Friday, 4 October 2013

A weekend in Tarifa

Hi all,

Bit of a long one, this one!

In Cartagena, the last friday in September is a local holiday, for the fiesta of the Romans and Cartagenians.  As this is a long weekend with a reputation for bad weather here, I try to get down to Tarifa in the province of Cadiz, principally to see raptors at the lookout points there, although obviously to make the most of the weekend calling in at other places renowned for birds, such as the ‘playa de los Lances’ and ‘La Janda’.  To this end, I arranged to go down on thursday afternoon in two cars with five other people (Isa S. Peñalver, Javi Palacios, Isidro Bartolomé, Tomás Garcia and Antonio Fernandez-Caro).  The actual trip down there took just over 6 ½ hours with a couple of stops en route, and we checked into our hostel at around 11 pm (three nights sharing a twin bedded room with en-suite, 69.50€ per person – not bad at all!).  Following on is a chronicle of the three days spent there.

Day 1 – Friday, 27th September
So after an earlyish breakfast of coffee, fresh orange juice and toast with tomato, at the café literally 50 metres down the road from our hostel, we set off for our first stop, the ‘playa de los Lances’.  This is a stretch of beach, several kilometers long on the Atlantic side of Tarifa which you can walk along (and many people do, mainly doggie walkers) which has a couple of small rivers emptying into it.  In the past many rarities have been seen here, but the bird we were most interested in was the Lesser Crested Tern, which if around would probably be close to the hide there.  This tern breeds on offshore islands on the Moroccan coast and on passage passes through the straits of Gibraltar (which here are only 14 km. wide), and over the years has been seen more and more commonly here.  The best (most comfortable) place to check out birds is from the only hide on the beach, that you can approach by car with only a ten minute walk from car to hide.  As the weather was not too friendly looking (very dark clouds to the hills to the west), this is the option we took, spending just over a couple of hours there.  Well, we had no luck with the Lesser Crested, or with any out of the normal birds, but could see that out to sea, there was a movement of Gannets and Cory’s Shearwaters, and we were entertained for quite a while by the antics of an Osprey trying to catch its breakfast.  We could tell it was a juvenile from its plumage, but also it seemed quite obvious from its lack of success in catching fish – more than half an hour swooping and crashing into the pool that forms in the sand, without nothing to show for it.  In the end it gave up and flew off behind us.  Other birds of note were a Black-eared Wheatear, Sparrowhawk, .and a group of Short-toed Larks going through. At the end of this report, I’ll make a list of all the birds seen at the individual places.

 Good entertainment value...

 ... watching this Osprey crashing into the water ...

 ... but unsuccessful, and eventually it flew off

 The hide from where we watched the entertainment

Our next stop was to be the ‘Cazalla’ observatory, on the hills just outside Tarifa, but as we approached we could see there was no-one there, so we decided to continue on to the ‘Algarroba’ observatory further east towards Algeciras, calling in en-route at the ‘Mirador del Mediterraneo’, a coffee shop looking over the straits.  From here we saw several Booted and Short-toed Eagles – a prelude to what was to come maybe?

Isa, Javi and Antonio at the 'mirador del Mediterraneo' with Morocco in the background

Arriving at the ‘Algarrobo’ observatory at around 11, we stayed until 1-30. 
Things were relatively quiet there, with the odd burst of action, when, for example groups of 7 and then 17 Black Storks flew over, or small groups of Short-toed or Booted Eagles, or 4 Ravens or 40+ Griffon Vultures. We also had Honey Buzzards and Black Kites there, and a few Sparrowhawks and a single Hobby.  There was also quite a movement of Swallows, Red-rumped Swallows, and Common/Pallid Swifts, and in the bushes around the observatory, Redstart, Pied Flycatcher and Sardinian Warbler.

 The 'Algarrobo' observatory ...

 The crew peering intently for raptors

And some of the birds seen - here a wing-tagged Black Kite...
 ... Short-toed Eagle ...

 ... another Black Kite ...

 ... another very tatty Short-toed Eagle ...

