to be at risk (yet) in its heartland areas. But it made me think about how little land is available to them in the UK now and how hard it will be to maintain them at the edge of their range. Maybe Mr Gove will solve it all with his new environmental policy…….But it really was a treat to hear them singing so much and I did eventually get great views of one singing near our dining area at Huerta Grande our base camp in Spain.
Crested Tit …. Lophophanes cristatus….tick Firecrest….Regulus ignicapilla….tick
Both on the same tree whilst I was having breakfast at Huerta Grande. How nice was that!
Thekla Lark……Galerida theklae…………………tick
We were at a likely-looking site of grazing and common land with patches of scrub and Iberian Broom. I was idly looking at a Crested Lark and asked the guide what the bird next to it was. He easily identified this as a juvenile Stonechat but suggested I look more closely at the Crested Lark, its distinct breast streaking and its more upright stance. While I was trying to take in this upright posture, the Lark started lowering its breast to the dusty ground and going round in circles. Was it dust bathing? After several circles Liz suddenly shouted “there’s a snake” and a Horseshoe Whip snake at least a metre long weaved its way past the bird and on across the grass into the undergrowth. Did this explain the bird’s strange behaviour? Who knows.
My highlights of the trip in no particular order:
A lovely friendly bunch of people to spend time with
Waking to the wonderful song of Nightingales
Standing by a truck stop watching hundreds of raptors debating whether to brave the Levante wind and cross the Straits
Weird, wonderful and rare birds: Egyptian Vulture, Northern Bald Ibis, Moroccan Marsh Owl, Levaillant’s Woodpecker.
Cartwheel sized flatbreads, fried fish and copious beans
Little Swifts’ feathery nests in the Larache plaza
Eating chewy snails from a market stall in the blue city
Scarce Swallowtail butterfly – and a Common too
White Storks sharing their nests with sparrows and
starlings – imagine Edward Lear’s Old Man With A
An enormous Common Toad on my doorstep!
Lesser Kestrels oblivious to tourists visiting the Castle
Thanks to the Inglorious Bustards.
At the risk of introducing a more melancholy note I would like to mention some of the conservation concerns that I have been pondering since we got back:
Slender-billed Curlew – Shortly after crossing the Straits of Gibraltar we drove to a river estuary where we took two small fishing boats out onto the river. Apart from being a very pleasant excursion, this site has a very sad birding significance as the last known recorded site of the Slender-billed Curlew, now believed to be extinct. Hassan, our local guide, is credited with being one of the last observers to record the bird. There is a local café, beloved of visiting birders, in which the bird log records scores of annual sightings some years ago, then dozens, then a few, and finally none…..We saw lots of Whimbrel, a few Common Curlew, but no Slender-billed. This is a species that has become extinct in our lifetime. Ouch….
Nightingales – The wonderful gardens around our accommodation in Huerta Grande in Spain, and the hotel near Chefchaouen in Morocco, rang to the glorious song of many male Nightingales. They kept us awake at night, and woke us up in the mornings – and never have I been so pleased to suffer insomnia! This bird seems to thrive in less intensively farmed and developed areas in Europe, where the locals are less inclined to be so tidy. There are probably greater numbers of insects, and less Deer browsing the understorey. Whatever the cause, we are about to lose this fabulous bird from the UK where numbers may have declined by as much as 90%. Surely, something must be done to halt then reverse this decline.
Moroccan Marsh Owl – Simon, our leader, took us to an area bordering a river estuary. We drove down farm tracks past fields and greenhouses where fruit and vegetables were being farmed intensively, almost entirely for the British market. One multinational farming company was responsible for draining and then eating up much of the land in this area to grow strawberries for our supermarkets. We were met on the edge of the cultivated area by Hassan and another local who knew exactly where to find a Marsh Owl and what a fantastic bird this is, but now very rare, and if the farming company continue to swallow up the limited marshland habitat, the last few birds will be forced out of this area.
