20/07 : Wilson's Stormies, Sperm Whales and dolphins galore!

A new postee (I suppose one must call a new contributor that) in the form of Alexandra Farrell (welcome aboard) and a report on a trip out of Tarifa on 20/07 along with a group of birders. The photos are Alexandra's, so here goes!

With the boat full of intrepid birders we set off from Tarifa on what was an incredibly beautiful morning in the Strait. The first bird sighted was not a marine species at all but rather a single Eurasian Sparrowhawk winging its way towards the suburbs of the town.
Soon we started to spot shearwaters coming at us from all angles, mostly the Cory´s Shearwater in good numbers, with an occasional Balearic from time to time. Before too long the cetaceans also decided to put in an appearance and we came upon a large group of Common Bottlenose Dolphins (left), rather far from their usual territory. These playful individuals happily came in to crest along on the bow wave of the boat and show off their acrobatic skills, much to everyone´s delight. The downside of this was that we were therefore unlikely to see any orcas since the two species are not normally found together in the same area of water and we had already reached the prime orca zone.
This indeed turned out to be the case and the Moroccan fishermen were successfully landing tuna without any prospective “robbers” in the vicinity. It was curious to see the marked difference between the the tiny Moroccan craft and the comparatively luxurious Spanish fishing boats. 
It is actually quite a feat for the former to catch as strong and vigorous a fish as the tuna, which can weigh several hundred kilos, armed only with a long, hooked line, some bait, a lump of porous concrete to carry all this to the bottom and some rudimentary hand protection fabricated from old tyres. Actually landing the fish, for the Moroccans at least, involves up to 45 minutes of hauling, powered by muscle only. On reaching the surface the hapless fish is bound tightly to the side of the boat and finally despatched by several thumps on the head with a blunt instrument.
Despite the lack of orcas our luck was in with regards to the stormies and shortly after I had chucked out some chum we were rewarded with three Wilson´s Storm-petrels. They weren´t up for any close photography on this voyage! We saw 4 Wilson´s in total, plus several more stormies en route but they were too far away to identify with any degree of certainty, though judging by the size and flight pattern they were more likely to have been European stormies.
There was little more to report bird-wise, perhaps because of the heat and exceedingly calm seas, though we did see some second year Gannets and many adult and immature Yellow-legged Gulls from the huge breeding colony of these gulls on Tarifa island. Also quite literally on-board with us at one point, was a single Common Kestrel which decided to perch briefly on top of the mast, just off the Moroccan coast.
Things certainly weren´t quiet on the cetacean front though and we had an excellent trip in terms of dolphins, sighting all of the species which are found in the Strait: Common, Striped and Bottlenose, in large numbers. Particularly impressive was a pod of over 120, mostly Striped Dolphins (right) heading northwards in close formation. The group was so large that the sea seemed to be boiling in their wake. Despite maintaining their trajectory the dolphins did make the odd leap, which added to the excitement, and the group included a very small and lively individual who jumped right out of the water several times close by the boat. 
Although everyone was content with the amazing dolphin sightings, our luck held still further and the day was rounded off by some great views of a huge adult Sperm Whale which raised its tail beautifully before diving deep in search of its next meal. Since these enormous creatures stay underwater for, on average, roughly half an hour, we then headed back to port under sail, sighting a lone dark morph Booted Eagle near the shore. 

And if you don't care for the shot of the tuna having its brains beaten in, just imagine your least favourite politician in its place - I have a huge list, starting with a large, blubbery, former deputy prime minister who supposedly represented the unfortunates from my home town (after my time) but did far more promoting himself and his ignorance about all and sundry! It's a replacement therapy and works a treat!


