Saturday, May 15, 2010

Wow, what a day!

Today I'm breaking from the usual format of this blog and from the mountain theme of recent posts. I just want to share with you one of those great days of migration, full of heart-stopping moments, that come from time to time. The winds over Gibraltar on Friday 14th May were strong and from the north-west. The temperature was cold for the time of year, starting at 13C at 7am and only rising to 20C. The strong winds kept the feeling of cold.

The morning started with one of those "rushes" of Honey Buzzards (above and below) that are typical of their peak migration. Seeing the birds coming towards me from all directions, level with me, giving me head-on views was the first heart-stopping moment. These rushes are probably early starts for birds that have gathered in roosts and then the day continues with a trickle of birds interspersed with flocks, building again to another evening "rush". The wind kept the birds really low over the sea. Even the sturdy Honey Buzzards were having trouble crossing the 14 kilometres of sea from Africa, and were being drifted 21 kilometres towards me on the Rock of Gibraltar. Hundreds and hundreds came in this morning surge.

Honey Buzzards are the last of the spring migrants and these are bound for Scandinavia and other parts of western Europe.

But these are not the only migrating raptors now and this is the time for a peak migration of immature birds of large raptors. The adults have moved north two months ago and now the young birds, that will not breed, are coming back. They only fly when it's hot, giving them thermals for height as a sea-crossing is even more precarious than for the smaller Honey Buzzards. So I returned to my watch point at Europa Point, Gibraltar's southernmost tip, at lunchtime only to be disappointed by the few birds coming through. It seemed the wind was too strong and the temperature too low. I had given up for the day but decided to have another go in the evening, around 6 o'clock. At first all seemed quiet but soon the outlines of large Griffon Vultures loomed over the sea heading in my direction! This was the second heart-stopping moment of the day!

In came the massive birds, each time closer, 60 or so. And almost without warning the apparently slow flyers were over us and the camera shutter was working overtime!

Many went straight through but some were clearly weak and struggling, looking for places to come down. And, of course, the local breeding gulls would have none of it!

The smaller but aggressive gulls give no quarter. I cannot explain the feeling of a 9-foot wingspan Griffon just over me with a gull landing on its back and pecking it. Here's the picture - note one of the gulls wings is actually below the vulture's!

and so they came tumbling down!

each time more of them!

and they were all around me, landing, flying low above, level and below me!

a bird up on the scree caught my I and I started to climb. Then, another heart-stopping moment, unbeknown to me an immature Short-toed Eagle had been sitting on the cliff and now took off to fly over my head, a few feet away!

hurry, enemy coming after you!

the Griffon mayhem continued through this brief pause

close encounters!

I left three griffons on the cliffs. They'll probably roost there overnight.In all, around 100 came in within an hour. Late Honey Buzzards and Black Kites kept coming through...

...and as the sun was going down and it seemed all over, another moment! Suddenly out of nowhere came a flock of migrating Common Swifts and soon they were all around us!
what a day!


  1. Absolutely incredible Clive! So close to these magnificent animals, and you didn't have to scramble around the mountains of the SerranĂ­a to see them. My favourite would be the tired looking Griffon Vulture haunched on the rocks while a gull screams at it from a few feet up.

  2. Such a pleasure to see these wonderful pictures! Thanks!!!

    Anne-Lise Koehler

  3. Thanks Andy and Anne-Lise! I see your point Andy!