 ... and finally, a light morph Booted Eagle

Coming back to the Cazalla observatory just before 2, to have our sandwiches, we had more of the same (including probably the same group of 17 Black Storks) – Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Honey Buzzards and Black Kites.

 The 'Cazalla' observatory!

After lunch we decided to have a look at the 'Sierra de Plata' which in birding terms has a very famous cave in it where White-rumped Swifts breed (although I haven't heard anything about them this year), and the occasional Little Swift is seen.  We spent an hour or so here, but no luck with the swifts, but did have 3 Griffon Vultures swooping around us, and a pair of Blue Rock Thrushes.

 Sierra de la Plata, complete with swift cave

 The view from the sierra

 Griffon Vulture landing ...

 ... and another keeping an eye on us

We decided that we would spend the rest of the afternoon at La Janda which is to the west of Tarifa, a massive valley where a lot of rice is grown (and hence there is a lot of water there).  This took the form of a vehicle safari, as there is a lot of ground to cover.  As it was, we got there at around 4, and finally left as a massive roost of Cattle Egrets and Jackdaws was building up (I estimate more than 1,500 Cattle Egrets and 2,000 Jackdaws) – quite a spectacle – and we’d covered less than half of the area by then! The other very impressive sight were the ‘skeins’ (is that the right word?) of Glossy Ibises – quite large flocks that seem to be everywhere.  As always, there were plenty of Marsh Harriers, with just a single young male Montagu’s Harrier and single Black Shouldered Kite.  Driving along the bank of a canal, we came across a massive (2,000 plus) flock of House Sparrows, and we managed to dig out at least 3 male Spanish Sparrows from amongst them, and later watching some Kestrels being totally harassed by Jackdaws, we realized we were watching a group of at least 6 Lesser Kestrels!

One of the birds that never fails to impress people (especially Spanish birders) going to La Janda for the first time, are the Pheasants that are everywhere, that seem so tame.  They were all around the farm buildings where they are well fed and watered – until that fateful day when the hunting season opens!

We had thought that we might see some of the Bald Ibis that are being reared nearby under a captive breeding plan, and when we saw 3 dark shapes flying over with long necks and no leg projection, we thought we’d hit paydirt – but they turned out to be just 3 Cormorants!
As I mentioned before, we left as it was starting to get dark – to the sound of a single Tawny Owl calling, something I’ve never heard there before.

Arriving back at the hostel, having found somewhere to park (never easy in Tarifa), after a freshen-up it was time to seek out the night life in the old town of Tarifa (or at least, have some supper and a wine or two).

Day 2 – Saturday 28th September
Once again, after breakfast we went to the ‘playa de los Lances’, with very dark skies overhead and quite a wind blowing – for the first time for a long time, I had to put on a body-warmer!  Birdwise, things were much as the day before, except in the fields close to where we had parked, there were small groups of Calandra, Short-toed and Skylarks.

 The hide at the 'playa de los Lances' with the Atlantic in the background

Typical image of the weather, taken from the hide looking back to Tarifa

The only other birds of note were a group of Grey Plovers that came very close to the hide, including a couple of young birds, that if you saw on their own, you’d swear were Golden Plovers – but after waiting a while, they lifted their wings to reveal their black axillaries.

You'd almost swear it was a Golden Plover ...

... until you saw its armpit ...

 ... being chased off by a Ringed Plover ...

 ... 'This is MY beach!' ...

 A few more of the same birds
We stayed there until 11, and then went off to the Cazalla watchpoint.  Here we saw a lot of raptors which were being pinned down by the wind between us and the sea, so we took a track we had seen between Tarifa and Cazalla that appeared to go towards the cliffs.  Indeed it did, quite high up, so on occasions we were looking down on the birds, something you don’t often get the opportunity to do. 

 View of Javi, and the island of Tarifa

 Here we were looking down on the birds passing through the valley

 Not often you get to photograph raptors from above ...

  ... here a Booted Eagle

We also watched as a group of 3 Black Kites struggled against the by now quite strong SW wind, low over the water to get across to Morocco.  Having a picnic lunch here, in the afternoon, we went once again to La Janda to continue exploring there.  This time we attempted to enter via the village of Facinas, but the track was too risky for one of the cars, so we had to turn around and enter from where we had left the previous day.

