Where Spain shelves into the sea at the most southerly tip of continental Europe only fourteen kilometres of water separate it from North Africa. Through the late summer haze you can see the buckled beginnings of Morocco’s Rif Mountains, towering over the glittering blue span of the Strait of Gibraltar. And with that landmass in mind, vast numbers of migrating birds gather over these last arid hills of Andalucía, part way through journeys that could eventually take them as far as South Africa.
Silhouetted against the scorching sun, black storks glide on trembling feathers above the strait; colossal griffon vultures float past like arks on a sea of air; and short-toed eagles coil upwards in the blustery winds pelting out of the east, their pale wings flickering while black kites wheel over the shimmering earth.
I am standing in Alejandro Onrubia’s open-air office, an observatory platform above the coast. Employed by Fundación Migres – an organisation monitoring bird migration across the strait and one which has reintroduced the osprey to Spain – Alejandro is watching the invisible funnel above him, a narrow channel of air that drains a vast swathe of Europe of its migratory birds come late summer and autumn. Here, the turning of the seasons is noted less by the changing colours of leaves than by the varying plumages of passing birds.
Looking skyward and across the hills, Alejandro is able to decipher a species that is still just a small speck to most of us when he first sees it. The larger of them, such as vultures, storks and eagles, are seeking thermals to soar on, those spiralling currents of warm air that lift from the land, enabling these birds to glide considerable distances with little expenditure of energy. Many of the smaller species simply dart across the water, like the fizzing charge of bee-eaters, all their feathered swirls of lemon, cinnamon and turquoise blurring in the rush of wind and wing.
That week Alejandro had recorded some 5,000–7,000 raptors from his station every day – which is nothing compared to the sum of migratory movements. From late July, when the first birds begin departing Europe at the end of the breeding season, some 380,000 raptors will make the crossing to Morocco. That moving aerial mass is primarily composed of four species – black kite, booted eagle, honey buzzard and short-toed eagle – but a further twenty raptor species will be represented in significant numbers as well. At the same time, entire flotillas of white storks will lighten the skies in gleaming streams across the water, up to 150,000 of them pressing southwards over the sea.
One million songbirds
The movement of seabirds is no less dynamic, as a million wild lives pour over the lip of the strait each autumn, including Cory’s and Balearic shearwaters, gannets, terns, skuas and razorbills. And even then, none of these figures comes close to the total passage of passerines, those perching birds that speed south as daylight begins to shrink across the northern latitudes. Roughly 130 species comprise the 30–50 million small birds that make the journey in autumn, from swifts and hoopoes to warblers and orioles. To avoid predatory raptors and take advantage of typically calmer skies at night, many of them make nocturnal crossings. “On a really good night,” said Alejandro, “one million songbirds can cross the strait.” They form a barely visible river rippling onwards in the dark.
Migration is one of the incontestable wonders of the world, and birds make some of the longest and most challenging journeys of any creatures on the planet, able to navigate vast distances by taking compass readings from the position of the sun and stars, in conjunction with sensing the Earth’s magnetic field and recognising visible landmarks. And so often, as with migrating warblers and other songbirds, these travellers weigh little more than a fifty pence piece, a tiny and vulnerable bundle of blood, tissue, bone, feathers and intelligence that’s often hurtling through high winds and storms.
To see them setting out over the strait, in seasonal cycles of movement so emblematic of nature’s immense fragility as well as its intense resilience, is to feel the joy of wild things. Our propensity for self-absorption, when human concerns can seem to reduce all else to the very thinnest of existences, can’t help but be loosened by such enlarging spectacles.
“It’s contact with life,” said Alejandro when I ask him how he feels about his work. “You feel alive, you feel a part of nature.”
There’s a serious purpose to his work, though. “The idea of monitoring bird migration through the Strait of Gibraltar is to have an idea of what is happening. It’s a very good example of trends in migration, both population trends and changes in migratory patterns. Many species are shortening their migration or becoming resident, and if this happens then the numbers we see here decrease.”
I ask him if these shifts are related to climate change. “Yes,” he replies, without hesitation. “We examine these trends and compare them with changes in weather and climate, and there’s a big relationship.”
A disturbing decline
For twenty-two years Alejandro has been recording these movements with the help of tireless and committed volunteers, and the resulting data has been of critical importance to mapping the health of populations. As birds all the way from Scandinavia and Central Europe wend their way southwards through Iberia, his observatory acts, in essence, as a diagnostic centre.
“In general, raptors and storks are increasing,” says Alejandro. “Comparing current data with that from the 1970s, most of the raptor numbers are higher than they were forty years ago.”
“Except for harriers and others that are connected to agricultural land,” adds Inés Jordana, an agriculture and food policy officer from SEO Birdlife, making an important distinction between those largely forest-reliant species that have benefited from an overall upsurge in European woodland cover and those whose existences are tethered to agricultural landscapes which have increasingly become lifeless, pesticide-drenched monocultures. “Which shows both the importance of conservation law and the enforcement of it; and that agricultural policies and practices need to become more sustainable, because it’s where we see the decline.”
And decline – sharp, unequivocal and disturbing – is what Alejandro continues to witness when it comes to passerine species in particular. “Numbers of songbirds here are declining dramatically. Compared to the 1970s, we are counting one-eighth of the swifts and only one-third of the barn swallows.”
