3/12 Day one. After arriving at the airport and being picked up by Javi and Sergio we transferred to our hotel for the night. Here in the parking lot, we picked up our first Spanish bird species for our trip including the plentiful, but no less pretty for it, European Serin. Other species that were flitting between a drainage ditch on the edge of the parking lot and some Seville orange trees (the ones they make marmalade from) included Common Chiffchaff, European Greenfinch and our first raptor of the trip, Eurasian Sparrowhawk – a Sharp-shinned-sized accipiter.
After lunch at our hotel, we jumped into our trusty Mercedes minivans for a trip to the Guadalhorce River mouth. Though just a stone’s throw from downtown Malaga this is a real area hotspot. Thanks to the recent drought the shrubs, brush and trees were a little quiet, with just a Great Tit and a White Wagtail to show for our new bird species on our hike out to the pools. Though there wasn’t much to be seen on the sunbaked ground, the skies above were a completely different matter as both Barn Swallows and more excitingly House Martins hunted insects above us. We also picked up some new raptors, the first in the shape of a beautiful light morph Booted Eagle: a lifer for many. This diminutive Eurasian eagle is pattered much like a light morph Swainson’s or Short-tailed Hawk, but with some distinctive pale inner primaries. Our second raptor of the trip was an altogether more recognizable species to everyone involved, an Osprey, but no less enjoyed for all its familiarity.
As soon as we arrived at the oxbow pools however things improved dramatically, among the more prosaic Mallards and Northern Shovelers were a couple of spectacular ducks including superb looking Common Shelducks and some rare and localized White-headed Duck. A close relative of the Ruddy Duck, the White-headed Duck was on its way to extirpation from Europe when I was a young European birder thanks to habitat loss, hunting, and genetic swamping by the ill-advised introduction of Ruddy Ducks to the UK. Now thanks to conservation efforts across Europe the species is flourishing again.
Causing excitement among some Spanish birders we ran into on site was the report of a Bonaparte’s Gull, and though we missed it there were lots of European gulls to enjoy including Mediterranean, Black-headed and most spectacularly a Slender-billed Gull. This pink-washed beauty rapidly became a few people’s favorite all-time gull. There were lots of waders and shorebirds to enjoy too, including a bunch of showy Black-winged Stilts. Though we missed the celebrity North American gull I think we were more than happy with our first excursion for the tour.
3/13 Day two. This day saw the group winging its way south from Malaga to the migration sites of Tarifa. On the way we passed the Rock of Gibraltar an anomalous British Territory on the southern tip of mainland Spain named after a Moorish general who launched the 711AD invasion of Spain: Tariq ibn Ziyad. The Arabic etymology being the Mountain of Tarik: Jabal Ṭāriq.
Where to watch the raptor migration on the Strait of Gibraltar requires an intimate knowledge of the wind patterns on the day, some friends who are stationed across the area looking for migrant birds as well, a lot of skill, and perhaps a dash of luck. Fortunately for us, our local guide Javi had all of those things in spades.
We arrived mid-morning at the Punta Carnero watch site to drizzling skies, zero birds and not much hope of seeing migration, but it wasn’t long before we spotted the first distant Short-toed “Snake” Eagles struggling across the Strait in front of us. With clear views that stretched the eight kilometers across to Africa we could watch the incredible passage of raptors from one continent to another. Those that love raptor migration know that hawks fear crossing large bodies of water because they generally lack the beneficial thermals that help give them lift and today’s conditions appeared particularly unfavorable. However, driven on by the desire to breed and having already navigated the dangers of the Sahara Desert, these magnificent raptors set out on this perilous journey to reach the shores of Europe and breeding grounds beyond. It was hard to not cheer each individual bird as it reached us on the very southern tip of Spain and safety from the potentially watery grave that some of these birds sadly meet. Much of the flight was made up of Booted Eagles and Short-toed “Snake” Eagles but also included a nice Eurasian Marsh-Harrier or two and a trickle of Black Kites.
After enjoying a brief roadside stop to enjoy our first spectacular Egyptian and Eurasian Griffon Vultures we decamped to our hotel for lunch.
