2005 – The Road to Morocco – Part 5
The Birding trip to Spain came off and what a trip. 0400 Sunday morning saw five of us crossing the border into Spain heading towards Seville, three from the Obs plus Keith and Charlie who are Gibraltarian. I knew that it was going to be “one of those days” when Michael emerged from his room at 0330 in a short sleeved shirt, white trousers, his cuban heeled pointed cowboy boots (because he is a little vertically challenged) and a leather jacket. I did tell him that where we were going is likely to be windy and cold, but he was having none of it. “We’re off to Spain, it must be warm!”
I did manage to persuade John that waterproofs would be a good idea, even if its only to keep the chill of the wind at bay. He had second thoughts about not taking them when he saw how I was dressed, complete with hat and gloves, but Michael was not deterred because it was the warmest morning to date. A balmy 10’C at that time.
Anyway, there we were, speeding through the dark Spanish countryside in Keith’s jeep listening to Paco de Lucia, a local from Algercerias who is taking the Flamenco world by storm and upsetting all the purists in the process with his absolutely fantastic guitar playing and Radio Tarifa, a “fusion” group who play music of Spanish and Moroccan influence. Great music to drive by. Whoever said that the Gibs were British?
By 0500 we were driving though Jerez when it started to drizzle. “Won’t last long, only until the sun burns it off” was Charlie, the eternal optimist’s, response to the event. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve heard that.
0600 and we are nearing our destination, Los Palacios, and it’s time for breakfast. Oh, and its still raining. A stop at a roadside venta and disaster. NO TOAST! A venta without bread is like a pub with no beer. Total confusion and disappointment, so coffee and a pastry had to suffice before we moved on.
Refreshed, through Los Palacios and in the marshes by 0715 waiting for daybreak and the rain is lashing down. Never mind, the birding was great, even if it was all from the car. 26 Black Storks in one flock, 65 Marsh Harriers in one roost, Marbled Duck, Cranes, 193 Purple Swamp Hen in one field, all the herons, Whiskered Terns and waders by the hundreds. Just fab!
We just moved up the road a few hundred yards more when the car just went “heavy”. The road ( dirt tracks in this part of the world) was just horrid sticky mud and very difficult to drive in. This is when 4 wheel drives come into their own. Never mind, the rain had eased, we could now get out and have a walk about. Well, you took two steps from the car and it felt like you were wearing divers boots, huge clods of mud just stuck to your boots. It was so clarty and sticky it was impossible to move. Now the wind was getting up too and it was beginning to feel rather chilly. Needless to say, Michael did not venture from the car.
By the time we actually got back into the car, we were wet, cold and covered in mud. “Well, we are not going home until we have seen 100 species” states Keith. No one argued because he was driving. “We’ll just have to do it all from the car”. So with that in mind, we slipped and slid down tiny tracks looking for birds through steamy windows on the lea side of the car with the occasional excursion outside to pan with the scope. By 1030 we were soaked, freezing, and filthy. The car was a an absolute mess both inside and out, but we did have 45 species.
A break was in order, so we drove to the nearest town, some 5 Kms away for coffee and hopefully toast this time. The towns name was Pinzon which is Spanish for Chaffinch but we didn’t “tick” it. Much warmer and full of toast, we set off again in, can you believe heavier rain and stronger winds.
Now things were really rough. The car was steamed up, one inch of water in the bottom of the car sloshing all the mud around, driving rain which prevented you from opening the windows, but we carried on. Another circuit of the marsh, more rain, mud and wind until it was decided that we were ready for lunch. This meant a trek back to the same venta and very welcome it was too. I’m not so sure that we were welcome judging by the looks some gave us. We were a real state. Never mind, only 1330, several hours more daylight left and 65 species “in the bag”.
Lunch was great with several beers, coffee and a House Martin to add to the list seen through the toilet wind. One hour later we were back on the road and heading for Sanlucar where there were pine forests, lagoons and salt flats. Only 34 species to go.
Neither the rain nor the wind had relented one iota. The tracks were now quagmires and we were making very slow progress. Some 10km from the pine forest Keith said “I know where we might get Great White Egret”, and with that we were down a very small muddy track. Further and further we went until even he decided that to go any farther would be silly, even on a day like today. With that, he put his foot on the brake and slid sideways and sedately down off the road and nestled gently in 5 inches of water, almost as if it were slow motion. The car was at such an angle, we were lucky that it didn’t topple over. Out we all got and just looked. Forget the wind, rain and the mud, this was not going to come out without help. I could not believe it. This was the second time in 6 months this had happened to me.
Without further ado, Keith, Charlie and I set off to a fish farm we had passed some 4km down the road and we left a very wet, cold and bedraggled John and Michael with the car. The walk was into the wind and rain and bloody hard work in the mud, but not all bad. We had Magpie, Curlew Sandpiper and Peregrine to add to the list.
By the time we got to the fish farm, we could not have been any wetter. It was quite a relief to stand in the lea of a building and get out of the wind, where we could see a tractor. That would do the job! The relief didn’t last long as the only person we could find informed us that the owner was away for the week, but she did tell us to go and look in the barn across the road.
As we approached the barn, the first thing we noticed was that it was locked but you could hear very loud voices coming from within. We knocked and shouted several times before it opened and we were greeted with warmth and huge glasses of whiskey. We must have stumbled across the entire local male population playing cards, domino’s and probably cock fighting too, but the most popular activity was drinking.
