Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Andalucia - Autumn Migration

7th - 14th Sept 2009

7th September :- I met Richard & Jane, Michael & Wendy, Aileen and the two Johns at Malaga Airport on their Tailor-made Holiday to Southern Andalucia. We were soon heading south and west along the Mediterranean coast towards Tarifa and en-route saw a couple of Black Kites and a Kestrel, just to whet the appetite. As we left Algeciras things started to happen with several Booted Eagles and Black Kites and Michael saw a Red Kite from the side of the minibus followed by a couple of Egyptian Vultures (adult & immature) before we reached our hotel. At the excellent Meson de Sancho (between Algeciras & Tarifa) we quickly checked in and got our rooms on the upper floors with a good view from the balcony over towards the Rock of Gibraltar. Intermittently we all spent time overlooking the bushes and trees below and the skies above the tree-line. During our final hour of daylight we managed to see another 2 Egyptian Vultures, Short toed & Booted Eagles, Sparrowhawk, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Blue Tit, Chaffinches and House Sparrows. Not a bad start to the holiday at all.

8th September :- An unplanned lay-in by yours truly I met the others standing in the corridor of the hotel overlooking the hillside watching a couple of Booted Eagles and a few Griffon Vultures. A strong Levante (east wind) was blowing but spirits were high during a very good breakfast that was on offer. We returned to our rooms after breakfast but before we got sorted out a flock of 40+ Bee-eaters flew around and then alighted on some pool-side trees, showing fantastically well in the telescope. Raptors were still trickling through with a couple of Egyptian Vultures joining their much larger cousins. However it was time to leave but getting into the vehicle proved difficult as a flock of 18 Egyptian Vultures was an amazing sight and out first Sparrowhawk of the day. Due to the strong easterly we decided to head for one of the westerly raptor watchpoints – La Pena. We arrived there and set up near the un-manned watchpoint (apparently all the migration points had been abandoned due to the weather) and started to find birds immediately. During the course of the morning we logged 50+ Honey Buzzards, 10+ Black Kites, 40+ Booted Eagles, 20+ Short toed Eagles, 20+ Egyptian Vultures, 30+ Griffon Vultures, a probable Ruppell’s Vulture, 2 Sparrowhawks, several Common Kestrels and at least one Lesser Kestrel. Land birds were fairly thin on the ground but we did see Cattle Egrets, a couple of Stonechats, Corn Bunting, Goldfinches and Linnets. The wind was becoming a problem so we decided to take our picnic lunch at the Migres Headquarters back at the main road, where it might be more sheltered. It was slightly better at the picnic tables but there very kind volunteer offered us their dining room to use which was perfect. After lunch we packed things away as while waiting for everyone to gather at the minibus, I spied a large kettle of Griffon Vultures back up the hill. It looked like they were gathering for a carcass so we raced back up to the La Pena site and sure enough 70+ Griffs were floating round, there had to be a Ruppell’s Vulture in there surely?. We got out and almost immediately I picked out this very rare African vulture and we all got on to it before it drifted away. However we stayed enjoying the spectacle of the other Griffon Vultures flying above us but not coming down on to the carcass being devoured by some pigs, which was strange. Then they started to drop on to it and soon enough there was a feeding frenzy going on, which included 2 immature Ruppell’s Vultures and we were standing no more than 10m away, a photographers dream!. Within 30 minutes the sheep carcass had been stripped so we and the vultures departed but very grateful for such a wildlife spectacle. Next we visited the nearby Los Lances beach but the wind was now becoming unbearable so a quick was amongst the grasses & thistles produced a few Cattle Egrets, Crested Larks and a nice flock of 30+ Short toed Larks. However we abandoned it and sat in the hide that overlooks the beach were we found Grey Heron, Little Egret, Dunlin, Sanderling, Common Redshank, Kentish & Ringed Plovers 40+ Audouins, Black headed, Yellow legged & Lesser Black backed Gulls, 10+ Sandwich Terns and a few Common Swifts and Barn Swallows moving along the beach. Eventually we decided to return to the hotel as we were very weather-beaten and long for a shower to get the dust off, and returning to the minibus Wendy was lucky enough to see a Red rumped Swallow flying overhead. We got back to the accommodation but some migration was still filtering through with another flock of Bee-eaters, Honey Buzzards, Booted Eagles, Griffon & Egyptian Vultures milling around waiting for an opportunity to cross the Straits to Morocco. A watch from the room terrace produced a few things including a Grey Wagtail, Short toed Treecreeper, Chaffinches, Blackcaps and a singing Cetti’s Warbler.

