It’s a political hot potato, but Gibraltar’s also a great place to see continental birds in a familiar setting. Trevor Ward pulled on his best macaque-proof trousers and set off to investigate (and popped over to Africa, too)
The shroud of mist that enveloped the Rock of Gibraltar when we’d arrived a few hours earlier had burnt off by the time we rode the cable car up to the top. Gibraltar’s famous Barbary Macaques formed a small welcoming committee as we stepped off the cable car and started out on to the Rock in search of another of Gibraltar’s famous species – the Barbary Partridge.
Our guide warned several times that the odds of us finding a partridge were low, so, predictably, within 30 minutes we were all staring through our scopes watching a single Barbary Partridge duck in and out of the bushes. The Rock has a commanding view of the surrounding waters and the Moroccan coast can be clearly made out. We were there in mid-April so were hoping for some raptor migration, though the prevailing easterly winds made this unlikely, pushing the birds towards Tarifa in Spain instead.
The next morning we all piled into our minibus and left Gibraltar, in search of those migrating raptors. And we didn’t have long to wait. Some good sized flocks of White Storks preceded flocks of Black Kites that passed right overhead, Griffon Vultures passed through in ones and twos and the odd Short-toed Eagle soared over in the distance. Wind farms seem to cover this entire area. I’d been told of them, but the sheer number was still a surprise.
We stopped below the turbine-strewn hills at Los Lances Beach, just west of Tarifa, where we enjoyed a couple of lovely Kentish Plovers and Audouin’s Gull among the Yellow-legs while scanning the skies for incoming raptors.
A visit to the Bald Ibis colony near Vejer de la Frontera followed our morning at the coast. Not sure what to expect, or how managed the colony would be, it was a surprise to see two Bald Ibises picking up nesting material from the car park we were pulling into. There was a tangle of scopes, tripods and cameras as everyone scrambled to get their shot of the birds before they flew. The colony, however, was only 20m away, on the opposite side of the fairly busy road. The views were fantastic (apart from the odd passing lorry) and the opportunity for close up pictures of the ibises’ frankly ugly heads not one to be missed – some nests were barely 10m away. These newly reintroduced birds, part of one of many programmes across Europe, are doing surprisingly well and there is a cautious optimism for the future.
The afternoon found us birding in the La Janda area where we saw what was, for me, the bird of the trip. A short lunch break in the warm afternoon sun spent admiring large passing flocks of White Stork was rounded off with superb views of a Black-shouldered Kite. Flushed by our passing minibus, it took to the air and settled on a nearby pylon for several minutes. We just managed to squeeze in 20 minutes to enjoy Tarifa’s Lesser Kestrel colony in the buffeting winds next to the ferry port before dinner and the night ferry to Morocco.
We made an early start the next day, down the coast at Lac Sidi Boughaba. We hoped to see several species of duck at this lake, and again our guide’s local knowledge didn’t let us down. White-headed Duck, Ferruginous Duck, Marbled Duck and Red-crested Pochards were waiting for us. Marsh Harriers, three at one point, languidly circled the reeds and, for several minutes, I enjoyed the best, closest views I’ve ever had of this bird.
On the water below, Red-knobbed Coots went about their business and dragonflies zipped about constantly – the lake is a good site to see Hobby hunt in the evenings. We also had ‘African’ Blue Tit, a possible future split, though the differences were a little subtle for me to discern in the field. Next up on this whistle stop tour was Merdja Zerga and a boat trip into the tidal lagoons here. The sun was beating down and it was getting pretty hot, so the breeze coming in off the Atlantic provided welcome relief as our boats crossed the water, weaving between sandbars and cockle-pickers.
Greenshank made up the majority of the waders, with Curlew, Whimbrel, Common and Wood Sandpipers, Little Egrets and Greater Flamingo putting in appearances. Of course, this site will always be remembered as one of the last places the Slender-billed Curlew was seen. The day finished nearby with us waiting, hoping, for a glimpse of the African Marsh Owl. After an hour watching the skies in the fading light, we had to admit defeat.
The morning of our final day began in the main square of the town of Larache, where we’d spent the night, watching a small colony of Little Swifts wheel about in between the buildings and in and out of their nests. Noticeably smaller than the Swift, with an obvious white rump, they are a joy to watch and were the perfect start to a good day’s birding.
A brief return to Merdja Zerga rewarded us with us Collared Pratincole and several Montagu’s Harriers. Then it was off to the Lower Loukos Marshes, just north of Larache, which would be final birding stop in Morocco. We were told that this large wetland habitat is under threat from developers and agriculture, and a high speed rail link that will pass right through it. For now, though, it was all about the birds. An unusually wet spring meant the fields were flooded, which had resulted in bumper numbers of Squacco Heron, Little and Cattle Egrets, Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis and a first for me, Western Reef Egret. Red-knobbed Coots, Collared Pratincoles, Wood Sandpipers, three flyover Purple Herons and a small flock of Black Terns followed on a bird-crammed morning. An amazing place.
Finally, though, it was time to leave, and, as though to mark the start of our journey home a Kingfisher alighted on a branch just across a small river, a sweet reminder of home after a continent-straddling birding odyssey.
Thanks to Blands Travel (blandstravel.com) of Gibraltar, in particular to Nuria Saccone for looking after us all so well. Thanks also to Keith Betton for organising the trip and to our excellent guide Javier Elorriaga.