Tarifa lies on the southern most tip of Western Europe. It juts out into the water where the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Oceans meet. At this point, only 15km of water separate the continents of Africa and Europe. As a result this is the European crossing point for over 250,000 raptors heading to Europe in spring and back to Africa in autumn. Tarifa serves as a viewing platform for one of nature’s great migrations.
Massive flocks of raptors congregate to cross back to Africa from here in the autumn. A flock as large as 11,000 honey buzzards was reported heading south during the autumn migration back in the late 70’s. These broad winged birds are too heavy to be energetic flyers and crossing large bodies of water is a dangerous hazard for them. They have evolved to glide. Many are even able to ‘lock’ their extended wings by means of a specialized tendon. They circle and soar up rising hot air currents. These ‘updrafts’ occur only over land as the land air warms up in relation to the cool sea during the day and the hot air rises. Thousands of raptors, buzzards, vultures, eagles and various species of stork, find and ride these updrafts to gain enough altitude to safely glide across the straits to return home from breeding in the higher, brighter latitudes.
What makes Tarifa an especially good destination for bird lovers is the variety of bird habitats it has to offer. Nearby are wooded hills, virgin coastline, sand dunes, saltpans, even a winding river and creek. It has grassy plains and adjacent mountains. All types of birds can congregate in vast numbers here in their preferred habitat. A few miles north of Tarifa past the amazing Roman costal ruins of Bolonia, lies what was once the Iberian Peninsula’s largest wet land. ‘Laguna de La Janda’. Sadly for bird lovers, it was drained in the 1960’s to make the land more suitable for agriculture.
Overlooking Tarifa’s harbour are the ancient castle walls where colonies of the lesser kestrel nest and breed. This is an amazing opportunity to view one of Europe’s rarest falcons. This is bird watching made easy. Lesser kestrels can be observed hovering overhead while you enjoy refreshments in a local street café. And if you want to multi task even further, why not pretend to go whale watching, boats leave the small harbour every day and no one will ever suspect your motives for looking upwards. Being in the centre of the Straits is exhilarating; every country east of you, sends its shipping through this gap to reach the rest of the world.
The most common pattern of bird migration involves flying north to breed in the temperate or arctic summers. The longer days in the northern latitudes ensures more time to find food and food in turn means life. As the days shorten in Autumn and the weather turns colder they return to warmer southern regions where food is readily available and not so tied to the seasons. For birds, commonsense and good weather go hand in hand.
Such extreme travel comes with certain costs. It is estimated that up to 15% of the birds die each year crossing between the continents. Solitary birds grouping together for migration crossings are more prone to parasites and disease. Predators have even evolved in parallel with the migrations. In Tarifa you can sometimes see Eleonora’s falcon, she times her breeding season to coincide with the autumn migration and her chicks gorge themselves on unsuspecting passerine birds heading home for a warm winter.