Dave Grundy – leading authority on Andalusian moths and expert guide for Inglorious Bustards’ Mothing The Straits holiday – tells us about this phenomenal eruption of Gypsy Moths!
So, what’s the most moths you’ve ever had in your moth trap? And what’s the most of one species? I’ve heard talk of 750 Large Yellow Underwings (Noctua pronuba) in one trap in the UK and maybe as many as 2,000 total moths in the trap of all species?
Well this month I have had an interesting time with numbers of moths of one species in particular – the Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar). It causes economic damage to forestry in North America – where it was introduced – and also on a local level in Europe.
There has been a population explosion in The Straits of Gibraltar area of Andalucía, from Algeciras to Tarifa along the coast and up to about 8 kilometres inland. Beyond that, the species is flying but does not appear to be in any large numbers (we saw only 36 across 6 traps near San Roque on 27th June).
I was first aware of the larvae back on 17th May 2020 when I recorded at least 10 in my notebook when trapping at Huerta Grande, Pelayo, Andalucía, with José Manuel Gaona Ríos. We then went to Bosque de Niebla trapping on 5th June 2020 with Rafael Rodriguez Pino when my notebook just says “millions of caterpillars stripping the oak trees of all leaves”. This must have a massive effect on the ecology of other insect species dependent on the leaves and also on bird life and others dependent on the trees and insects.
But is this a phenomenon to be celebrated as a marvel of nature or to be horrified about? Could climate change be a factor? This event, which occurs cyclically every few years, is now occurring more and more often, coinciding with periods of drought. I don’t know what the answer is. However, I am definitely not a fan of attempts to eradicate on a large scale as this causes damage to so much other wildlife at the same time.
Next I saw my first ever male Gypsy Moth in Spain on 6th June 2020 – what a stunning creature when fresh and new! This was at Centro Internacional de Migración de Aves (CIMA), Tarifa, where we do not have the oak tree foodplants for the larvae to feed on, but they disperse here looking for females, which struggle to fly far from their original location.
Numbers then began to increase with 325 recorded on 15th June 2020 and 673 on 17th June and then a stunning estimated 5,000 to one trap on 19th June in calmer weather – this was ridiculous! An estimated 4,940 came to one trap on 20th June and then numbers have been up and down since, with more on calm nights and less on windy nights.
My peak count was on 28th June 2020 when I estimated 24,850 between 5 traps and 10,900 in just one of those traps! Moth recording becomes a nightmare and I even had to wear my COVID mask because of all the scales in the air! I believe and hope we are now near the peak in numbers, so I can return to normal moth-trapping soon!
But yet, how spectacular! At nearby sights just north of Tarifa I have recorded over 5,000 at La Peña and over 1800 at Punta Paloma. And to put the numbers into perspective I have now recorded since February in Spain a total of over 650 species and over 106,000 moths, but of those 60,690 have been of Gypsy Moth adult males since 6th June 2020!
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.
Birding is good for you – it’s a scientific fact! The happy buzz that many of us know – and need – from spending time in Nature is gaining traction as a proven means of boosting mental health.
In England, for example, research revealed that access to urban green spaces reduced residents’ sense of isolation and loneliness. Living close to a park can offer an equivalent mental-health improvement as a two-point decrease in unemployment. And here in Spain, schoolchildren raised in greener neighbourhoods have more neural connections in brain regions tied to working memory and attention. It is also now becoming more commonplace for time in Nature to be prescribed as a treatment for depression.
Things have been tough for so many in these past weeks. Pain and worry over loved ones, employment and the future are of course very much still with us all, as society feels its way out of the international public health crisis caused by the coronavirus.
But as Spain transitions to a New Normal and we all step blinking into the late Spring light, we’re at last able to share the joy of experiencing the vast open spaces of Nature, and rediscovering its inhabitants, which lifts our spirits so much!
For our part, we’re thrilled to be able to start showing people birds again. As a small but environmentally- and socially-committed ecotourism company, we love running affordable day tours in our beautiful home of the Straits of Gibraltar. Since Cádiz province entered Phase 1 of lockdown de-escalation on 11 May, we have spent some fantastic days with our guests from the province, showing them the awe-inspiring Honey Buzzard migration, and all the other raptors that flow with it, as well as local specialities like White-rumped Swift and Northern Bald Ibis.
Residents of Cádiz province can already join us on this trip. People from other Spanish provinces will be able to join us once Phase 3 of lockdown de-escalation is safely behind us all. This very special trip is available for a limited period, until the end of August.
The Straits is an ideal destination for this kind of summer birding, and not just for the cooling sea breezes and plentiful ice-cream! It is also home to interesting and unusual resident and breeding birds, some of which occur nowhere else in Spain. Rüppell’s Vulture, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Common Bulbul, Rufous-tailed Scrub-robin and White-rumped Swift are not only stunning to see but high on many birding wishlists.
A great variety of coastal, mountain and wetland areas put us in contact with some of the area’s most engaging species. Gorgeous Greater Flamingoes, characterful Northern Bald Ibis, awesome Griffon Vultures and rainbow-coloured European Bee-eaters make this an ideal place to kick-start your wildlife-watching habit and make birding your New Normal!
