Cory's shearwater in the Strait of Gibraltar.

Pelagic birding in Tarifa

In English by Javi Elorriaga

Raft of Cory's shearwaters  off Tarifa, Strait of Gibraltar.
Raft of Cory’s shearwaters off the Strait of Gibraltar. The lighthouse of Tarifa, southernmost tip of the continent, is in the background.

Last Saturday 12th of June we run a new excursion for pelagic birding in Tarifa. This time, our main target was to observe and photograph shearwaters off the Strait of Gibraltar. At 7:30 AM we set sail from the port of Tarifa with very calm sea. Just 10 minutes later we came across a large raft of Cory’s Shearwater. A few Balearic Shearwaters were present too. To the delight of the group, the presence of both species was constant for the next hour and a half.

Cory's and Balearic Shearwaters off Tarifa.
Mixed group of Cory’s and Balearic Shearwaters. Strait of Gibraltar. 12th of June 2021.

Most of the shearwaters were gathering in compact rafts, some totalling over a hundred birds. Others foraged around us in search of food. Some landed so close to our boat that it was difficult to photograph them!

Cory's Shearwater in the Strait of Gibraltar. Birding The Strait.
Close encounter with a Cory’s Shearwater off Tarifa. 12th of June 2021.
Cory's Shearwater in the Strait of Gibraltar. Birding The Strait
The vast majority of the Cory’s Shearwaters we observed were “diomedea” like the one in this photo, but we were also able to find several “borealis”. Both taxa breed in the Mediterranean, the former being the most numerous. Strait of Gibraltar, 12th of June 2021.

The call of the Shearwaters

To enhance the experience, we switched off the engine and remained silent close to the birds. This way, we could perfectly hear the characteristic call of the Cory’s Shearwater.

Cory's Shearwaters in the Strait of Gibraltar. Birding The Strait.
Observing the shearwaters interact and listening to their calls were two of the greatest moments of this excursion. Strait of Gibraltar, 12th of June 2021.
Cory's Shearwaters in the Strait of Gibraltar, 12th of June 2021.
Cory’s Shearwaters in the Strait of Gibraltar, 12th of June 2021.

It should be noted that shearwaters, like most tubenoses, are silent offshore. Only for a few weeks a year, in the breeding period, can they be heard. In addition, this usually happens at night and in the vicinity of their burrows. For this reason, we knew we were enjoying an unusual and privileged experience.

Cory's Shearwater in the Strait of Gibraltar.
Cory’s Shearwater taking off. Strait of Gibraltar, 12th of June 2021.

From Chafarinas and Alboran

According to current knowledge, most of the shearwaters that feed in the Strait belong to the breeding colonies of Chafarinas. However, birds from all the colonies in the Alboran Sea visit the region. In the weeks prior to laying, the females carry out the pre-laying exodus. I doing so, they visit rich regions to feed and gain weight to face the breeding period. In fact, we were roughly in the date on which the egg laying takes place, often synchronized with the new moon.

Cory's shearwater in the Strait of Gibraltar.
Cory’s shearwater in flight at very close range. Strait of Gibraltar, 12th of June 2021.

Sooty Shearwater and Bottlenose Dolphins

Suddenly, an unexpected Sooty Shearwater appeared from nowhere. It was perfectly visible with the naked eye. Luckily, it made two passes before disappearing into the Mediterranean.

Sooty Shearwater in the Strait of Gibraltar.
The excellent observation of this Sooty Shearwater was an unexpected and very pleasant surprise. The few records that occur in the strait tend to be notably later in the year. This species breeds around New Zealand, the Falkland Islands and Tierra del Fuego. Strait of Gibraltar, 12th of June 2021.
A different view of the abovementioned shearwater.

This is a species that we regularly find, in very low numbers, in our pelagic excursions off the Gulf of Cádiz. In turn, records in the Strait and, especially, in the Mediterranean are notably rare.

Shortly after, a group of Bottlenose Dolphins approached our boat. We had a great time watching them jump and fish alongside the shearwaters.

Pilot Whales

Highly satisfied with the show so far, we decided to move further south. We explored the central area of the strait, halfway between Europe and Africa. As expected, the presence of shearwaters here decreased considerably. However, we were lucky to find a group of about ten Pilot Whales. They were peacefully resting on the surface. Again, we stopped the engine to enjoy the scene. No doubt, listening to the breathing of cetaceans is a relaxing and wonderful experience. For greater satisfaction, an inquisitive pilot whales came directly to observe us, standing less than a meter from our boat!

Pilot Whale in the Strait of Gibraltar. Birding The Strait.
This Pilot Whale or Pilot Whale, a species that lives in the area, came to greet us while we remained observing his group with the engine of our boat stopped.

The first Wilson’s of the season

Around the same time a Wilson’s Storm Petrel showed up! The Wilson is one of the most sought-after species in our pelagic birding trips in Tarifa and the Gulf of Cadiz. In addition, it is a species for which we have predilection since we saw it feeding with orcas in the Strait back in 2011.

Wilson's Storm Petrel in te Strait of Gibraltar. Birding The Strait.
Record shot of the Wilson’s Storm Petrel we saw. This is the first record of the species this season for the Strait of Gibraltar. We hope it bodes well for our pelagic excursions this summer in the Gulf of Cadiz.

Balearic and Mediterranean? Shearwaters

On the way back to Tarifa, we found a good concentration of Cory’s Shearwaters again. In addition, we came across several groups of Balearic Shearwater in active migration towards the Atlantic.

Balearic Shearwater in the Strait of Gibraltar. Birding The Strait.
Balearic Shearwater in active migration across the Strait of Gibraltar. At this time of year, most of the population of this critically endangered species leaves the Mediterranean towards the Atlantic once the reproductive period is over.
Among the shearwaters of the genus Puffinus we were able to photograph, including the one in the photo, two showed Mediterranean Shearwater features. However, the identification of this species out-of-range is controversial due to the existence of birds with mixed phenotypes such as those of the Menorca population. For this reason, we prefer to leave the identification of these birds open as Balearic / Mediterranean Shearwater. Photograph obtained by Guillermo Rodríguez in the Strait during this excursion.

At 11:40 AM we returned to the port of Tarifa. Highly satisfied, we celebrated the experience by having a drink and toasting the next excursion.

Pelagic Birding in Tarifa.
Complete track of our excursion for pelagic birding in Tarifa. 12th of june 2021.

Next Pelagic excursion in Tarifa and the Gulf of Cadiz

In addition to pelagic birding in Tarifa, this summer we have 5 scheduled boat trips in the Gulf of Cadiz. In this link to our website, you can find more information. Do not hesitate to contact us if you need any further details.

Cory's shearwater in the Strait of Gibraltar.
Cory’s shearwater up close and personal. Strait of Gibraltar, 12th of June 2021.

See you on board!