We didn’t in actual fact see an awful lot more than we’d seen the day before, the only new birds noted here were a couple of young Black-eared Wheatears and several Wood Sandpipers.  But nothing of Golden, Imperial or Bonelli’s Eagle – maybe the weather was just too oppressive – it certainly was on the drive back to Tarifa, with rain so hard at times it was almost impossible to see through the windscreen.  Luckily they were fairly short showers, but a reminder of what ‘wet Spain’ can be like!

 Entering by Facinas, we encountered this large but empty (of birds) reservoir

 Once in La Janda we saw this Marsh Harrier flying down the canal at the side of the road

 Most were distant, but here a couple of White Storks that crossed above the car

 Wherever there was water ...

 ... there seemed to be Glossy Ibises, here with a Common Snipe

 An unusual photo - there's no Glossy Ibises - just Common Snipe and Black Winged Stilts in the paddy

 Back to normal, more Glossy Ibises ...

... and this time, with a Spoonbill

 And here in another part of La Janda

People often ask me to include photos of the actual places I visit, so here are a few of Tarifa old town itself, where we got fed and watered.

 Here the wall and gate to the old town

 Checking out the local Vegetarian Restaurant, some with more enthusiasm than others!

 Plaque on the wall of one of the buildings announcing it to be the old prison

 Typical small plaza and restaurant

 And another - friday night the town was heaving, but Saturday not ...

 My favourite restaurant - and judging by how long we had to wait for a table on friday night,
obviously a firm favourite with many others

 A shut coffee shop, but the window display tickled me!
Day 3 – Sunday 29th September
Once again, for our last morning, and a showery one at that, after breakfast we paid another visit to the hide at the ‘playa de los Lances’, and once again, drew a blank with the Lesser Crested Tern – just plenty of Sandwiches!  Out to sea, the recent showers had obviously stirred things up, and there were numerous Gannets and Cory’s Shearwaters, and for the first time a few Balearic Shearwaters.  Also, the Osprey was back, but having the same luck as a couple of mornings ago, and eventually after about an hour’s attempted fishing, it sat very forlorn looking on a post!  (Actually, that’s not true – they don’t sit, and the concept of forlorn-looking is a human one – no-one can tell what they are feeling, but I’m sure you can understand what I mean!).

 Osprey on one of its passes over the hide ...

 ... and about to make yet another dive for a fish ...

 I'M HUNGRY, and it's raining, and I'm feeling a little dejected!

As nothing too interesting was happening, and the skies looking very grey (we’d already had a couple of short showers while in the hide), and the forecast for it to get worse rather than better, we thought we’d go back to the hostel, collect our belongings, and make a start on the journey home, stopping off at a couple of places en route.

Our first short stop was at the Palmones Estuary, just on the other side of Gibraltar.  I remember that last year this area had given us some class birds such as Osprey and a Black Stork very close, but once again we drew a blank, best bird seen being a Spoonbill asleep viewable with ‘scopes only, and a couple of distant Booted Eagles and a Marsh Harrier, and some distant Oystercatchers in the estuary itself.

We continued our journey for a couple of hours, reaching the ‘Fuentepiedra’ lagoon mid afternoon just in time for another shower to start!  Thankfully it didn’t last long and we spent a couple of hours here in the various hides around the information centre.  In the main lagoon, the water level was probably as high as I’ve ever seen it, and there were still plenty of Greater Flamingos (I’ve put 2,000 + in my notebook, but the figure could quite easily be 5,000).  I made a rapid check for the Lesser Flamingos that bred here this year, but looking through so many birds I honestly didn’t expect to see them.
And that was about it!  Nothing too stunning to write about, but good to get somewhere different, with a good crew, not too expensive and a good time had by all.

