Category Archives: Gibraltar

Gibraltar Spring-A Walk to the Almeda Gardens

March 20th-Day 2 afternoon- A walk to the Alameda Gardens via Commonwealth Park and the Trafalgar Cemetery 

During the day the lower parts of Gibraltar are hectic and noisy with traffic. Most people drive everywhere, take the bus or hire a taxi, so in this small place with a large population, traffic is heavy and subsequent noise levels high. The drone of the constant streams of cars is punctuated with frequent horn-tootings and the waspish buzz of swarms of scooters dodging around them adds another dimension. Noise levels are further echoed and amplified by the proximity of the Rock itself, by the high old sea walls that bound the old town and by the ranks of the tall modern buildings that line the roads. Despite all this, as this fairly short walk shows, there are calm and peaceful oases to be found, busy roads are fringed with beautiful trees and looking upwards, the Upper Rock is cloaked with a mantle that is evergreen.

The Moorish Castle rises above modern buildings set against the background of Upper Rock greenery

I started my walk more or less at this small ‘desert-island’ of a roundabout and walked along Bishop Caruna Road to the next roundabout, then turned left onto  a stretch of the roadway that travels around the base of the Rock, Queensway Road.

COMMONWEALTH PARK

After about half a mile or so (approx. 600m), or around 12 minutes of walking, I   left the noisy pavement to take the scenic route through the green and peaceful haven of  Commonwealth Park. Opened in June 2014, this is the first public park to have been built in Gibraltar since the Alameda Gardens opened in 1816. Flanked by the old city walls the park has been thoughtfully landscape with large open grassy spaces, plenty of trees for shade and a large ornamental pool as well as planted gardens and it has matured into a lovely space that is well used and appreciated.

The Park’s visitors are not just restricted to human ones, the water is particularly attractive to birds too. House Sparrows enjoy it all year round and White Wagtails skitter around on the grass chasing flies, but a number of birds not commonly seen in Gibraltar have been spotted here too, including the occasional Egret and this past winter saw the arrival of a Cormorant who stayed around until he had eaten most of the larger fish in the pool! Recent records state that a Woodchat Shrike was seen here on April 1st. 

I didn’t take many photographs here as there were quite a few people out enjoying the sunshine and I didn’t want to intrude on their peace. I ‘borrowed’ the picture above from the official visitor website. I found the scene below quite amusing though, and couldn’t resist photographing the cheeky pigeons disregarding the sign.

Striped-neck Terrapins had scrambled out of the ornamental pool to sunbathe on a small island of rounded boulders and seemed perfectly happy to pose.

I left the Park at its far end to rejoin Queensway Road and carried on walking to the Ragged Staff Gate, turning left onto Ragged Staff Road. From here it’s a short distance to Trafalgar Road and my next destination, which was the Trafalgar Cemetery. (If you follow written or map directions here it seems complicated to find as its at the junction of several roads, but basically it is right in front of you and you can’t miss it.)

trafalgar cemetery

The Trafalgar Cemetery is a peaceful haven for both those laid to rest there and for visitors seeking out its history or a calm place to escape a while from the nearby hustle and bustle. It is immaculately maintained and the old graves are shaded by a variety of beautiful trees and shrubs.

The cemetery was consecrated in June 1798, seven years before the battle of Trafalgar. Known then as the Southport Ditch Cemetery, it may have been a part of the old St. Jago’s Cemetery, which was situated on the other side of Charles V Wall. The association with the battle of Trafalgar does not seem to have been made until many years after the event.

The cemetery was used for burials between 1798 and 1814, then fell into disuse. Earlier gravestones from St.Jago’s cemetery were set into the eastern wall in 1932, and  a few free-standing stones, some of which date back to the 1780s, have been transferred here over the years from the Alameda Gardens.

Older gravestones set into the eastern wall of the cemetery

Although the name of the cemetery commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar, only two of those who are buried here actually died of wounds suffered in the battle (Lieut. William Forster of the Royal Marine Corps of H.M.S. Mars and Lieut. Thomas Norman of H.M.S. Columbus).  Most of those who died at Trafalgar were buried at sea, and Lord Nelson’s body was transported to London for a state funeral. 

A bitter, or Seville orange tree has both fruit and blossom now

The warm air was fragranced with orange blossom, a male blackbird sang while a female foraged beneath the trees and a chiffchaff was calling his namesake tune from a tall tree.