Whiskey after whiskey just kept on appearing as we explained our situation and eventually two guys indicated to us to come out back. With them just dressed in ordinary shoes and tee shirts, we followed them outside and into the wind and rain to be shown where their cars “were hidden”. They didn’t want to attract the attention of the local police. I had to wonder if the police knew that this place existed let alone send out a patrol.
We all got into a huge 4 wheel drive Toyota and off we went taking turns to have a swig of whiskey out of the bottle. We arrived at the car much to the relief of John and Michael who were now huddled inside trying to keep warm and watching the water running out from the bottom of the drivers side door.
The first Spaniard jumped out and surveyed the situation and, in very typical Spanish bravado and humour in an accent that Keith described as “Marsh Spanish” said, “Jesus, I could pull that out with my c***”. He then proceeded to walk toward the car and promptly fell over sliding all the way down the bank. He emerged covered from head to toe in mud. It was a real shame no one had the presence of mind to take a photo! The other guy must have been a little less drunk. He got a rope from the back of the car and asked Keith to tie it on. 10 minutes later, the car was on level ground, we had had a couple more whiskeys and we were on our way again. I don’t like whiskey but as the say, “when in Spain……….”, and it did help. I certainly didn’t feel as cold as I should have and didn’t care too much about the general state of us all.
To arrive at the forest was another relief. A respite from the wind, and the rain had eased, albeit not very much. We had lost nearly 2 hours so we had to be quick. A 30 minute walk brought Azure-winged Magpie, Sardinian Warbler, Robin, Chaffinch, Blackcap, Song Thrush, Buzzard, Red Kite, Short-toed Treecreeper and Serin to give us a grand total of 98.
We dashed back to the car. No time to loose now, but when we got back we had two Guardia Civil waiting for us. They wanted to know what we were doing especially in this weather. They found it too hard to believe that we were just birdwatching and promptly searched the whole car and its contents. They very nearly arrested Keith for being drunk!
It was a full 30 minutes before they let us on our way again and we went as fast as we could to the lagoons. A quick scan gave us White-headed and Tufted Duck. A big cheer went up for up for reaching 100 and Michael produced a hip flask from nowhere. A dark horse this man. Penduline Tit, Red-rumped Swallow and Black-necked Grebe quickly followed and we were off to the salt pans. Mission accomplished.
By the time we got to the salt pans it was nearly dark. All we could find was Slender-billed Gull, Sanderling and Shelduck. Cold, wet, filthy and tired we set off for home. The rain by now was absolutely torrential. Sunny Spain is a myth this time of year in these parts.
Back to Gib in the company of Paco de Lucia and Radio Tarifa to arrive at the border at about 2200. “I’m hungry” said Charlie at which Keith pointed the car at La Linia and the numerous tapas bars. I do not think that they were that pleased to see us in our state but we were served in three bars and enjoyed every moment of it.
In the last bar we met some of Keith’s friends whose only comment was after we recalled the day was “If you had started your day in the cat house, your trip would have gone down in the annals of history”. A fair comment I thought. It would have been good to make history but over a hundred species at this time of year in the weather conditions we encountered was an indication of how good birding can be out here.
We got to bed at about midnight and I did not awake until 1300. The rain was torrential all night and some 24 hours later, it’s still raining and is expected to last at least until Thursday. This is more typical weather for this time of year than the sunshine we have been having of late. This will give me time to recover and catch up on things plus sea watching is always good in these conditions. I think that after five weeks on the go, I am due a rest.
Well, the rest didn’t last that long. It might still be raining, but the sea watching has been really good. The passage of Cory’s Shearwater has just started and this strong Easterly is bringing them back into the Med. Some 3000 in one morning. We also had Great Skua and the 3rd Slender-billed Gull record for Gib and the first Little Gull in Gib for 15 years plus a lifer for me, Mediterranean Shearwater.
The rain also bought a couple of surprises. Yesterday afternoon I was collected and taken into town because 3 people had reported birds on their balconies. Part of my job here is to go catch these birds when this happens and species can vary from Sparrows to Griffon Vultures. If we get Griffons (only one last year – thank god), I just call Stanley and he deals with them. 3 different birds in 3 parts of the town turned out to be 2 Great-spotted Cuckoo’s and a Sparrowhawk. They were all found absolutely exhausted and in a very sorry state. I am glad to be able to report that after some TLC in the rehabilitation centre, all were ringed and released in fine fettle the following day. Where else in the world would such birds be found on balconies in apartment blocks, and where else in the world are birds not hunted or killed for sport at a major migration point, but nurtured and respected by all. Great stuff.
It’s nearing the weekend now and John and Michael have left. Michael will be returning after Easter (or so he says) for another stint. I hope he does because he was easing into it a little better towards the end. I now find myself on my own for the very first time and await the arrival of some new occupants, The Royal Airforce Ornithological Society (RAFOS) who are arriving tomorrow. Should be interesting.
But now I will have to start getting organised for Morocco as my first trip is now only a few days away. There is still plenty to put together before I leave including finding a car. No firm in Spain will insure anyone for Morocco. Its only 14 miles away as the crow flies but its another continent and might as well be a world away. I hope to be able to send one more email before I go, but this could be the last for 3 weeks or so. Wish me luck.