9th September :- I spent half an hour on the balcony with John Thorogood (who was on his own adjacent balcony) overlooking the trees and bushes at the back of the hotel. During this time we recorded several Blackcaps, female Sardinian Warbler, Chaffinch, along with hearing Wren and Cetti’s Warbler (as usual!!). After breakfast we convened at the minibus and set off towards Tarifa stopping at another of the Migres Raptor watchpoints – Cazalla. The strong Levante wind was still blowing but we managed to find a fairly sheltered spot, settled down and watched the migration. It soon came apparent that the wind was causing some problems for birds crossing the straits as lots of Black Kites and Egyptian Vultures seemed to be circling round the whole area not knowing what to do. There were other species in much smaller numbers with a single Marsh Harrier, several Honey Buzzards; Booted & Short toed Eagles, Sparrowhawks and Griffon Vultures. Fantastic views were obtained of all these species as they passed right in front of us at eye level and below. The morning gave way to midday and we decided drive into Tarifa for a welcome coffee break and to stock on provisions for our lunch. The sun was now getting warm despite the cooling easterly wind, which was now again starting to seriously freshen. Like the day before we accepted the very kind hospitality of the Migres volunteers dining area to have our picnic lunch. We left here and headed west seeing a few Pallid Swifts en-route until we turned off the main road to the wet agricultural lands of La Janda. We slowly made our way along the metalled road and Jane found our first good bird – a Black Stork flying low over the fields. This was then followed by several White Storks and the first of our juvenile Montagu’s Harriers to be seen. We then added a few Mallard and a Shoveler, along with Linnets and a Greenfinch before moving on. Halfway along the main track I stopped for another Monty’s this time it was one of the gorgeous (& rare) melanistic forms that frequent this area. We moved slowly along this track adding 2 more Black Storks, a few Green Sandpipers, Marsh Harriers, Kestrel, Woodpigeons, Grey Heron and lots of Cattle Egrets. We then negotiated a side track that I knew where we might find our main target species, and sure enough it didn’t disappoint. Not one but two Black shouldered Kites gave a fine display as they flew around the fields and alighted on the irrigation booms - they are a magical bird. While we were enjoying these elegant raptors, Honey Buzzards started moving through east towards Tarifa in good numbers and within 30 minutes we estimated to have seen 1000+ birds plus migrant Lesser Kestrel, Black Kite, Short toed & Booted Eagle, just thrilling and hard to catch breath. It was now late afternoon and we were all hot and very weather-beaten so we headed back the way we had come, with Wendy seeing a Kingfisher, plus Zitting Cisticola and 2 Spoonbills amongst a small group of White Storks. It was here that Michael spotted a large flock of Glossy Ibis in the distance, which was a very good find indeed. So we made our way round to where they were and got some much better views. Eventually we did leave and drove back to our hotel were we finished our day like we started it on the balcony and quite a few raptors including a very impressive flock of 10 Booted Eagles seen by Richard & Michael.