I saw my first butterfly of this trip here, a pretty fresh Speckled Wood. A similar species to our northern European butterfly of the same name, but a rich orange replaces the cream on the wings.

THE WINDSOR SUSPENSION BRIDGE

Leaving the Cemetery I crossed the road in front of me, walked a short distance then crossed Elliots Way (the road that goes up to the Upper Rock) to the car park, within which is located the Cable Car Base Station. The main entrance to the Alameda Gardens is at its far end. Looking up at the Upper Rock from here I stopped to photograph its new feature, the Windsor Bridge, Gibraltar’s first suspension bridge, which opened to the public in June 2016. Forming part of the Thrill Seekers Trail of the Upper Rock, the bridge is located between two Batteries, constructed over a 50 metre gorge and is 71 metre long.

the alameda – gibraltar botanic gardens

A BRIEF HISTORY

The Botanic Gardens cover an area of around 6 hectares (15 acres); the site was a cemetery before the gardens were commissioned in 1816 by the then British Governor of Gibraltar General George Don. In 1815, considering that “there being no place of public recreation in this Garrison” he “was induced…to establish a walk around the Grand Parade, and form what is called in this country an Alameda, where the inhabitants might enjoy the air protected from the extreme heat of the sun”. Alameda is derived from the Spanish word “Alamo”, or White Poplar Populus alba, and old writings mention these trees growing along the Grand Parade.

House Sparrrows abound here and this one was my first bird sighting in the Gardens

To avoid the use of public expenditure the gardens were laid out with voluntary contributions, including some from the Amateur Theatre and monies raised by a series of public lotteries.

Following the 1970s the gardens had deteriorated and had fallen into a poor state. Since 1991, the restoration of the Alameda as a Botanic Garden has been in the hands of Wildlife (Gibraltar) Ltd., on contract to the Government of Gibraltar. The aim is to develop the gardens in ways that will enhance enjoyment, conservation and education, so that its future will be even richer than its past. In 1994 the gardens saw the addition of a zoo: the Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park.

The gardens are laid out with a network of interconnecting paths leading around water features and terraced beds built from the local Jurassic limestone. The planting includes Mediterranean species, including some endemic to Gibraltar. There is also an African bed and an extensive cactus garden. At path junctions and in other strategic places are placed antique guns and other artillery that commemorate Gibraltar’s military heritage.

THE ELLIOTT MEMORIAL

A number of features were gradually added to the gardens, most reflecting historical facts or personalities. Entering through the main gates you are greeted by one of the oldest and the tallest of them; a memorial of George Augustus Eliott, 1st Baron Heathfield, guarded by four 18th-century howitzers (canons).

The statue was  photographed from behind as I spotted a cheeky  juvenile Yellow-legged gull perched on top of the General’s head.

THE DELL BRIDGE

A favourite feature of mine is the bridge with its attractive pergola tunnel, presently shaded with flowering Bougainvillea, that spans the Dell and Sunken Garden. I like the patterns the pergola and railings make on the paving of the bridge. It also affords good views down onto the sunken gardens of the Dell.

The bridge is named for Guiseppe Codali who was the head gardener and horticulturalist of the Gardens during the mid-19th Century. He was Italian, from Bergamo and was brought to Gibraltar specifically to work in the gardens. His Italian influence can be seen particularly in the bridge and sunken garden, The Dell, in the centre of the Alameda which was opened on the 24th September 1842 and re-inaugurated 150 years later on 24th September 1992.

THE WHALEBONE ARCH

This pair of whale jaw bones was originally placed at one end of the Dell Bridge. Their origin is long forgotten , but whalers regularly called into Gibraltar until the early 20th Century. The bones now form an arch over the gate leading into the Dell.

THE DELL OR SUNKEN GARDEN

Stripe-necked Terrapins stack up to enjoy the sunshine on the edge of a pool in the Dell.

PLANTS OF THE GARDENS

The plants of the Alameda Gardens are a combination of native species and others brought in from abroad, often from former British territories like Australia and South Africa with which Gibraltar had maritime links at the time of the British Empire. Since 1991 many new species have been planted, some growing in Gibraltar for the first time.

Fressia is a naturalised plant in Gibraltar and found growing in the wild. Here it is the Wildflower Garden

SOME PERSONAL FAVOURITE PLANTS

There are so many beautiful plants here it takes many visits to appreciate them properly, but here are some of my personal favourites.

