Monday, November 1, 2010

The Monkey and the Vulture

It was a chilly morning. Around 10am the temperature was still at 14 Celsius. A stiff breeze blew from the north-west. The sky was clear. A monkey gorged on ripening wild olives while others took the morning sun. Little did they know what was to unfold...
I sat on a cliff edge on the Rock of Gibraltar and scoured the hill opposite me with binoculars. This is Sierra Carbonera, a barren, stony hill that does not seem to offer much. But I knew better. This has been a traditional stopover roost for migrating Griffon Vultures as far as I can remember. That was the first days of November 1972 when a flock of 200 migrating Griffon Vultures came straight at me and flew past as if I wasn't there. The memory has remained imprinted in my mind since those teenage days.
A Peregrine eyed me curiously as it flew past. It had been hunting migrating Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Greenfinches all morning. The time was now 1040 and the temperature had risen to 18 Celsius. Soon it would pass the 20C mark. Time for the vultures to make their move! Right enough, first a few, then a score and soon the sky above Sierra Carbonera was crowded with specks. For an hour they struggled into the north-westerly but every time they soared they were pushed back to the starting point. I was beginning to wonder whether they would come close when one bird started heading in my direction. The adrenalin surged and I prepared. I'll let the photographs tell the rest of the story...

These vultures - nearly all juveniles with some immatures among them - catch the morning thermals over a beautiful countryside of cork oak forests and pastures (below). They are on their way to Africa and many will cross the Sahara Desert. The adults remain behind. These birds return between April and June (see post of 15th May) well after the adults have started their long breeding season (which starts in January).
They might be forgiven for thinking that there is no barrier between these hills and the mountain in the background - Jebel Musa in North Africa (below)
...and the Rock of Gibraltar beckons (below)
but once there, the reality of the sea crossing becomes clear and the vultures run the gauntlet...

Several hundred vultures flew past me today, some so close that I could smell their unmistakeable odour!

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