BUBO in ANDALUCIA - part 2
After our day of travelling yesterday we planned to stay pretty close to Tarifa today, hopefully seeing a few local specialities and perhaps catching a little bit of raptor migration. The weather forecast wasn't fabulous and predicted this day to be the poorest of our trip, with wet fronts due to pass through at various times of the day. We were not going to plan too much then and play it somewhat by ear. Our first stop was on the east side of Tarifa town in the same car park that we saw the Tawny Owl in last night. This was not exactly a glamour location but it was a specific site for a specific rare species.
It was quite dull, early morning light as we parked up the car. We scoured the tall trees on the south side of the car park for our quarry and I thought I saw a good candidate zip in from behind a building to the right but it went behind the trees. A short time later Ian picked out quite a distinctive song and the bird soon showed itself at the top of one of the bare trees - a COMMON BULBUL. Now this species is definitely not the best-looking bird you'll ever see - just grey and brown with a blackish head and tail - but it is very rare. A common bird in Africa, in recent years a few birds have hopped across the Straits of Gibraltar and taken up residence in Europe's southernmost town. There have been a handful present here for a short while and seem to have bred, but at the moment only a single bird seems to be being seen. So the photo below may show the only individual Bulbul in the whole of Europe - so that's a pretty rare bird!
I managed a very brief recording of the Bulbul song (above), but a Spanish birder came over to talk to us so I was unable to get more. I was actually very pleased to get any photo at all of the bird as it was high in the tree against the sky. It didn't stay very long and pretty soon it jumped its perch and flew strongly over our heads and over the apartment building to the north. Very pleased with this speedy tick for us both, not having to wait around at all like we thought we'd have to do, we went for a walk to the Castle to go and see the Lesser Kestrel colony.
We strolled round the edge of town and over the hill towards the sea where we looked across the Strait to Africa. There didn't seem a great deal over the water, just a Gannet flapping past and a few Sandwich Terns blogging about. On the rocky shore below, a single Turnstone rested. We commented that, wherever you go in the world, there always seems to be a Turnstone trotting along the shoreline!
We continued past the ferry port getting itself ready to take travellers to Tangiers, and along the road to the old castle. Tarifa castle is famous for holding a colony of Lesser Kestrels and straight away we started seeing birds swooping round the rooftops and turrets. Unlike Common Kestrels, the Lessers nest colonially and these birds were using the holes in the walls of the castle right above our heads! Despite the dull conditions, we were treated to superb views of approximately 15 birds either hovering above, or peering out of their holes or perched on the walls. It was odd seeing these birds in such an urban setting but they were truly magnificent. My only previous experience of Lesser Kestrel was of fly-past migrants in Israel, so these close views were a treat.
As we were more or less in the middle of the town, there wasn't really lots of other birds to see - apart from the ubiquitous Spotless Starlings and Yellow-legged Gulls - so we were surprised to see a warbler flit into the low shrubs below the castle walls. After a short while of searching it revealed itself to be a Subalpine Warbler clearly just arrived over the sea from Africa and looking for food by the port-side. During our short time in Tarifa this morning we had aleady seen maybe 30 or so Black Kites heading northwards over the town, and we hoped that this indicated some raptor passage would happen today. So we headed back to the car park so we could drive off and find a good viewpoint. Ian heard the Common Bulbul calling again from a dense clump of trees in the next street. Despite being under the tree it was in, we couldn't find it and only caught sight of a Blackcap.
Following advice from Simon and Niki the previous evening, since the wind was from the west, any raptor passage would be pushed eastwards towards Gibraltar and we would have to head in that direction to catch it. It did not look too promising weather-wise though, as it was still very cloudy and we drove through patches of light rain clinging to the hills - although this wasn't stopping a small group of Griffon Vultures circling over the hills above the town. However, as we made our way through the suburb of Getares on the western shore of the Bay of Gibraltar, the sun came out and we had blue skies above us, just perfect for birds of prey.
