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Migratory birds need to feed up en route, and so do birders!  Niki Williamson of the Inglorious Bustards brings you four of the best places to experience the ebb and flow of the East Atlantic Flyway, and where to rest and refuel while you´re doing it!

For a Northern European migratory bird, contemplating its daunting 3,000 mile journey to wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa, access to a network of key food-rich spots to rest, refuel and wait for good weather is a must.

These hotspots across the East Atlantic Flyway attract travelling migrants in their hundreds of thousands, making for some of the best wildlife spectacles that Europe and Africa have to offer!  So this year, instead of waving them off as summer ends, why not join us and follow them on their southerly journey?!

Bustling Migratory Bottleneck in Tarifa

At just nine miles wide, the Strait of Gibraltar is the narrowest stretch of water between Europe and Africa.  As well as many millions of Northern European passerines, over 250,000 southbound raptors choose this point to cross between continents.  The birds gather in huge numbers, making use of the thermals that rise off the rocky coastlines around Tarifa to give them the lift they need to traverse the short – but potentially deadly – stretch of sea.

This breath-taking migratory spectacle is beyond compare!  Imagine looking up and seeing 20,000 Honey Buzzards, Black Kites, White Storks, Short-toed and Booted Eagles, with supporting groups of Black Storks, Egyptian Vultures and European Bee-eaters.  No matter how many times we experience it, it never loses its magic!

Photo credit: Inglorious Bustards, White Storks

After an exhilarating day of looking up, we reckon you could do a lot worse than head down to the traditional indoor market in Tarifa Old Town.  Bustling with produce sellers by day, by night this cosy, decorative space re-opens as a pop-up seafood restaurant.  This satisfyingly informal venue is a great place to join local Tarifeños for a deliciously simple meal, as the bustling cook-stall fries up the remains of the days´ catch.  Typically Andalus, it seems all you need is a handful of plastic furniture and a couple of bottles of chilled local sherry and you´ve got yourself a party!

Photo credit: Inglorious Bustards, Tarifa Market 

Mediterranean fisheries haven’t been without their overfishing problems, but the Strait is a Natural Park containing Special Areas of Conservation and is such is well-protected under EU Law for its cetaceans and seabirds.  If you´re going to eat fish, we reckon you could do a lot worse than these fresh, seasonal, local offerings, typically from the lower end of the food chain.

Vulture Culture in Sierra Grazalema

Timing a visit to Andalusia in late October to early November will land you right into the middle of a lesser-known, but thoroughly mind-boggling avian migration spectacle.  Over a few short weeks, the entirety of Europe´s Griffon Vultures are converging on the Straits of Gibraltar.

There are no thermals over the sea, so for these huge birds, weighing a good twenty pounds each, the crossing to Africa is particularly treacherous.  They must wait until the weather and wind conditions are just right, so they can gain enough height to simply glide across, flapping as little as possible.  For days on end they form huge swirling tornadoes of biomass on the thermals above Tarifa, drifting nervously up and down the coast, trying to choose their moment – an absolutely awesome sight!

Photo credit: Andrew Fusek-Peters , Griffon Vulture 

As the days grow shorter and temperatures start to drop, lateral migration is also full swing, making it a great time to nip into the mountains.  Colder weather pushes mountain gems such as Black Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush, Alpine Accentor and Rock Bunting down to more accessible altitudes, superb for birding!  The dramatic mountain scenery is a stunning backdrop for resident birds too, such as Hawfinch, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit, Firecrest, Bonelli´s Eagle and Rock Petronia, and if you go to the right places, you stand a good chance of encountering some enigmatic mountain mammals, such as Spanish Ibex and Mouflon.

And we have another good reason to be tempted into the mountains!  Our friends David and Ivan who run the quirky and fabulous Hotel Bandolero in the village of Juzcar!  Award-winning chef Ivan´s tantalising treats epitomise the concept of seasonal and local food.  Expect hearty traditional fare with an exciting modern twist, inspired by fresh ingredients harvested from the edible local landscape.  Chestnuts, mushrooms, local pork, fruit preserves, goats cheese, truffles feature heavily at this time of year, and Ivan´s home baked bread never tastes better than on a chilly autumn morning!  We always come away from this trip a good pound or two heavier!

Feeding Frenzy in Northern Morocco

Breakfast in Northern Morocco is like a history lesson on a plate!  Here, Berber culture remains strong, but the food influences of former French and Spanish occupiers have certainly earned their place at the table!  Expect to mop up perfectly-cooked eggs with baguette that out-crusts the French.  Try a selection of traditional Moroccan breads such as khobz, a filling flatbread, or rghaif, a soft, savoury pancake – superb when stuffed full of freshly-made cream cheese and dripping with local honey. And don’t be surprised if the finishing touch is a side order of churros – delicious (and distinctly Spanish) elongated doughnuts.