Over an introductory afternoon and two full days of birding, we’ll use our local knowledge of weather conditions, up-to-the-minute wildlife information – and of course your personal pace requirements and wishlist! – to bring you the very best of the area’s summer birding.
The itinerary will vary accordingly, but whatever your preferred birding level, with the Inglorious Bustards you can expect passion, knowledge, patience, laughs, complete commitment to sustainability and conservation, outstanding birding and wildlife spectacles, as well as our legendary picnics!
Of course, it should go without saying that the health and safety of our clients and avoiding the continued spread of this disease in wider society are still our top priorities. We have been working hard to keep abreast of all current rules and procedures for safe working and will continue to do so, for the good of everybody.
Though many of these common-sense procedures were already part of our trips, ensuring hygiene, safety and comfort for our guests, we want to reassure you that when you come birding with us, you can rely on the following:
– Our vehicle is thoroughly cleaned between every outing
– We ourselves are also thoroughly scrubbed between outings!
– Group size is limited. We are currently limiting group size to a maximum of four people (far smaller than the officially-allowed maximum of 10) to guarantee appropriate social distancing.
– Passenger numbers are limited to two per row of seats in our spacious, air-conditioned minibus.
– Any shared optical equipment such as telescopes or loaned binoculars will be sanitised at regular intervals throughout the trip and between trips.
– Your day will be spent outside and away from crowded places (that’s the joy of nature-watching!)
– A minimum distance of 2m between non-cohabiting participants will be maintained while in the field.
– Hand-sanitiser and disposable gloves are provided. We have sourced bio-compostable gloves as part of our continued resolve and commitment to eliminate non-biodegrable waste from our trips.
– Facemasks will be used throughout the day. We ask our guests to bring their own reusable facemasks to avoid unnecessary disposable items.
– Any accommodation used or hostelry establishments visited are known and trusted, and verified to also be totally compliant with lockdown-easing procedures.
– Our legendary picnic lunch will be provided as usual – hygienically prepared, served on disinfected reusable crockery to avoid plastic waste and stuffed full of locally sourced, sustainably produced and delicious ingredients!
We are totally confident in our procedures and really looking forward to bringing you the natural high we all need right now – days out in Nature, not only good for health but good for the soul.
On a rainy afternoon we found ourselves reminiscing about our superb trip to beautiful Doñana earlier this year, in all its wintery wonder! It was perhaps the perfect antidote for our guests that week for their Northern European January.
Thousands of wintering waders, wildfowl and wetland birds filled the lagoons, ponds and saltpans, including Red-knobbed Coot, Marbled Duck, White-headed Duck, Black-winged Stilt, Little Stint, Caspian Terns, Slender-billed Gulls, Common Ringed, Little Ringed, Grey and Kentish Plover, Black-crowned Night Herons, White and Black Storks, Common Cranes, Glossy Ibis, Greater Flamingoes and Purple Swamphens.
As well as treats like showy Bluethroats, Little Swifts, Eurasian Hoopoes, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, Black-winged Kites, Booted Eagles, Iberian Grey Shrikes and a sneaky Lesser Flamingo, the group were lucky enough to encounter both of Doñana’s most famed Iberian endemics. In two wholly different experiences we shared the briefest of moments with an evaporating Iberian Lynx – soon followed by outstanding views of no less than SIX Spanish Imperial Eagles!
It is hard to know how we packed so much into just five days!
But we did, and we still had plenty of time to enjoy every species at a relaxed pace, sample sustainably-produced local food during picnics in the sun, and get to know the sandy streets and bar-side hitching posts of El Rocío.
As the world starts to think about arriving to a brave “new normal”, we all need something to look forward to. As well as thinking back, we’re looking forward to seeing you in the future, and we’re currently taking no-obligation, flexible bookings on this and other trips for 2020 and 2021.
Somewhere in a parallel universe, this weekend Dave Grundy and I would just have been saying goodbye to a group of moth-ers and wildlife lovers, having spent a week enjoying Andalucía’s lepidopteran delights!
Here’s a heartfelt message from renowned moth expert Dave, as well as some stunning photos to look back on from the excellent trip he hosted here in 2019…
So, this week I am sad, even though I am living in Andalucía and able to look at some great moths every morning, with beautiful sunshine as well! That’s because with fellow leader Niki Williamson, I should have been hosting ten moth enthusiasts last week, to show them the moths of Andalucía in our holiday called Mothing the Straits!
We would have completed six days’ worth of glorious mothing – and a further four days enjoying the area’s birds and other wildlife for those that wished to stay on. But unfortunately, due to the coronavirus situation we had to cancel this year’s holiday. I am really gutted not to have been looking at moths with these people!
And I am sad because I am never happier than when I am sharing moths with other people and I’ve not been able to do that since lockdown began! So, I thought I would do the next best thing and show you some photos of the fantastic selection of the moths we saw on this trip in 2019, as well as some of the sites and the crack team of moth-ers!
