Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Adiós España

My nine-week long foreign assignment studying bird migration in southern Spain has come to an end. I look forward to returning home to Idaho, but I will miss the hectic routine of long days in the field studying birds, the fantastic group of friends I made in Spain, and the Spanish food and culture. It was a fantastic experience leaving me wanting more.  However, for now I will have to be content with my very busy schedule awaiting me in the United States, which luckily includes more work in the field.

Algorrobo Count Site with a few extra guests, near Pelayo, Spain.

Boise State University has created a new promotional video based on our work in Spain. They did a great job piecing together some of the projects we have been working on while living at the Strait of Gibraltar.

Raptor Counts

As I have discussed in previous posts, my primary job here in Spain is to count migrating raptors and storks as they pass overhead crossing the 14 km Strait of Gibraltar to northern Africa. The count team is made up of four full time Fundación Migres employees and Emmy and I from Boise State. There are two count sites. On each day, two of us are assigned to each observatory. The schedule rotates to ensure that everyone ends up working with everyone else and we each spend time at each observatory or count site. As is evident from the photo above, many tourists and bird groups also spend time at the observatory. In fact, a couple friends of mine have been living at the Algarrobo count site for a few weeks now!

In addition to seeing many great birds in large volumes, we occasionally see some very unique birds. These include rarities or marked birds. The day after I left, the count team even saw a Bonelli’s Eagle take a Black Stork in flight!

Rüppell’s Griffon Vultures are always exciting to see. In recent weeks there have been near daily observations at each count site. The Rüppell’s Griffon is not known to breed in Europe. These juvenile birds are expected to have migrated north from Africa.

Rüppell’s Griffon Vulture, Algarrobo, near Pelayo, Spain.

We sometimes see birds which are marked with wing tags. Whenever someone see a wing tag, they yell “wing tag” and everyone grabs a camera to get a photo. Many of the tags are unreadable through binoculars, but can be revealed through a digital image later. I successfully photographed one of these birds out of the half dozen I observed.

Aguila Calzada (Booted Eagle) with a wing tag (A over B), Algarrobo, near Pelayo, Spain.

We even captured a Milano Negro (Black Kite) with a German wing tag. A little Facebook work and I was linked up with the original bander. There is a formal agency process for getting this information, but that route can take months (we will still submit it formally). I made personal contact within a few days.

Milano Negro (Black Kite) with German Wing Tag, Tarifa, Spain.

The original bander send me a message about this bird:

"I marked the bird „D18“ as a nest-young bird with one sibling near a little village called Oppitz on 2014-06-20. Your observation is the first of this bird. "

This data is not only interesting but, as it has in my Goshawk project, can provide important information about breeding success, migration timing, and fledgling survival rates.

It is not just about the rare species and tags. People come to the count sites to see birds, even common ones.

Culebrera Europea (Short-toed Snake-eagle), Algarrobo, near Pelayo, Spain.

Culebrera Europea (Short-toed Snake-eagle), Algarrobo, near Pelayo, Spain.

Cigueña Negro (Black Stork), Algarrobo, near Pelayo, Spain.

A favorite sight of many including me is the migration of the European Bee-eater. They migrate by each day by the thousands. They are usually in flocks of 30 to 100. We often hear them before we can see them.

Abejaruco (European Bee-eaters) in migration, Algarrobo, near Pelayo, Spain.

During the last few weeks the swift migration has shifted from predominantly Common Swifts to predominantly Alpine Swifts. I would also observe Pallid Swift, White-rumped Swifts, and Little Swifts. We do count migrating songbirds at the sites, but raptors and storks are the priority.

Alpine Swift, in migration, Algarrobo, near Pelayo, Spain.

To be fair I should probably point out a few things I don’t like about counting birds during migration. First, neck strain can be a serious issue. Most of the birds are high overhead. In fact, during periods of high pressure, the birds can be many thousands of feet above, near the limit of binocular viewing distance. We use reclining lawn chairs to minimize the neck strain, however, after three days of rest, my neck is still recovering. The second issue is eye strain. Spending all day looking through binoculars into a bright sky can take its toll. Eye drops are a very good idea!

