September. Millions of birds migrate from Europe to Africa. Most of them go through Spain. Of those that go through Spain most go through Malaga to cross around the Straits of Gibraltar, keeping the hazards of flight over the open sea to a minimum. That includes the birds of prey, from the giant Lammergeier, through Griffon and Black Vultures and migratory Eagles, to Black and Red Kites, and many more. Twice a year they gather in great numbers. No wonder birders also flock to the rock, to Tarifa, and everywhere between, to see what they can. As you might guess, Tarifa is on my bucket list.
Of the biggest of these birds, I have only seen Griffin Vultures in the Axarquía, which are resident. They are recognisable from size, being massive birds, with a wingspan in the region of 3 metres (9 feet), with the primaries showing as ‘fingers’ on the wing. They will fly in huge flocks – 30 or 40 birds – but I have seen smaller groups of 8-10 flying through low cloud, and once a lost individual on a foggy night perched on a friend’s balcony rail, tucked its head in and went to sleep! They are under threat, since the number of horse, mule, and donkey carcases available to feast on has shrunk dramatically (being replaced by trucks and motos), but they can still be seen especially in the higher parts of the Sierras.
I have come across quite a few people who wrinkle their noses at the mention of vultures, on the general view they are mean, nasty unsavoury birds, since they eat dead meat. Ironic really, given that most people also eat dead meat that they haven’t hunted and freshly killed. But nature’s undertakers are the most magnificent birds, regardless of the long neck (tucked in, during flight) and bare head.
I have read that they are more important to humans than you might think. In parts of Africa, where there are millions of large animals on the move, edged round by human habitation, there is conflict, and some areas have seen people using poison against various species, which has then hit vultures. But fewer vultures quickly means much more meat rotting gently in the sun, and that results in far bacteria. Unsavoury bacteria plumes then get into the water-systems, causing serious disease and death in the human population – a devastating result of ecological carelessness. Vultures have their uses.
And people’s reserve fades when they see them in the air. They are, after all, just birds, following their nature. And yes, they truly are magnificent.