Hopefully they will inspire you to consider coming with us on the same Mothing the Straits holiday next year – we already have announced dates for 2 – 7 May 2021. But book early because places are already filling fast. Take a look at further details here, and download the checklist and trip summary here.
Again, like this year, you will have the optional extra of being able to stay on for four more days and take advantage of a birding and wildlife-watching extension. Over half the people booking on the moth tour usually book for the extension as well! And this is a stunning part of the world to view wildlife, famous for its migrating raptors, cetaceans, butterflies and reptiles as well as its moths!
So, although I’m sad about this year, I’m already looking forward to next year, why not give it a try and maybe I will see you next May?!
We hope you can join us! We are currently accepting no-obligation provisional bookings on future trips – contact us to express an interest or to find out more information on this or any of our trips.
A young Italian called Michele caused a frisson of excitement here in The Straits last month, turning up safe and well after being missing in Africa since mid-November! Not long after his reappearance he was on his adventures again, awaiting fine weather on the northern shores of Morocco before jetting across the Straits and spending the night just outside Sevilla.
The plucky individual is a young Short-toed Eagle, satellite-tagged in 2019 as part of a collaboration between MEDRAPTORS, the Vertebrate Zoology Group at the University of Alicante (Spain), and tag providers Tecnosmart. He is a second-generation project participant – his father Egidio was one of seven young eagles tagged between 2010 and 2013, who reached adulthood and bred successfully in 2019 while still transmitting data.
This father-son team continue to shed light on the surprising and convoluted migration of Short-toed Eagles from Italy. The two-kilo eagles wear their tiny GPS tags on their backs, and the fascinating story they tell has confirmed what many suspected. Instead of beginning the journey to their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa by heading directly south to Tunisia, they start with a 1600-mile flight north and west, right up through the Italian Peninsula and across southern France, before crossing the Pyrenees and migrating down through the length of the Iberian Peninsula, more than doubling their journey distance to Africa´s shores.
The reason? it´s all about wings and Straits.
The long, elegant wings of this beautiful raptor mean it is perfectly adapted for soaring on air thermals, and it can do so for many hours, expending very little energy. But where there is no rising air – such as over expanses of water – the bird must beat those long wings to stay airborne, and becomes quickly exhausted.
Leaving the south-western point of Sicily, where Italy is at its closest to Africa, the bird would have to fly almost 100 miles to the next bit of land – an impossibility for such a long-winged raptor. So Italian Short-toed Eagles have learned to go directly against their strong instinct to head south, forcing themselves to fly north in order to eventually arrive in southern Spain. Here the mere 8.5-mile sea crossing at The Straits of Gibraltar presents much less of a challenge to a healthy, experienced bird choosing the right weather conditions.
While southerly migratory behaviour is innate, the study shows that this northerly trek must be learnt. First-year birds follow an adult who has already learnt the circuitous route to avoid the sea. Around 20% of first-year birds get it wrong and follow their hearts south, ending up wintering on Sicily because there is no more “south” to fly.
Michele was named after the late Michele Panuccio, the raptor researcher who studied the species for several years and promoted the tagging of Egidio’s first son, who was tagged a few weeks after he passed away. He left the nest site at the end of September, several days before his father, presumably following another adult bird. No doubt aided by years of experience, Egidio left late but made the journey in considerably less time. By the end of October, he had already arrived in Mauritania while Michele was still taking it easy in Extremadura!
When the lazy adolescent did finally make the crossing, the signal from his tracker was soon lost as he moved out of areas with the mobile coverage necessary to follow him. For the research team, there was nothing more to do except wait and hope that he had found his way to the wintering grounds safely. So when his tracker was spotted on the move again earlier this month, it must have been a tremendous relief!
His northward crossing of the Straits was unusual behaviour for such a young bird, as non-breeders would normally stay in Africa for another year, “finding themselves” until they come of age. Interestingly though, back in the day, dad Egidio was also a precocious exception to this rule – he too returned to the breeding grounds as a one-year-old.
This year, seven-year-old Egidio was no less keen to breed, and started his migration back to Italy as early as mid-February, arriving there by 12 March! In early March we spent some absolutely joyous days here in the Straits of Gibraltar, watching raptors arrive across the narrowest stretch of sea between Europe and Africa. We clapped them all as they arrived on our shores! We´d love to think that Egidio was one of them…
With thanks to Ugo Mellone of MEDRAPTORS and Universidad de Alicante for kindly giving permission for citation and reproduction of maps and data.
Agostini N., Baghino L., Coleiro C., Corbi F. & Premuda G. 2002. Circuitous autumn migration in the Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus). Journal of Raptor Research 36: 111-114
Mellone U., Limiñana, R., Mallìa E. & Urios V. 2011. Extremely detoured migration in an inexperienced bird: interplay of transport costs and social interactions. Journal of Avian Biology 42: 468-472
Mellone U., Lucia G., Mallìa E., Urios V., 2016. Individual variation in orientation promotes a 3000-km latitudinal change in wintering grounds in a long-distance migratory raptor. Ibis DOI: 10.1111/ibi.12401
Panuccio, M., Agostini, N. & Premuda, G. 2012. Ecological barriers promote risk minimization and social learning in migrating short-toed snake eagles. Ethology Ecology and Evolution 24: 74-80.