11/07 : Sierra de María

The last field trip until September of the Arboleas Group with Dave and Gilly  as they disperse to cooler (and very possibly wetter) climes. Note that the Yorkshire Show has had to be cancelled for the first time in its long career. Let's hope it doesn't happen to the Rutland Bird Fair! So, Arboleas Birders, have a jolly good summer, lots of good birding and preferably dry before coming back to sunny Spain in the early autumn!
This being our ultimate trip before September, it seemed like the last day of term and everybody was bomb happy as we met up in the garage cafe in María. We being Gilly and I, Brian and Mary, Dave and Myrtle, Colin and Sandra and Adrian. We'd already bagged Bee-eaters, Woodchat Shrike and Jay before we headed up towards the Chapel. Leading the convoy, Gilly and I disturbed a Woodlark before getting to the car park. We were greeted by a huge flume of at least 55 Griffon Vultures swirling above the mountain ridge. Also amongst the melee was a single Short-toed Eagle. There wasn't much round the chapel and water trough. We did see Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Chaffinch and Rock Bunting. There were hundreds of honey bees taking water from the trough, but that didn't deter the local goat dog from jumping in to cool off.
     We sauntered up to the Botanical Garden. Diego, the boss, showed me a nest in one of the bushes. A Rock Sparrow sitting tight on 3 eggs apparently. Birds were few and far between, but we did see Coal, Crested and Blue Tit. Crossbills noisily flew over and some Bonelli's Warblers came to check us out. As we reached the end of the lower walk, we had excellent views of a Western Orphean Warbler (R) and shortly thereafter a Melodious Warbler (below) and a Subalpine Warbler. Brian, Mary and Adrian left the car park after us as they were collecting water and we delighted to see a pair of Short-toed Eagles.
     We then headed towards the plain, stopping first at the ruined farm buildings. We could hear Green Woodpeckers down below us and eventually two were seen flying. A dishevelled looking Black-eared Wheatear was still present on the buildings. Driving down and along the plain the only birds we saw were Crested Larks, Carrion Crows and Northern Wheatears. At the hamlet it was good to see at least 6 Lesser Kestrels were present. One was delivering locusts to a nest set under the roof tiles of a barn.
     We all ended up at the La Piza recreation area for an end of term picnic. We saw at least 3 Short-toed Trecreepers as we ate our sandwiches.  34 species for the day. No sign of any Golden Orioles.
 Will miss these days out, the friends we go with and the banter! See you all in September.
P.S. Our intrepid cyclists have reached Budapest and are due home in France shortly.
       Congratulations, Val and Tony !

Dave & Gilly


07/07 : In search of of seabirds, cetaceans and Turmares

Yesterday, 7 July, eight of us sailed off on the ocean blue from Tarifa in search of seabirds and cetaceans (big, big ones) on a trip organised by Alexandra Farrell on a yacht whose name I never discovered but is run and skippered by Pepe of www.kolibricharters.com It was a great day and I thoroughly enjoyed myself but I shall not go on any small vessels with restricted space until the docs. sort out my knees (as soon as possible, but I may be uttering forlorn hopes). Basically this lack of mobility is a danger to others and to myself, a Paterson in the drink could really ruin my day and that of others.
My thanks to Stephen Daly of Andalucian Guides,  who can stand up in a small boat without falling over, and who has very kindly let me have some of his more interesting photos, mine being few and rubbish as I'm simply not supple enough to turn quickly.
Let us deal first with seabirds and we did really very well considering the season, with 2 Leach's Stormies, 2 of Wilson's and at least a dozen European Stormies. Many of these were distant and one of the Leach's and a Wilson's were identified only with security from greatly enlarged photos of Stephens although I had called the Leach's correctly. Interestingly, one a of the Wilson's was in a state of moult with the outer primaries still being the old ones (ie. last years), the inner ones new and the middle ones missing or in growth.
There were lots of Cory's Shearwaters, most of the Mediterranean race diomedea (photos by Stephen) and which some insist on calling Scopoli's Shearwater which is not a species but a race, plus at least two which were between this and the Atlantic race borealis in plumage characteristics and not assignable even from good views. Basically, it all revolves around the amount of white on the primaries, the Atlantic birds have much less.
It wasn't until the afternoon that we ran into numbers of Balearic Shearwaters which are currenlty making their way out to the coasts of western France to moult. These are much smaller and faster, hugging the surface with a very flappy flight. The top two shots show adults, somewhat worn and of the paler variety-Two of the adults we saw had obviously started their moult early and I have never seen such tatty looking examples (one in the bottom photo), and as they lose their flight feathers and can't fly it is difficult to imagine those birds making it to France. (Photos below again by Stephen).

We saw several Gannets making their way out to the Atlantic. Not surprisingly these were all still in full juvenile plumage from last year and one or two had moulted in to plumage type 2. Gannets moult at very different times, so it is still possible to have birds in last years juvenile or plumage 1 until September following their fledging and mixed with youngsters from this year. The bird shown on the right here is just starting to moult to plumage type 2 while the one on the left is well advanced towards plumage 2 with odd markings on the head and neck, the body now white, and with white on the forewing which you can't see, so you'll just have to believe me!
We saw lots of sunfish (actually called pez luna or moon fish in Spanish) and occasional swirls caused by the tuna, the search fxor which had brought out well over 40 small artisanal fishing boasts of a size in which I wouldn't like to cross the village pond, never mind dodging whacking great container ships and bulk carriers. Each little boat is crewed by 3-5 Moroccan fishermen and they haul in hundreds of metres of line on which, hopefully, they have a tuna which hiopefully an Orca won't take. We circled one such small boat with a crew of three Moroccans who hauled for ages before finally landing a big tuna which I reckoned was at least 2m long! It was the tuna which we hoped would attract the Killer Whales, the Orcas, but there was no such luck. 
On the cetacean side we did have some luck as we came across a group of 3 Fin Whales, 2 adults and a youngster. The 'blow' goes backwards whereas in Sperm Whales it goes forwards. These are baleeen whales closely related to the Blue and these are the second largest mammal on this planet and they are IMPRESSIVE.
Sperm Whales are toothed whales, of which we saw 4, but none of them really showed a good tail fluke as they deep-dived after super-oxygenating several times.  