The gardens have a stunning collection of Dragon Trees Dracaena draco, the oldest of which is over 200 years old, perhaps as much as 300, and would have been amongst trees here that pre-date the opening of the gardens. It is still young though, there are claims that they live upwards of 1000 years! An unusual member of the lily family The Dragon Tree comes from the Atlantic Islands of the Canaries, Madeira and Cape Verde. The smooth grey bark is reminiscent of an elephant’s hide and its red resin, which quickly crystalises, was used medicinally and known as Dragon’s Blood. Its panicles of showy white flowers appear irregularly in summer and produce bright orange berry-like fruit in winter.

There are Bird of Paradise plants, Strelitzia reginaein several spots throughout the gardens. The species is originally native to South Africa and is the most exotic of flowers I think and so aptly named – I fancy this group looks just like a flock of large-billed birds about to take flight. Its scientific name commemorates the British queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.

Another species of Strelitzia grows here too, it’s much larger and I think it may be S. nicolai , which is the largest in the genus, reaching as much as 10 m tall and producing stately white and blue flowers.The leaves are large and similar to a banana leaf in appearance. This beautifully newly-pruned tree shows the leaves grow in two ranks to form a fan-like crown of evergreen foliage. There is a flower bud squeezing between the leaf stems.

WILDLIFE OF THE GARDENS

A Blackbird singing from the branch of an old pine tree

The gardens are rich in wildlife. Bird species nesting here include Sardinian Warbler, Blackcap, Blackbird, Robin, Greenfinch, Serin and Wren. Winter additions include Grey and White Wagtail, Chifchaff, Black Redstart, Chaffinch, Short-toed Treecreeper and occasionally Kingfisher, while notable birds of passage periods are Hoopoe, Redstart, Woodchat Shrike and flycatchers. Kestrel (throughout the year) and Booted Eagle (in winter) regularly hunt in the grounds.

I spotted a female Blackcap nearby, a species that is a year-round resident in the Gardens.

There is a small raised pond in the courtyard between the administration buildings and greenhouses where I caught a resident Perez’s frog – Pelophylax perezi basking in the sunshine.

Other wildlife that may be spotted are reptiles including the Moorish Gecko and Iberian Wall Lizard, Amphisbaenian and the harmless Horseshoe Whip Snake. Of the bats, the Pipistrelle is the commonest (often seen during the day), while Schreiber’s Bat and the European Free-tailed Bat can also be seen.

One of the gardeners here has an incredible talent for propegating plants and takes great pains to display stock plants in a perfectly ordered way. At one end of the pond is an immaculately arranged collection of cacti.

More cacti stand in a rank along a wall opposite a collection of various Aloes.

and finally for this visit, is a iew of part of his display of the epiphyte collection: a beautiful piece of living art.

 

 

 

 

Gibraltar Spring-Early Morning on the Upper Rock

March 20th-Day 2-Bird Observatory, Jew’s Gate, Upper Rock

07.30- We reached the Bird Observatory on the Upper Rock a little before it was properly light. Through a shroud of mist, dawn was subtle, washing the buildings of Algeciras, the hills beyond Gibraltar Bay and the Moroccan coast with diffused shades of amber.

The first thing I noticed was the absence of the Pillars of Hercules Monument directly below the Obs building. Apparently there had been a problem with the concrete roof of the public loos that forms its base and the Monument has been taken down and is currently propped up against nearby railings. I’m not sure how they got it there, it must be pretty weighty. Below is a photograph of the more usual view:

07:45 -We were here for birds as my friend and wonderful host Jill, is in training as a bird-ringer and was hoping for some practice in this highly skilled art, but thus far this morning had been  disappointing for the current resident ringers. Not only was it cool and misty, but also and worse was that the cold wind was blowing in the wrong direction to bring migrating birds over the Strait in this direction, so the mist nets were very sparsely populated. If there are no birds to process and record, a day with a dawn start can seem very long up here, despite the amazing views.

Gibraltar has long been recognised as a key location for observing the migration of birds and the Bird Observatory, run by the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society (GONHS), is a highly desirable venue for bird-watchers and in the appropriate seasons, bird-ringers, from many parts of the world. Perched high on the Upper Rock the views from the front door extending across the Bay of Gibraltar, over Algeciras and across the Strait to the Moroccan coast are truly stunning. The climate is appealing too, but of course it’s the opportunity to witness birds on their migration passages, often in great numbers, that draws them here.

