Sunday, November 06, 2016

Mi Regreso a España

I recently had the opportunity to return to Spain to work with partners and friends of the Intermountain Bird Observatory, Fundación Migres. This was my third time over there working with the team during the fall migration. It was great to spend time working with old friends and colleagues. I have previous summaries of my 2-week-long 2013 trip (HERE, with links to more stories) and Karyn and my two-month-long 2014 trip (HERE, with links to more stories).

This year’s trip was a little bit different in that the two previous trips were always during the first half of the fall migration season, whereas this trip was scheduled toward the end of the season. This gave me the opportunity to experience different birds and different projects. Another big difference was the fact that the Migres group has a new center, where I was allowed to stay!

Sunrise at the southern-most tip of Europe, Africa is visible in the distance on the right.

The beginning of the trip was a little rough. The plane was delayed out of Boise, leaving me just enough time to run to my flight to Europe at the Seattle airport. I boarded the plane just 5 minutes before the doors closed. This is never a good scenario from a checked baggage perspective! Landed in Paris and then in Malaga Spain. My bags did not. It would be another two days before my bags would join me at the Centro Internacional de Migración de Aves. Two days later, the airline attempted to deliver the baggage, but could not find the center. They asked around and someone sent them to closest count site (not the one I was at). They walked up and asked one of the Spanish employees of Migres (Andres) if he was “Rob Miller”. No, but he knew who I was and the airline handed him the bag.

Twenty hours of airports and flying, then a train, and a three hour bus connection, and I was closing in on Tarifa Spain, my home for two weeks. I texted my friend Alejandro asking for a ride from the bus station. He replied and asked if I was going to go band swallows that night in Laguna de La Janda. Ha ha, absolutely! Alejandro and I have a long standing joke about not getting any sleep upon arrival during my previous trips. This must surely be a joke. “Indeed” I reply. Lola, Wioleta, and Javi pick me up at the bus station. I am excited to arrive at the center, take a shower, get some food, and then sleep. Lola drives out of Tarifa toward the center, but then takes a left turn…what…wait… are we really going to La Janda? Yes. No food, no water, seven more hours before sleep… Welcome to Spain.! (Actually, it was a great evening and I was glad that I went). We banded 55 Barn Swallows and then stopped for a mid-night pizza on the way back to the center. I did great until I ate the pizza, then I was ready to sleep right there.

My home and office for two weeks in Spain.
It was great to be back, even without clean clothes! Migres has opened their new center which has dormitory rooms, shared kitchen, office space for employees and for visitors, a library, conference room, is a 5 minute walk from the Mediterranean, and is only a 20 minute walk to downtown Tarifa. But the biggest thrill was to be back to see one of the largest raptor migrations on earth – a place where most of the raptors in western Europe travel to for the 10 mile cross to Africa.

Cigueña blanca (White Storks) approaching the Strait of Gibraltar.
All things in Tarifa are dictated by the wind – recreation, energy, bird migration, etc. As one example, people don’t use weather apps to get the weather forecasts, they use wind apps – WindGuru – being the most reliable source. The birds approach the Strait of Gibraltar for the crossing to Africa, but if conditions are not perfect, may turn back to wait days and sometimes more than a week for conditions to improve. It can make conditions for counting very difficult – we have to discern which birds are crossing and which birds are not.

Flock of over 300 Cigueña blanca (White Storks) and 4 Espátulas (Spoonbills) with wind turbines in the background. These birds did not cross on this day due to the string Levante (east) winds.

I joined three previous Boise State University graduate students (Michelle, Erin, and Tempe) who were each spending three months working in Spain with our Migres partners. I was there for their final two weeks on the project to help wrap up the research plan and begin the work toward manuscript publication. Through IBO's partnership with Fundación Migres, we have published two research manuscripts. My previous paper from my work in Spain was published earlier this year - Local and regional weather patterns influencing post-breeding migration counts of soaring birds at the Strait of Gibraltar, Spain.

But, most of my time was out in the field counting, and in some cases identifying the age and sex of, the migratory raptors.

Rob (me) trying to identify birds at Observatorio del Estrecho. The Strait of Gibraltar is roughly 50 meters behind me.
Inmaduro Águila Culebrera (inmature [2 –4 years old] Short-toed Snake Eagle).