We wound our way round the coast road, past the lighthouse on the headland called Punta Carnero, and pulled in at the side of the road after the highest point. We walked back up the road, through a gap in the wire fence and onto a cleared area where there were a couple of Spanish photographers with giant lenses in situ - we were pleased to have found the right spot. And we knew we were definitely in the right spot when a corking Booted Eagle flew right past us at eye level! Game on.
The raptor watch started off quite slowly which indicated that we hadn't missed a lot, but soon picked up pace and we regularly got birds either in singles or in small flocks passing us every few minutes. The main excitement of this place though wasn't the huge numbers but the amazingly close views we were getting of some of these quality raptors. Fair enough, not every bird was close, but many of them were right in front of us, or just below us, or circling above our heads. This was the perfect spot, since the geography of the area seemed to mean most of the birds passed this one headland. There were birds coming low, straight in-off towards us which hit the cliffs then circled for height in front of us. Many of the ones which had been blown further east, turned towards us to make land rather than extend their sea crossing by moving through the Bay of Gibraltar. And the birds which arrived further west of us, appeared to drift on the wind along the coast towards us as they tried to gain height, often popping up in the valley just to our west. So we were getting birds from three different directions - it was very exciting!
It would be difficult to give a chronological run-down of the birds we saw, so I'll go through species by species. We decided not to try to go for accurate counts as we thought it may distract us from the birds themselves, so the numbers mentioned below are rough estimates. We had about a two and a half hour watch before we decided to leave as the passage had noticeably slowed down.
The most common raptor, and probably my favourite of the morning, was Booted Eagle. We reckon we saw somewhere between 150 and 200 birds pass through. The majority of these were definitely pale-phase birds with dark ones being clearly outnumbered, but there was much variation amongst the pale ones - some being almost pure white, others being pale creamy-brown. The 'headlights' at the base of the wings were very visible on such close birds. Any photographers who want good Booted Eagle shots, I recommend Punta Carnero!
Another numerous species was Short-toed Eagle. Bigger than the Booted Eagles, these generally came in singles and so it was difficult to keep tabs on how many we had - perhaps as many as 100, but probably a bit less than that. They behaved in a similar way to the Booteds, suddenly appearing above us then drifting on up the valley. Most were well-spotted below but quite a few were very white. Not really like any other species and easy to identify.
The second most numerous species was Black Kite. We had about 150 of these altogether but didn't pay them as much attention. Much more active migrants as one would expect, we often had these flapping low over the waves. One bird we had was very striking as we initially thought it was a Red Kite being very pale, especially round the head, and it was a little more rufous than the other birds. Structurally though it was pretty fine for Black Kite. Unfortunately we weren't quick enough with the camera but it was interesting.
Other birds of prey that we had coming in included a single Osprey, maybe 10 or so Griffon Vultures, and a single and then a group of 3 superb Egyptian Vultures. All terrific birds. We had all three harrier species, with single Marsh and a female Montagu's Harrier zipping past us, and a female Hen Harrier flying low over the shoreline below. At least 10 Sparrowhawks arrived from Africa - something you tend to forget that they'd do - and a distant Hobby circled over the hillside. We had totted up 13 species of raptor before lunchtime!
As we didn't really move from the spot we didn't see a great deal of land birds on the headland. (I did move down the road at one point to try and get better photos but soon regretted it, as the excitement of really close views of Booted Eagle were somewhat mitigated by the sight of a Spanish man dumping his load in the bushes below my viewpoint! Pedro El Plop!). A few Ravens flew past us and a Nightingale sang vociferously from the valley. A Grey Heron flapped past and, very distantly, towards Gibraltar, two then three more Black Storks arrived in Europe. Out to sea we saw a few Gannets and Sandwich Terns, as well as a pod of dolphins which Ian thought were probably Striped Dolphins. The sun hadn't stopped shining and the raptors hadn't stopped passing - what a memorable morning!
If you are interested in the birds of the area and would like to join a guided tour, why not check out local experts Niki and Simon at their website here: https://ingloriousbustards.com/