Inside the Field Centre, suspended on hooks above the ringing bench, a male Sardinian Warbler and a Willow Warbler were waiting in little cotton bags to be ‘processed’. Within minutes the birds were quickly and carefully weighed, measured, ringed, entered into the record book and released.

0757-Sardinian Warbler processed and ready to go. Note the manicured fingernails of a female bird ringer – it’s not a job strictly for the boys

0759-Willow Warbler with view across the Bay of Gibratar

08.00 – By way of a diversion, the moth light trap is opened up to reveal last night’s bounty. There were a good number in there of an interesting variety of species ranging from tiny micro-moths to a spectacular Tiger Moth. I left it to the experts to ooh and aah at the really tiny ‘micros’ and concentrated on the bigger, showier ones that I had a hope of recognising if I ever see them again! I knew the lovely Tiger Moth with its rich red underparts and was quite taken with the Shark Moth, so-called because of its shape in profile.

08.17 – Excitement as an incoming Marsh Harrier dashes overhead-the sighting was brief, but we thought a male as has black wingtips.

08.35 Another inspection of the mist nets brings a female Goldfinch

0919-In the sheltered ‘garden’ area at the side of the Obs there is a small pool of water inhabited by frogs. As the sun gathered strength the warmth brought them out to sunbathe and the males began to sing. Their human neighbours were not as happy to hear them as I was; apparently they’d be singing loudly for most of the night. I don’t know his species, but according to the GONHS website, frogs present here in Gibraltar are introduced and of the species Rana (Pelophylax) perezi (Perez’s Marsh Frog). Maybe someone will confirm or correct me?

Other insects were also appreciating the sunshine; an interestingly coloured millipede warmed himself on a wall and little bees were gathering pollen and nectar, particularly from Rosemary and Tree germander.

There are wildflowers here too, including some elegant and highly fragrant Freesia blooms. Not a native plant, but one-time introduction originating in South Africa, it is now naturalised in a variety of locations around the Rock. It’s much tougher than it looks, here it competes for headroom with other native plants, but it is also found pushing up through cracks in paving and against walls.

Freesia refracta

Pitch Trefoil or Bitumen Pea-Psoralea bituminosa

Another plant flowering is the Pitch Trefoil or Bitumen Pea, so called because if crushed the plant releases an aroma uncannily like that of the tar they use to repair road surfaces, which happens to be one of my life-long favourite smells, so I love this plant!

09.55 – A juvenile male Blackcap has been ringed and is released

09.44 – Busy with the wildflowers I missed a sighting of a Dark-phase Booted Eagle, so no photo, but I did catch the single Black Kite as it passed overhead.

The wind changed slightly, but was still not from the most desirable westerly direction. Mist still hangs over the Strait and the Bay, but the appearance of the Black Kite prompted scanning with binoculars as these most numerous of incoming raptors frequently travel together in variously sized flocks. There were more! In conditions such as today’s when visibility is limited, birds often fly close to the surface of the water and have to flap their wings to maintain momentum, expending precious energy. Arriving close to land again and once they can see where they are and want to be, they begin to circle seeking currents of rising warmer air. These ‘thermals’ will enable them to gain height without flapping and once they are up high they are able to glide towards their destination on the wind.

Jill retrieved a very feisty female Blackbird from the mist net. Already ringed, she was clearly a local resident bird and a brood patch on her breast showed she was nesting, so was quickly set free.

My last  pictures of the morning here was of a large Wall Lizard, that looked like it was in the process of shedding its skin.

and another wildflower, this one growing at the front of the building, White Mignonette, is also planted in gardens as an ornamental.

A cold but very varied and enjoyable morning, enhanced by several hot cups of tea and a hot-cross bun. Looking forward to a bit of a rest, lunch and a walk up to the Alameda Botanical Gardens this afternoon…….

Spring in Gibraltar

I am recently returned from spending a brilliant few days in Gibraltar and Spain and am looking forward to sharing some ‘real time’ posts in the coming weeks.

Day 1 – Arrival and ‘Setting the Scene’

March 19th

Landed in Gibraltar at 17.43, a little later than scheduled, but down to a ‘missing’ passenger at Gatwick, taking his luggage off caused missing our take-off slot. It was a mostly smooth and scenic flight. Snow on Pyrenees in the north-east of Spain, then much of the country veiled by misty cloud, so visibilty for aerial shots not good, but could see the unfolding panorama below well enough. Weather here was still sunny and a balmy 19°C, had been warmer earlier on. I was told I was lucky with the weather. Last week stormy weather and high winds meant most flights in and out were diverted to Malaga.

