Reports, with Bird Lists, of our Meetings, Walks and Outings

Migration over the Straits of Gibraltar
by Ken White

Date: Thursday 17 March 2016 at 19:30


Forty-six people attended the meeting. The speaker was Ken White. He gave us a fascinating presentation on migration between Africa and Europe, across the Straits of Gibraltar.

Ken was one of the original committee members of our RSPB group in 1975. He joined the RSPB's Young Ornithologists' Club in 1966 and is currently the BTO representative for Berkshire and also a member of the BOC in Reading.

He has organised many annual birdwatching trips to southern Spain, around the narrow strip of the Mediterranean between Morocco and Spain. This is to observe the annual migrations from Africa in the spring and to Africa in the autumn.

Initially the presentation was about the geological history which led to the creation of the Mediterranean as it now is and the part the Straits of Gibraltar played in its formation. Then we learnt how the geography of southern Europe and North Africa made this narrow area of southern Spain such an obvious choice for bird migration between the two continents. The mountains in southern Spain and northern Morocco are ideal “launching” sites for large-winged heavy bodied raptors and storks/cranes, that have already flown long distances from their nesting sites or wintering quarters. The 12 – 15 mile sea crossing is the easiest route between the two continents.

The bird species count in the presentation was high, especially raptors. At least 500,000 raptors cross each autumn, the most numerous being the Black Kite with 150,000 or more. The most numerous bird of all is the Goldfinch, with circa 500,000 of this one species seen.

Ken presented some fascinating details of migration patterns, that show very significant differences between species.  E.g. the Honey Buzzard pattern is extraordinary – it is one of the later birds to leave Africa for Europe, April and May are peak months, yet it is one of the earliest raptors to leave Europe for Africa, late August and September are peak. Honey Buzzards find a territory, find a mate, build a nest, mate, lay and incubate eggs, feed their young to fledging and independence all in a matter of 4 months or so. This is quite extraordinary for such a relatively large bird. The other extreme is the Black Stork which leaves Africa early, peak in February and March and leaves Europe in November and December.

It was also surprising to learn how many Kestrels, Buzzards and especially Sparrowhawks take part in this migration, birds we do not see as migratory in the UK.

One particularly interesting point made was that the reason we do not see large numbers of raptors and storks in this country may be that the 30 miles plus sea crossing from France to the UK may be too long a crossing for the birds to make, especially as there are no mountain high peaks to generate uplift and to launch from.

A fascinating presentation, although more academic than many birding presentations.

Peter Gaines reported these birds in our area:

  • Dorney Wetlands - Green Sandpiper, Stonechat
  • Little Marlow – Snipe,Dunlin, Yellow-legged Gull
  • Theale – four Oystercatcher, Redshank, Green Sandpiper
  • Cookham – Early Whinchat
  • Thatcham – Two Sand Martin
  • Winnersh – Crane
  • Widbrook Common – Little Egret
--- Original Programme Information ---

Many White Storks high overhead
Click here to see more White Storks

My talk will start with a look at the Mediterranean area in relation to the present flyways available to birds and a review of the current count totals involved. Of particular interest to me is the phenology of different species and how they consistently come and go in highly synchronised & set temporal sequences so that something is always on the move; and often the sheer numbers of birds involved is staggering. As we know, species distribution is dynamic, and not surprisingly climate change, as in the UK, has resulted in the arrival of new breeding species, so southern Spain has birds moving in from Africa; what are the latest species to be seen ?

Honey BuzzardLesser Kestrel
Honey Buzzard  Lesser Kestrel


Migration over the Straits is still one of birding's best kept secrets... that Spain & Morocco experience some of Europe's most spectacular natural phenomena is blatantly ignored by their government's approval of installations of massed ranks of wind turbines on the very ridges the birds need to continue their journeys. Amazingly daytime casualties seem to be quite low, as in my many visits to the area I have never witnessed any mortality. Despite this, a visit to the Straits in spring or Autumn is always richly rewarding, and get the timing right and you will see more Honey Buzzards there in 5 minutes than you will in your entire birdwatching career in the UK.

Roller bird on a postRoller

A potted Biography might read.....

  • YOC member at 10 years old & RSPB member since.
  • Voluntary warden Operation Osprey 1974/5/6.
  • Inaugural committee of East Berks RSPB group.
  • BSc (London) 1979.
  • 1st trip to Andalucía 1987
  • WEA Birdwatching class tutor 2001
  • 1st WEA trip to Suffolk summer 2005
  • Farnham Bird ID class 2006
  • Class group trip to N.Ireland  winter 2006/7
  • Class group trip to China winter 2007/8
  • BTO Rep for Berkshire 2008
  • BBAG committee 2008
  • 176 surveys for the Berkshire Atlas 2007-11
  • Validated 280,000 records for Berkshire Atlas 2008-1012
  • 1st group trip to Andalucía 2008
  • Post Graduate Diploma Ornithology (Birmingham) 2011
  • Winner of Gordon Langsbury Trophy BOC photo competition 2013 
  • 12th group trip to Andalucía autumn 2014

Ken is also a member of the Berkshire Ornithological Club

All pictures are © Copyright. Do not reproduce without permission from Ken White.