Northern Bald Ibis – These birds have been reintroduced into Spain and had chosen a nest site in some cliffs just above a relatively busy road. An Eagle Owl had wiped out all but one of the chicks last year, so the owl had been captured and relocated out of harm’s way. I asked Simon if there was any risk from egg collectors stealing, as these birds are so rare (this is currently their only European nest site). No, he said, as the local villagers are very proud of “their” Bald Ibis colony, and anyone threatening it would be likely to be dealt with quite harshly! This colony is small, but with care, will continue to prosper and hopefully grow in numbers.
Janet and I cannot thank Simon and Niki from Inglorious Bustards enough for hosting such a brilliant week. And we are very grateful to our six colleagues from the club that were such good company throughout. I would love to visit the area again, and, who knows, maybe a Red-necked Nightjar will appear….!?
The Pyrenees area in winter is beautiful, exciting, adventurous and fun! It’s a challenging place to survive for wildlife, and the harsh conditions bring some star avian species within easy reach for the intrepid birder, allowing to see them how you’ve never seen them before!
This is an area all about the specialists, and spending quality time with star species that you probably won’t see elsewhere. An area where Black Woodpecker, Citril Finch, White-winged Snowfinch, White-backed Woodpecker and Western Capercaillie are all possible.
Couple this with a visit to Aragòn’s sweeping steppe landscape near Gallocanta, winter home to Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Dupont’s Lark and thousands of Common Cranes, and you’ve certainly got yourself a trip to remember!
After a hot coffee and some freshly baked pastries, spirits were high as our intrepid recce team donned gloves hats and scarves and set off up the Serra del Cadi for our first day´s mountain birding.
Hawfinches and Rock Buntings were feeding in the streets of the frozen villages. As we headed up from the valley floor, we passed through hushed frozen forests and streams and waterfalls caught in ice. We picked our way carefully up the frosty roads, feeling a little bit lame every time a local raced past us at speed, but preferring not to take a short cut back to the valley bottom!
A stop outside a mountain refuge hut brought us to conifers full of Common Crossbills and Crested Tits. As the road climbed higher up the mountainside, the forested slopes gave way to a rocky moonscape, where flocks of wild Chamois grazed. Taking a walk, it wasn’t long before we heard the characteristic call of a Rock Ptarmigan, which we later got a glimpse of.
The morning air was starting to warm, and as it did, it filled with Griffon Vultures leaving their roosts. Then suddenly, below us, there it was – our first Lammergeier!! What a stunner! This adult was flying along the valley below us – a rare view indeed! It was soon joined by another adult and a juvenile bird, as well as a Golden Eagle! A lifer for some in the group, this impressive eagle was pretty much blanked in favour of our circling Bone-breakers! We must have spent a good hour admiring these magnificent scavengers, of which we counted a total of at least four in the area, being drawn in by a carcass just over the hill from where we stood.
On the way down we encountered a flock of thirteen Alpine Accentors – what a bonus! We took an exploratory detour up a track and found ourselves surrounded by a massive tit flock, mostly Coal Tits but also Crested, Long-tailed and Great Tits, with a handful of Goldcrests and Firecrests chucked in for good measure – a magical end to a superb day’s birding!
Our search for this much-coveted, flashy little gem of a bird took us to some of the most beautiful places in Spain, as we wandered through haw-frost covered forests to search the walls of dramatic gorges like Mont Rebei, encountering Hawfinches, Black Redstarts, Golden Eagles, Blue Rock Thrush, Northern Ravens and Red-billed Chough as we went.
But in the end it was in the streets of an unprepossessing Pyrenean village that we found our prize!
The afternoon sun was by now warming the golden walls of the sandstone church. We scanned for a moment and there it was, sat under the eaves just metres above our heads!This incredibly confiding little bird hung out with us for a while, before disappearing under the church roof. On a hunch we checked a neighbouring street and sure enough it had emerged!
This cheeky little chappie showed off for us, flitting in and out of people’s houses and dragging helpless Hummingbird Hawk-moths out of crevices in the walls! It even flitted right through the midst of the group to retrieve one that it had dropped!
We watched its antics and snapped away until our memory cards were pretty much full, by which point it had flown back to the church. As luck would have it there was a café opposite, so we were able to have a beer with our stunning little
Wallcreeper before heading off back to our comfortable apartment to really celebrate!