Milano Real (Red Kite).
One day at the Cazalla count site, we observed a very interesting bird. Carlos was very excitedly shouting in Spanish too fast for me to understand. I understood Águila (“Eagle”). It was an eagle. It was a rare eagle. It was an extremely rare eagle! Águila Esteparia – what is that?!? I am challenged enough with Spanish names for the birds I do know, but I was not prepared for a very rare sighting. Luckily the bird was flying toward us. Carlos had originally spotted it miles away. I grabbed the book and found what he was talking about – a Steppe Eagle from Africa. Woah! Spectacular. It was flying closer and closer.

It had a snake in its talons… no… it has falconry jesses on its legs… This bird is an escaped falconry bird. We don’t get to count it… We later received the owners name and was asked to call him if we encountered the bird again, which we did. I haven’t heard if he was able to recapture the bird or if it is still flying wild.

Águila Esteparia (Steppe Eagle), this one is an escaped falconry bird.
But I would get my rare bird after all. On my final half day of work before catching the bus to Malaga, a rare Águila pomarena (Lesser-spotted Eagle) would fly over the Cazalla count site, close enough for photos.

Águila pomarena (Lesser-spotted Eagle).
Another highlight of my final day at the Cazalla count site was the Griffon Vulture migration. Griffon Vultures are very large birds. Late in the season we would count hundreds of Griffon Vultures flying around the count site, but none were crossing to Africa. On my final morning there, that all changed. The wind was right and it was time to move. We could sense the change in behavior. They climbed up the ridgeline, soaring higher and higher and then streamed across the Strait. Ten, hundreds, thousands! In all, 5000 Griffon were counted migrating to Africa that day. What a great finish!

Buitre Leonado (Griffon Vulture) migrating to Africa.
But my trip was not all about raptors. The week that I arrived the team started counting the seabird migration at the very tip of Europe. I would spend two days out there counting Gannets, Cory Shearwaters, Balearic Shearwaters, Sandwich Terns, Lesser-crested Terns, Storm-petrals, etc. Being seabirds, these guys were not migrating from one continent to another, but instead from one ocean to one sea (or vice versa). The Gannets were migrating from the Atlantic Ocean into the Mediterranean Sea, as were the Balearic Shearwaters. The Cory Shearwaters were headed in the other direction. Presumably their food sources were also migrating. Tuna migrate through the Strait, which is why there are Orca at the Strait. We also observed dolphins migrating, one pod of more than 100!

The counts begin at sunrise on the Isle de Tarifa, the southern-most tip of Europe.

Michelle and Carlos counting for this round. We count for ten minutes and then rest your eyes for five minutes, with a longer break after three rounds, hence counting 30 minutes per hour. 
Adult Gannets migrating from Atlantic Ocean into the Mediterranean Sea. Their white feathers are more iridescent and reflective than most white birds. Spectacular.

We get to see other birds too, such as these Sanderlings and Mediterranean Gull.
And this Northern Wheatear perched on the very tip of Europe, possibly contemplating a crossing.
I also got to spend two nights banding swallows and one morning banding songbirds in Laguna de La Janda. Here are some of my favorites.

Male Blackcap.
Male Bluethroad, my favorite!

Pied Flycatcher. A new bird for me, but one I have read many papers on. This species is a model example of how climate change has negatively affected long-distant migrants when their food source changes its phenology (timing), but they do not.
We had a few days of spotty weather which closed some of the observatories. What do bird biologists do in these scenarios – they go birding. Alejandro took us on a birding trip up through and around Laguna de La Janda, where the weather was surprisingly good. We enjoyed three sightings of Spanish Imperial Eagles and the critically endangered Bald Ibis. Both species are benefiting from reintroduction efforts in the area.

Águia Imperial Ibérica (Spanish Imperial Eagle) in Laguna de La Janda.
The Bald Ibis was completely extirpated from Europe. Just a few years ago the estimated global population was around 500 birds! After numerous attempts at reintroduction in Europe, one colony just north of Tarifa has been successful. This colony has grown since my last visit, just two years ago.
Critically Endangered Bald Ibis.
Critically Endangered Bald Ibis allopreening.
Here is a short video I took of the Allopreening behavior. These are truly fantastic creatures.

As expected it was a fantastic trip that I got to spend with great friends from the past and new friends I made on this trip. I look forward to my next visit!

I will close with a fun video that the Migres team put together featuring some of the volunteers and collaborators including team America (myself and the three women from Boise State).