And as a PostScript, while we were having bad weather, in Cartagena the weather was fine, and all sorts of birds were being seen, such as Pallid Harrier, and a Little Swift amongst the large numbers of Swallows and Red-rumped Swallows around (a lifer for me!), and as a further PostScript, on Monday 30th, 2 Lesser Crested Terns were seen at the playa de los Lances, Tarifa and just a bit further up the coast at Chipiona on the same day, 2 Roseate Terns, and on the 1st , 2nd  and 3rd of October, a Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture at Tarifa!!  Ah well, that’s life!

Birds seen over the weekend:
Black-necked Grebe – Podiceps nigricollis – Zampullin cuellinegro
Cory’s Shearwater – Calonectris diomedea – Pardela cenicienta
Balearic Shearwater – Puffinus mauretanicus – Pardela balear
Gannet – Morus bassanus – Alcatraz atlántico
Cormorant – Phalacrocorax carbo – Cormorán grande
Squacco Heron – Ardeola ralloides – Garcilla cangrejera
Cattle Egret – Bubulcus ibis – Garcilla bueyeraA
Little Egret – Egretta garcetta – Garceta común
Grey Heron – Ardea cinerea – Garza Real
White Stork – Ciconia ciconia – Cigüeña blanca
Black Stork – Ciconia nigra – Cigüeña negra
Glossy Ibis – Plegadis falcinellus – Morito común
Spoonbill – Platalea leucorodia – Espátula común
Greater Flamingo – Phoenicopterus roseus – Flamenco común
Mallard -  Anas platyrhynchos – Ánade azulón
Shoveler – Anas clypeata – Cuchara común
Teal – Anas crecca – Cerceta común
Black-shouldered Kite – Elanus caeruleus – Elanio común
Black Kite – Milvus migrans – Milano negro
Griffon Vulture – Gyps fulvus – Buitre leonado
Marsh Harrier – Circus aeruginosus – Aguilucho lagunero
Montagu’s Harrier – Circus pygargus – Aguilucho cenizo
Sparrowhawk – Accipiter nisus – Gavilán
Common Buzzard – Buteo buteo – Busardo ratonero
Honey Buzzard – Pernis apivorus – Abejero europeo
Short-toed Eagle – Circaetus gallicus – Culebrera europea
Booted Eagle – Hieraaetus pennatus – Aguililla calzada
Osprey – Pandion haliaetus – Águila pescadora
Kestrel – Falco tinnunculus – Cernícalo vulgar
Lesser Kestrel – Falco Naumanni – Cernícalo primilla
Hobby – Falco subbuteo – Alcotán
Peregrine – Falco peregrinus – Halcón peregrino
Pheasant – Phasianus colchicus – Faisán vulgar
Red-legged Partridge – Alectoris rufa – Perdiz roja
Moorhen – Gallinula chloropus – Gallineta común
Coot – Fulica atra – Focha común
Oystercatcher – Haematopus ostralegus – Ostrero
Black-winged Stilt – Himantopus himantopus – Cigüeñuela
Avocet – Recurvirostra avosetta - Avoceta común
Ringed Plover – Charadrius hiaticula – Chorlitejo grande
Kentish Plover – Charadrius alexandrinus – Chorlitejo patinegro
Grey Plover – Pluvialis squatarola – Chorlito gris
Lapwing – Vanellus vanellus - Avefría europea
Sanderling – Calidris alba – Correlimos tridáctilo
Dunlin – Calidris alpina – Correlimos común
Knot – Calidris canutus – Correlimos gordo
Ruff – Philomachus pugnax – Combatiente
Common Snipe – Gallinago gallinago – Agachadiza común
Bar-tailed Godwit – Limosa lapponica – Aguja colipinta
Redshank – Tringa totanus – Archibebe común
Green Sandpiper – Tringa ochropus – Andarríos grande
Wood Sandpiper – Tringa glareola – Andarríos bastardo
Common Sandpiper – Actitis hypoleucos – Andarríos chico
Black-headed Gull – Larus ridibundus – Gaviota reidora
Audouin’s Gull – Larus audouinii – Gaviota de Audouin
Yellow-legged Gull – Larus michahellis – Gaviota patiamarilla
Lesser Black-backed Gull – Larus fuscus – Gaviota sombría
Sandwich Tern – Sterna sandvicensis – Charrán patinegro