3. Things beginning with ´Alpine´!
A heavy snowfall overnight was starting to abate by mid-morning, so after a relaxed start we explored some woodlands near Jaca, enjoying Crested Tits feeding round our feet and calling Red-billed Chough overhead. After a warming second breakfast back in town, we headed up the high slopes to a ski station at Astùn, where the clouds were lifting to reveal gorgeous blue skies and pristine white slopes. Birds gravitate to these man-made oases in the snow, and we enjoyed the novelty of seeing Great Tits and Blackbirds at 2000m! Wandering round the complex, it wasn´t long before we found an Alpine Accentor! Another ridiculously friendly bird, it perched on railings and walls just feet away allowing us all to get some great photos.
Carrying on out of the village we stopped just at the French border, where suddenly the characteristic call of Alpine Choughs filled the air! At first we could only see three, but soon we spotted a nearby area where dozens were swirling overhead and feeding near a meltwater stream. We got superb views of this hard-to-see high altitude corvid!
Just below the snowline as we headed home, we stopped at an area of riverside pastureland. We hit the raptor jackpot, and for a while it was hard to look! Within minutes we had seen Lammergeiers, Bonelli’s Eagle, Golden Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Sparrowhawk, Red Kite, Common Kestrel, and Griffon Vultures, all making use of the late afternoon thermals, along with a great spinning ‘chough-nado’ of Red-billed Chough, more than the team had ever seen together!
4. The sounds of the plains!
For lovers of birdsong (and who isn’t?!) there’s something incredibly special about the otherworldly steppe habitat of the Aragonese plains. At dawn, as the sun rises over the sweeping, empty landscape, the air fills with the bugling of thousands of Common Cranes, the bubbles of Black-bellied Sandgrouse, and a cacophony of larksong including Skylarks, Lesser Short-toed, Calandra, Thekla and Crested – and in the right spot, with luck, the eerie song of the elusive Dupont’s Lark. We had an early start on the last day of our trip, with many miles to cover to reach our home in the Straits, but we couldn’t have wished for a better start to the day!
Does this snowy adventure send excited shivers down your spine?! We’ve out together a new tour to show you this magical place, with dates available next winter. Check it out here…
There is little doubt that Vultures are amazing, despite the completely unfounded bad press they sometimes receive Here in the Straits we are blessed with them being a garden bird for us! Not only we do we get to witness their amazing antics and all important ecological functions, but twice yearly we watch as masses of them stream through the Straits in biblical proportions. This is the only place in the world where such an event occurs! It is amazing!
Much of the conservation work of Vultures is to be lauded, as there has been a lot of work to recover numbers of these enigmatic birds and important eco-system service providers throughout Europe, but there is clearly much more needed to be done (such as the removal of the licencing of veterinary diclofenac within the EU).
Most of us will remember the outbreak of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), an animal disease at its peak between 1986 and 1990. As well as being transmitted through the food chain, the disease could also be spread through the presence of dead infected cattle. Following the outbreak, in 2001 the EU prohibited the abandoment of livestock carcasses in the field. This action clearly would have an impact on scavenging Vultures, therefore was not applied mandatorially across EU member states. This allowed for each member state to adopt their own regulations concerning livestock carcass disposal, allowing the issue to be dealt with at a local level, but consistent with the overriding principles to tackle the disease issues.
Spain is home to c. 95% of European Vultures and here farmers can leave some carcasses where Vultures occur. This obviously benefits the birds but also farmers and tax-payers too, saving time, money and environmental costs from incineration. In contrast to this approach, the Portugese government decided that removal of livestock carcasses is still required, save for a few specific licenced Vulture feeding stations.
The authors of a recently published paper in Biological Conservation (Volume 219, March 2018, Pages 46–52) observed that there was an abrupt decline in the number of Vulture locations across the Spanish-Portuguese border. Modelling showed that this was unlikely to be related to differences in land cover or topography, but simply on differences in carrion resource availability, namely carcasses from extensive livestock husbandry.
