Autumn bird migration in La Janda

Travel

After spending most of the summer up in Poland and Germany, like a migratory bird, for various reasons (not nesting though), I finally came back to Spain in September. After a sticky, humid summer, September brings pleasant temperatures while still allowing to indulge oneself on the beach and plunge easily to the sea. There are other reasons why I love this season in Andalucia so much: I can still do snorkelling and wave ‘hi’ to fish, while there is still a lot of birds up on the skies and in the remains of humid, salty marshes.

These birds are either on its way to Africa, or preparing for a wintering season here in Spain. The only sad note to self I made is that the swifts are long gone, after a very hot and unpredictable summer, and they no longer wake me up with their energetic hunt for the insects. And as a matter of fact, I then notice the painful presence of mosquitos. Even more important to prepare the nest box and save the swifts the next season!

Since I missed the summer get-togethers of the Andalucian Bird Society, I was very excited to see everyone again for the Autumn Migration meetup in La Janda and Barbate Marches. As I arrived almost late by bus to the village of Tahivilla, and quickly ordered a proper breakfast in Hotel/Restaurante Apolo IX, it was so nice to see familiar and new faces excited for the day ahead of us. We had about 11 cars altogether and decided to divide into two smaller groups to ensure optimal birdwatching conditions. I joined the group led by Frank O’Hair and we started off by the route ‘up to the stinky farm’ (aren’t all farms a bit smelly, by the way?).

We stopped several times by La Janda canals to notice the absolute birding wonders. As the mornings tend to be cloudy due to the Atlantic Ocean’s presence, we first spotted colourful red legs of a red partridge, followed by a bunch of stonechats, corn buntings, wood warblers, zitting cisticola, and redstarts. In the misty air, we noticed crested larks, hoping to see Calandra larks too. Instead, we saw a cheerful group of Spanish sparrows, residing in the bushes. As the sky became clearer, we spotted birds of prey: black-winged kites, common and lesser kestrels as well as griffon vultures, at their cruising altitude, not too bothered about anyone else, not even crashing into a flock of glossy ibis.  

A more dramatic scenario happened to a honey buzzard, notoriously mocked by the group of lesser kestrels. How come you can tell a lesser from a common kestrel? Lesser kestrels vary by the size, colours but also by its behaviour. They live and breed in larger groups than the common kestrels, and they seem to use a group strategy to scare off larger predators. On that day we also saw a number of Montagu’s and marsh harriers, often hard to tell especially when they’re juvenile. And on top of that, there was an impressive Spanish imperial eagle, relatively well to spot in La Janda.

Our next stop was next to the pump, which offered a great observing spot for cattle and little egrets. Dozens if not hundreds of them inhabited the neighbouring trees where we had an opportunity to observe their cohabitant behaviour and plenty of juvenile examples. Other wading and impressive species noted around this location included storks, cranes, and spoonbills gathering before crossing the Gibraltar Strait. We also noticed the ongoing presence of jackdaws, raven, collared dove and a wood pigeon, varying slightly in their mourning calls (by one syllable).

Before we paused for a packed lunch picnic next to the shaded area of the canal with two kingfishers and plenty of swallows, we saw a lovely greylag goose couple surrounded by the egrets taking off. At the lunch spot we did hear a penduline tit (Twitter notification sound!), gallinule (aka swamphen) and a hoopoe. After our lunch we briefly met with the other group, which reported fantastic sightings in the Barbate Marshes area and we exchanged some birding tips for La Janda.

They were soooo right: Barbate Marshes were such a treat to our eyes, starting off with a plethora of common ring and Kentish plovers by the shore and soon, spotting a pair of Eurasian curlews resting at one of the isles. Further up we had a lovely view over the greater and lesser flamingos, and an isle full of gulls, including Audouin gull, black-headed gull (with a white head around this season), slender-billed and a yellow legged gull, all of them in one place. I still envy anyone capable of telling a juvenile gull species from each other, definitely a note to self and a 2023 challenge to work on!

The sounds of black-winged stilts got us to look into a part where they cohabited with gracious pied avocets and lively sanderlings, little and Temmick’s stints, dunlins, turnstones, ruffs and common redshanks, sandpipers and snipes. At the end of our day we also counted a lesser and common tern and a common buzzard hovering above us.

The day ended up looking at the spoonbill showing off her beak from various perspectives, which itself is fascinating. We were also very perseverant looking for a little owl, allegedly residing in the local tamarind trees. Instead, we managed to see a female black redstart and a pied flycatcher before we called it a day. We said our goodbyes and left passing through a cattle herd coming back to their farm.

I dreamed of birds that night, and the day after my eye sharpened so much for them, or I was just nicely hallucinating. Staying in my beloved Conil de la Frontera I took the opportunity to run my usual 5K at the beach shore, alongside the juvenile, gregarious ringed plovers. They were faster, and I let them score. It was a great weekend, location and both human and natural company to recommend to anyone at this time of the year visiting Andalucia.

Springtime migration

Travel

After the rain comes sun, after the sun comes rain again. While this may be universally true, we’ve been waiting for the rain for over 9 months in Andalusia. Contrary to the other European locations, the percentage of rainy days accounts for 10% tops throughout the year.