Our afternoon was enjoyed watching a breeding pair of Lesser Kestrels in the lovely old town section of Tarifa and even getting lucky enough to see prey exchanged by the pair. Scope views even allowing us to see the white claws that help definitively separate them from Common Kestrel. We ended our day staring out over the waters that separated us from Africa, but this time for waterfowl. Avian highlights included Great Skua, Atlantic Puffin and Northern Gannets, however the real afternoon prize was getting to see dolphins and Pilot Whales swimming in the Mediterranean below us.
3/14 Day three. We started our day with stunning scenery and great birds at the Cueva del Moro. The highlight at these incredible coastal rocks were the communal nest sites of Eurasian Griffon Vulture. European vultures are truly spectacular, and the Griffons might more rightly be thought of as European Condors given their incredible size and impressive weight. As well as the soaring and perching vultures there was much else to enjoy at this site for famous petroglyphs including glittering Blue Rock Thrushes and characterful little Rock Buntings. Both these species reminded me of our Rock Wren or Canyon Wrens the way they associated so closely with the bare rocks. We also got our first Greater Spotted Woodpecker on a tree way up on the cliffs. A personal favorite for the day were the Cirl Buntings. We had to work hard for these special looking buntings and eventually enjoyed good views of a retiring pair of these pretty birds.
We spent our afternoon taking a return trip to see the loneliest Common Bulbul in the world: a single individual who had somehow found its way to a parking lot in Tarifa (perhaps via a boat). After getting nice scope views of this solitary bird, we headed to the beach. Here on the sandy beaches of Tarifa we racked up a bunch of great coastal birds including ducks, gulls and shorebirds of many flavors. Favorites for the afternoon included Audouin’s Gull, Pied Avocet, Kentish Plover and an early Greater Whitethroat. Our day ended at another coastal watch site where some of us were lucky to stumble upon a Little Owl sheltering among the ruins of the WWII coastal defenses that Franco’s forces had dug into the clifftops in order to defend Spain from potential Allied invasion.
3/15 Day four. This morning we ventured out to La Janda, a site that was once one of Europe’s largest freshwater lagoons. Drained to prevent mosquito-borne disease and furthermore to create agricultural land there are conservation efforts afoot to return at least some of it to its former glory as a freshwater wetland. Though we didn’t connect with our main target here, Spanish Imperial Eagle, there was much else to enjoy including a particularly nice raptor: Black-winged Kite. Our whole visit saw us serenaded by ubiquitous European Stonechats and Corn Buntings that were singing incessantly from agricultural fields and brushy edges. Pastures also yielded Red-legged Partridge and the calls of Common Quail.
Just beyond La Janda we enjoyed another wonderful lunch at a traditional Andalusian café with a particular highlight, a North African inspired chickpea stew that came with a traditionally Spanish element: black pudding!
In the afternoon we visited a nest site for White Storks adjacent to our lunchtime café and watched their extraordinary bill clacking pair displays. We ended our day visiting the breeding colony of what must rate as one of the planet’s most intriguing birds, the “Waldrapp” or Northern Bald Ibis. Once common across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East this species has declined precipitously and is now found only completely in the wild in Morocco. In recent years a successful breeding colony has been established in Spain and it was a treat to see these incredible birds breeding in a relatively accessible setting. A hopeful end to a fun day.
3/16 Day five. We started our morning out at a little wooded area close to the hotel, where we picked up three charming little local forest dwellers: European Robin, Crested Tit, and a dazzling Common Firecrest. Another early stop on the day allowed us to pick up another highlight non-raptor species for the trip: Eurasian Hoopoe. After a day of drizzle on day four that had kept soaring birds grounded, we found ourselves back at Punta Carnero to witness the raptor floodgates open.
Mid-morning found us back at the watch site with good numbers of harriers on the move including Hen, Marsh and Montagu’s. This was followed by a steady stream of thousands of Black Kites which were intermingled with Short-toed, Booted and a rare Greater Spotted Eagle. This time conditions were much better for migration and the birds soared high overhead. Somewhere high above the migrants even a Peregrine ate on the wing. As we watched the steady stream of kites, Black Storks soared and Alpine Swifts put on a show too. A great morning in Andalusia with happy hawkwatchers from across the globe. We had now witnessed an incredibly intimate close migration of birds on our second day and now the spectacularly large flight that we had hoped for on our fifth.
Our afternoon ended up at La Janda, where we again missed Spanish Imperial Eagle, but got to enjoy a few new species including Calandra Lark and smart looking Eurasian Siskins among the flocks of Goldfinch, Greenfinch and Linnets.