10th September :- The day started with the usual pre-breakfast balcony watch and wander round the gardens seeing all most of the species encountered previously. Although Aileen actually seeing a Wren was definitely noteworthy maybe we could now get to grips with the Cetti’s Warbler!. Today was Jules’s birthday and after the kind greetings and card, Richard promised something special during the day, so he had to deliver. We set off towards Tarifa and near Los Lances we saw a female Hen Harrier quartering the fields further on just before turning off the N340 for Zahara de los Atunes, we found a couple of Short toed Eagles sat on pylons. At Zarzuela Michael said “there’s some swifts”, and not taking anything to chance we stopped and they turned out to be 10+ Alpine Swifts moving south. While we were there we also found a stunning juvenile Montagu’s Harrier, Black Kite, Kestrel and a Sand Martin. We continued on to Zahara checking the river but to no avail so continued on the road to Barbate. Along the road that follows the coastline we saw Stonechats and Barn Swallows were flying east in a constant stream, this went on during the day in what must have been a passage of 1000’s of birds. Then Richard fulfilled his promise as he shouted “STOP possibly ibis?”, parking was an issue but I managed to turn round and sure enough there was one of the world’s rarest birds – Bald Ibis. Eventually we found a suitably safe parking area got our things and waked back to where they were, making sure to keep a respectable distance. Over the next 1.5 hours we watched these strange looking birds as they flew around and fed amongst the cattle on the coastal pasture. In all we counted 23 Bald Ibis’s, which form the greater part of the re-introduced birds in the project, which has been going on for about 4 years now. It was quite a special moment for all of us. Although while we were there we saw much more than these, with Michael & I seeing 8 Red legged Partridges, Wendy found a cracking male Black eared Wheatear, on the hillside there were Sardinian Warblers, Serin, Great Tit and a Blackbird. Off-shore we added 2 Cory’s Shearwaters but the sight of flocks of Honey Buzzards and Black Kites moving low along the coastline was something that was also really special. Near lunchtime we dragged ourselves away from this Tamri (Atlantic Morocco) like area and decided to have our lunch at an excellent roadside café. It couldn’t have been better as we feasted on roast pork & bacon bocadillos while watching (predominantly) Honey Buzzards flying in off the sea. We assumed these were birds that had failed to make Africa and the easterly wind was pushing them towards the Atlantic so aborted and returned to Iberia before getting too far from land. Quite fascinating to watch as some struggled staying only a few metres above the waves before hitting land and getting instant relief from the thermals. After lunch we had an Osprey fly over and then decided to have a look at Barbate beach finding Sandwich, Common & Little Terns feeding along the tide-line, with a highlight being the former and latter being sat together for comparison. Sanderlings were on the beach and out to sea we saw a couple of closer Cory’s Shearwaters plus a few Common & Alpine Swifts moved through. Next we visited the nearby Marismas de Barbate, a series of tidal pools and streams that feed off the Rio Barbate, surrounded by glasswort and other salt marsh species. Most of the afternoon was spent searching this area with the following estimated counts – single Cormorant, several Grey Herons, Cattle & Little Egrets, another Osprey, Honey Buzzards, 4 Marsh Harriers, Short toed Eagle, 2 Booted Eagles, 3 Oystercatchers, 4 Grey Plovers, 800+ Ringed Plovers, 200+ Kentish Plovers, 3 Whimbrel, 20+ Curlew, 2 Turnstone, 100+ Common Redshank, 4 Greenshank, 3 Common Sandpiper, 4 Knot (including one in summer plumage), 50+ Sanderling, 70+ Dunlin, 1 (ad winter) Mediterranean Gull, lots of Yellow legged, Lesser Black backed & Black headed Gulls, 3 Common Terns, Kingfisher, 2 Red rumped Swallows, several Sand Martins, Crested Larks, Zitting Cisticola and Willow Warbler. Absolutely superb. We were starting to flag a little by mid afternoon so we decided to head back towards Tarifa calling in at Bolonia for an ice cream. This was enjoyed very much as we sat overlooking the sea were a couple of Gannets fished off-shore. After this welcome break we had a walk along the road to the impressive Roman ruins associated with this village finding a few migrants, which included 2 Spectacled Warblers, Sardinian Warbler, Northern Wheatears with super views of another Short toed Eagle, 40+ Griffon Vultures and Richard picked out a Pallid Swift from the hordes of Swallows heading west along the coast. It was time to leave with the journey back to the hotel producing a Hoopoe for Michael, and once back a couple of Sparrowhawks hunted over the trees, concluding yet another incredible day in this wonderful area.