Travelling to Morocco in the wake of the birds, I journey southwards with that cumulative image of loss in mind. Four hundred and twenty million birds have vanished from the skies of the European Union since 1980, and one of the critical drivers of that decline is habitat loss, a phenomenon occurring on both sides of the strait, affecting birds at either end of their journeys, as well as in between. With each passing year, there are simply fewer places for them to be.
The salt pans of Larache have been in existence in some form since antiquity. Set in the shadow of Lixus, a remarkable Roman hilltop settlement dating from the 1st century AD, this estuarine region on Morocco’s west coast supplied the ancient empire with salt. But after centuries of use, the vast complex of salt pans slotted within the deep bends of the meandering Loukkos River was abandoned by its owner in 2007 as unprofitable.
Last chance saloons
According to Mohamed Dakki, a professor of ecology at the University of Rabat and president of Grepom, Birdlife International’s partner in Morocco, these working pools once welcomed astonishing congregations of migratory birds. In recent times, he says, there was even a record of 15,000 glossy ibises in a single day. With the largely barren Sahara ahead of them, many birds seek out wetlands to rest and refuel in: they’re last-chance saloons before the perils of the arid desert. But like so many lost wetlands around the world, the transformation of these salt pans after their closure was stark. They’d evaporated in the searing light and been overwhelmed by vegetation. And for the past decade almost no birds had been seen there at all.
Wherever there are the vision, resources and will, however, it remains fundamentally possible for things to return. In conjunction with the local community, Grepom has begun a restoration project that is beginning to benefit both people and birds. While not yet fully operational, hundreds of black-winged stilts are already wading through the restored salt pans. An osprey rises with a fish, twisting it lengthwise in its talons; the eyes of a squacco heron gleam as it spears the water with its bill. Redshanks, godwits and avocets sift the muddy margins of the lagoons and gulls swirl low over the brimming pools.
Like the salt pans of the Bay of Cádiz, where I had begun my journey in Spain, this landscape was of cultural and economic value as well as ecological. For thirty years Ali Berraha had cultivated salt here, just like his father before him, but that continuity of connection had been severed with the closure of the salt works.
“When we heard about this project we were really happy,” he says, standing beside the tidal river that feeds the pools. “Because of our long past here, we feel sentimentally linked to this work with salt.” Along with eight other families involved in the new salt co-operative called Selarache, of which Ali is the president, he’d given up itinerant employment as a general labourer to return to his work of old.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, though. From the colossal site the co-operative chose thirty-nine hectares, or 90 pans, to initially restore, stripping back the deeply-rooted vegetation by hand. Slow progress meant the crystalliser pans were still being constructed. And a government demand for more taxes to be paid on the land – which Grepom didn’t yet have the ability to pay – made these promising beginnings vulnerable to failure.
“We believe in the project,” says Ali, “even if there are some problems still.” He remains optimistic that water will eventually flow through the pans for the full 22-kilometre journey that it requires from source to salt. “We have hope and we believe in the future, God willing.”
An act of faith
“They’re the soul of the restoration,” says Mohamed, referring to the salt makers. “They can’t go forward because of these delays, but they can’t go back either. We need to give them hope that next year there will be salt to harvest.”
While speaking to Ali, as wind scudded off the river and sea-mist scrolled over us, I remembered what Father Gabriel Delgado had said when we spoke at the refugee and migrant centre he ran in Cádiz. That people must be able to migrate with dignity – meaning not having to make the horrendous and often perilous crossing by sea to reach a place of safety, hopefulness or prosperity – but that they must absolutely be able to live with dignity in their homelands if they choose to stay. Efforts such as these at Larache, seemingly small and unconnected to larger issues of human movement, have powerful potential. Not only do they restore fluidity to the natural world of migrating birds, making their arduous journeys more likely to succeed, but they create possibility for local livelihood in places that many have left. They’re an act of faith in a grounded future, conservation sowing the seeds of a wider wellbeing.
Before leaving I watched white storks stalking the marsh grasses and salt pans for food. Some could easily have been storks that I’d already seen, either feeding near the pyramids of salt in the Bay of Cádiz or amongst the thousands that had soared above the cetaceans of the Strait of Gibraltar. On certain days, said a boatman I spoke to, migrating storks reach such colossal numbers that they stretch unbroken through the sky from Spain to Morocco. And I understood then, standing beside revitalised salt pans that are a fragile source of dignity for local people and of enormous potential for wildlife, that these long threads of travelling birds stitch the continents together with their flights. Their journeys make the differences of the world seem smaller.
This is the last in a series of four articles published weekly throughout March (a version of this article first appeared in the Lush Times magazine, available exclusively at Lush Liverpool). You can read the first in the series here, the second here, and the third here.
Julian Hoffman is the author of the award-winning The Small Heart of Things. His upcoming book, Irreplaceable: The Fight for Our Wild Places, will be published by Hamish Hamilton in June. Julian lives in north-western Greece and can be followed on Twitter @JulianHoffman
Main Image: Griffon vulture - Alejandro Onrubia, Fundacion Migres
L: Black kites by Alejandro Onrubia - Fundacion Migres
R: Ali and Mohamed Dakki, Larache saltpans - Julian Hoffman