Read our award-winning blog about how a sudden drop in the wind on an autumn day in Andalucía inspires heart-stoppingly spectacular mass avian movement, but also provokes thought on travel, conservation and global change…
Fourteen kilometres of sea and sky are all that separate two continents. At 9am, the Mediterranean sun is already warming the air and sparkling on the calm waters. It’s early autumn, and this narrow – but potentially deadly – stretch of sea is all that stands between countless millions of birds and the next leg of their journey to African wintering grounds.
It’s been windy all week in The Strait of Gibraltar, making the crossing too dangerous for larger birds. Without the help of uplifting coastal air currents, they must power all the way, or face drowning. They’ve been stranded in the avian departure lounge for days and they’re hungry and desperate to continue their journey.
As mid-morning arrives, thermals form over the rocky coastline, and they’re finally cleared for take-off! In minutes, the sky fills with birds of prey. Eagles, Kites, Harriers and Honey Buzzards, swirl together in almost incomprehensible numbers and barge south along the suddenly congested flyway.
Chirpy European Bee-eaters pass over in vocal family groups, fifty at a time, quipping and chatting excitedly like they’re off on holiday. Clouds of thousands of White Storks form, sparkling black-and-white as the flock circles around on itself, turning the air currents to art.
The incredible spectacle continues all day, ending with streams of late arrivals racing over in their hundreds, seemingly experiencing `flyway rage´, desperate to reach Africa before sundown.
This breath-taking migratory marvel is beyond compare! During one rapturous, raptor-filled day at Spain’s most southerly point, I’ve counted over 20,000 soaring birds making the commute to the northern coast of Morocco – a mere fraction of the 450,000 that will pass through here in a season.
Imagine looking up from your tapas in Tarifa town and seeing layers upon layers of birds gliding overhead, stretching as far as the eyes can see in every direction, including ‘up’. It’s not surprising that this experience has the power to reduce many folk to tears!
But it also has the power to provoke thought, about travel, conservation and global change. With so much at stake, how do we help these feathered wanderers fulfil the yearly promise of return? Must the joy of watching wildlife inevitably encourage consumption of the planet’s resources? How can our passion for travel and wildlife be channelled into a positive outcome for the environment? How can we turn “eco-tourism” into a promise, rather than an oxymoron?
Even in the face of a global pandemic, we must not forget that climate change is still the biggest emergency facing our planet and the biggest threat to our survival, and that of so many other species. But it is easy to condemn travel, while conveniently ignoring agriculture and spiralling consumerism as major contributors to the emissions that cause global warming.
For many species, habitat loss, intensive agriculture and localised threats are the immediate emergency. Without travel, protected areas lose their economic value and habitats are forgotten. The voice to protect them inevitably becomes drowned out as they become meaningless to most, something you can only see on telly.
Without travel, we lose support for countless local conservation organisations, community businesses, and sustainable ecotourism endeavours, working hard to effect change at grassroots level. So too we lose understanding of our connection to the habitats, landscapes and cultures that Nature’s nomads pass through.
From a conservation standpoint, the concept of saving species across flyways is an important one. After all, there’s no point fixing things for a wandering bird in its breeding grounds alone without giving it a helping hand across its entire migratory range. Places like The Strait of Gibraltar are rare, not just for their importance and natural beauty, but for their power to open people’s minds to migration and the interconnectedness of things.
By the end of November most of the birds of prey have passed through, and the skies of my home seem a little empty. But winter in The Strait brings its own visitors. Northerners seeking a bit of winter sun arrive in their thousands. Cranes fly in raggedly lines over the rice fields, bugling to one another. Tiny Chiff-chaffs and Blackcaps scuttle around the wild olive trees, waiting for the lengthening days to carry them back north.
Then one day in February conditions are suddenly right, and the first arrivals of spring are coming! Huge columns of Black Kites will be visible surging from the northern coast of Morocco, as if someone has popped open a bottle of champagne. Seemingly within minutes they’re arriving to the clifftops above Tarifa – my ringside seat for this migratory dance!
They have travelled from the moist forests of Africa, across the Sahelian scrublands and the Sahara, over temples, mosques and churches. They have overcome unstable and ever-widening deserts, persecution, pollution, habitat loss, and finally crossed this mere fourteen kilometres of sea and sky at the meeting of two continents. For me there is no bigger joy than a promise of return fulfilled.
We often think of the Straits of Gibraltar as a barrier to be overcome, a great leap of faith for the hundreds of thousands of birds that must move between the land masses of Africa and Europe. But through the eons, other vast, invisible migrations have gone almost unseen in the dark depths beneath the sparkling surface.