11th September :- This morning we were meeting well before first light as we were driving to Bolonia in the hope of encountering the rare Little Swift exiting a known cave high up on the Sierra de Plata. It started well with a Tawny Owl calling from the trees around the hotel and we arrived at the site just before the first rays of light. A male Blue Rock Thrush was singing high up on the escarpment, which eventually gave good views through the telescope. This type of stake-out is always a lottery and unfortunately lady luck was not on our side as we waited an hour to no avail. However we did get some fantastic views of Griffon Vultures and a Crag Martin did fly over our heads. Also here we did hear an Iberian Green Woodpecker from the woodland below us, but sadly no views. We drove back down the hill towards Bolonia and found a Short toed eagle sat on a pylon, followed by a couple of Lesser Kestrels including a smart adult male. At the beach car park we searched the area and saw a male Marsh Harrier migrating over the sea, Common Sandpiper, Ringed & Kentish Plovers, a couple of Audouin’s Gulls, Crested Larks, Yellow Wagtail, Zitting Cisticolas and Sardinian Warblers. Soon we left here and headed back to our hotel seeing a juvenile Montagu’s Harrier, Common Kestrels and a Northern Wheatear en-route. The weather had started to look bleak by the time we arrived and got greyer during our breakfast. Also during breakfast Richard saw a phylloscopus warbler outside and after a bit of time was positively identified as an Iberian Chiffchaff. We had decided to give ourselves a little time before setting off again and during this time we enjoyed some very good raptor migration involving Honey Buzzards, Egyptian & Griffon Vultures, Short toed & Booted Eagles, Sparrowhawks, a Common Buzzard and Peregrine Falcon. Also in the gardens a Crested Tit was found with Short toed Treecreeper, Blackcaps, 4 more Yellow Wagtails, Blue Tits, Chaffinches and a couple of Spotted Flycatchers. With the weather starting to be a problem we were going into Tarifa to have a look round especially along the beach and port areas. During the initial part of this the rain pretty much stayed away and allowed us to see several Cory’s Shearwaters and Gannets off-shore and among the rocks and beach found a Cormorant, Oystercatcher, Turnstone, Sanderlings and Kentish Plovers. We started back towards town from the beach and witnessed some raptor migration out into the Straits of Gibraltar involving small flocks of Honey Buzzards & Egyptian Vultures (one wonders how they fared in the inclement weather?). Returning to the minibus the rain started to pour in earnest and by the time I got back it was a deluge making sure everyone was soaked to the skin!. My plans for a picnic had been seriously dented so again we returned to the hotel for a welcome clothes change and our lunch of bocadillos and fruit. It was decided that we would wait a while to see if the weather would improve so again we watched from various view points around the hotel. Once the rain stopped the skies were almost immediately filled with raptors mainly Booted Eagles but also all the other regular species. Wendy & Michael found no fewer than 6 Short toed Eagles sat in trees at the seaward side of the hotel. At least 3 Monarch butterflies and a Hummingbird Hawkmoth were seen, adding to the tropical flavour of this lovely establishment. The weather did improve and at 17:30 we drove the short distance to the El Algorrobo watchpoint for a couple of hours, which proved very popular. During this time we got fantastic views of Booted & Short toed Eagles, Honey Buzzards and Egyptian Vultures passing close by. We found no fewer than 70 Egyptian Vultures sat in just two dead trees looking like Christmas decorations on a fir tree. We saw our first Hobby eventually getting a good view just before we left and 8 migrating Lesser Kestrels was a good find. Bee-eaters flew back and forth in small flocks announcing their presence with their distinctive call; it was simply brilliant and a great way to end such a fragmented day.

