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Spain & Morocco Across the Strait of Gibraltar

A 10-day birdwatching tour to Spain and Morocco

This unique September tour combines the best of the season's birdwatching in Southern Spain and Northwest Morocco, and is timed to coincide with one of Europe’s greatest avian spectacles - the mass migration of birds of prey and storks over the Strait of Gibraltar. After experiencing the exciting build up of birds on the Spanish shore, we take a ferry and follow the migrating birds across the Strait to Morocco in search of Marsh Owl, Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Little Swift, Laughing Dove and Moussier’s Redstart among an impressive list of North African specialities that are rare or simply don’t occur on the European shore!

Tour Dates

2019

Available

Leaders
Fernando Enrique

Max Group Size: 7
Duration: 10 Days

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Cost: £2345

inc return flights from London Heathrow-Gibraltar, nonstop with British Airways

Deposit: £400

Single Supp: £265
Land Only: £2195

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Short toed Snake Eagle GE resized

Short-toed Eagle passes low over our group as it prepares to cross the Strait of Gibraltar, from Spain to the Moroccan shore © Gary Elton, Limosa

The southbound migration of birds of prey and storks across the Strait of Gibraltar in autumn has long been recognised as one of Europe’s greatest avian spectacles. The narrow stretch of water between the sierras of southernmost Andalucia and the coastal mountains of North Africa provides the shortest crossing over the Mediterranean - less than 9 miles at the closest point - with the result that huge numbers of migratory soaring birds congregate to make the crossing here every autumn.

This unique two-country tour begins at Tarifa, on the Spanish shore, exploring the best raptor watchpoints - and enjoying spectacular views over the Strait - before following the migrating birds over the sea to the mountains and marshes of Morocco, on the African shore.

Late September sees peak passage here. When conditions are right, parties of European Honey Buzzards, Black Kites and Short-toed Snake Eagles rise up above the wooded coastal sierras of southernmost Andalucia in search of the thermals that will give them lift. Anticipation grows as the first dots appear in the distance, gradually metamorphosing into an assortment of different shapes and sizes, discernible as birds of prey as they glide ever nearer.

Soon they are with us - at times, some may pass so close we can even see the ‘expression’ on their faces! Egyptian and Griffon Vultures, Hobbies and Eurasian Sparrowhawks, Bonelli's and Booted Eagles, Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers... all pass this way, gathering together in readiness for the crossing to Morocco. With them come clouds of European White Storks - and often a sprinkling of scarcer Black Storks, too - seeking to gain height before streaming out across the waters of the Strait.          

Each day will be different as the presence of raptors and storks is influenced by the prevailing winds. On days when the winds are 'not right' however, there is much to see elsewhere in this bird-rich corner of Spain. Sardinian Warbler, Hoopoe and Southern Grey Shrike are among a host of Mediterranean species to try for and we might also be lucky to find one or two of the region’s rarer inhabitants - on previous trips, we have seen Spanish Imperial Eagle and even Rüppell’s Vulture here!

After spending our first three nights in Spain, we cross the Strait by ferry to Tangier, following the migrants across the sea to the bird-rich marshes and mountains of northwest Morocco.

Once ashore in Africa we'll travel in a loop, taking in the excellent wetlands of Morocco's Atlantic coast and the scrub-covered hills of the Zaërs (where we try for the elusive Double-spurred Francolin at its last remaining outpost in the Palearctic), before circling back north via the scenic Rif Mountains and taking the ferry back across the Strait to Tarifa - all while enjoying some of the most exciting birding anywhere in the Western Palearctic!...

Picture flocks of European White Storks soaring gracefully overhead on migration, encounters with hundreds of Glossy Ibises or the thrill of sorting through twenty or more species of shorebird... Add the prospect of Squacco Heron, Western Swamphen, Red-knobbed Coot and Common Bulbul - all species regularly seen by our groups during our first full day of birding on the Morocco shore. Later it may be the turn of Barbary Partridge, Marbled Duck, Atlas Long-legged Buzzard, Lesser Crested Tern or perhaps the fluting calls of a tropical Black-crowned Tchagra to set our pulses racing. And there is still more to come! Leaving the coast behind, we swing up into the Rif Mountains in search of the endemic Levaillant’s Woodpecker and dazzling Moussier's Redstart.

Over the years, our visits to Northern Morocco have produced so many memorable highlights: from the thrill of seeing North Africa’s relict population of Marsh Owls leaving their daytime roost to quarter the swampy grassland, to cliff-top gatherings of elegant Eleonora’s Falcons, filling the frame in our ‘scopes and performing breathtaking aerobatics right over our heads. And with the exodus of storks, raptors and other migrants from Europe into Africa, this bird-filled autumn tour is really too good to miss!