Here we chat to our friend Aurelio Morales, owner of family-run cetacean-watching company Marina Blue, to find out why, for marine mammals, “The Strait of Gibraltar is a vast underwater canyon – a great corridor that links the Mediterranean and the Atlantic”
Aurelio has spent twenty-two years of his life around the marine fauna of the Strait of Gibraltar. “There is something special about this place that hooks me. Two seas, two tectonic plates, two continents, two prevailing winds… Each outing is completely different. There is no one equal to the other, since the weather and light changes, the behaviour of the species varies throughout the days”
His trips are full of encounters with our local resident delphids – Common, Striped and Bottlenose Dolphins, highly-sociable Long-finned Pilot Whales, and even Orcas in summer – but he is particularly fascinated by the mysterious movements and spectacular sudden appearances of the area’s two migrant species – Fin Whales and Sperm Whales.
“We have so many experiences with these two species that never cease to amaze me. We have seen on many occasions Sperm Whales jumping right out of the water, dragging a large body of water as if it were an explosion in the sea. We have witnessed fascinating interactions between Sperm Whales, Long-finned Pilot Whales and Bottlenose Dolphins. Yellow-legged Gulls will perch on top of a resting whale and clean its dead skin. We have seen Hammerhead Sharks circling them while they rest on the surface.”
But although they are seen regularly and often with great intimacy from Aurelio’s small yacht Miamita, much remains unknown about the movements of these two peaceful giants of the seas.
“We consider Sperm Whales to be semi-residents here. They spend long periods in the Strait feeding, mostly on deep sea squid.”
“In the Strait we almost invariably see adult males of up to 15m in length – and occasionally younger males of around 7-10m. They use this underwater corridor for their movements to and from feeding and mating areas.”
Male and female Sperm Whales generally don’t hang out. The males are loners, found in higher latitude cold waters, whilst the females, calves and young adults form gregarious and relatively sedentary groups in tropical and temperate seas. They meet up only to mate, with the males performing seasonal migrations. They find each other across vast distances – their huge jelly-filled heads directing and amplifying their song to volumes louder than a jet engine.
Research in 2011 used photo-cataloguing of tail flukes – from which individuals can reliably be identified – to compare Straits whales with records from across the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Of 47 Sperm Whales identified here, fifteen could be traced travelling throughout the western Mediterranean, a straight-line distance of up to a thousand miles.
The fact that none of “our” Sperm Whales from this study were recorded in the Atlantic supports existing genetic evidence of an isolated sub-population within the Mediterranean Sea. Believed to contain fewer than 2,500 mature individuals, the Mediterranean population is considered ‘endangered’, based on IUCN Red List criteria.
However, Sperm Whale social groups, with females and calves, do turn up in the Strait from time to time. We recall an incredible experience in September 2017, watching a group of ten females and young whales. They were grouped tightly together in a “marguerite formation”, where the group surrounds a weak or injured individual with their tails pointing outward, enabling them to protect it from attackers. The gathering seemed to emanate tension and anxiety, as the sea around them boiled with curious dolphins and seabirds eyed them suspiciously from above.
The happening was during a series of strong hurricanes over the Atlantic. Could this troubled group have been Atlantic in origin, having come into The Straits to shelter?
There is clearly more work to be done, says Aurelio. “Collaborative studies are currently being carried out between different companies, associations and scientists to verify that the same species seen in the Strait are being seen in other places such as the Canary Islands and Azores.”
Fin whales, the world´s second-largest living creatures, can reach lengths of up to 25m. They used to be abundant in the Strait of Gibraltar and nearby Atlantic areas until their rapid collapse due to intense whaling at the beginning of the 20th century. They are now considered endangered.
Evidence gathered from fifteen years’ worth of photo-identification suggest that some of the Fin Whales seen in the Mediterranean are actually of Atlantic stock. A small community of them have been observed migrating through the Strait of Gibraltar, with remarkable seasonal directionality. They head to the Atlantic Ocean in May-October and the Mediterranean Sea in November-April. Observations of young whales exiting the Mediterranean Sea mainly in May-July suggest that at least part of this community is likely to calve in the basin, probably near the Balearic Islands.
“The Mediterranean is a semi-closed sea with warmer temperatures, so it would make sense that females raise their calves there until they gain enough weight to move to cooler feeding areas.” says Aurelio.
But, he says, there are many threats to these amazing creatures as they try to navigate the busiest shipping lane in the world.
“The greatest dangers for these large cetaceans are almost always related to human presence. The Strait is the only channel that connects the Atlantic with the Med and carries massive shipping traffic. Whales are injured colliding with large ships, and noise pollution interferes with echo-location, and therefore migration. Pollution from oil spills and plastic waste is another great problem that these animals face with this unbridled progress that prevails over the conservation of Nature.”
As a wildlife tour operator, and erstwhile skipper for the Ministry of the Environment, he feels a great sense of responsibility to make sure Marina Blue’s own effects on the environmental are only positive, in line with our own #FlywayPromise.
“There are thankfully many legal requirements to operate here, in terms of good practices regarding cetacean observation and compliance with EU emissions regulations and speed limits, which we naturally comply with. But we also have our own manual of good practices, guided by our own conscience and respect for Nature!”
“Marina Blue works in and for the Strait, with small groups of no more than ten people per trip to minimise our impact. We separate and reduce all our waste. We enjoy the animals with the utmost respect, quietly, allowing them to come to us if they wish. We must always bear in mind that we do not own this planet.”
