Owen Watson, a guest of birding, conservation and wildlife tour company Inglorious Bustards, describes his adventures on an 8-day trip with RSPB Leeds local group (UK nature conservation charity) to experience the spectacle of avian migration across the Strait of Gibraltar, and explore stunning habitats and conservation initiatives on the Moroccan and Spanish sides of the water.
The Labours of Hercules were a series of activities carried out as a penance for crimes which the hero committed. Fortunately, no classically dark misdeeds preceded this particular birding trip, only a very dark morning and the somewhat less than Herculean task of being at Leeds-Bradford Airport, UK at 5am!
Soon though, we were in bright sunshine, passing by the many famous resorts of the Costa del Sol, accompanied by Simon and Niki from the gloriously–named Inglorious Bustards! We began to make out the Rock of Gibraltar in the distance, and further still, the Jebel Musa, which stands on Moroccan soil. These promontories form the two Pillars of Hercules and once marked the limit of the known world.
The reality of just how close Europe and Africa are at this point really began to hit home; just 8.9 miles at the narrowest point, compared with the Dover Straits at 20.7 miles. Just why this was such an important part of the migration route of many species of birds really became apparent. The bigger birds of prey and storks use the thermals generated on the mountains either side of the Straits of Gibraltar to gain enough altitude to cross the water without the need to expend too much energy in flapping their big, heavy wings.
Standing on a headland looking out to the Straits, we were immediately seeing birds of prey coming in off the sea including Booted Eagles, Short-toed Eagles, Black Kites and Honey Buzzards, accompanied by clouds of Common and Pallid Swifts. The challenge of the crossing was brought home to us in the starkest terms as a Griffon Vulture was seen in the water below the headland attempting to swim for shore, whilst the body of another was seen floating. We lost sight of the unfortunate swimmer, but the physical challenge that these birds face in completing their migration was now very real to us all.
Niki explained some of the company’s volunteer and support work with local non-governmental organisation, Fundación Migres, who run the longest existing migration monitoring programme in Europe. The sheer numbers of birds we had witnessed were nothing short of astonishing and reinforced the criticality of the Straits of Gibraltar as a migration point.
We joined a boat operated by the Foundation for Information and Research on Marine Mammals (FIRMM), specially chosen because of their pioneering research and conservation work in the area and their heartfelt respectful philosophy towards watching the animals. This proved to be a highlight of the whole trip for many as we picked up Striped, Common and Bottlenose Dolphins at close quarters. The interaction with a pod of Long-finned Pilot Whales was the most memorable – they came right up to the boat, passing backwards and forwards in front, behind and underneath, leaving everybody with a sense of immense joy and elation.
An early start saw us on the ferry from Algeciras to Tanger Med, crossing the Straits and exchanging Europe for Africa; Spanish for French and Arabic. We headed out across the Moroccan country to the Atlantic coast and the town of Moulay Bousselham. Here the group was privileged to see the highly endangered Moroccan subspecies of Marsh Owl. The extremely isolated population is under huge pressure due to the conversion of marshes into agricultural land, growing luxury products for the European market such as out-of-season strawberries. Our hosts are deeply concerned about this issue, and they explained how they are aiming to improve the situation, both by working locally to find solutions and by raising awareness amongst consumers. We were able to enjoy several brief but excellent views of these haunting owls.
We rounded this off with a boat trip out onto the Merja Zerga lagoon, enjoying close views of Black Terns, Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gulls, Caspian, Little and Gull-billed Terns as well as myriad plovers, Eurasian Spoonbills and Greater Flamingos. Fiddler crabs were seen all over the mud banks, but perhaps the most intriguing animals were the Sea Hares (a type of Sea Slug) seen swimming all around the boats. This is a mollusc which emits a sort of ink when threatened but we were content to enjoy watching their graceful movements through the water and happy not to cause them to deploy their defences!
After a visit to the Ramsar-designated wetlands of the Loukkos River, we headed up into the Rif mountains and the Bouhachem forest. This was an astonishingly verdant area for those of us who envisaged Morocco as a desert country. We enjoyed views of African Blue Tit, Melodious Warbler and African Chaffinch, but the high point was, without doubt, catching sight of a troupe of Barbary Macaques, close to the side of the road. It was a reasonably large group containing a range of ages, including some very young animals clinging to their mothers. We enjoyed watching them for some time, with macaques both on the ground and in the trees.
We spent two nights at the lovely Auberge Dardara, a former water-mill surrounded by low intensity farmland, full of Turtle Doves, Corn Buntings, Golden Orioles, Barbary Partridge and Eurasian Hoopoes. But the main focus of the day was a trip into the Talassemtane National Park in 4×4 vehicles. In this very beautiful mountain location, we were treated to excellent views of Moussier’s Redstart, Blue Rock Thrush, Black Wheatear, Rock Bunting and Atlas Long-legged Buzzard. All the time, Northern Ravens were buzzing about overhead, bothered by the large passage of migrating raptors, including Black Kites, Honey Buzzards, Booted Eagles, Short-toed Eagles – and a single Bonelli’s eagle.
We rounded out the day with a few hours exploring the city of Chefchaouen. Many of the buildings are washed in a bright blue colour, which is one of the main claims to fame of the city. The reason for the colour is not clear, with some suggesting that blue keeps mosquitoes away. Whatever the reason, it is a beautiful bustling city, alive with traders and visitors from all around the world.
Back in Spain, we still had many interesting wildlife sites to see! We visited salt pans which allowed for views of incredibly cute Kentish Plover chicks, as well as breeding Collared Pratincoles and Stone Curlews, Calandra Larks and Greater Flamingos. At a small colony of the critically endangered Northern Bald Ibis, the group were privileged to see a number of young wild-born birds on the point of fledging.
We were thrilled to be taken to a permit-only area under a cliff face, home to a breeding colony of Griffon Vultures. We were lucky to see a few chicks in the nests and were also treated to views of a pair of Egyptian Vultures, a much rarer bird in Spain.
At the beach at Los Lances, not a lilo or towel was to be seen – we were too busy enjoying the Kentish and Ringed Plovers, Audouin’s Gull and Whimbrel on the inter-tidal habitat, and Greater Short-toed and Crested Lark on the pastures. On nearby farmland we found Thekla’s Lark, Tawny Pipit, Cirl Bunting and Sardinian Warbler. Perhaps most striking was the almost constant sound of Corn Buntings and Nightingales, which seemed to accompany us on the entire trip and reminded us what we are losing at home in the UK.
We headed home an extremely happy group having had a superb two-continent experience. A most excellent trip!
Love birds and want more?
Discover Inglorious Bustards’ infamous Birding Two Continents tour.
Read about Inglorious Bustards’ Flyway Promise, a comprehensive commitment which puts nature at the heart of tourism.
Find out what it’s like to witness 450,000 birds pass between two continents in one season, from Niki Williamson of Inglorious Bustards.
Main image: Short-toed Eagle. Credit: Inglorious Bustards.