Vultures are capable of exploiting huge areas in search of food, and often will perform transnational flights. Yet, despite broadly similar habitats and their abilty to transverse countries, both Griffon and Cinerous Vultures of Spanish origin were rarely located in Portugal as these maps of GPS tracked birds below show from the study.
Griffon Vultures were marked in two populations: 30 adult birds in the Ebro Valley, northern Spain, and 30 adult birds in Guadalquivir Valley, southern Spain. Cinereous Vultures (11 fledglings) were marked in Cabañeros National Park, central Spain.
One potential problem with this study was that the authors did not track Vultures from Portuguese breeding colonies, which are mainly located close to the border and thus might use the Portuguese areas more than individuals breeding in Spain. However, some previous although limited GPS tracking of both Cinereous and Griffon Vultures tagged in Portugal has shown that the individuals tend to cross the border to feed in Spain, which is line with the results of this study.
Griffon and Cinereous Vultures are known to differ in food resources used. Griffon Vultures are very much dependent upon carcasses of domestic livestock, where the diet of Cinerous Vulture is broader, including the remains of smaller mammals and sometimes even live prey. This difference in feeding behaviour for us is demonstrated in the GPS maps, showing a much closer need for Griffon Vultures to stick to Spain whereas there are some broader transnational flights (although limited) by Cinerous Vultures.
The findings of this study are also unlikely to be influenced by habitat differences across borders as anyone who has visited both the areas Alentejo (Portugal) and Extremadura (Spain) will testify. Dehesa habitat – known to be good for both species – is relatively widespread across both the areas.
One thing is for certain – this study shows the need for continued research on vulnerable Vulture species and this should be extended to other species such as Egptian Vultures. Telemetry data is providing new insights into the movements of species and how they utilise the landscape and for highly mobile Vultures, this is invaluable information to form cross border conservation prorities and techniques.
There is a need to evaluate the potential ecological consequences of the implementation of restrictive husbandry and sanitary policies, especially when they affect highly mobile, endangered species such as Vultures. It also serves the point that conservation should not observe borders and that joined-up conservation implementation – especially for endangered Vulture species – is required and that is something that the EU has within its gift to pursue.
Invisible barriers: Differential sanitary regulations constrain vulture movements across country borders
Eneko Arrondoa,⁎, Marcos Moleóna,b, Ainara Cortés-Avizandaa,g, José Jiménezc, Pedro Bejad,e, José A. Sánchez-Zapataf, José A. Donázara
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!
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?!
Migration, migration, migration!
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.
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!
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
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
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!
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
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
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
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!
What a show!!! Adamawa Turtle Dove, African Finfoot, Northern Carmine Bee-eater, Common Wattle-eye, Oriole Warbler, Verreaux´s Eagle Owl, Long-crested Eagle Blue-breasted, Malachite, Pied and Grey-headed Kingfisher, Western Bluebill, African Pygmy Goose, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Senegal Parrots, Senegal Coucal, Palm Nut Vulture, Blue-bellied Roller, Maribou Storks, Black-headed Herons, Black Egret, White-faced Whistling Duck, Northern Red Bishop, Violet Turaco, Grey Woodpecker, and Red-bellied and African Paradise Flycatchers – not to mention Green-back Vervets, Red Colobus Monkeys, Guinea Baboons, Nile Monitor Lizards and Nile Crocs – all adorned the final leg of our fabulous Gambian adventure, run in partnership with The Biggest Twitch.
By now we were right up river, staying in a peaceful riverside lodge at Georgetown, which the group had to ourselves. After breakfast we took a long walk – all the way across the guesthouse terrace to the quay, where our skipper Sado awaited to take us even further upstream. This far inland, the river is freshwater – clean enough to drink if you´ve grown up in the area – and brings a hint of the moist African Forests to the Sahelian region.
As we sailed upstream, Green-back Vervets and Red Colobus monkeys crashed through the luscious green vegetation lining the river, while Nile Monitor Lizards eyed us cautiously from the banks. Palm Nut Vultures, Violet Turacos, Bearded Barbets, African Fish Eagles, Red-throated Bee-eater and African Harrier Hawks perched up in the palm trees and riverine scrub.
