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 pay dividends in our quest for the localised Black-winged Kite and we might be lucky to find two essentially African species that have established a toe-hold in southern Iberia: White-rumped and Little Swifts.
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
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 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 our route will take us through a landscape of traditional agriculture that is nowadays hard to find in Europe. This habitat holds the last surviving population of Great Bustards in Africa; only a handful now remain and we will need luck to track down the last of these magnificent birds. This area is also good for birds of prey, providing us with a first opportunity to see African species such as Atlas Long-legged Buzzard and Lanner, as well as chances of Barbary Partridge, Eurasian Stone-curlew and Calandra Lark. We might add House Bunting at the hotel. Night Asilah
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
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 the elegant 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
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 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
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 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
RIF MOUNTAINS, FERRY TO SPAIN
The beautiful 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 form part of The Mediterranean Intercontinental Biosphere Reserve of Morocco and Spain. A morning visit to the delightful oak forests in this little-known area is one of the finest birding experiences in this part of Morocco.
These unique woodlands are home to several North African endemic bird species and subspecies, including the dazzling Moussier’s Redstart, Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Moroccan White Wagtail, African Blue Tit and African Chaffinch as well as a range of species more typical of higher latitudes, such as Woodlark, Firecrest and Short-toed Treecreeper. We also have a good chance of encountering the native Barbary Macaque in the 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
WATCHING FOR MIGRATION AT THE STRAIT OF GIBRALTAR, FLY LONDON
Flight schedules permitting, we should have time to enjoy some further birding in 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 there... 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.