Sunday, 3 January 2016

Flashback: Sep 2014 Tarifa and Gibraltar

I have one final adventure to share with you from my time before I started this blog. In September 2014, I was on my first birding adventure abroad alone with a group of 15 strangers led by two guides. I was in southern Spain for four days with Naturetrek, a wildlife holiday group. It was a great few days full of amazing wildlife. The wildlife became apparent as we drove to our base at Huerta Grande from Malaga Airport with sightings of black kites and short-toed eagles soaring high above the roadside.

Iberian Wall Lizard
At our base, I had a quick look around the site and found a few Iberian wall lizards crawling around as well as a moorish gecko creeping along the fence surrounding the swimming pool (which was freezing by the way). Both reptiles were beautifully marked and extremely fast. This place alone was a great place to see wildlife. I almost stepped on a praying mantis one morning before being distracted by a hummingbird hawkmoth. I also came across firecrests, crested tits, a tree frog, serins, a huge violet carder bee, a red and black assassin bug, a monarch butterfly, an Iberian chiffchaff and Alpine swifts. This was all from just in the area where were staying!

Moorish Gecko
Praying Mantis
Mediterranean Tree Frog
Hummingbird Hawkmoth

Assassin Bug
Violet Carder Bee
The birds of the countryside and coastline of Tarifa was our main focus on our first day. Once we had dropped off our luggage and had been acquainted with the surroundings of our base camp, we were off in our two mini buses to two locations. We began our quest for birds at an observation point on top of a hill overlooking a valley of mountain-like hills and the Straits of Gibraltar, where you could see Africa tantalizingly close by. From this viewpoint, we saw griffon vultures, a white stork, a black kite, a kestrel, cattle egrets, a Sardinian warbler, a wheatear and a continental swallowtail (a cousin to the sub-species we get in Norfolk).

Crested Lark
Cattle Egret
Male Fiddler Crab
From our second location down the road was a gradual walk down to a hide on a beach. The walk took longer than expected as we found a new species of bird to our growing Spanish list everywhere we looked. This includes; spotless starlings, crested larks, yellow wagtails, a peregrine, zitting cisticolas, whinchat, stonechat, a turtle dove, corn buntings, sand martins, sandwich terns, little terns, yellow-legged gulls, sanderlings, ringed plovers, turnstones, redshanks, black-tailed godwit, curlew, common sandpiper, ruff and dunlins. My best highlights though were Kentish plovers and hundreds of fiddler crabs. On our way back to base, a Montagu's harrier (my first ever) flew past the front of our bus and into a bush, grabbing somekind of bird. The rufous plumage indicates that it was a juvenile, and the light of the setting sun shone on it gloriously!

Female Fiddler Crabs

Griffon Vulture
On day 2, we spent the morning at El Algarrobo, another viewpoint. September in this region is a hotspot for migrating birds as they prepare to cross the Straits of Gibraltar, an easy short cut to mainland Africa. Many of the birds have travelled many miles across Europe to get here and none are as obvious as the many raptors that gather in great numbers. We had so many honey buzzards, booted eagles and short-toed eagles circling above us that I lost count. My favourites though were the griffon vultures. They were huge! They soared low over us like flying barn doors. Some even landed nearby. It was an awesome sight to see! We also saw a couple of Egyptian vultures and several black storks here too.

Honey Buzzard
Booted Eagle
Short-toed Eagle
Long-finned Pilot Whale
In the afternoon of day 2, we went on a whale and dolphin cruise along the Straits of Gibraltar. It was a slow start with sightings of Cory's shearwaters and black terns, but no cetaceans. But as it seemed to be turning into a whale-less trip, a pod of long-finned pilot whales appeared! My first ever whale!! Most of the views were of fins breaking the surface with the occassional head popping out in the distance. Then they got closer and closer to our boat. It was incredible! The boat had a glass hull to view from underwater and I joined one of my guides down there. We were treated to a magical moment when one of the pilot whales passed by the window. It was like being in its underwater world with it for just a second as it flashed by, disappearing into the blue never to be seen again. It was amazing!!

The Rock of Gibraltar
We were at Gibraltar on day 3. It was like being in a part of Britain bathed in Mediterranean sunshine. It felt odd. Of course we had to visit the famous Rock of Gibraltar via a cable car to see its famous Barbary apes (which are actually tail-less monkeys). They were rather 'tame' and got really close to us, but we were cautious enough not to bring food with us and avoided any raiding attacks on our bags. Besides the monkeys, we also spotted a blue rock thrush sitting on a rocky ledge. Back at ground level, we visited the local park close to the cable car station. Here, we saw spotted flycatchers, a garden warbler, geranium bronze butterflies and best of all, two-tailed pasha butterflies. These were large, orange and brown butterflies and were majestic in the air. One even landed on someone in our group's camera lens! It was very amusing!

Cable car to The Rock
Barbary Ape
Up close with a monkey!
View from Gibraltar Rock
Blue Rock Thrush
Spotted Flycatcher
Two-tailed Pasha
Geranium Bronze
Yellow-legged Gull
Greater Flamingos
For our last day in Spain, we went to a privately owned salt pan near Cรกdiz which the owners invited us to spend some time with them. Along the way, we saw a lesser kestrel, a red kite and a black-winged kite. We were blown away by the sheer size of the land and the amount of bird life in the many huge pools of salt water. Greater flamingoes instantly caught your eye. My first wild flamingos! We also saw; black-necked grebes, black-winged stilts, slender-billed gulls, ospreys, sandwich terns, little terns, spoonbills, Caspian terns, Sardinan warblers and a wasp spider. We went on a boat to an island. The boat was nearly submerged by our combined weight and when we got there, we were caught in a brief shower with a flash of lightning. We had to take shelter in a concrete building until it passed. When it did, the ground was extremely muddy and our boots caked in the stuff. This meant a slippery boarding and exit on the now equally slippery boat ride back.
Black-necked Grebes
Wasp Spider
Red-veined Darter

Northern Bald Ibis
After lunch, we visited Montenmedio Golf Course. It was a different kind of birdie we were after though. Here was a colony of re-introduced northern bald ibises. This is an endangered species and was once extinct in Spain, but thanks to acts of conservation, these ugly yet beautiful looking birds are now thriving once again, at least on this golf course any way. They were an easy bird to see as they were feeding close to us, probing the ground with their curved bills attatched to their red bald heads. Next was a visit to La Janda. In this area of farmland, we saw hundreds of corn buntings and sparrows (including Spanish sparrows), a large flock of white storks, a squacco heron and banded groundlings (dragonflies with black markings on the wings). Finally, at the Rio Jara Valley, we saw a short-toed treecreeper and on the way back, my first ever bee-eater. This was a beautiful bird to end a great four days in Spain!
A cluster of Snails on a fence post
White Storks

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