At this point I want to point out that there is an outfit in Tarifa called Turmares who run trips to see the cetaceans and, if you believe their propaganda, are highly respectful of their attitude to the big cetaceans as well as carrying out research. They have a rapid spotter launch which finds the whales and radios in the bigger vessels which are filled with hopeful watchers.
Yesterday, around midday, they too arrived. The 'respect' of the cowboy piloting the launch was inexistent as he took the boat to within 12m of these 3 Fins, with a young one remember, and whoever he was it would have given me great pleasure to solve his respect problem. It quite simply is not acceptable behaviour to go so close to the big whales at any time, 50m is more than sufficient. Our estimates ranged from 10m to as far away as 15m for this cretinous piece of humanity. Regrettably, we couldn't get a shot to show the far too close proximity but if I had one, it would be here for all to see.

And if Turmares wish to complain to me if they read this in either this English version or in the Spanish blog, which I will have translated by Tuesday, they should remember that I have witnesses and I would be quite happy to denounce them to Seprona and Medio Ambiente. I should point out that dolphins are different, they are nosey, they are playful, they ride the bow wave given half a chance and will even come across to give you the once over, as these Bottle-nosed did, including this female with a young one (look towards her stern for its face and 'beak') which is part of their attractiveness. That business of the Turmares cretin apart, a very good day out and I was very pleased.


04/07 : Río Almanzora & Vera

Once again, Dave and the Arboleas Group save the day with something of interest, unlike myself who has nothing to offer except an awful lot of time putting together a powerpoint presentation. This feat was eventually finished last evening, largely thanks to the daughter who knows about these things. However, tomorrow I am out to sea in the western Approaches of the Strait (it is not Straits, which is due to the poor English from way back when) of Gibraltar in search of whales, including the fabled Killers of ill repute, and seabirds, but for that you will have to wait until Saturday evening or Sunday.
    I read with interest of the sewage ponds. I cut my teeth (metaphorically) on waders at Beverley sewage farm, East Yorkshire, when I was in the range 10-13 years old, cycling there and back from Hull and the wind was always against in both directions. I remember being excited by my first Green and Wood Sandpipers, Greenshanks which I knew from Scotland and which still remain my favourite wader, breeding plumaged waders, especially Curlew Sandpipers. The smell was the least of the problems, as identifying them with only 8x30 binoculars and no 'scope was quite a feat. As the song says, 'Thanks for the memory..'.

Gilly and I met up with Brian, Mary, Dave, Myrtle, Adrian, Sandra and Colin (happy 65th birthday) at the usual ford on the Rio de Almanzora rambla at a slightly earlier time to avoid the heat of the midday sun. Unsurprisingly, there was  very little water and what there was, was large stagnant puddles. We did manage to spot Barn and Red-rumped Swallows, Pallid Swifts, a Kestrel and a Hoopoe before we sauntered up towards the desalination plant and sewage works. We added Greenfinch and Goldfinch, a Yellow Wagtail and a Southern Grey Shrike on the overhead power lines.
       We faired better at the sewage works pools (apart from the stink!). Yellow-legged Gulls, Black-headed Gulls and an impressive 32 Black-winged Stilts. Also seen were Green and Common Sandpipers. Below us on the rambla, Brian spotted a Little Ringed Plover and chick and a sitting Bee-eater. On the way back the new OAP in the group spotted a Cattle Egret. A single Woodchat Shrike made an appearence.
     After a refreshment break in Villaricos we headed for the beach, which of course had sunbathing beauties (many not so beautiful) thereon. On the flat, ploughed area behind the beach were Yellow-legged Gulls together with 16 Audouin's Gulls. A trudge along the beach produced Blackbird, Zitting Cisticola, Crested Lark and some flying Turnstones. A few Kentish Plovers were also seen.
      We then convoyed to the dual carriageway in Vera which overlooks a large shallow pool. Here we saw both Cattle and Little Egret, but the star bird of the day was a Marbled Duck with three ducklings. Suitably chuffed, we headed round to the pool opposite the Consum supermarket. Here we added Little Grebe and some White-headed Ducks. I managed to spot a Purple Swamphen by the reeds opposite where it was later joined by a second.
     For this time of year, 37 species wasn't bad. Unfortunately due to other commitments and the hot weather next weeks trip to Sierra de Maria will be our last till September.