Sunday, April 29, 2012

Migration drama above the skies of Gibraltar

This time of year sees a life and death drama unfold on numerous occasions above Gibraltar's skies. Tired migrating raptors reach the cliffs of the Rock of Gibraltar after crossing the sea. Here they are met by territorial Peregrine Falcons Falco peregrinus brookei and Yellow-legged Gulls Larus michahellis.

The Peregrines are defending their nest area and have daily battles with the gulls for rights to airspace

The gulls do the same, hanging in the wind above the nests, ready to pounce on anything that comes near...

The levels of aggression increase now that the young have hatched...

So migrating raptors are up against it...

For starters, they have the sea crossing, often in high winds. Here a Booted Eagle Hieraaetus pennatus struggles to reach the Rock. In the background, Ceuta on the North African coast, where it has come from, with the tall Rif Mountains behind.

Utterly exhausted, it crash lands

Others, like this Black Kite Milvus migrans, are immature birds in moult or with many flight feathers missing. This doesn't help either...

Then there are the gulls and the falcons...

That also forces unexpected landings...

Some of these birds recover and fly off but others are not so fortunate...

they ditch in the sea, and drown...

So this is the real drama of life and death. Can we blame the gulls and the falcons? I think not. They are just defending their own...

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Where the Imperial Eagle is Lord and Master

We spent some time watching and photographing the rare Spanish Imperial Eagle Aquila adalberti in one of its traditional haunts, in the Monfrague National Park of Central Spain.

This is the home of the Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus, which nests in colonies on the impressive cliffs

Here the vultures come and go as they please, it seems, but this time they weren't to have everything their way...

The morning seemed quiet enough, even a newly arrived Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus pausing to look for unsuspecting snakes

An adult Imperial Eagle arrives - it has decided to nest on some trees close to the Griffon colony

It patrols the cliff line and even comes down near to the vultures' nests

It is an amazing bird at close quarters...

...and it chases off any Griffon that ventures near!

We watched the eagles for a couple of hours and Stewart came home with a wonderful range of images of this spectacular eagle. All where the Mediterranean forest meets the cliffs in Monfrague

Monday, March 26, 2012

When bad weather brings the migrants down, especially the males

Easterly winds, grey skies and showers at this time of year tend to bring down migrants at Gibraltar. Here they can feed in the olive scrub and woodland, sheltered from the wind. Many have just crossed the Sahara and are ready to feed and drink as they await better weather. This past weekend saw a large arrival of migrants.

Among the main species were Blackcaps Sylvia atricapilla. These large, pale, long-winged birds (above) rapidly outnumbered the greyer local birds (below) which are now breeding. The latter soon gave up trying to chase all the newly arrived males from their territories!

Most of these early migrants are males aiming to set up territories ahead of the females. The latter will dominate the migration later on

Willow Warblers Phylloscopus trochilus (above) and Chiffchaffs P. collybita (below) were also numerous

Males also dominate the Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus (above) component at this time but Nightingales Luscinia megarhynchos (below) are more difficult to separate 

Male Subalpine Warbler Sylvia cantillans completes the male-dominated migration

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

In the Land of the Iberian Lynx

Two of us (Geraldine and Clive) spent a few days in the stronghold of the world's most endangered cat - the Iberian Lynx Lynx pardina. This animal was familiar to us from the fossils we have excavated in prehistoric and medieval sites in Gibraltar and we had had a couple of close encounters with them in Donana in the 1990s. So we decided to travel up into the Sierra Morena north of Andujar to see if we could find old friends.

The habitat of the lynx can be described as open Mediterranean forest though we prefer to call it wooded savannah, a habitat that was typical of the emerged coastal shelf off Gibraltar for thousands of years. Here in Andujar, there are tens of thousands of hectares of this wild country, home of Spanish Imperial Eagles Aquila adalberti, Black Vultures Aegypius monachus and Black Storks Ciconia nigra.

Among the smaller species, Hoopoes Upupa epops (above) and Dartford Warblers Sylvia undata (below) are abundant and widespread.

Red-legged Partridges Alectoris rufa abound here too and are potential prey of the lynxes.

But it is the Rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus that is the favoured prey, and there are lots in these hills.

For two days the lynxes were proving elusive, only distant views down the valley confirming their presence. But other predators of the rabbit made themselves visible. Geraldine took time to focus on a large adult Ladder Snake Elaphe scalaris

...and the mating dance of the Iberian Wall Lizards Podarcis hispanica.

As the sun started to go down on our last evening we turned our attention to the herds of Red Deer Cervus elaphus, not wanting to admit defeat to ourselves but knowing that there would have to be another time for the lynx.

Then, driving back with a wonderful evening light a movement caught our eyes as two lynxes wandered into Cistus scrub to our left. We saw them for a split second and they were gone! Fifty metres down we paused by a firebreak in hope as the animals had been moving in that direction. Five minutes went by and nothing. The light would soon fade. Then, out of the Cistus emerged a female with a yellow collar, barely 50 metres away! She sat down and waited for her one-year old cub who promptly sat close to her. Cameras were clicking frantically by then as the lynxes seemed more interested in some Magpies Pica pica than in us. This is what we got...

Collared female (left) and one-year old cub (right) with Magpie (middle ground) and Red Deer (background)!

Female (above) and cub (below)

Now the sun could set!

During our stay in these hills we stayed at Villa Matilde which we thouroughly recommend. Our hosts - Merche and Roland - are committed and knowledgeable conservationists. They took wonderful care of us and the evening meals were wonderful! On our return to Gibraltar an email from them confirmed than the collared female had been born in 2008 and was known by the name Elam...