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.

Black Kite and Booted Eagle migrating (c) Simon Tonkin.

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. 

White Storks migrating (c) Simon Tonkin.

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 fulfill 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 channeled into a positive outcome for the environment?  How can we turn “eco-tourism” into a promise, rather than an oxymoron?

It’s beyond doubt, climate change is the biggest emergency facing our planet. But it is easy to condemn travel, while conveniently ignoring agriculture and spiralling consumerism as major contributors.

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.

View across the strait (c) Simon Tonkin.

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 Chiffchaffs 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.

  • Niki Williamson
  • : During a twenty-year career in conservation with the RSPB and others, I saw first-hand the challenges faced by journeying birds, giving me a deep passion for the epic spectacle of migration. This, and my love of international adventure led me to co-found Inglorious Bustards, an ecotourism business specialising in birding, conservation and wildlife-watching across the East Atlantic Flyway. Using our conservation background, our aim is to use ecotourism as a genuine force for good, eliminating our own negative impacts and supporting local conservation projects across the flyway to create stepping stones of safe habitat for migratory wildlife.
  • : https://www.ingloriousbustards.com
  • : https://www.facebook.com/ingloriousbustard/
  • : https://twitter.com/Otis_inglorius
  • : https://www.instagram.com/ingloriousbustards/
  • : We bring you the best of birding, wildlife and migration spectacles along the East Atlantic Flyway, through Europe and North Africa, down to the wintering grounds of many of our nomads, south of the Sahara. Our #FlywayBirding tours have nothing to do with racing around ticking birds and everything to do with enjoying landscapes, habitats and cultures and having a good laugh at a relaxed pace. We believe ecotourism should benefit, not exploit the wildlife we enjoy. We eliminate our own negative impacts and support local conservation projects across the flyway creating safe habitat for migratory wildlife.
  • : adult_(19_and_over_as_of_31st_december_2019)
  • : This is the first time this story has been published.

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