We love heading out with Aurelio and his crew during selected trips, because of the intimacy of the encounters allowed by such a small vessel, but also because of his obvious deep connection and passion for the wildlife we are hoping to observe. With each spell-binding sighting of one of these incredible animals, we learn a little more about how to protect them.
Mangroves are truly magical. They are capable of storing up to five times more carbon per hectare than tropical rainforests. Their roots dissipate energy from storm surges, shielding local communities. They cleanse waters of their sediments and pollutants before they enter the sea. They are invaluable to local economies and support one of the world´s most biodiverse ecosystems. All great reasons why we’re working with The Gambia Birdwatchers Association to conjure up a little more magic…
In difficult times like these, do you find happy memories shine even brighter? It seems like an age ago, but way back in December 2019, we shared a magical moment with a Giant Kingfisher!
Having sat motionless for an eternity on the wires above our head, it finally decides it’s time to do some Giant Kingfishing! It hits the waters of Kotu Creek like an avian breezeblock, emerging with a squirming silver fish that glitters in the Gambian sun.
That day of our trip to The Gambia was special in other ways too – it was our first opportunity to see the exciting mangrove restoration project being carried out by our conservation partners, The Gambia Birdwatchers Association. We are so proud to be involved in funding this work, and are equally thrilled to be fully funding the next phase of the project – restoration of a further two hectares, as part of our #FlywayPromise commitment to truly sustainable ecotourism.
Our friends Karanta, Tijan and the rest of the GBWA team proudly show us an area where a team of volunteers have painstakingly planted thousands of mangrove propagules on three hectares of mudflat, at the heart of Kotu creek.
It’s not fully understood what caused the dramatic dieback incident of this coastal mangrove some years ago. Some point to the dropping of raw sewage into the waterway by local sewage works, and the dumping of detritus and pollution from the tourist industry.
However, one of the major factors is believed to be land erosion. With offshore reefs degraded and many coastal mangroves gone, there’s nothing to protect this area from coastal erosion caused by rising sea levels. This has led to the gradual deposition of sand in the area, blocking the regular tidal flow, sometimes for weeks.
Upriver, mangroves are also under threat from unsustainable forestry. Soil from deforested river banks washes downstream and clogs the River Gambia’s arteries. They are also particularly vulnerable to climate change. As temperatures and rain patterns change, larger tide volumes and higher soil salinity have deteriorated swamps across The Gambia and neighbouring countries.
Ironically, the fix for many of the main issues that face mangroves is – more mangroves.
As a carbon-sequestering ecosystem they are quite simply astounding – they are capable of storing up to five times more carbon per hectare than tropical rainforests. Most of it is stored in the soil around their roots.
Mangroves protect against weather shocks and other climate-related adversities. Their roots dissipate energy from storm surges, shielding local communities – and themselves – against floods. They contribute to cooling micro-climatic conditions in areas of often high temperatures. Their vegetation retains sediments and filters run-off water, preventing soil erosion and siltation, and removing pollutants before they enter the sea.
Economically, they provide spawning areas and habitat for some 33 species of fish and shellfish, oysters, mud crabs and clams, around 90% of The Gambia’s fishery resources. They promote food sources, fishery income and biodiversity. Managed sustainably, they also provide wood for homes and small community practices, such as fish curing.
The magic of the mangrove lies in its leaf litter. It produces large quantities, and as these leaves sink, taking their carbon with them to Davy Jones´ Locker, they begin a detritus food web, which forms the sludgy base for one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems. The invertebrates that inhabit the sludge feed West African Fiddler Crabs, Atlantic Mudskippers, and a myriad of fish, which in turn nourish West Africa Nile Monitor Lizards, Nile Crocodile, African Manatee, Gambian Mongoose and African Otters.
Some of our favourite birds seen on our Gambia trip are strongly associated with mangrove habitats in one way or another, including stompers like African Finfoot, Blue Paradise Flycatcher, White-backed Night Heron, Pel’s Fishing Owl, Greater Painted-snipe, African Fish Eagle, Goliath Heron, all the Bee-eaters and half-a-dozen kingfisher species ranging from the very common Pied to the Giant Kingfisher, which is now perched back above us at Kotu Creek.
Standing on the mud, Karanta explains some of the work that has already gone into our project. First of all, the team mapped degraded areas suitable for regeneration, and designed the planting areas so as to fit the natural shape of the creek and the remaining mangrove. Propagules were then reaped from different species within the local mangrove itself, ensuring local genetic diversity was continued.
An army of volunteers then completed the entire planting phase in a single day! It was surely back-breaking work, slurping through the mud in wellies in the stifling 30º heat and humidity of the wet season, but we genuinely wish we had been there!
After planting it takes just 3-4 weeks to see positive results. A healthy 60% of the propagules survived, and by the time we visited in December the tiny mangroves-to-be were shrouded in a delightful green haze of fresh leaves. We can´t wait to see what they look like by this December, and also to see the next two hectares of the project coming to life! As the mangrove returns, so will the invertebrates, molluscs, fish and the birds that rely on them. This and other projects like it will quietly stash away carbon and protect The Gambia’s fragile coasts.