This has profound effect on the ecosystem, including summer wild fires and decreasing bird population, especially the migratory species, looking for the rest after the long way to or from Africa through the Gibraltar Strait. The month of March though brought immense amount of water, as well as Sahara sandstorms twice, turning the Andalusian landscape into an orange-ish, muddy moonscape.

I went on a weekend trip to my beloved Conil de la Frontera on the Cadiz coast, also known as Costa de la Luz. The heavy rain was gone by then, leaving vast greenfield areas and welcoming the migratory bird species from Africa which came here for the nesting period, alongside the all-year-round inhabitants.

Conil is situated in between La Janda and seaside lagoons which are a great foraging area for egrets, stilts and other wading birds, previously mentioned.

I took some time to hide and train my amateur photographic eye to witness the common egrets cohabiting these areas with glossy ibis, and even more domestic species like pigeons or sparrows.

Alongside the coastal line I could also spot a curious wagtail observing the agile shore swallows and different gull and shy plover species. As the current changed every couple of hours, I could see their intensifying fishing attempts or giving up and resting on the shore.

I couldn’t miss visiting the glossy ibis colony in the Playa de Castilobo area. I was happy to see the colony growing in number, gracefully flying around the fields and sharing the foraging area with stilts and common egrets.

Around this time of the year, as I walked nearby the Atlantic beach meadow, the cattle was enjoying the company of the cattle egret, smaller in size and gregarious in its nature. I’m fascinated by the cohabitation and comensalism of these two species and since then, anytime I see a bull, a cow or a horse, I look out for the cattle egret around!

Coming back to the ibis colony, I could also see how well they share their territory with crows and rock pigeons, picturing some incredible everyday moments of living on the rocky tower block!

I am very glad that my bird-eye view becomes sharper each time I look around, being able to recognise and take a shot of a resting kestrel, comparing to my previous year’s photos.

Last but not least, among the springtime migration, there was a purple egret – a stunning, colourful bird alongside with terns and gulls, preparing for the nesting season and quite territorial. I won’t forget the bird attack I suffered on Iceland, not knowing about the close nesting location of the Arctic tern.

So, happy springtime birding and remember about the safety of the birds, yourself and distance to the nesting areas. Don’t joke with the tern!

Costa de la Luz – tribute to the sun

Travel

Last week the summer officially started, bringing long, intense days, scorching sun, smell of the sea and the appetite to discover new places around. As soon as the travel between the provinces had been allowed, I set myself to my revisit my beloved Ocean, the part of Andalucia called Costa de la Luz. After last year’s visit to Tarifa, I always wanted to return there as much as I could. 

Leaving at the sunrise, the roads were still pretty empty and it was such a pleasure driving slowly around the steep mountains nearby Marbella, changing naturally into the landscape of vast fields, Atlantic forest and dunes as soon as you leave towards the Cadiz province. From time to time I could see the birds of prey or even vultures hovering in the sky just above the car.

Passing by the white towns of Vejer and Barca, I chose my first destination: Conil de la Frontera. At the end of May there was still only a handful of people visiting and it allowed me to enjoy the vast Ocean beaches almost alone, something hard to imagine during the high season. I took my Mom with me as she loves this type of places and it was a great reunion for us to spend a few days together in such a scenery. Conil is one of the most picturesque ‘white towns’, founded by the Phoenicians, famous for the Spanish Reconquista and for its almadraba fishing method. 

The appreciation for the local cuisine led me to check the menu of various taverns, who compete for the most creative tuna dishes. My absolute favourite in Conil would go to Taberna Chanca, full of creative yet simple tapas. I rarely repeat places when travelling, but I enjoyed it so much, I returned there after 2 weeks, this time with my partner. I only hope that the traditional method has the appreciation for this magnificent species. Even the local Virgen del Carmen is blessing the fishermen and the tuna itself.

From the natural paradise lens, another place that completely blew my mind was the endless lagoon on Playa de Castilobo with an ancient Moorish tower, currently inhabited by Hermit Ibises, re-introduced by the group of local ornithologists. Its colonies once existed all over Europe, North Africa and Middle East, and currently it is considered one of the most endangered species on our planet. There, you can hear and watch a few couples, producing synthetic, squeaky sounds and breeding happily – it is a treat for bird watcher’s eye. 

On the way between Conil, Palmar and Barbate there is also a lot of hiking trails around the Natural Park of Brena and Marismas, leading through steep ocean cliffs and forests. I met no one there, except from a few rabbits and a hoopoe! If the visibility is good, it is quite easy to observe the other side of the Gibraltar Strait, and Atlas Mountains in Morocco. 

During my second trip, I stayed at the laid-back town of Zahara de los Atunes, where again I spent a lot of active time on the beach, hiking and enjoying the local 0 km cuisine. A special mention goes to the Taberna del Campero for a lovely treat, heart-warming patio where not only humans, but also doves have their special place. The waiters were quite mindful of the pair of doves, nesting on the patio, disregarding the comment of some customers about the presence of the birds. They simply said “Yes, there are doves here. They live here with us. And they have little chicks now, that’s why we put them a special nesting cardboard to help them out”. 

The importance of being respectful, not only to the local towns visiting, but also the animals living there, like the mentioned tuna, gekkoes, spoonbills, storks and herons one can notice when spending time next to the lagoons and beaches. The South of Spain has an incredible offer for the nature lovers and slow travellers – we cannot destroy it with the new wave of massification of the tourism. And here comes my tribute to the sun, sand and sea.