James Dyson heads to the Straits of Gibraltar to witness the annual migration of hundreds of birds
There are few places on the planet where you can experience such a unique ecological confluence as the Straits of Gibraltar.
The winds and currents of this narrow maritime channel act as the Mediterranean's natural pacemaker, while simultaneously this southernmost tip of the European continent provides the shortest bridge to Africa for millions of migrating birds.
So when I was invited to join a small, multinational group of birdwatchers in Tarifa, on the Spanish coast of the Straits, I didn't hesitate.
We had travelled from France, Morocco, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK – but what we had come to observe was even more international. Every autumn, from as far north as Scandinavia, over 400 different species of birds flock south to cross the Straits, winter in Africa and then return again in spring.
As our guide Manuel Morales, from Birding Tarifa, pointed out, it's a spectacle that has captivated human attention for tens of thousands of years. Indeed, rock paintings of birds have been discovered in more than 50 caves scattered around the region; some of them dating back to the Neolithic age.
Of course all kinds of birds make the trip but, at the risk of sounding like the Jeremy Clarkson of bird watching, I must confess to a particular fascination with the kings of them all: the raptors, or birds of prey.
Just nine miles wide at its narrowest point, the Straits of Gibraltar offers almost the only feasible migration route across the Mediterranean for most of these large birds.
Too big to power their own flight, they rely on gliding their way to Africa, and up in the hills of the Sierra de la Plata, Manuel showed us how they do it. Griffon vultures, honey buzzards, booted eagles – and even a Spanish imperial eagle – were circling above us in search of a thermal current to raise them high enough to risk the perilous descent across the Straits.
African coast accross the Straits of Gibraltar © Alicia León
An estimated 400,000 raptors from 29 different species cross the Straits every year to winter between the Sahara and the coastal areas of West Africa, with the peak migration in early September.
So, as we drove back along the coast, I couldn't help wondering whether we'd arrived too late. But I needn't have worried.
Suddenly, Rachid, the Moroccan member of our group, spotted a large flock of griffon vultures emerging over some old disused wind turbines. And to our amazement, these magnificent creatures with their distinctive white heads, eight-foot wing span and short tail feathers kept coming: first 100, then 300, then another wave of 200. We struggled to count but guessed there might have been as many as a thousand heading out to sea.
Flock of griffon vultures flying over disused wind turbines on the Tarifa coast © Alicia León
To my surprise, Rachid was no longer watching the vultures but doing something on his mobile phone. “I'm alerting my colleagues in Morocco that the griffons are heading their way, so we know how many make it across the Straits.” Fierce cross winds might blow them off course; some might fall in the sea and drown, while others might turn back.
And those are not the only dangers facing these magnificent birds. The vultures had flown without difficulty above the decommissioned wind turbines – but dotted along the coastal mountain ranges are hundreds of larger, active turbines blocking their route to Africa. Manuel explained that in poor conditions of visibility, vultures, buzzards, eagles and other big birds simply don't have the manoeuvrability to avoid the blades of these modern quixotic giants.
The northern bald ibis disappeared from Europe over 300 years ago, with the only viable remaining wild population found in Morocco. However, in 2003, 30 bald ibis were reintroduced and the Spanish province now boasts some 25 breeding pairs.
After searching for half an hour, we found two; just off the road in some bramble-strewn farmland. Peering through our spotting scopes, it has to be said that the bald ibis – with its unfeathered red face, long curved bill and somewhat scraggy plumage – is not one of the world's most attractive birds. But it certainly has history. Fossil remains prove its existence almost two million years ago, and people once believed that it was the bald ibis, not the raven, that Noah dispatched from the Ark.
As we drove into the park, short-toed eagles, black storks, sparrowhawks and honey buzzards all circled above us. Many more migrating birds nest in the surrounding cliffs while the warm humid shade of the forest provides an abundance of food. (Thankfully, they leave the wild mushrooms for human consumption).
Part of the reason for the bald ibis' fragile resurgence is that it has become largely sedentary, avoiding the risks of migration. But for all those birds that transit the region on their way to Africa, the neighbouring Alcornocales Natural Park is an essential stop over on their journey.
Alcornocales means 'cork oak groves' and although some of the park has been cleared for livestock grazing, the 650-square-mile territory still represents the most extensive forest of cork in Spain and one of the largest in the world. The cork oaks provide millions of wine bottle stoppers, while the park's Andalusian oaks were supposedly once used to construct the ships of the Spanish Armada.
Above: a reservoir and cork oak trees in Alcornocales Natural Park © Alicia León
The Alcornocales Natural Park is essentially the launching pad for raptors and other migrating birds to make their final push across the Straits of Gibraltar to Africa. It's a perilous journey that not all will survive – but as we headed back to our hotel, we got one last piece of good news.
Rachid's colleagues in Morocco had messaged him back: almost all the 1,000 griffon vultures we had sighted the previous day, had made it safely across the Straits.
We still had plenty to see in the days ahead, but it was already clear that migratory bird conservation has become as international as the birds themselves.
WAY TO GO
With a focus on birdwatching, marine life and ecotourism, Birding Tarifa offers half-day and full-day photography and hiking trips in the various natural parks and reserves of the Straits of Gibraltar region. More information can be found on their English website.
Globales Reina Cristina hotel
Situated 13 miles west of Tarifa in the port of Algeciras, the Globales Reina Cristina hotel is one of the oldest in the region. Built in the late nineteenth century, the hotel has hosted many historical figures such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill and Orson Wells.
Green Adventures January 2018
Booted eagle in flight © Alicia León
Taking photographs of the African coast at dawn © James Dyson
Birdwatching in La Janda © James Dyson
However, local ornithologists like Manuel have now reached a special agreement with the operators of these turbines. “We know the number for each turbine. If I see a flock of rare birds of prey approaching, I can call them up, tell them which turbines are in the way and in a matter of seconds the operator will shut them down”.
On one occasion, Manuel even ended up calling Mexico to get a turbine stopped because that's where the operator was based. “With the time zone difference, I didn't know whether to say 'good morning' or 'good afternoon'!”
Other threats to the raptors include the destruction of natural habitats, collisions with pylons – and diseases like myxomatosis, and more recently rabbit haemorrhagic disease, which have both decimated one of the bird's main sources of food.
Bird conservation in the region is a constant battle – but one that can be won. And to see one of its latest success stories, we travelled into the province of La Janda.
Manuel Morales below La Zarga cliffs in the Sierra de la Plata © Alicia León
James Dyson is a British journalist and communications consultant based in Madrid. At Dysoncommunications.com, he publishes a blog on cultural and professional events, as well as communication tips and advice. His Spanish-language blog Teosiesta focuses on the similarities and differences between British and Spanish society and culture.
The migratory bridge to Africa