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A Dangerous Journey

Only a powerful natural instinct and a desire for survival explains the incredible phenomenon of the migration of birds. A phenomenon that takes place throughout the world and has done for many thousands of years, in the Straits of Gibraltar, is one of nature’s greatest spectacles. The Straits of Gibraltar and the Straits of the Bosphorous (in Turkey) are the two closest points between Europe and Africa and are a strategic and fundamental point in the migratory process.

Of all aspects of bird life, migration has never ceased to fascinate the human race driving great thinkers such as Aristotle who sought to explain migrations. It was only recently however, that a true explanation was found although there still remains many mysteries to be solved.

For ornithologists and bird-watchers, bird migrations across the Straits of Gibraltar are one of the most important natural events of the year and definitely not to be missed. The strategic location of the Straits of Gibraltar in relation to Europe and Africa turn them into a natural geographical funnel covering little more than 14 kilometres of blue water which serve as a migratory highway for the birds from Scandinavia and Western Europe. It may be said that migration goes on throughout the year with peak months, dependent on the species crossing the Strait at any given moment. As migration is a two-way journey, the pre-breeding migration flows from Africa to Europe and is the return journey to various European countries in search of nesting sites for reproduction. This migratory circumnavigation takes place over a greater period of time with flows from October onwards of the first White Storks through to June with small numbers of Griffon Vultures crossing the Straits. Once the breeding season is over, the birds, with their recently hatched offspring, begin the journey south towards Africa. This is known as post-breeding migration and is when the greatest number of birds flock together. The crossing of the Straits bears witness to mass migrations with the first birds being seen from the second half of July building over August and September. With this two way flow and in different months it is not unknown for various species to be observed, some crossing into Europe and others returning to Africa in a veritable migratory crossroads.

There are two types of birds which use of the Straits for their migration. On the one hand are the smaller birds which make use of their wings throughout the journey and are less visible to the ornithologist’s eye. On the other are the larger birds which make use of thermals and winds as they glide across the Straits. It is these latter which provide much of the ‘spectacle’ of migration. Each year these birds fly thousands of kilometres to get to Europe in Spring and Africa in Autumn. For such a dangerous journey, gliding birds such as storks, vultures, kites and eagles seek out the best route in order to avoid having to cross large stretches of ocean where thermals don’t exist and their absence obliges them to expend energy flapping their wings during the crossing, impossible for birds of such great size and weight. Only the route which runs across the Straits offers sufficient guarantees with the possibility of success and explains why 350,000 birds choose to use it together with flocks of swifts, swallows,   bee-eaters, plovers, and countless passerines.

Tarifa and the Straits are the windiest area in all of Europe, and the almost constant Levante and Poniente winds are highly influential in choosing the most favourable time to cross. For the larger, gliding birds such as storks and vultures, it is vital to achieve as great a height as possible to avoid expending energy in flapping their wings during the crossing. Similarly, the windiest days need to be avoided so that the birds are not blown too far off course and away from the coasts making the tiring journey longer than necessary. For smaller and stronger birds such as kites and honey buzzards this is not quite so important but still requires care in planning and choice of the moment to cross.

Of the two annual migrations, the one prior to breeding – from Africa to Europe – is perhaps the most interesting since the birds cross the coast-line at a low altitude due to their weariness and are easier to observe. Vultures, booted eagles and short-toed eagles are easy to catch with camera or binoculars and the many that are trained skywards are evidence that this area is the best spot in Andalucía to study the fascinating subject of migration.

 

JAN FEB MAR APR MAY JUN JUL AUG SEP OCT NOV DEC
Booted Eagle                              
Short-toed Eagle                              
Montagu’s Harrier                              
Egyptian Vulture                              
Griffon Vulture                                
Lesser Kestrel                            
White Stork                                    
Black Stork                              
Sparrowhawk                            
Honey Buzzard                                
Black Kite                              
Buzzard