To the world at large, Tarifa is known for watersports such as windsurf and kite-surf, and in fact at the entrance to the town, there is a sign saying ‘Costa Azul – Costa de Windsurf’. But within the birdwatching fraternity it is known for a totally different reason – watching the large soaring birds as they make their way to and from Africa, and birdwatchers from all over Europe go there to watch this spectacle. Raptors and Storks generally don’t like to cross over large expanses of water, and to tend to use this southernmost part of Spain to cross to or from Africa – from Tarifa, the coast of Morocco is easily visible, being only 16 kilometres away.
The last Friday in September is a local ‘fiesta’ for the Cartagena area, and as is quite often the case in this particular weekend, the weather forecast was for heavy rain for the Region of Murcia. A good reason to get away, and what better place than down to Tarifa. So last weekend together with my sister, I headed southwest. Tarifa isn’t exactly ‘just around the corner’ (as the crow flies, it is 455 km away), and due to the route we took, it took us around 10 hours to get there – mind you that was with various stops en-route, and we checked into our pre-booked hostel at around 5pm., and were back out in the field by 5-30.
Just as in the UK where more southerly bird species that have gradually become breeders (such as Little Egret, Spoonbill, Great White Egret), in Spain there are also new species, one of which is the Common Bulbul (Pycnonotus barbatus). After an initial sighting in April 2013, Tarifa has had a pair breed for the last two years in the immediate vicinity. I had looked for the species on my two previous visits without success, but this time, with the help of www.reservoirbirds.com, I hoped I had a good idea to where they might be found. Not a spectacular bird, being basically grey-brown with a darker head, what really calls attention to them is their loud bi-syllablic call, totally unlike any other bird I know.
So we took a walk through the town, down to the port and east along the clifftop path, and it was here that we struck gold. After about 15 minutes, I heard an unfamiliar call, but very loud, which could only have been a Bulbul. Tracking down where the call came from - there they were, two birds feeding together, not a care in the world, in a hedgerow directly below the path. We watched and I photographed to birds for several minutes, until the barking of a dog upset them and they flew further along the beach to an area impossible to see from the clifftop. As it was by now dusk, we decided it was time to celebrate my first ‘lifer’ for a few years, and found a bar in the old town!
The clifftop track ...
... below which are some 'chiringuitos' and trees ...
... and in the trees ...
... these two Common Bulbuls
Saturday, 27th September
Another place always worth a look at in Tarifa is the ‘Los Lances’ beach, a beach that seems to go on forever, but is ‘only’ 6 ½ km long. Used as a base for the kiters, first thing in the morning as long as there aren’t too many people about (especially people walking dogs with the dogs off the leash), it is worth a good look. For those not too much into the exercise of walking the beach (and I include myself in that group), there is a hide that can be reached by car and a short walk about 3 km up the beach. We spent an hour here where there were a few waders (Oystercatcher, Curlew, Whimbrel, Bar-tailed Godwits, Dunlin, Sanderling, Ringed and Kentish Plovers and Redshank) , gulls (Black-headed, Audouin’s and Yellow-legged), Sandwich Terns and herons (Grey Heron and Little Egrets), a single Kingfisher, a couple of Sparrowhawks and a Kestrel, and we spent half an hour watching the antics of an Osprey firstly trying to finish off a very large fish that it had caught and taken onto the beach, and then fishing once again. Quite entertaining!
When first seen, the Osprey had a fish almost as big as itself!
Eventually it gave up with the big fish ...
... and went off for something more manageable ...
... returning with a smaller fish ...
and back to a post to eat its catch
Our idea was to then go off to get a late breakfast, and then go up to one of the two raptor-watching spots, but best laid plans of mice and men.... The breakfast part went well, but by the time we’d finished, the wind had picked up, the sky clouded over and it started to rain. We thought we’d drive to the easternmost hide and wait for the clouds to blow over, but after an hour or so of by now quite heavy rain, that was no longer an option. So instead we drove west to beyond the clouds, to a place called Barbate where it was still sunny (and people were sunbathing on the beach), and had an early lunch!
Not a bad spot for lunch!
After lunch, I managed to take a wrong turning (I’d only had one beer at lunch, honest!), and we found ourselves going uphill . Deciding to explore, we continued to see where the road would take us and we found ourselves in a place I recognised, the edge of the Sierra de Plata, where I’d been before looking for White-rumped Swifts. I’d never found the swifts, and there weren’t any this time, but we did get really good views of Griffon Vultures on the rocks and in flight, and also Peregrine Falcons.
Some of the Griffon Vultures seen
Finally returning towards Tarifa, we could see in the distance that there was still cloud over the town and further east, so we decided to return to the hide on the ‘playa de los Lances’, where although windy, at least it was dry. By now the tide had come in. I started to go through the terns that were perched on a line of posts cutting across the beach when one caught my eye – slightly larger than the nearby Sandwich Terns, it had a bright yellow-orange bill! I’d heard that there had recently been a Royal Tern about the area – this couldn’t be that bird could it? All of a tremble, I got the ‘scope out and got onto the bird – slightly larger than the nearby Sandwich’s, but much more bulky, with a chunky yellow/orange bill, it wasn’t a Lesser Crested, so it could only be a Royal! My second ‘lifer’ in 2 days! I spent the next hour or so trying to photograph the tern, but couldn’t get anything too good due to the distance, but at least I got a few record shots.
The end bird (on the right) - Royal Tern
The left bird - Royal Tern
Sandwich Tern (left) and Royal Tern (right)
There wasn’t much else going on, and by now my sister was getting bored, so we decided to head back to the hostel and more evening celebrations! While my sister was readying herself, I slipped out to try to relocate the Bulbuls. I had no luck with this, but did have a Kingfisher, Chiffchaff and Pied Flycatcher on the clifftop.
Sunday 28th September
The weather was exactly as predicted – almost totally clear skies and no wind – ideal for movements of soaring birds, but we thought we’d have a look at the beach first. This turned out to be impossible, as after breakfast we just managed to catch the start of a local ‘romaria’ and all traffic heading west was stopped until the whole village and local saints had been carried off to a nearby hill. Caught in a traffic jam, we decided to turn round and go straight to the ‘Cazalla’ lookout which is just outside Tarifa, to the east.
Arriving at 9-45am, we had 2 ½ hours of superb raptor and stork watching. All the birds that would normally have passed overhead the previous 2 days and had been held up, were now going over. Accurate numbers of the commoner birds would be impossible, but I estimate we saw around 300 of both Short-toed Eagles and Booted Eagles, plus 32 Black Storks, 3 Egyptian Vultures (2 adults and an immature), around 50 Griffon Vultures, at least 3 (and up to 5) Ruppell’s Vulture, Common Buzzard, Red Kite, 4 Marsh Harriers, a single 2nd cy Spanish Imperial Eagle, 4 Sparrowhawks, various Kestrels, plus a tremendous movement of Swallows and House Martins.
Pale morph Booted Eagle
Pale morph Booted Eagle
Dark morph Booted Eagle
Dark morph Booted Eagle
Dark morph Booted Eagle
Short-toed and Booted Eagles
2cy Spanish Imperial Eagle
We decided on one last look at the ‘los Lances’ beach before we left for home, where we had pretty much the same birds as the previous morning, but no sign of the Royal Tern, and once again we were entertained by the Osprey.
Once again the Osprey entertained us
Four photo sequence of an unsuccessful plunge for a fish
After a quick ‘bocadillo’ for lunch, we set off on our way back to Cartagena at 2-30pm, and with just a single coffee stop on the way back, arrived back home just before 9pm, managing to avoid the rain all the way home.
What a good weekend!