Last Monday 17th of October we had a fantastic encounter with an adult Steppe Eagle during one of our birding day-trips in La Janda, the Strait of Gibraltar. This is only the second record in Spain for this large raptor, the first being an adult bird photographed in Tarifa by Dick Forsman in May 2008. To our knowledge, there are three further records in France up to 2008, an additional observation in Gibraltar on the 30th of May 2015 involving a second year bird in active migration to Spain (Charles Perez/ GONHS) and a long-staying immature of unknown origin in southern Portugal (from August 2015 until present?). In addition, escaped birds wearing falconry leashes have been observed several times in Europe, including a juvenile in the Strait of Gibraltar in October 2016 (J. Miguel González & F. Migres).
The Steppe Eagle is listed as Endangered and it is practically extinct in Eastern Europe. Its breeding range extends from European Russia and Turkey to Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China; and it winters in the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia. In other words, this is not the type of bird you expect to find in southern Spain!
This was just the icing on the cake to a memorable birding day trip. This is its chronicle:
We had devoted the previous day to admire the spectacular concentration of migrant Griffon Vultures in the Tarifa area and today we were looking for a more diverse array of species. With this purpose in mind, we programmed a full day trip to La Janda. The first couple of hours went by rapidly, while birding the rice paddies: hundreds of Spanish Sparrows, European Goldfinches, Corn Buntings, White Storks, Cattle Egrets, Glossy Ibis, a single Great Egret and numerous Calandra Larks, European Stonechats, Zitting Cisticolas and Eurasian Marsh Harriers, to name but a few. The first highlights came in the form of a Black-winged Kite and two juvenile Bonelli’s Eagles on an electric pylon, one of which was colour-ringed in red (meaning it came from NE Spain). The immense concentration of Wood Pigeons in the region does certainly attract eagles here. Indeed, no less than 7 juveniles and 2 immature Bonellís are present in the area these days.
We then visited a forested area where a satellite-tagged hybrid Lesser x Greater Spotted Eagle was roosting the night before. We were aware of its presence thanks to the “real-time” information provided by Ornitela. Soon after we reached the area, a medium sized raptor chased by a Bootle Eagle showed up. Although it wasn’t a close observation, we could clearly see the odd pattern of this hybrid bird and we did even get to see the antenna of the GPS tracking device. At the same time, one of the very first groups of Common Cranes of the season reached La Janda flying very low overhead!
In our next stop, a Squacco Heron, yet one more Black-shouldered Kite, a male Hen Harrier and several Marsh Harriers joined the scene. Meantime, above the distant rolling hills of Los Alcornocales Natural Park, large Kettles of Griffon Vultures were heading south towards Tarifa.
After this highly rewarding first half of the day, we went for lunch and continued towards the coast. Not far from Barbate we easily connected with a stunning group of over 30 Northern Bald Ibises of the recently established breeding population. Audouin’s Gulls, Stone Curlews, European Spoonbills and Greater Flamingos were other remarkable birds in the area.
Before returning to the Hotel in Tarifa, we decided to give a second try for the Spanish Imperial Eagle in La Janda, as this was our only missing target of the day. Suddenly a darkish Eagle took off from a cotton field and gained lift circling not far from us. At first glance I could see it wasn’t any of the local eagles, neither the Lithuanian hybrid we had seen earlier in the day. I got the feeling it might well be another hybrid Spotted Eagle, probably a returning individual from previous years. The bird showed amazingly well and I focused on taking the best pictures I could. It was only later, while checking the pictures with some colleagues that we realized it was indeed a magnificent adult (perhaps a young adult) Steppe Eagle!
This was not only the bird of the day but probably the bird of the year!
Still with an ear-to-ear smile, an adult male Spanish Imperial Eagle and a late juvenile Montagu´s Harrier provided excellent views. Remarkably, all the 4 European Harrier species are present this week in La Janda, including a juvenile Pallid Harrier.
So far today, the Steppe Eagle has not been relocated in the area. Stay tuned!