We soon arrived on the shore where Kunkilling Forest Park is located. Almost the second our feet touched solid ground we found our target species – the incredibly rare and difficult to see Adamawa Turtle Dove. Darker-bodied, larger and more silvery-headed than our European Turtle Dove, it purrs with a deeper guttural edge! It is non-migratory and restricted to a couple of locations in the moist forests of Africa, and this small island in the middle of the Gambia River, where it sat out proudly, as if it knew that it was a lifer for absolutely everyone in the group!
We spent a pleasant while wandering around the forest, encountering a troupe of Guinea Baboons and a wetland area full of Spur-winged Geese.
African Finfoot is high on any birder´s list of priorities when visiting these parts, but never easy to see. But as we drifted back, enjoying the lush greens in the mid-morning sun, we spotted not one but three, hanging out in a sandy cove at the water´s edge! We could see two adults and a young bird, but by the time the boat had swung back around there were two youngsters and one adult, meaning there must have been four in total! They were untroubled by our presence, and we got great views of them chilling in the shade and trying to move about without tripping over their own enormous orange feet.
Our Finfoot luck was most definitely in, seeing another two individuals on the journey back. That brought the total to six for the trip, a number almost unheard of for such a shy and special bird.
After lunch and a nice long siesta, we headed out to some local forest habitat, to enjoy the late afternoon roost. Many European Turtle Doves were settling into the trees, as well as Rose-ringed Parakeets, Senegal Parrots, Senegal Coucals, and an Oriole Warbler. We had some of our best views yet of Blue-breasted Kingfisher and Blue-bellied Roller, as well African Jacana, and a great view of Grey-headed Kingfisher in the wetland areas.
As the shadows lengthened, we had several sightings of Pearl-spotted Owlet flying in to roost, completed by a fantastic extended view as an individual tried to keep its cool while being harangued by Lesser Blue-eared and Long tailed Glossy Starlings and a particularly persistent Common Bulbul!
The afternoon was ending fast but as we left the best was yet to come – a huge Verreaux´s Eagle Owl crash-landed into a palm tree and surveyed us nonchalantly through its droopy pink-lidded eyes, followed shortly by another. As dark fell and we made our way home, we had to pick our way through the Standard-winged and Long-tailed Nightjars warming themselves on the track!
We had some ground to cover the next day as we returned to the coast, but happily, the country´s relatively new tarmacked main road made our journey easy, and left us plenty of time to visit some great birding areas on the way back. Spotting as we went, we made a couple of stops to look at and photograph Long-crested Eagle and a colony of grotesque but appealing Maribou Storks.
A troupe of sixty or more Guinea Baboons were picking through the chaff of a recent peanut harvest, so we stopped to watch their fascinating social interactions, and chat to some villagers who, though having no intention of harming them, were looking forward to the day when these raucous, intimidating apes finished scouring the field and left them in peace!
We took a rest at the lake at Dala Ba, or ´Big Water´, an important area for wintering European Turtle Doves, and found several hundred hanging out in the branches of trees around the lake, nipping down for the odd drink. The lake and surroundings also yielded Black-headed, Grey and Purple Herons, Black Egret, Western Osprey, Malachite and Pied Kingfisher.
Arriving back at the hotel, there was plenty of time to freshen up before a couple of G&Ts and another delicious meal, topped off with a cake fashioned from ice-cream and fruit to celebrate Alan´s birthday!
The small bird observatory at Kartong was created by Brit Colin Cross, who has been in The Gambia for nearly a decade. The understated concrete structure overlooks a bunch of reed-fringed freshwater and intertidal pools, which he and his local team manage and survey to provide consistently great habitat, and some very fascinating and complete ornithological records for the area. On the pools were numerous White-faced Whistling Duck But perhaps most surprisingly we found two Common Coots, a Gambian lifer for our guide Tijan!
After some searching we also found three cute African Pygmy Geese and a Knobbed Duck amongst the White-faced Whistling Ducks!
Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were now filling the air low above our heads, and as if that wasn´t a spell-binding enough sight to see, suddenly there were two Northern Carmine Bee-eaters amongst them! These birds, normally only seen upriver or associated with bushfires, dazzled us with their stunning fuschia pink and turquoise get-up for a fabulous couple of minutes before vanishing off into the distance.
After a relaxed breakfast and chance to finalise packing for the homeward journey, we said goodbye to the lovely folk at Hisbiscus House and headed for the airport. Happily we had a whole morning to get in one last birding fix before our flight to Manchester, which we spent in Abuko Forest nature reserve, a tiny but teeming patch of primary forest in the heart of The Gambia’s coastal metropolis.
The lush vegetation offered welcome shade from the midday sun, and we enjoyed fantastic views of Violet Turaco, Grey Woodpecker, Western Bluebill and Red-bellied and African Paradise Flycatchers as well as a handsome Lizard Buzzard perched up over our heads.
A Nile Crocodile relaxed open-mouthed by the reserve´s central pool and we enjoyed being under the wistful gaze of Red Colobus monkeys, the so-called ´Old Women of the Forest´.
Common Wattle-eye – frequently heard on the trip but always hidden – finally decided to give us a look as several individuals showed well in the trees. Fanti Saw-wing was yet another new bird for the list!
For our last lunch we went to the village of Lamin, overlooking the coastal mangroves, where we ate while Green-backed Vervet Monkeys looked hungrily at our plates!
Then, all too soon it was home time, and we said our goodbyes to Tijan and Abubaka before heading home to a dusting of British snow, taking plenty of birding memories and West African warmth home with us.
Want to follow the rainbow?! Join us in 2018! Download the full trip report here
Airport arrivals are actually quite joyful places to be – as soon as family, friends and partners arrive it’s a happy occasion.
I was really happy to see my old friend Simon of Wader World – we go back a long way and some of my most informative birding years were spent getting up to all manner of birding based capers together.
You’d think we would ask how each other were or ask how you’ve been upon meeting right?…..the actual first thing Simon said was “you have the same bins as me!”
It wasn’t long before we picked up where we left off and with a few drinks we had a long and enjoyable catch up.
Next day we had a mission and we were on it! (Although a little blurry!) First we hit the freshly wetted fields at La Janda encountering great views of fly-by Collared Pratincoles, Black Kites and a young Black-winged Kite.
We logged several species both here and at other sites including a smart adult female Montagu’s Harrier having a ruck with a Short-toed Eagle.
This time of year we couldn’t help ourselves and indulged in a bit of Swift appreciation as we watched motoring White-rumped Swift with joy and added our fourth Apus species to the trip list.
The next days we explored the area of the Alcornacales cork oak forest and farmlands which offered some great opportunities to get close to both adult and juvenile Black-eared Wheatear, Spotted Flycatchers, Western Bonelli’s Warblers and Bonelli’s Eagles.
We also took our chance to visit the Guzman Fort in Tarifa where the antics of recently fledged Lesser Kestrels can be watched at point blank range with young birds still being fed by the parents and juveniles perching literally right next to us, we greatly enjoyed this special little falcons first flights.
The real searching was for Rüppell’s Vulture throughout the valleys and crags of the Straits. This is no easy task but we know they are about. We had some really special up close views of Griffon Vulture throughout the week and we both agreed that seeing them is beyond tireless. In fact so tireless when I looked at my watch it was 10.30 in the evening as we obsessively observed roosting and nesting Griffon Vultures.
The real highlight however was a dead goat that was bringing in the Vultures and this provided us with some truly special moments, with this magical and at times wrongly maligned species hissing and squabbling over the remains as the clean up squad was in full hoover mode!
Did we see a Rüppell’s ???? …….well …can you spot it?
There’s something for everyone with the Inglorious Bustards and we know you will have fun whether you want to go easy and raptor watch from the pool or go full throttle birding, scrambling up rocks looking at Vultures – we pride ourselves on having the best team for whatever you need and however you want or need to do it.
Contact us and chat to us or check out our tours page, we are really happy to help to fulfil your dream and look forward to welcoming old and new friends.