Fernando Enrique is our English-speaking Spanish specialist and Limosa's ‘man on the spot’, his home in Andalucia being just a stone's throw along the coast from Tarifa and within a short ferry ride of Morocco. His intimate local knowledge of the fickle winds, weather patterns and key birding sites on both sides of the Strait during this, the peak period for raptor migration in autumn, will prove invaluable on this exciting two-country tour. Fernando led this tour for us in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, and this September 2019 trip to Spain & Morocco will be his sixth visit there for Limosa.

White Stork migration Sept Spain Stephen Daly 6840

Our Spain & Morocco tours are timed to coincide with the peak movements of birds of prey and storks across the Strait of Gibraltar © Stephen Daly/Daly Wildlife

Day 1
FLY GIBRALTAR, CROSS INTO SPAIN

Our autumn birdwatching tour to Spain and Morocco begins with a British Airways flight from London to Gibraltar, where Fernando will be waiting to welcome us. We walk the short distance - just a couple of hundred yards - across the border into Spain and board our minibus for the short drive (30-minutes) along the coast towards Tarifa. Our eyes will soon turn skyward as we scan eagerly for our first ‘kettles’ of birds of prey and storks gathering over the rugged Spanish coast and the wooded sierras beyond.

One of the great migration corridors of Europe, in autumn huge numbers of birds - most notably raptors and storks - congregate here to take advantage of the narrowest crossing over the Strait of Gibraltar into Africa. Situated well away from the infamous Spanish costas, and overlooking both the Mediterranean and Spain’s less-developed Atlantic coast, the Tarifa area will be our base for the first three nights of our holiday. Night near Tarifa

Days 2 - 3               
STRAIT OF GIBRALTAR, THE COASTAL SIERRAS, BARBATE & LA JANDA

Our itinerary in this delightful corner of Andalucia will remain flexible to take best advantage of the prevailing weather. We have chosen the optimum dates for our tour, when raptor migration is usually at its peak, and will plan to spend one full day in the coastal sierras and the other exploring the hinterland.

If conditions are right, we will make raptor watching a priority, ensuring we are in position to witness peak passage of the day’s crop of southbound migrants. With a westerly edge to the wind, we will want to be in the Gibraltar area, where the spectacular slopes of 'The Rock' itself offer an impressive backdrop to our birding. If the winds have an easterly origin however, birds of prey will be pushed further west; we’ll then station ourselves in the hills between Fernando's hometown of Algeciras and Tarifa, so as to get the best possible views.

From mighty Griffon Vultures to elegant Montagu’s Harriers and dashing Hobbies, late September sees the peak of passage and we shall never tire of the fascinating spectacle that unfolds before us. As they seek to gain height in preparation for the crossing from Europe to the mountains of North Africa, birds of prey may suddenly appear low over our heads - sometimes even at eye level, affording spectacularly close views as they hunt for the next thermal that will give them lift. As we watch and wait for them, we may find Sardinian Warblers and migrants such as Hoopoe and Redstart in the low scrub.

We will combine our watches over the Strait with an exploration of the wider Andalucian countryside. Picturesque wooded valleys cut through the low limestone sierras, clad in dense stands of Evergreen Oak and set amidst more open slopes of sheep-grazed turf and scrub.

Birds of prey are again the stars, with a sizeable resident population of Griffon Vultures plus good chances of Bonelli’s and Golden Eagles, Goshawk and Common Buzzard, while Hobbies and Short-toed Snake Eagles drift lazily through on passage. In comparison to them, the Crag Martins that swirl about the towering limestone bluffs appear minuscule as we check the steady stream of southbound hirundines for scarcer species such as Red-rumped Swallow and the high-flying Alpine Swift.

Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper, Crested Tit and Hawfinch are among resident woodland species to look for, while the open slopes afford wonderful panoramic views as we scan for Woodlark, Black Redstart and Cirl Bunting. Add the prospect of Thekla Lark, Blue Rock Thrush and any number of migrants that could be present at this time of year and we are assured of an exciting few days! Fernando’s intimate knowledge of ‘his own backyard’ should also pay dividends in our quest for the localised Black-winged Kite.

A little to the northwest of Tarifa lies the flat plain of La Janda. Once a vast, seasonally flooded lagoon where Common Cranes and other wetland birds bred in abundance, the area nowadays lies mostly under agriculture. Nonetheless, it is still an important habitat for birds, with the broad sweep of fields criss-crossed a network of canals and reedy dykes harbouring a fine array of species. Glossy Ibis, White Stork, Southern Grey Shrike and Calandra Lark are likely, as migrating Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers sail lazily across the fields. We have occasionally seen the rare Spanish Imperial Eagle hunting here.

