Very Important Puffinus

Unless there’s a moth trap or a night out with the Next Generation Birders involved, there’s normally only one 5 o’clock in our day! But this morning we had a great reason to haul ourselves out before daybreak.

Team Balearic!

We were to spend it helping out our friends at Fundacion Migres surveying Balearic Shearwaters as they migrate through The Straits.

Alighting from the bus in Tarifa at 6am, we entered a surreal crossed reality, where revellers celebrating last night’s Festivale de San Juan were literally just leaving the nightclubs, high heels and kebabs in hands!

Across town, dock workers were getting breakfast and heading to their jobs, as were the town’s resident Pallid Swifts, which we enjoyed watching over our coffee and tostada as we waited for day to break.

Sunrise over Tarifa harbour

The nightclubs might have been heaving last night, but thanks to Alejandro Onrubia from Migres we had VIP passes of our own today – to Tarifa Island, an ex-military base now inhabited by around 4000 pairs of Yellow-legged Gulls, and the location of Punta de Maroquis, the shortest distance between mainland Europe and Africa.

Here we settled down to stunning views across the Straits, and a morning of sea-watching, to help fulfil the monitoring of Critically Endangered Balearic Shearwaters, Puffinus mauretanicus, that Ali and his team have completed for the last 14 years, working with the Spanish Environment Ministry.

Where the Med and the Atlantic meet

Fundacion Migres have monitored the passage of these birds using the same protocol every year, meaning it provides a reliable index estimate of the current population.  We know they are doing badly, mainly due to deaths as part of fishing ‘by-catch’ and predation of chicks by rats and feral cats on their island homes. Thanks to this work we are able to see how badly.  In 2007, when the global population was estimated at 24,000, this method recorded 16,000 migrating through the Straits.  Last year, only 12,000 were recorded.  This year, with migration season nearly over, the numbers are around 11,000 recorded so far.  The monitoring is vital to increase pressure for conservation solutions and funding to be found to these problems.

At peak migration, the team can be counting up to 1,500 Balearics a day, mixed in with thousands of Cory’s Shearwaters.  Today at the end of the season we clocked a leisurely one hundred, giving us time to enjoy some of the delights of birding in the Straits, including views of Audouins Gulls, Lesser Crested and Little Terns as well as a pod of Striped Dolphins, and distant but tantalising glimpses of Orca fin and a whale fluke!

Not too fussed about the endemic pink stuff it seems

Close by, there were plenty of amusing begging antics from the Yellow-legged Gull youngsters, unsurprisingly oblivious to the pretty pink endemic Limonium emarginatum adorning their hangout, exclusive to the Tarifa coastline.

But most importantly, we got to contribute in some small way to Balearic Shearwater conservation, and hopefully to helping Ali retain his seawatching sanity!

Thanks Ali for having us along! The next nightclub trip is on us!

You too can support Migres – watch this space for future volunteering opportunities.  Or maybe you fancy experiencing the spectacular migrations and cetaceans of the Straits first hand on tour..? Join us!

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