But for the Kotu mangroves, arguably their most important role will be as a showcase for the nation’s biodiversity. Tourism, including ecotourism, is hugely important to The Gambia, accounting for around 20% of GDP. Its protected area network, as well as the country’s low intensity agriculture, forms a vital part of that income. But the tourist industry in this beleaguered nation is still trying hard to recover from a few bad years, as political unrest, Ebola and now travel restrictions due to COVID-19 have caused people to stay away in droves. If nobody is visiting, how long before natural habitats begin to come under pressure for short-term economic benefit in this, the 10th poorest country in the world?
Over 350 species of bird have been recorded in this busy tourist hub, many of them colourful and engaging. From this easily-accessible little gem of a nature reserve, the GBWA can reach out to the thousands of birding and non-birding tourists that make the nearby hotels their base. A magical moment with a Giant Kingfisher reinforces the value of ecotourism, and adds a voice for the continued protection of The Gambia’s exceptional mangroves, forests and sahel.
Want to see first hand how our mangroves are getting on? Join us this November-December on our Bird Party in the Gambia Tour as we head back to Africa´s Smiling Coast! The trip report from last year´s excellent trip is available for download here
We really like Spiders here at the Inglorious Bustards but we know they do attract a lot of hysteria and quite a bit of misinformation!
So we turned to Molly Grace, spider enthusiast and expert to dispel the myths and bring you closer to these fabulous inhabitants of Southern Spain…….
Before we begin, here are 3 spider facts that are important to understand:
Fact n°1: Spider bites are extremely rare. Spiders simply do not go around biting people. In fact, their bites are so rare that you are more likely to get bitten by a dog than a spider, and expert arachnologists say that unless you physically see the spider sink it’s chelicerae (fangs) into your skin, the chances are that your suspected spider bite is not from a spider at all! For a spider to bite it has to be in a near death situation, provoked or even squished onto your skin with such force that the only option it has left is to bite.
Fact n°2: Doctors and/or Pharmacists cannot ID a spider bite. Unless that Doctor has studied arachnology and can guess (without seeing the spider) what family, genus and species it was that bit you and knows what venom that particular spider has, they cannot tell you if it was a spider that bit you. If you happen to have the spider that you suspect was the culprit for your bite and your Doctor is unable to give you at least it’s genus, just take it with a pinch of salt if he or she has told you it’s a spider that did it. However, someone who has studied insects and/or spiders can ID a spider bite. So remember to ask the right person for the right job if you suspect you have been bitten. You don’t call a plumber for an electrical problem and the same goes for spider bites and doctors.
Fact n°3: Any bite can get infected. If you are blaming a spider’s “venom” on your leg/arm/hand or any other part of your body being swollen and oozing pus, the culprit could well be Staphylococcus aureus. This type of bacteria is present in so many places including under your nails when you scratch your skin, so your supposed spider bite could in fact be a mosquito bite that has got infected, or an allergic reaction to a weed. If you have been bitten by any insect or spider, the chances of it swelling up and getting infected are very low if you clean the area with an antiseptic.
Now that this has been explained (very important information as an introduction to anything about spiders) we can move on and continue with our main topic: the spiders of Spain!
In terms of Spanish arachnids and their interactions with people, it’s worthy to note that there are 0 cases of spiders killing anyone here in Spain. Just as some British media companies occasionally fear-monger and publish articles about “deadly” false widow spiders that are actually harmless, the Spanish media has been doing the same to a species that cannot even be found here in the country. Plus, if you look at these stories closely not once do they ask experts. Why? My guess is that facts are considered boring and those stories wouldn’t sell. They would rather sell a dramatic and biased lie.
Also, one too many times I have come across internet sites dedicated to the British expat community in Spain with information about “dangerous” spiders that we can find in the Iberian peninsula, and sadly 100% of the time not only is the information on these sites beyond incorrect, it also spreads fear to any person looking to relocate here or visit for a holiday.
Let’s now have a look at the spiders you are more likely to come across and watch out for. Sometimes you fear what you don’t understand, which is very normal, so I hope this information will at least shed some light on what is truly making a web in your garden or crawling around the corners of your house. And if you still fear them after reading, it’s OK, but at least you will know a bit more about the little eight- legged creature that has innocently walked into your home.
Lycosidae (Wolf spiders)
Wolf spiders come in all sizes, from the very small ones, to some that can just about fit in the palm of your hand. There are 4 large wolf spiders here in Spain from two different genus:
– Lycosa hispanica
– Lycosa fasciiventris
– Hogna radiata, and
– Hogna ferox.
All but one of these spiders are active hunters (meaning they search for their food), the other makes a burrow in the ground and awaits its prey. Those that venture out become most active at night, they don’t make webs, and just like a wolf they go “on the prowl” looking for their dinner. They are not aggressive spiders and do not bite – unless provoked or squished, as mentioned above in this article – but if you did somehow get bitten you can expect the same pain and reaction that you would to a wasp sting. If you find one in your house simply remove it using a glass and paper , and make sure he or she is released to a safe location.