The port of Barbate (not far from La Janda) offers a change of habitat, its extensive saltpans much liked by Little Egrets, Avocets and Black-winged Stilts, as well as Gull-billed and Caspian Terns. Zitting Cisticolas (or Fan-tailed Warbler in old money) ‘zip’ incessantly as we check the lagoons and tidal mud for passage waders. We could even encounter the weird Northern Bald Ibis, small numbers of which have recently been re-introduced into this corner of Spain in a bid to bolster the beleaguered wild population in southern Morocco.

The fine beach running northwest from Tarifa presents a long, sweeping bay of golden sand. Surprisingly, it can often be almost devoid of people at this time of year. A freshwater outlet running across the sands attracts a regular gathering of gulls and terns. Yellow-legged Gulls are numerous but we should also find the ‘clean-looking’ Audouin’s Gull, together with various terns; in September, these can include the rare Lesser Crested Tern. Sanderlings scamper along the tideline as Ringed and Grey Plovers mingle with the resident Kentish Plovers, and the dunes behind are good places to look for Crested Lark and migrant Yellow Wagtails. Two further nights near Tarifa

Day 4                                    
ACROSS THE STRAIT OF GIBRALTAR: TARIFA TO TANGIER

We'll enjoy a further morning watching for visible migration in Spain today before catching the afternoon ferry from Tarifa, across the Strait of Gibraltar, to Tangier on the Moroccan shore.

The 45-minute crossing usually produces a few seabirds - in late September birds moving through this gateway to the Mediterranean can include Balearic and Scopoli's Shearwaters, Gannet, Common Scoter and skuas.

On arrival in Africa, we’ll be met by our bus and driver and head south along Morocco's Atlantic coast towards our hotel in Asilah, where we stay for two nights. The distance is not great (around 30 miles) and this is a good area for birding, so we'll make stops along the way to look for our first African species such as Barbary Partridge, Atlas Long-legged Buzzard, Lanner and House Bunting. Fields inland of the coast hold Eurasian Stone-curlew and Calandra Lark, and are also home to the last surviving population of Great Bustards found in Africa. Only a handful of these magnificent birds now remain and it is likely they will disappear completely from Africa within the foreseeable future - so we will need a lot of luck to spot one! Night Asilah

Day 5                                    
OUED LOUKKOS & MARSH OWLS

After breakfast this morning, we travel an hour down the coast to explore the Loukkos marshes, a series of shallow floods and reedy lagoons beside the Oued (river) Loukkos. Depending on water levels, Black-winged Stilt, Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers, Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Black-tailed Godwit, Wood Sandpiper, Ruff and Greenshank are among many different waders we could see, while areas of deeper water can be busy with waterfowl, including the dappled Marbled Duck, the rare Ferruginous Duck and the localised Red-knobbed Coot.

As we relish the prospect of finding migrants such as White Stork, Glossy Ibis, Squacco Heron and Caspian Tern, we may be entertained by the ungainly antics of the resident Western Swamphen, with its incongruous plasticine-red legs and flashing white stern. Moustached Warbler is another skulking inhabitant to watch for here, Common Bulbuls gossip in the bushes and the marshes are home to the last breeding population of Reed Buntings in Africa. We have also seen the puzzling 'Moroccan' Reed Warbler at Oued Loukkos, and Little Swifts breed in the nearby town of Larache.

In the afternoon, we continue south to Merdja Zerga, a huge coastal lagoon located midway between the northern cities of Tangier and Rabat. Over 90 sq. km in extent, this important wetland was catapulted to birdwatching fame in the late 1980s when Slender-billed Curlews were discovered wintering at the site. Although none have been seen since 1993, the wetland is still of major importance for its birds. In autumn, a search of the shallower marshy margins could reveal Cattle Egret, Montagu’s Harrier and 'Iberian' Yellow Wagtail, while plantations of eucalyptus woodland around the lake can hold migrants such as Pied Flycatcher and Western Bonelli’s Warbler as well as the resident North African form of Chaffinch, with its distinctive moss green back.