Little Tern – Sterna albifrons – Charrancito
Black Tern – Chlidonias niger – Fumarel común
Rock Dove/Domestic Pigeon – Columba livia – Paloma bravía
Woodpigeon – Columba palumbus – Paloma torcaz
Collared Dove – Streptopelia decaocto – Tórtola turca
Turtle Dove – Streptopelia turtur – Tórtola europea
Little Owl (H) – Athene noctua – Mochuelo
Tawny Owl (H) – Strix aluco – Cárabo común
Alpine Swift – Apus melba – Vencejo real
Common Swift – Apus apus – Vencejo común
Pallid Swift – Apus pallidus – Vencejo pálido
Kingfisher – Alcedo atthis – Martín pescador
Hoopoe – Upupa epops – Abubilla
Green Woodpecker (H) – Picos viridus – Pito real
Skylark – Alauda arvensis – Alondra común
Crested Lark – Galerida cristata – Cogujada común
Calandra Lark – Melanocorypha calandra – Calandria común
Short-toed Lark – Calandrella brachydactyla – Terrera común
Swallow – Hirundo rustica – Golondrina común
Red-rumped Swallow – Hirundo daurica – Golondrina dáurica
House Martin – Delichon urbicum – Avión común
Sand Martin – Riparia riparia – Avión zapador
Blue-headed Wagtail – Motacilla flava – Lacandera boyera
White Wagtail – Motacilla alba alba – Lavandera blanca
Common Redstart – Phoenicurus phoenicurus – Colirrojo real
Whinchat – Saxicola rubetra – Tarabilla norteña
Stonechat – Saxicola torquatus – Tarabilla común
Northern Wheatear – Oenanthe oenanthe – Collalba gris
Black-eared Wheatear – Oenanthe hispanica – Collalba rubia
Blue Rock Thrush - Monticola solitarius - Roquero solitario
Blackbird – Turdus merula – Mirlo común
Cetti’s Warbler (H) – Cettia cetti – Ruiseñor bastardo
Fan-tailed Warbler – Cisticola juncidis - Buitrón
Sardinian Warbler – Sylvia melanocephala – Curruca cabecinegra
Spotted Flycatcher – Muscicapa striata – Papamoscas gris
Pied Flycatcher – Ficedula hypoleuca – Papamoscas cerrojillo
Blue Tit (H) – Parus caeruleus – Herrerillo común
Great Tit – Parus major – Carbonero común
Southern Grey Shrike – Lanius meridionalis – Alcaudón real
Magpie – Pica pica – Urraca
Carrion Crow – Corvus corone – Corneja común
Raven – Corvus corax – Cuervo
Jackdaw – Corvus monedula – Grajilla
Common Starling – Sturnus vulgaris – Estornino pinto
Spotless Starling – Sturnus unicolor – Estornino negro
House Sparrow – Passer domesticus – Gorrión común
Spanish Sparrow – Passer hispaniolensis – Gorrión moruno
Chaffinch – Fringilla coelebs – Pinzón vulgar
Serin – Serinus serinus – Verdecillo
Greenfinch – Carduelis chloris – Verderón común
Goldfinch – Carduelis carduelos – Jilguero
Linnet – Carduelis cannabiona – Pardillo común
Corn Bunting – Miliaria calandra – Triguero

(H) denotes heard only

Should you wish to keep more up to date with what’s being seen, look me up on ‘facebook’ under ‘Richard Howard’.



  1. Hi Richard,
    Great blog and now following! Just stumbled on it researching for a forthcoming trip to Spain for some winter biding down there. Been down Tarifa way many times in Spring so it was interesting to read about return passage.

    Be very grateful if you could maybe point me in the direction of any likely good birding sites down there in Dec / Jan?

    My blog is here by the way if you want to have a lookTimbobaggins Abroad
    .. be happy for you to follow me.


    1. Hi Tim, thanks for your comments, although not quite sure, when you say 'birding sites down there', do you mean in Murcia? or around Tarifa?
      I've had a look at your blog - excellent - and I've put it in my list of followed blogs. Please feel free to do the same with mine.