Situated 100 kilometres west of Málaga, the city of Ronda perches high above the El Tajo canyon, one of Europe’s most spectacular ravines. The beauty of its situation — surrounded by lush river valleys and impressive mountain ranges — has attracted artists and travellers for centuries. First settled by Celts in the 6th century, the region then fell under the rule of a succession of invading armies including the Romans, Visigoths and Moors. Napoleon’s army swept through in the 19th century and the area suffered greatly during the Spanish Civil War. Happily, peace now reigns, and with over 2,000 species of plant recorded (including several endemics), the area is important botanically within an Iberian and European context. The region’s birdlife is equally interesting. To the east and west respectively lie the Sierra de las Nieves and the Sierra de Grazalema. These mountain ranges have been designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and are home to two of the densest raptor populations in Europe. During late autumn, the resident raptors are briefly joined by a variety of other birds passing south between the sierras, en route to the Strait of Gibraltar. The Strait itself, just 14 kilometres wide at its narrowest point, is the focus, twice-yearly, for one of the world’s most impressive bird migrations. Every year, millions of birds make the journey across the Strait between Europe and Africa, making use of uplifts and thermals which swirl around the Rock of Gibraltar. Although we hope to see a wide variety of species during our time here, our visit is timed to coincide with the peak of the Griffon Vulture passage when as many as 2,300 birds have been recorded crossing the Strait during a one hour period!
We begin with a flight to Málaga and from there drive to the mountainside village of Juzcar, our base for three nights. The village had been one of the traditional pueblitos blancos of Andalusia but in spring 2011, buildings in the town (including the church and gravestones) were painted smurf-blue by Sony pictures in order to create a setting for the Smurf movie. En route we may encounter such species as Ring Ouzel, Fieldfare and Redwing. Griffon and Egyptian Vultures are present in the area, and the four species of eagle that breed in the area can also be encountered at this time of the year: Bonelli’s, Short-toed, Booted and Golden. We will explore the region’s hills in search of Blue Rock Thrush, Rock Bunting, Black Wheatear, Alpine Accentor, Crag Martin and Eagle Owl, whilst woodland habitats should yield Crested Tit, Short-toed Treecreeper, Hawfinch and Firecrest. During our stay we will also have time to explore the city of Ronda itself which retains much of its historic charm, particularly the ‘old town’. From the 18th century Puente Nuevo which straddles the 100-metre drop to the river below, we will gain unparalleled views out over the Serranía de Ronda mountains as well as have an opportunity to encounter any of the specialities of the area not yet seen.Next we transfer to a delightful eco-resort in a quiet woodland of Laurel and Cork Oak near Tarifa, which will be our base for our last three nights. Lying 120 kilometres south-west of Ronda, our base at Huerta Grande is ideal for watching the migration as it is located between two natural parks in the hills above the Strait of Gibraltar. From Huerta Grande the imposing silhouette of Morocco may be seen in the distance and we should witness a wide variety of migratory birds making the journey south to Africa across the Strait, including Egyptian Vultures, Short-toed and Booted Eagles, Black Kites and storks. The vulture migration is particularly spectacular, and we will visit several of the key raptor watchpoints situated along the coast. With up to 4,000 Griffon Vultures making the crossing in a single day, this represents the Palearctic’s largest congregation of this declining species, a world-class natural wonder only possible over the Strait of Gibraltar!A visit to a nearby temporary vulture feeding station will provide a chance to see congregations of feeding Griffon and perhaps Egyptian Vultures. To witness hundreds of these huge, majestic birds as they glide in, lured by the scent of meat, and then settle at very close quarters to their audience, is a truly unforgettable experience.
We will also explore the wetlands and intertidal areas in the Strait in search of the wintering and passage waders, terns, gulls and egrets which are found here in huge numbers at this time of year. The critically endangered Northern Bald Ibis has now increased in numbers due to a very successful reintroduction programme and we will visit a private reserve to see this charismatic bird.All too soon it will be time to leave the mild climate and bird-filled skies of south-west Spain and head to Málaga airport for our flight home.