Buitre leonado en migración sobre Tarifa y acosado por una gaviota patiamarilla.

Griffon Vulture migration in Tarifa and angry gulls

In English by Javi Elorriaga

A Yellow-legged Gull chasing a Griffon Vulture on migration over Tarifa. Photography by Javi Elorriaga, Birding The Strait.
A Yellow-legged Gull chasing a Griffon Vulture on migration over Tarifa

We have always said it: The Griffon Vulture migration in Tarifa is one of the greatest spectacles of nature. Every spring and every autumn, we choose the best raptor migration observatories in Tarifa to enjoy the show with our clients. No matter how many hours we have spent enjoying this overlooked wonder, there is always something new to discover. We do never get enough!

We could have never imagined, however, that we would witness a memorable moment of Griffon Vulture migration from home. This can only happen in Tarifa, of course!

#birdingathome

Last 7th of April, strong easterly winds were blowing in the strait. Gales reached up 25 knots. Under these circumstances, we wouldn’t expect any raptor migration going on over Tarifa.

At noon, Javi was working on his computer when he heard the alarm call of a Yellow-legged Gull. Instinctively, he grabbed his binoculars and leaned off the window. Much to his surprise, he saw a Griffon at eye level! Next, he hurried to get his camera and ran to the terrace. Over the next 20 minutes he witnesses a steady arrival of Griffons to Europe, after crossing the strait of Gibraltar.

A Griffon Vulture on migration, flying low over the roofs of Tarifa. Photography by Javi Elorriaga, Birding The Strait.
A Griffon Vulture on migration, flying low over the roofs of Tarifa.
A migrant Griffon reaching Europe and chased by hundreds of Gulls as it flies over their breeding colony at "Isla de Las Palomas" in Tarifa. The lighthouse marks the southernmost tip of the European continent. The coast of Africa is in the background. Photography by Javi Elorriaga, Birding The Strait.
A migrant Griffon reaching Europe and chased by hundreds of Gulls as it flies over their breeding colony at “Isla de Las Palomas” in Tarifa. The lighthouse marks the southernmost tip of the European continent. The coast of Africa is in the background.

The “levante” wind pushed those vultures to lower altitudes. Some were flying flush water drills, exhausted. Moreover, the wind made them drift west. This way, vultures were forced to fly an increased distance across the ocean. Moreover, some ended up flying over the “Isla de Las Palomas” in Tarifa (the southernmost tip of the continent). Here, there is a large colony of Yellow-legged gulls.

Angry Gulls

If there is something gulls do not tolerate, is a large raptor around their territory. In addition, gulls seem to have a special ability to detect birds that are struggling.

The same Griffon as in the previous pictures, taking off and struggling to gain altitude while being chased by a gang of angry gulls. Photography by Javi Elorriaga, Birding The Strait.
To recover after the strenuous effort of crossing the ocean, vultures rely on gular fluttering. This is a cooling behaviour in which birds keep their bills open and rapidly flap gular membranes to increase evaporation. This is the equivalent to sweating in humans.

Flocks totalling over 100 gulls fiercely chased the unprepared Griffons. Certainly, they were not expecting such a hostile reception!

The same Griffon as in the previous pictures, taking off and struggling to gain altitude while being chased by a gang of angry gulls. Photography by Javi Elorriaga, Birding The Strait.
On the presence of potential threats close to their breeding collonies, gulls respond aggresively and perform loud alarm calls.

Griffon vulture down

One of the Griffons, notably exhausted after sea-crossing with the strong wind, was attacked with special venom. As a result, the vulture lost its balance and was brought down to the ground. He was forced to an emergency landing in Tarifa. Luckily, the vulture rapidly found shelter in a rock outcrop. About half an hour later, it caught its breath and took off.

The same Griffon as in the previous pictures, taking off and struggling to gain altitude while being chased by a gang of angry gulls. Photography by Javi Elorriaga, Birding The Strait.
The fallen Griffon, looking for shelter near the Santa Catalina Tower in Tarifa.
The same Griffon as in the previous pictures, taking off and struggling to gain altitude while being chased by a gang of angry gulls. Photography by Javi Elorriaga, Birding The Strait.
The same Griffon as in the previous pictures, taking off and struggling to gain altitude while being chased by a gang of angry gulls.

The following pictures show some scenes of the Griffon Vulture in active migration above Tarifa, and a dramatic encounter with angry gulls.

Eventually, gulls manage to land on the back of the vultures in flight. Photography by Javi Elorriaga, Birding The Strait.
Eventually, gulls manage to land on the back of the vultures in flight.
The same Gull chasing a different Griffon. Photography by Javi Elorriaga, Birding The Strait.
Adult Yellow-legged Gull approaching a migrant Griffon.
The same Gull chasing a different Griffon. Photography by Javi Elorriaga, Birding The Strait.
The same Gull chasing a different Griffon.

This event reminds us of another astonishing Griffon Vulture migration vs gulls we witnessed some years ago: “The Griffon that swam across the Strait of Gibraltar” previously reported on the Birding The Strait Blog.

Griffon Vulture migration in Tarifa

If you want to learn more about the spring migration of Griffon Vultures in the Strait of Gibraltar we recommend this academic paper by our good friends, and fellow vulture enthusiasts, Juan, Pako and Marina.

May and early June in the spring, and late October to mid-November in the Autumn, are the best periods to enjoy the Griffon Vulture migration in Tarifa and the Strait of Gibraltar. For this reason, we organize specially dedicated day trips, tours and photography workshops to the Griffon Vulture migration every year. If you want to keep informed on our forthcoming guided visits drop as an email or subscribe to our newsletter.