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Strait Birding

We have just returned from a week in Tarifa, observing (and photographing) the migration of 1,000's of birds of prey, storks, bee-eaters and other birds across the Straits of Gibraltar.  This was the second visit I'd made the trip with Julia and the third in total.  The Straits of Gibraltar are one of Europes great bottlenecks for migrant soaring birds, which gather, gain hieght on the thermals of the coastal mountains and then head off to North Africa slowly loosing height before they make land-fall in Morocco.

We based ourselves in self-catering accommodation adjacent to the Los Lances beach - a great place to start each day as waders gather to feed and migrant passerines fly overhead.  It also provides a good point from which you can see what is happening with the migrant birds of prey and once the first birds start moving, it is time to head for one of the migration vantage points.  Each day was different, and we did spend some time (but not much) away from the migration hot-spots.

Sunday 8th September

Our first full day, and after arriving at our accommodation after midnight, we were rather glad it didn't get light until 08:00 hrs.  I headed straight out to the hide and boardwalk at Los Lances, re-acquainting myself with the small waders infront of the hide - dunlin; sanderling; Kentish and ringed plovers.  Whimbrel were also present as was a single little stint.  The grazed fields along the coast held zitting cistocola; goldfinch; linnet; crested, greater short-toed, lesser short-toed and Calandra larks.  Stonechats kept popping up onto the wire fences whilst cattle egrets and yellow wagtails followed the horses, sheep and cattle, feeding on invertebrates disturbed by their feet.  Two species of wheatear - Northern and Eastern black-eared - were present in the coastal fields.  We were joined by friends from Cheshire and were to spend most of the week with them - an elite group of 12 birders all enjoying raptors, food and banter.

Around 10:00 we could see the first raptors gaining height so we set off to the Mirador along the road from Tarifa to Gibraltar.  Here we stopped for a coffee and watched as raptors flew overhead, before heading to the Migres watchpoint at Cazalla.  Birds of prey were passing over - honey buzzard, black kite, short-toed eagle, booted eagle, Griffon vulture plus occasional Marsh and Montague's harriers.  Light (and occasional heavy rain) was not the best for viewing, nor for the raptor migration, so we headed back to the Finca which our friends had rented for coffee and cake, before venturing out locally along the Valle del Santuario road for passerines.  Migrants here included species we are familiar with in the UK - spotted flycatcher and redstart, chiffchaff and yet more stonechats.

Monday 9th September

Today followed a similar pattern to Sunday, although with more migration apparent, we spent longer at Cazalla and also nearer the coast at the coastguard station.  During the morning we had fun sorting out pallid and common swift, but not everyone managed to get on the little swift that flew beneath us whilst we had morning coffee. Raptors were much more in evidence that the previous day, and conservative estimates were 100 each honey buzzard and booted eagle, 300 short-toed eagle and 1,500 black kite.  Smaller numbers of red kite, marsh harrier, Montague's harrier, sparrowhawk, kestrel and lesser kestrel were all seen.

Tuesday 10th September

With westerly winds forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday (Tarifa is better in Easterlies), today we headed inland to the former wetland of La Janda, now mostly drained and used for the production of rice and cotton.  The rice paddies and drainage channels, though, do still offer great birding.  During the morning we joined some Spanish ringers and got good close views of Cetti's, reed and willow warblers along with Spanish sparrows. Corn buntings sang from overhead wires and flocks of white storks and glossy ibis flew over.  Cattle, little and great egrets fed amongst the channels and wetter fields.

After La Janda we drove to the saltmarshes and Salinas at Barbate.  Access is quite restricted here but waders seen included black-winged stilt, turnstone, greenshank and common sandpiper.  The Salinas supported about 100 greater flamingo, 5 spoonbill and lots of egrets.  Marsh and Montangue's harriers quartered the saltmarsh and salt pans, flushes flocks of larks and small waders.  From Barbate we headed to Veller de Formentora to look, unsuccessfully for white-rumped and little swifts, but did manage our only Azure-winged Magpie of the trip.  Our next stop was at the cliffs near Bolonia, again to search for swifts.  Although again unsuccessful, the views of nesting Griffon vulture, more than made up for this.

Wednesday 11th September

After our usual morning session along Los Lances, we headed for Tarifa Port were we had arranged to go out into the Straits with FIRMM on a whale and dolphin cruise.  We left port at noon for a two hour trip.  After about 30 minutes we were came across a few common dolphin, then a few more and soon we were surrounded by a pod of several hundred  common dolphin.  Intermingled with them were several striped dolphin.  The latter were more active than commons, occasionally jumping out of the water, whilst the common dolphins preferred to bow ride.  As if from nowhere we saw the diagonal blow, typical of sperm whale and the boat was then pointed in the direction and we sped off. Sperm  whale will only surface for 15 minutes before diving, so time was precious.  We saw four sperm whales blowing and got excellent views of one as it eventually breached and dived.

After lunch we went in search of a house bunting that had made it across the Straits (on a boat?) from Morocco and was coming to bread in the middle of Tarifa.  No joy for us, and we headed back to Los Lances for some low evening light photography, as on most evenings.  

Thursday 12th September

Although the wind was back to coming from the east, raptor movement seemed a bit slow still today, but we followed our usual pattern with a morning at Los Lances - anything can turn up here and there is always a chance that a sea-watch may produce something extra, but today wasn't that day.  Small numbers of hirundines - barn swallow, sand martin and house martins - and pallid and common swifts passed northwards, yellow wagtail were feeding amongst the livestock.  We headed up to the Mirador for a coffee around 10.30 and then back to the coastguards area via a stop at Cazalla.  The area around the coastguards gives close views of birds following the coast, and is hence a good spot for photography.  We had the usual selection of raptors but some close booted eagles showed off their diagnostic headlights off.  We finished the day off back at Los Lances, concentrating on the waders on the beach this time.

Friday 13th September

Unlucky for some, but another great day's birding was in store for us.  Starting at the beach, several Audouin's gull were present, Cory's shearwater were seen off-shore and gannets were soon picked out as they flew past.  A peregrine came in low over the beach flushing the numerous waders.    Small numbers of raptors passed overhead and we decided to have lunch at our accommodation.  It was sublime to sit in the sun, eating pasta whilst watching griffon and Egyptian vultures, short-toed and booted eagles plus black storks heading northwards, gaining height on the thermals.  After lunch we headed inland to drive around the tracks looking for farmland birds, but the wind had increased and most passerines were keeping low.  A party of cattle egret were almost oblivious to the car and provided some good photo-opportunities.

Saturday 14th September

Our final day, but still the trip list kept getting bigger!!  Our morning visit to the beach produced an avocet amongst the yellow-legged gull flock roosting on the beach, and a grey plover amongst the waders on water's edge.   Small numbers of raptors kept heading down the coast, but veered off inland due to the head wind.  One had us puzzled, but once we got a good look at the back of the camera images, it was apparent the bird was one of the aquila eagles, in fact a juvenile lesser-spotted eagle.  This is a species not recorded annually at Tarifa or in the area, but was our second in as many years!!  Another addition to our list was an adult Bonelli's eagle that drifted south with a couple of black kites.  After lunch we headed to Malaga Airport for our return flight, stopping on route at some woodland near Heurta Grande - adding goldcrest, robin and wren to our trip list, but the holiday wasn't over as we also saw an osprey over the road heading to Malaga and a party of ring-necked parakeets flew over just before we took the exit for the airport.  Our 122nd species of the trip!

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