Songbird Banding

As I have done every week since arriving in Spain, we banded migrating songbirds in Laguna de la Janda. My final week included early morning banding on Wednesday and late night banding on Thursday. There were a number of new highlights during this final week including processing my first Barn Owl and banding two new life birds – a Bluethroat and a Greater Whitethrout.

Alejandro and a Barn Owl, Laguna de la Janda, Spain.

Rob (me) processing Barn Owl, Laguna de la Janda, Spain.

Barn Owl, Laguna de la Janda, Spain.

Bluethroat, Laguna de la Janda, Spain.

Greater Whitethroat, Laguna de la Janda, Spain.

Great Tit, Laguna de la Janda, Spain.

Sunrise in Laguna de la Janda, Spain.

More Prehistoric Art

To follow up on a previous adventure (Cueva de los antepasada de Nieves), we linked up with our friend Nieves to explore more prehistoric art. This site was an easier hike and featured many panels of prehistoric art. Most were very well preserved.

Prehistoric Art, southern Spain.

Prehistoric Art, southern Spain.

Nieves and Rob (me) with Prehistoric Art, southern Spain.

Nieves also showed us many medieval tombs. There are about a dozen in the area.  I like the idea that bodies were placed in the tombs to be eaten and carried away by vultures, but Nieves said that it is believed that there were lids. Dang!

Rob (me) and Nieves fitting our medieval tombs! Mine is too small!

Sevilla (a.k.a. Seville)

On our final weekend before heading back to the United States, Karyn and I spent two days in Sevilla (a.k.a. Seville). Sevilla is a fabulous city backed with a rich history and tradition. We both agree that it is probably our favorite city of all we have visited – the art, the architecture, and the overall beauty, was unsurpassed. Our days were packed with seeing the sites, taking hundreds of photos. Here is but a small sample.

Cathedral of Sevilla, Spain.

Inside the cathedral of Sevilla, Spain.

Sevilla played a critical role in the founding of the new world (well, at least the founding we all learn about in our history classes; the Native Americans naturally have a different view). Columbus’ voyage was approved and launched in Sevilla. Sevilla was also granted a monopoly for all trade with the new world by the Spanish. It is only natural that the world archives of the founding and early trade with the new world be located there in the original trade house that was built to manage that trade. We devoted some time to learning more about this history from the exhibits within the archive.

Archive of the Indies, Sevilla, Spain.

The Museum of Fine Art was an excellent stop. Arriving early we viewed the art of many local artists in the park in front of the Museum. The inside offered a wide range of artists and styles, some of which we recognized from our art history books (yes, I took art history in college as well as Karyn). One of our favorites by Francisco de Barrera called Verano (1638). This painting was one in a series of paintings depicting various food. I assume it is an accurate depiction of what people ate (at least those with great means). The songbirds and the swifts were a bit of a surprise.

Verano (Francisco de Barrera, 1638). Museum of Fine Art, Sevilla, Spain.

Next up was the Real Alcazar. This is the oldest palace still in use in Europe. It was a fascinating place with its mixture of gothic, moorish, and renaissance architecture. The tilework was beautiful. The site included a whole museum on the history of the tile styles and designs.

Example of interior design of Alcazar, Sevilla, Spain

Courtyard within Alcazar, Sevilla, Spain

Other stops included the Flamenco Museum and the Parasol, with some great food mixed in. It was a quick trip but definitely worth it.

The People - mis amigos españoles

Our experience in Spain was enabled, augmented, and made outstanding by the tremendous people with which we spent our time. Words, expressions, and gestures can never represent the honor I feel by having spent time with such great people.

The Spanish culture, at least in southern Spain, is very open and generous. The people are very friendly and always willing to help you out. Maybe it is just the people with which we interacted, but the overall impression that I took away was more friendly than similar places in the United States.

There are many people worthy of mention for contributing to our experience, including my friends at the count sites (Maximo, Julio, Chris, Javi, Yeray, Alex, Pablo, and Nerea (sp?)), the students who joined us for a month in the field (Jon, Isabel, Juan-fran, Miguel, Eva), the Barn Swallow researcher (Ana), the visiting collaborators (Manuel, Raquel, Tamara, Thomas, Marta), the staff at Huerta Grande, and others (I hope I didn’t forget anyone). I thank them all for their patience with me in teaching me the birds, my poor Spanish, and dealing with my acute timeliness (mainly the students…).