We like to breakfast in the main square of Larache, with Little Swifts zooming over our heads, zipping in and out of their fluffy feather-lined nests beneath the colonnades.  After washing down our breakfast delights with a sugary, zingy mint tea or a black coffee with a kick, we´re all set to hit the stunning nearby birding hotpots.  Here, we are within a short drive of a handful of wetland sites dotted along Morocco´s Atlantic coast that are so important for migratory and resident birds they have been designated under the Ramsar Convention.

We visit the expansive waters of the Merja Zerga tidal lagoon and the complex and fascinating Loukkos Marshes, exploring a variety of habitats, such as shallow marine waters, estuarine waters, freshwater swamps, salt steppes and flood plains.  Here, tens of thousands of wintering birds, including Grey Plovers, Greenshanks, Spotted Redshanks, Whimbrels, Pied Avocets, Eurasian Spoonbills and Greater Flamingoes probe and sift the mud, while Audouin´s and Slender-billed Gulls and a variety of tern species drift overhead.  We´ll look for Marbled Teal, Red-crested Pochard, Ferruginous Duck, Moustached Warbler, Brown-throated Martin, and Red-knobbed Coot, between friendly encounters with local herdsmen.

We stay at this extraordinary site until dusk, for then we have a better chance of seeing the extremely rare Moroccan Marsh Owl.  This species´ habitat is under extreme pressure, as more and more pastureland is taken to farm strawberries for the British market, and scarce local water resources are used for irrigation.  Here at the Inglorious Bustards, we have a long background in conservation, and we´re now using this expertise to begin engaging with producers to explore a more sustainable way forward.

Photo credit: Inglorious Bustards, Moroccan Marsh Owl

Winter Warmth in The Gambia

This tiny, friendly West African gem is an absolute Mecca for migratory birds, and with good reason.  As the gleaming Gambia River bends gently inland to form its welcoming ‘grin’, it provides access to teeming habitats ranging from coastal creeks to mangrove swamps to freshwater lakes, with species-rich Sahelian scrubland in between.

Occupying about the area of Norfolk and Suffolk combined, this small, accessible country embraces the shores of the languid Gambia River, which flows through its very heart before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean.  Extensive protected areas interspersed with low-key traditional agriculture make for a welcoming wildlife haven, rich in eye-poppingly colourful flora and fauna.  For many of our UK migrant birds, such as Turtle Doves and Yellow Wagtails, this food-rich refuge represents the welcome end to their southbound journey.

But it´s not just the birds that are drawn here!  Appealing, hospitable and easy to visit, this simply amazing birding destination provides an ideal introduction to sub-Saharan Africa, with raptors galore and a myriad of colourful and exciting target species.  Bursting with life and culture, it is well-deserving of its nickname of ‘Africa’s Smiling Coast’, not just for its geographical appearance, but also because of the genuinely warm welcome waiting for you here.

Photo credit: Inglorious Bustards, Lunch at Tijan’s

While the birds are resting up from the midday sun, we often experience this Gambian hospitality in the form of a shared meal in the shade!  Tijan is our local guide and our friend for over twenty years, and his lovely wife Mariama cooks the best chicken domoda known to man!  This spicy, creamy, peanut curry is basically mouth heaven.  It tastes extraordinarily good with a fresh salad, and is even better when shared with friends, everyone around the table, mopping up the rich sauce with handfuls of satisfyingly sticky rice.  The shady yard at his house – affectionately known as the `RSPB Brufut Office´ – is full of bird feeders, so we also share our lunch with the likes of Lavender Waxbills, Beautiful Sunbirds and Red-cheeked Cordon Bleus. Now that´s a feast!

A feast of fabulous birding and feeding is waiting for you along the East Atlantic Flyway! Fancy some #FlywayBirding?  Inglorious Bustards offer birding and wildlife tours with a difference.  Join us for chilled/out birding adventures infused with relaxation, fun, local culture and delicious food.

Inspired by the wonder of bird migration, Inglorious Bustards offer birding and wildlife-watching adventures across the East Atlantic Flyway, from the Straits of Gibraltar to North Africa, The Gambia and beyond. Infused with relaxation and fun, their tours are nothing to do with racing around ticking birds and everything to do with enjoying local landscapes, culture and food. 

Niki Williamson
Inglorious Bustards

Originally Published: 15 Feb 2018
Griffon VulturesMoroccan Marsh OwlsWhite Storks

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