12th September :- As usual there were one or two searching for birds in the grounds of the hotel with Richard doing well finding a Firecrest – not easy in the dense foliage. After breakfast we headed back to the El Algorrobo raptor watchpoint where quite a few had gathered to watch the visible migration. We set ourselves up and settled down to watch as the birds passed by all round us. During the morning we had amassed an impressive total of birds with 1000+ Booted Eagles, 170+ Short toed Eagles, 2 Bonelli’s Eagles, 20+ Honey Buzzards, 20+ Black Kites, juvenile Montagu’s Harrier, Marsh Harrier, 12 Sparrowhawks, 50+ Griffon Vultures, several Egyptian Vultures, 100+ Bee-eaters, Common Swifts and a couple of Greenfinches. At noon we decided to leave and drove into Tarifa to collect some provisions from one of the supermarkets. While Jules & John Tookey were inside everyone else enjoyed fabulous views of yet more passage this time mainly Black Kites (but also many Booted & Short toed Eagles) with  100+ moving out towards the straits in a short space of time. After refreshments at the local bar we made our way down to the sea where we set up our picnic lunch looking out towards Morocco. It was now quite hot and a total contrast of the heavy showers encountered there the previous day. Migrant raptors were pretty much constantly heading out across the 14Km stretch of water with some ‘bottling it’ and returning to Spain to try again later, but most battled there way over to North Africa. A fascinating event to witness. During lunch we also looked for seabirds finding just a single Cory’s Shearwater, several Gannets and a few Sandwich Terns. On the rocks we found an Audouin’s Gull amongst the Yellow legged Gulls, 2 more Sandwich Terns and a Turnstone. After lunch sat on the local benches we went for a short walk along the coast but didn’t find very much so we decided to try our luck at Los Lances beach. We soon arrived there being just along the coast from Tarifa and as we exited the car Jules was checking the raptors heading back inland and found a superb Long legged Buzzard with Black Kites. We all got on to it as it flew away from us being able to see of the necessary salient points identifying this rare visitor to Iberia. The reverse raptor passage was impressive with again lots of Booted & Short toed Eagles, Honey Buzzards and Egyptian Vultures. We walked out to the coastal hide and sat there for an hour checking the beach, which held 2 Little Egrets, 100+ Audouin’s Gulls, Yellow legged, Lesser Black backed & Black headed Gulls, Sandwich Terns, Ringed Plovers,  3 Redshanks (found by Wendy), single Oystercatcher, Sanderling and Dunlin. Jane picked out a ‘flavissima’ Yellow Wagtail, a Tawny Pipit showed very well in the beach grasses, a Pallid Swift flew across the beach plus John Tookey and Jules saw an adult male Lesser Kestrel fly inland. During this time Richard had been very diligent checking the gulls and was rewarded with finding 2 (3rd winter) Herring Gulls, which is a very good larid for this area of Spain. It was now late afternoon so we made our way back to the minibus firstly having a quick walk over the saltings were we accidentally flushed another Tawny Pipit, found another ‘flavissima’ Yellow Wagtail alongside several Spanish Yellow Wagtails, Northern Wheatear and a  few Stonechats, completing an excellent couple of hours here. We set off back to the hotel and incredibly at the side of the main road we saw two small flocks of Lesser Kestrels involving around 20 birds, which speak’s volumes about the magic of the place in September!. Finally whilst sitting out from the hotel balcony an impressive flock of 50+ Bee-eaters was seen by John Tookey and Jules had c.10 House Martins, a bird in short supply during this week.