Eddie the Eagle was a friend I met last year. He is a retired Brit with a deep interest in birds. He is a fixture at the count sites and joined us for drinks or dinner on a number of occasions. Eddie brought food and drinks to the count site, introducing us to local favorites. It was always great to have him around.

I must thank Emmy, Karyn and my roommate for our time in Spain. Emmy worked on my goshawk project a few years back, so I had a little idea of what we were in for. She was very considerate roommate and we generally got along well. She entertained us with her personality and even dealt well with my early schedule.

I had met our dear friend Nieves last year while here in Spain. Nieves was incredibly generous with her time taking Karyn and I on three separate adventures (all highlighted on this blog). Nieves enjoyed showing us her homeland and we absorbed as much of its beauty as possible. I hope to return the favor for her some day in the United States.

Judit, a visiting ornithologist, spent a fair amount of time with us during our past few weeks in Spain. She was involved in all of the extra activities such as morning songbird banding, evening songbird banding, Black Kite banding, and at the observatories. She was an awesome teammate, providing great humor and un-quavering commitment to the task at hand. I would be happy to hire her on any project that I had.

The team at Fundación Migres together represent a deep pool of talent and commitment to their projects. They balance a large set of diverse active projects which stretch their staff to the limits. They regularly work six and seven days a week to get the work done. Many of those days involve up to 16 hours of work per day. I am not aware of a harder working team anywhere. Beatriz worked to arrange all aspects of our trip and made sure the office support was in place. I didn’t get to spend much time with her, but her work behind the scenes was critical for the success of our trip. I am also collaborating with her on the research manuscript. Miguel, Carlos, and Andres were all patient with my limited knowledge of European raptors and taught me very well. They helped with identification, counting techniques, local food and customs, speaking Spanish and provided a sounding board for my ideas regarding my research manuscript. I thank them all.

But I must save my biggest thank you and admiration for Alejandro. I spent a great deal of time with Alejandro. I was paired with him multiple times at the count sites, participated in Flamingo banding, toured the Tarifa area, banded Black Kites multiple times, banded many songbirds in Laguna de la Janda many times, and went whale watching. Alejandro is a co-author of my research here, providing critical perspective than can only be gained by spending a lot of time in the field. He was patient, invested a huge amount of his personal time to ensure that we were included and provided opportunities for growth and learning. I consider him my mentor and my close friend. I will be indebted to him for the rest of my life!


And for my southern Andalusian amigos, “taluego”!


For more background on our two months of studying birds at the Strait of Gibraltar in partnership with the Fundación Migres and Boise State University’s Intermountain Bird Observatory, refer to my last nine posts.

Post 1: Our First Days Back in España

Post 2: Mucho Flamencos!

Post 3: Birds, Birds, More Birds, and Whales!?!

Post 4: In and Around Our Temporary Home in Pelayo, Spain (Accidently deleted)

Post 5: More Andalusia Adventures

Post 6: Sleep Not For The Birds

Post 7: The Rock!

Post 8: Plato Mixto – (Mixed Plate)

Post 9: Mucho Viento!

Monday, September 01, 2014

Mucho Viento!

Viento, or wind, defines the area in and around Tarifa, Spain. Wind defines the fauna, the sports activities, the wind energy industry, the land use by animals, and even the politics. The only force greater than the wind is the geology which is largely responsible for creating the wind. Wind is also the primary focus on my research here in Spain. Needless to say, the wind is always blowing here, one way or the other.