3/17 Day six Today we ventured westwards up the coast to the historic port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Our trip started however in the small town of Chipiona where we enjoyed one of the world’s best cups of coffee from a simple working man’s café right there in the port. One of the reasons to stop here was to see a Little Swift colony – one of the only places to see this species in Europe. As well as ticking off the swifts, we also enjoyed looking through a few gulls in the harbor and scoping the beaches adjacent to the roman built harbor walls. Probably the best bird in the harbor was a Greater Black-backed Gull – a species that wouldn’t have been out of place at beaches much closer to home.
We spent our day roaming around this incredible historic town that is both part of the Sherry triangle and played an important part in European expeditions to the new world, with both Magellan and Columbus departing from the port on their adventures. As well as the great birds we also enjoyed a fantastic lunch of tapas, much of it fresh from the nearby sea.
Bird highlights on the day included another African bird expanding its range: Red-knobbed Coot, as well as waterbirds galore including Eurasian Spoonbill and spectacular groups of Greater Flamingos both seen resting on historic salt pans that dated back to Roman times and flying in breathtaking flocks.
3/18 Day seven. Today we returned to La Janda and we were finally met with a mixture of raptor and soaring bird successes. After much searching, we managed to finally connect with two pairs of Spanish Imperial Eagles; though distant it was a thrill to witness this conservation success story in the making. By the 1960s this stunning Aquila eagle was down to just 30 pairs in the wild and though it has bounced back to over 500 pairs it is still listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. There was much else to enjoy while we searched for the eagles as well including a rare for the area Northern Goshawk, late lingering Common Cranes, a mega flock of migrating White Storks, a close flyby of a Red Kite and a hunting Bonelli’s Eagle.
On our way to lunch we stopped off at a site where we were lucky enough to be able to see a nesting Eurasian Eagle Owl perched on the cliffside of an abandoned quarry that had been turned into an interesting art installation. There was also a fascinating butterfly here in the shape of a Southern Festoon.
Personally, the highlight of our day for was our afternoon visit to Baelo Claudia, a seaside Roman town settled in the second century BC. The town became an important center for trade with North Africa, tuna fishing, salting and production of garum (a fermented fish sauce). You could see the excavated works where tuna would be processed, the town’s baths and an aqueduct, but most impressive was the settlement’s incredible theater. It was amazing to reflect on the incredible history here and to think that these inhabitants of Baelo Claudia would have been witness to the same phenomenal raptor migration that we had been lucky enough to witness during our time here on the Strait.
3/19 Day eight. Early morning of our penultimate day we enjoyed a little birding around the hotel, picking up both brief views of a passing Merlin and good views of a singing local specialty: Iberian Chiffchaff. Leaving our hotel in Tarifa for the last time we started to make our way north and east into the mountains and the Pueblos Blancos of Andalusia. We stopped at multiple sites along the way including historic places like Casares, a site Julius Caesar had supposedly been treated for a skin condition! There were birds to enjoy here with soaring Griffon Vultures among the rocks and Booted Eagles too.
Our afternoon yielded the most exciting birding at a place called Sierra de Grazalema. Here we enjoyed two different species of wheatears including the localized Black Wheatear, soaring groups of striking Red-billed Choughs and a flock of initially illusive Rock Sparrows that eventually appeared on a pasture fence line for nice scoped views of this cool upland sparrow.
A distant pair of Golden Eagles were our last new raptor for the trip, and though the views were not the greatest ever, the scenery most certainly was, and we watched these birds attentively as they stooped among the craggy mountains of this incredible nature reserve.
As well as the birds there was a lot else to enjoy including both breathtaking scenery and some pretty little local bee orchids. My biggest desire though was to encounter some Iberian Ibex, a magnificent wild goat. Just as we were about to call it a day and head for the charming historic town of Ronda, we spotted a small group heading across the winding mountain road just ahead of us. We were then lucky enough to enjoy a prolonged encounter with these fantastic mammals. A wonderful end to our trip.
3/20 Day nine
Our trip ended with a sunrise morning walk to the bridge across the chasm that separates the old town of Ronda from the new town before we headed to the airport after a week of great birds, amazing scenery, spectacular raptor migration, fascinating history, and new friendships made, the embodiment of a great HMANA trip. In the end we had tallied about 140 species of bird including twenty diurnal raptors and two owl species.
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