13th September :- This was our final full day and a lovely calm sunny day dawned with the usual pre-breakfast birdwatch, which included 2 Firecrests, 2 Garden Warblers, Blackcaps, Jay, Crested & Blue Tit by individual members of the group. Once ready we again set off west of Tarifa (with strangely very few raptors this morning) to the agricultural lands of La Janda but stopped a former area of coastal steppe (now covered in turbines). It still managed to produce some very good species which included 100+ Calandra Larks, Crested Larks, Red legged Partridges, a few Northern Wheatears, 100’s of Corn Buntings, juvenile Montagu’s Harrier and 6 Ravens. At La Janda we drove slowly along the main track which was in complete contrast to our previous visit, due to the calm weather bringing out many migrant birds. Zitting Cisticolas and Stonechats lined the fences and then we saw our first White Storks and Glossy Ibis. Marsh Harriers seemed commoner today and out-numbered Montagu’s unlike the previous visit. We decided on a walk to the canal and got superb views of 50+ Alpine Swifts with 2 Common Swifts as they wheeled and called right above our heads. While we were scanning the rice fields we picked out a Spoonbill stood amongst the White Storks and a Stone Curlew was flushed by a harrier and flew out sight into a fallow field. We continued along this minor track with our next good find being a Little Owl sat on a local out-building, Aileen and Richard saw a Kingfisher and Wendy even saw a Cetti’s Warbler. Again we stood for a while and Richard found a Great White Egret and then a Black winged Kite flew towards us being followed by a second bird – superb. John Thorogood was thrilled as this was one of his major target species having missed them in Extremadura a few years earlier. It was now getting quite hot and close to lunchtime so we got back into the minibus and drove through to the area where we had seen the Black winged Kites previously. This short journey was quite productive with a Sparrowhawk, Honey Buzzard, Turtle Dove (found by Wendy), Green Sandpipers and a Moorhen. At the lunch stop myself and John Tookey made a start on the picnic lunch while the others found at least 2 more Black winged Kites sat on irrigation booms. We were stopped near some large fields of cotton and during lunch I noticed several small passerines flitting about these bushes. So later we decided to have a short walk along the track dissecting the fields and found a cracking male Common Redstart, a couple of Spotted Flycatchers, Willow Warblers, Whitethroats and a Melodious Warbler. One of the Black winged Kite’s flew in and showed extremely well again sat on a boom, and the fields were covered in Lesser & Common Kestrels. It was again time to move on so we continued along the tracks towards Benalup stopping at a couple more roadside lagoons. These were quite productive containing several Black winged Stilts, Common Snipe and a Little Ringed Plover found by Michael. We were now back on the main roads and I decided we head through the Cuevas del Tajo to the A381 motorway which connects Algeciras to Jerez. Although quiet for birds apart from a few Griffon Vultures it was a fantastically scenic drive and well worth the effort. Once at Algeciras we headed for the tourist village of Palmones, where the Rio Palmones runs into the sea. Unfortunately being a Sunday it was busy with sun-seekers so a lot of the (normally) roosting gulls & terns had been disturbed. However during our visit where an ice cream was actually most welcome we saw several Ringed & Kentish Plovers, a single Whimbrel, Common Redshanks, 2 Greenshanks, Common Sandpiper, Sanderlings, Dunlins, Sandwich Terns, Yellow legged & Black headed Gulls. Late afternoon we headed back to the hotel were we spent an hour sat on our respective balconies seeing a big group of hirundines, which included lots of House Martins, a couple of Sand Martins, and a Red rumped Swallow.
Our final evening was another great affair with all of us voting for our favourite bird of the week. Although the Ruppell’s Vultures and Black winged Kites received some plaudits it was without doubt the sheer numbers and views of Short toed Eagles, which really shone out throughout the group; and rightly so – they are an impressive bird and visually fantastic

14th September :- Our final morning and after our usual breakfast and making ready we convened at the minibus with our luggage. While waiting by the van I heard a familiar sound looked up and easily 600+ Alpine Swifts flying around in two large groups – it was awesome. Luckily I was able to signal to most of the group and they also got great views against the dark clouds. Once loaded up we headed east back towards Malaga making pretty good time and leaving some time to visit the excellent Rio Guardalahorce nature reserve. Almost immediately we found a couple of new species - 2 Black Terns and a Coot, along with Little Terns, Mediterranean Gulls, Grey Heron, Cormorant and Zitting Cisticolas. With the van laden I decided to wait behind while Richard took the rest round to the hide on the edge of the river which was most productive with 2 Black necked & Little Grebes, 7 Spoonbills, Gadwalls, Marsh Harrier, Black winged Stilts and an Avocet. This had been a tremendous climax to the week and we got to the nearby Malaga Airport in very good time for their flight back to Stansted.


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