The Spanish people in the area of the Strait of Gibraltar have their own names for the directions of the winds. These names are not used in other parts of Spain not adjacent to the sea. The winds here in Tarifa are named Levante and Poniente. Poniente are the standard westerly winds blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean. They are relatively constant registering a four on the Beaufort scale (13 – 17 mph or 20 –28 kph). Poniente winds drive many of the defining activities around Tarifa such as wind energy and kite surfing. If you don’t like 13 – 17 mph winds, don’t bother coming here. As I said earlier, the wind always blows in Tarifa and that means a steady 13 – 17 mph. Then there are the Levante winds. Levante means from the place of the sun, or east wind. In my experience here, this is the disruptive system, usually lasting about three days before the system returns to Poniente. The Levante winds are funneled through the Strait of Gibraltar. As the distance between Europe and Africa narrows near Tarifa, the wind speed escalates. It’s a simple matter of physics – as the gap between the continents get narrower, and volume of moving air remains constant, the speed of the air must accelerate. And accelerate it does! On our first full day in Tarifa we travelled to Migres’ new offices which are still under construction. They are located overlooking the Strait near its narrowest point. The winds were true gale force winds – a Beaufort 8 (39 – 46 mph)! All day for three days!

In other areas of the world, people talk about the weather. Here in southern Spain, they talk about the wind. “When does the Levante return?”, “Is tomorrow a Levante?”, etc. The most popular website for the weather is!

The Levante wind also brings the fog, which many plants in the area depend upon. A tour of the upper elevations of Los Alcornocales National Park (located just behind and above our apartment) reveals a number of plants whose survival depends on the moisture from the fog and the Levante winds that bring it. One such plant is the carnivorous Portuguese Sundew. This plant lives in poor quality soils that receive moisture primarily in the form of fog.

Portuguese Sundew, Los Alcornocales National Park, Spain.

Wind has a large effect on birds as you might imagine. Migratory birds are particularly vulnerable to winds due to the distances they must travel and the varied landscapes they must cross. Headwinds can slow their progress, side winds can blow them off course, and tailwinds can even decease their lift creating a significant risk for the bird, especially over water. It is not surprising that the mortality rate during migration is six times higher for raptors than during other seasons of the year (Klaassen et al. 2014).

Humans have harnessed the energy of the winds through the use of wind turbines. The Tarifa landscape is covered in wind turbines. I imagine that they are quite profitable as the arms of the turbines are almost always turning.

Wind energy is a critical component in our reduction of fossil fuel consumption and the greenhouses gases they release.  Unfortunately, wind turbines extract a toll on birds, especially migratory birds and large birds such as eagles and vultures. With millions of birds migrating through the Tarifa area each season, this presents a significant issue for their survival. Progress to solve this issue is being sought. The energy companies have elaborate plans in place to minimize these impacts. Ornithologists on the ground watch for birds heading into a turbine and can stop the turbine. There is an increased attention for choosing sites which can minimize collisions and collisions have decreased as a result of turbine design. However, the problem has yet to be solved.

Black Kites flying in front of a wind turbine, Tarifa, Spain.

Wind turbines harnessing energy is not the only risk to migratory birds. Energy infrastructure can cause risk of collisions. On the day of our arrival in Spain, we heard of 15 White Storks dying as a result of collisions with a power line. This is a common risk for flocking birds as the flock can drive individual birds into trouble. As we band bird in La Janda, we watch as flocks and flocks of ibis and egrets nearly collide with the wires which apparently are at the precise elevation that they prefer to fly.

Short-toed Snake Eagle, Tarifa, Spain.

All of these risks of wind energy development are definitely impacting the birds. However, I don’t want to sound like I am against wind energy development. Climate change as a result of burning fossil fuels are also killing birds, probably at a much higher rate than we could ever measure. However, I hope that our awareness and ingenuity can decrease these impact through smarter siting decisions, better designs, and appropriate mitigation measures. As a co-leader of the Research and Monitoring Sub-committee of the Idaho Bird Conservation Partnership, we are working on this problem.

Before leaving the human impact aspect of this discussion, I want to bring up kite surfing. Tarifa is one of the best locations in the world for kite surfing. This last week they held the kite surfing world championship here. As we humans often do, when there is something good, we take it to extreme. As I have talked about in many posts, this area provides critical habitat for migrating birds. During spring migration birds cross the Strait of Gibraltar from Africa and need a place to rest and refuel. Many of these birds didn’t just cross the Strait, but have also been flying for days crossing the Sahara desert. Thus, the stop-over sites near Tarifa can mean life or death for these birds. Unfortunately, one such stop-over location is a lagoon on the back side of Los Lances beach. However, the growth of kite surfing in the area has significantly degraded this habitat. The lagoon is protected by law, but openly used by individuals and even by kite surfing schools. The lagoon now contains but a fraction of its former value to migrating birds, possibly eliminating some of the populations of birds that used it. It is not kite surfing that is the problem, but our lack of balance and our respect for nature from a few individual which impact impact the greater system. I hope that they can find a solution to the problem.