However, Merdja Zerga is most famous for its Marsh Owls, being one of only two sites left in all of North Africa where this rarest of Palearctic species can still be found. We may stay until dusk, watching and waiting for these attractive, dark-eyed owls to emerge from their roost and quarter the swamp in the gathering gloom - uttering their curiously duck-like calls and sometimes passing by at very close range. As a result, dinner may be a little later than usual tonight - but it should be worth it! Night Asilah

Day 6                                    
MERDJA ZERGA BOAT TRIP & LAC DE SIDI BOURHABA RESERVE

After one last check of the beach at Asilah for shorebirds, gulls and terns, we head south and pay a return visit to Merdja Zerga - this time enjoying a boat trip with a local guide into the heart of this important lagoon. Numbers of wetland birds can be impressive here in autumn, with Spoonbill, Oystercatcher and Whimbrel plus a range of sandpipers and plovers feeding across the mud... Or we might find hundreds of Slender-billed and Audouin’s Gulls loafing beside the shore, and watch energetic Little Terns hovering over the shallows. The fish-rich waters attract migrating Ospreys from all over Europe and we have seen up to a dozen birds here during a single boat trip.

Leaving Merdja Zerga, we rejoin the coastal highway and continue south towards the Moroccan capital, Rabat, breaking our journey there at Lac de Sidi Bourhaba. This reserve has become the focus of an innovative educational project with help from BirdLife International and the Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad.

With its narrow, ribbon-like form, the lake is one of the best spots in Morocco to see wintering wildfowl. Scarcer species such as Red-crested Pochard, Marbled, White-headed and Ferruginous Ducks are regularly present in autumn, when the shallower margins attract Water Rail, Kingfisher and parties of passage waders. Marsh Harrier and Hobby patrol the wooded rim of the lake and we have seen Eleonora's Falcon hunting here in autumn.

After birding around the lake, we continue south for a two-night stay at our next hotel, which lies on the Atlantic shore some 20km south of Rabat. Night Skhirat

Day 7                                                
THE ZAERS & MIXED OAK FORESTS

An early start is essential this morning - we'll take a packed breakfast and leave the hotel just after six - if we are to stand any real chance of finding one of Morocco’s rarest resident birds: the handsome Double-spurred Francolin. In the Western Palearctic, this sought-after species is nowadays confined to a small area of scrubby hill-forest known as the Zaërs, about an hour or so inland of Rabat. There are no guarantees with this rare and ultra-secretive bird! But as we wait in the hills shortly after daybreak, hoping for a francolin to utter its tell-tale call and put in an appearance, we should encounter other of the region's speciality birds - Barbary Partridge, Black-winged Kite, Atlas Long-legged Buzzard and Black-crowned Tchagra are among those we have seen in the past.

The mixed oak woodlands around Rabat are home to an excellent variety of forest birds - notably Levaillant’s Woodpecker, a North African endemic. Although they too can be elusive, our patience has often been rewarded. Great Spotted Woodpeckers can be numerous in the woods and we may also see our first African Blue Tits and Maghreb Magpies, the latter with their attractive blue eye-wattles.

Returning to Skhirat this afternoon, we have an opportunity to enjoy a little relaxed seawatching from the hotel. Highlights from previous trips include Scopoli’s Shearwater, Audouin's Gull and Pomarine Skua, with Kentish Plover, Whimbrel, Bar-tailed Godwit and Turnstone among possible waders to watch for on the strand. Lesser Crested Terns may also be passing offshore, making their way south in autumn from their sole Western Palearctic breeding grounds off the Libyan coast - some 1500 miles to the east. Night Skhirat

Day 8                                                             
ELEONORA'S FALCON & THE RIF MOUNTAINS

Early risers may be tempted by the prospect of another quick seawatch from the hotel first thing.

After breakfast, we travel to the seacliffs north of Rabat - one of only two present-day sites in Morocco where Eleonora’s Falcon still breeds, and the world's last known mainland colony for this sociable but highly localised Mediterranean island specialist. Despite mounting pressure from encroaching urban development, in late September we hope to enjoy good views of both adults and recently fledged young as they perch on the cliffs and sweep gracefully overhead!

Eleonora's Falcon is unusual among European birds of prey in gearing its breeding cycle to the southbound autumn migration of passerines, on which its young are raised. Accordingly, these colonial summer visitors seldom arrive on their breeding grounds before the beginning of May; but, having nested late, they remain into October before departing for their winter quarters, which lie far to the south, on the island of Madagascar.

From Rabat, we then swing northeast towards the Rif Mountains, a coastal range that hugs Morocco's Mediterranean shore. Our destination this evening is the upland town of Chefchaouen, but birding along the way offers chances to see raptors such as Atlas Long-legged Buzzard, Black-winged Kite and Lesser Kestrel. The landscape gradually starts to change as we leave the agricultural fields of Morocco's coastal plain and climb up into the hills with their forests of Algerian Oak, Atlas Cedar and Moroccan Fir.