Araneidae (Orb weaving spiders)
There are numerous Orb weavers that you can come across here in Spain, and the most common to spot are from the Araneus and Argiope genus. They are all quite clumsy on the ground and are usually found in the centre of their majestic webs where they patiently wait for their meal to become trapped. They are surprisingly agile and merciless when this happens! For us humans, they make ideal friends to have in the garden. In fact, Argiope like to build their webs near vegetable patches where they can serve as an excellent form of pest control. And I for one wouldn’t worry about flies with one of them nearby!
Sparassidae (Giant crab spiders/Huntsman spiders)
As with wolf spiders, Huntsman spiders come in different sizes. The common ones here in Spain are from the Micrommata genus (green huntsman) and the Eusparassus genus, these last being the largest ones of this family that can be found here in Spain (there are a LOT bigger ones in Australia, though!). Huntsman spiders are very fast and also very timid, which is why they like being hidden away in dark crevices and tree bark where they will not be disturbed. Just like the wolf spiders, they do not use webs but physically hunt their prey down. Special caution should be given to female Eusparassus guarding their egg sacs, they have been known to bite in defence if she feels that her offsprings are in danger.
Salticidae (Jumping spiders)
Spain has many of these spiders from different genus. If I got 1€ for every time someone has told me they have been bitten by one of these little cuties and 2€ for being told that they have sent someone to hospital from a bad bite, I’d be quite rich indeed. However, they feed on fruit flies and other tiny insects, and half of them are so small that their fangs can’t even penetrate human skin! Jumping spiders are extremely intelligent and social, so much so that people actually keep them as pets (yes, you read that right)! They definitely don’t go around jumping and biting for the sake of it – remember fact n°1 in this article – and if one of the larger ones (which don’t even live here in Spain) did happen to bite you, you would have a hard time differentiating it from a common mosquito bite. Similar to orb weavers in the garden, jumping spiders make ideal allies indoors. You can say goodbye to mosquitoes without the use of pesticides if you have a jumping spider as your flat-mate!
Sicariidae (Violin Spiders)
Spain has one species from the Loxosceles (recluse spiders) genus, Loxosceles rufescens. Not to be confused with the Brown recluse or the Chilean recluse, the Mediterranean recluse is not as dangerous as it’s overseas cousins. Recluse spiders are not aggressive at all, and one would only bite if being squished. I have handled many of them with my bare hands and I’m still alive! Nevertheless, this is one spider people will single out and try to make you fear. You should be cautious of course, but there is no need to act as if it’s lethal. Its venom has been known to cause adverse affects but bites are rare (in America for example, out of the 64 reported brown recluse bites between 1939 and 2014, only 6 of them turned out to really be from this species). You can identify a Mediterranean recluse spider by the violin shape on its cephalothorax (upper body) and it’s 6 eyes in sets of 2. They like dark areas where they will not be disturbed like cupboards, crevices and, one of their favourites, clothes piles that remain undisturbed for a long time (good excuse to keep your bedroom floor clean, right?). If you find one in your house and it’s not welcome, use a paper and glass to remove it to a safe location.
Macrothelidae (Large spinnerets spider)
Spain has one species of this genus, the Macrothele calpeiana or the Andalucían funnel web. It’s both the only protected spider species throughout Europe, and also the largest (reaching up to 80 mm in size). At one point it could only be found in the oak forests in the province of Cádiz, but sadly due to the destruction of its habitat and the trafficking of the species amongst irresponsible spider enthusiasts, this spider is now not only rare, but can be found in other areas throughout Andalucía and even in Portugal, Africa and Italy. It can be identified by its black colour and its large spinnerets at the end of its abdomen. It builds deep funnel web tunnels in the bark of oak trees and under rocks. Females are rarely seen and will not leave their webs unless it’s destroyed or food is scarce, but males venture out during mating season. Again, it is a protected species, therefore killing it and/or removing it from its natural habitat is punishable by Law. There is another spider that sometimes gets confused as Macrothele calpeiana, this usually is a male Amblyocarenum walckenaeri (a species of Wafer trapdoor spider) who at a glance can look very much like the Andalucían funnel web, except it lacks the long spinnerets and tends to have a dark brown abdomen.
Theridiidae (Comb footed spiders)
In this family we can find False widow spiders (Steatoda genus) and true widow spiders (Latrodectus genus) amongst others. Spain has numerous spiders from this family including false widow species (Steatoda) and two true widows (Latrodectus) which are Latrodectus tridecimguttatus (Mediterranean widow) and Latrodectus ilianae. They are distributed around Spain although some provinces have no sightings of them at all. There have been no registered bites from either of these spiders and not enough is known about their venom to say what kind of effect it has on humans, however it is known that the venom itself is a neurotoxin but not as powerful as the venom from other species of Latrodectus found in America and Oceania. They, like the others, are not aggressive spiders.
For more information, identification and facts on spiders feel free to visit my Facebook page Molly’s web https://m.facebook.com/Mollysweb/ or follow me on Instagram @Mollysweb. And thank you for reading this article! My main motivation is to help people overcome any fears they may have, using fact-based arguments which create interest and understanding. So I truly hope this has served its purpose!