That is enough talk about people, lets return to the birds…

White Storks crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, Spain.

The winds at the Strait of Gibraltar effect many birds. In general the Poniente winds provide favorable winds for migration of most species of birds that cross the Strait to Africa. However, the Levante winds are another story. The distance from Tarifa to Africa is only 10 miles. However, many of the attributes that many soaring birds relay on for flight – updrafts and thermals – don’t exist over water. Thus, all birds must use powered flight to cross. Under favorable conditions (Poniente winds) this is no problem. However, Levante winds are stronger and have a higher risk of a failed crossing. A bird struggling to reach Africa could be blown out into the Atlantic ocean in a Levante wind. Thus, many species will concentrate in the Tarifa area under favorable conditions present themselves.

As the Levante winds continue, each day thousands more migrating birds arrive in the area. The fields around Tarifa can be filled with Black Kites. The wetlands near La Janda appear to be the concentration point for White Storks. On the first day after a Levante, they leave en masse. I was working at the Cazalla count site the day after a three day Levante. We counted 12,770 migrants including 7700 Black Kites and 4000 White Storks. It is the most amazing spectacle of animal movement I have ever witnessed. Needless to say, I was too busy counting to take any photos…

During the Levante winds, as Black Kites concentrate in the fields around Tarifa, we use the time away from counting the migration to band the kites for long-term population studies. Black Kites are scavenger birds, so we use a large walk-in cage with meat scraps from a local butcher shop. It takes a while to get the first bird into the cage, but then the stream of birds grow quickly. When enough have entered, we simply close the door. We enter the cage, grab the birds and place them into a bag to restrain their wings and calm them down (yes, they do calm down in the bag). We transport them to the shade for processing. We use an old army bunker nearby for the work. It is a fascinating experience to enter a cage full of raptors, each with their own set of sharp talons. However, the Black Kite is fairly docile as raptors go.

Collecting 69 kites from the cage (Rob [me] in Orange).

Black Kites ready for processing.

We set up an assembly line to process the birds. Andres banded, Miguel and I measured (wing, tail, culmen, tarsus), Carlos checked the molt and Alejandro recorded data and directed the process. We processed and released all 69 birds in just under and hour.

Andres, Alejandro, and Rob (me) processing kites in the bunker.

Alejandro checking the molt of an adult Black Kite.

The process allows us to examine a large group of birds from the same species all at once. The Black Kite has a large variability in size, coloration, molt patterns, etc. In the banding session after this we also captured a Black Kite which had been marked in a breeding study in Germany. Our data will be very helpful for that researcher.

Interesting head plumage, much lighter than normal.

When the Levante winds arrive, the talk of Kites is not far behind.

I look forward to my last two weeks with the wind here in Tarifa before I return to Idaho.

Now, for a few non-wind related photos.

European Bee-eater that I had the honor of banding, La Janda, Spain.

On a recent hike, Karyn and I were approached by a juvenile Griffon Vulture. It walked right up to us. We are not sure if it intended to beg for food, attack us, or was just curious. We left the bird to continue to each grasshoppers from the grass.

Griffon Vulture, Cerro del Tambor, Spain.

For more background on our two months of studying birds at the Strait of Gibraltar in partnership with the Fundación Migres and Boise State University’s Intermountain Bird Observatory, refer to my last eight posts.

Post 1: Our First Days Back in España

Post 2: Mucho Flamencos!

Post 3: Birds, Birds, More Birds, and Whales!?!

Post 4: In and Around Our Temporary Home in Pelayo, Spain (Accidently deleted)

Post 5: More Andalusia Adventures

Post 6: Sleep Not For The Birds

Post 7: The Rock!

Post 8: Plato Mixto – (Mixed Plate)