Famed for its distinctive architecture painted in shades of blue, Chefchaouen sits at an elevation of 600m (2000ft) and was founded as a small fortress in 1471. It is considered one of the most beautiful cities in Morocco. Night Chefchaouen

Day 9
RIF MOUNTAINS, FERRY TO SPAIN
 

The Bouhachem and Talassemtane National Parks - which lie immediately to the east and west of Chefchaouen - protect some of the best-preserved upland forest in Morocco and this morning we'll pay a visit to the oak woodlands in this little-known corner of Morocco.

Forming part of the important Mediterranean Intercontinental Biosphere Reserve of Morocco and Spain, the forest is home to several North African endemic bird species and subspecies. The dazzling Moussier’s Redstart, Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Moroccan White Wagtail, African Blue Tit and African Chaffinch occur alongside a range of more widespread European species such as Woodlark, Firecrest and Short-toed Treecreeper. We also have a good chance of encountering the native Barbary Macaque in these forests.

Returning to Tangier, we catch the afternoon ferry back to Spain. The crossing offers another chance to watch for seabirds in the Strait. Once back in Europe, we transfer the short distance to our hotel near Tarifa, where we spend the final night of our trip. Night Tarifa

Day 10                                                          
WATCHING MIGRATION OVER THE STRAIT OF GIBRALTAR, FLY LONDON

Flight schedules permitting, we should have time to enjoy some further birding in southern Spain today, watching for visible migration near Tarifa before completing the short drive back along the coast to Gibraltar. Do keep your bins handy at the airport however... migrating storks and raptors may be passing right over The Rock as we wait for our flight home!

Arrival back at London Heathrow, where our birding tour to Spain and Morocco concludes.

Marsh Owl Morocco Stephen Daly andalucianguides.com 2012 0363

Northwest Morocco is the only place in the Western Palearctic where Marsh Owl can still be found © Stephen Daly/Daly Wildlife

What To Expect

This unique September tour combines the best of the season's birding in Southern Spain and Northwest Morocco, and is timed to coincide with one of Europe’s greatest avian spectacles - the mass migration of birds of prey and storks over the Strait of Gibraltar.

After experiencing the exciting build up of birds on the Spanish shore, we take a ferry and follow the migrating birds across the Strait to Morocco in search of Marsh Owl, Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Little Swift, Laughing Dove and Moussier’s Redstart among an impressive list of North African specialities that are rare or simply don’t occur on the European shore!

Mediterranean climate. In late September, the weather in southern Spain and northern Morocco is usually gloriously warm and sunny, with clear blue skies (23-28C / 73-82F). Cooler evenings and at night, and it can feel fresh on the coast, especially if an onshore breeze is blowing. Rainfall is generally low at this season, but infrequent heavy downpours can occur.

Birds

150-200 species

Accommodation

9 nights accommodation at hotels in Spain (4 nts) and Morocco (5 nts).

We start with a three-night stay at a comfortable 3-star hotel near Tarifa - and right on the spot for the passage of birds of prey and storks. The hotel has gardens and an outdoor swimming pool. All rooms are en suite.

We spend the next 5 nights in Morocco, with two nights each at coastal hotels in Asilah and Skhirat, and one night in the Rif Mountains, staying at Chefchaouen. Hotels tend to be few and far between in this corner of Morocco and generally offer more simple though nonetheless clean and comfortable facilities. All rooms are en suite.

At the end of our tour, we return to Spain for a final night at our hotel near Tarifa.

Meals

All main meals are included in the tour price, commencing with dinner on Day 1 and concluding with lunch on Day 10.

Our evening meals and all but one breakfast will be taken at the hotels. We will have one packed breakfast on this trip (Day 7), when trying for the francolins, which are best looked for shortly after daybreak.

Lunches will usually be picnics, but we may sometimes stop at a convenient local restaurant along the way. Please note that a couple of the hotels in Morocco (at Asilah and Chefchaouen) are 'dry' and do not serve alcohol.

Walking

Easy. Short walks interspersed with periods sitting down, watching and waiting for migrating birds of prey and storks at the Strait. Sturdy waterproof walking shoes or lightweight boots with rugged soles advised.

Travel

Return flights London Heathrow-Gibraltar, nonstop with British Airways (occasionally Easyjet, according to schedule)

Ground Transport  By minibus in Spain and small coach or minibus with local driver in Morocco (according to final group size).

Boat Trips

Our tour cost includes return ferry crossings between Tarifa and Tangier (about 45 minutes each way), plus a leisurely morning boat trip on the Merdja Zerga lagoon (Morocco).

Moussier's Redstart m Morocco Brian Small P1060892

The dazzling Moussier's Redstart is one of several Northwest African endemics to be seen on this terrific two-country tour © Brian Small, Limosa

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