170319-1743-Landed in Gibraltar- first view of the Rock

Landing in Gibraltar International Airport is always dramatic. Although  consistently listed as one of the world’s scariest for air passengers, I can honestly say I have never found it so. Problems arise as the airfield is exposed to strong cross winds around the Rock and across the Bay of Gibraltar/Algeciras, sometimes making landings, particularly in winter, a little uncomfortable and occasionally impossible, but in that event planes are diverted to Malaga to land. The runway is also shorter than many, has the sea at either end and is crossed by the main road into and out of Gibraltar, but under the control of the RAF this is probably one of the most secure and highly scrutinised airstrips in the world too.

Gibraltar Airport photographed from the top of the Rock

British Airways landing in Gibraltar – heading up runway

Gibraltar is well-known to many as a British Overseas Territory with an ongoing political history of dispute with Spain as to its sovereignty. However, despite features that are recognisibly British, like English signage and language spoken, pubs, red phone and pillar boxes, the Morrison’s supermarket and the Police uniform, this is not a piece of England! Spanish is also widely spoken, they drive on the right and the local cuisine is similar to that of Spain, but it is definitely not Spain either. This is Gibraltar and the majority of the population are Gibraltarian born and bred and rightly proud to be so.

I’ve realised recently that although most people are aware of Gibraltar, easily recognising images of this iconic ‘Rock’, not so many know exactly where in the world it is. My own interest and past involvement with Gibraltar has been, and still is, largely connected with its natural history: the Rock supports a surprisingly rich and diverse fauna and flora, which my next few posts will mostly reflect. It is Gibraltar’s geology and its  geological location that makes it such a unique and fascinating place for those interested in natural history: but those factors have also determined and shaped its history, culture, politics and society.

There’s a great deal I didn’t really know myself, so as I  was here for a few days I thought I should find out more. Gibraltar has been in the news rather frequenty lately too, in connection with Britain’s ‘Brexit’ from Europe, so I thought it might be interesting to look at how Gibraltar came to have British sovereignty in the first place. I’ve tried to keep it brief, but although a relatively tiny place, there’s an incredible amount packed into it, so forgive me if it goes on a bit.

WHERE Gibraltar IS LOCATED 

Geographic coordinates: Latitude: 36°08′41″ N : Longitude: 5°21′09″ W
Elevation above sea level: 11 m = 36 ft

Gibraltar’s terrain consists of the 426-metre-high (1,398 ft) Jurassic limestone Rock of Gibraltar and the narrow coastal lowland surrounding it. Its territory covers 6.7 square kilometres (2.6 sq miles) and shares a 1.2-kilometre (0.75 mile) land border with Spain. It  is  located on the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula, on the northern side of the Strait of Gibraltar, in Spanish Estrecho de Gibraltar, that run from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. This narrow body of water connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and separates Gibraltar and Peninsular Spain in Europe from Morocco and Ceuta (Spain) in Africa. Europe and Africa are separated by 7.7 nautical miles (14.3 km; 8.9 miles) of ocean at the strait’s narrowest point.

Evening approach into Gibraltar from east side with La Linea and Spanish coast

Gibraltar from the air shows its position in relation to Spain. Photographed after take-off, the following photograph shows the West Side of the Rock and the southern tip that points towards North Africa.

The shoreline of Gibraltar measures 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) in length. There are two coasts or ‘sides’ of Gibraltar: the East Side, which contains the settlements of Sandy Bay and Catalan Bay; and the West Side, where the vast majority of the population lives.

The town of La Línea de la Concepción, a municipality of the province of Cádiz, lies on the Spanish side of the border. The Spanish hinterland forms the comarca of Campo de Gibraltar, which translates literally as “Countryside of Gibraltar”.

La Línea de la Concepción – the new Harbour

On the opposite, southern side of the Strait lie Morocco and Ceuta, which is a Spanish exclave (a part of a state or territory geographically separated from the main part by surrounding alien territory). Variably visible from Gibraltar, depending on the degree of mist, is the part of the African coastline defined by the Atlas Mountains. The Straits are just 14 kilometres wide at this point and a hazardous place to be due to the immensely strong currents.

TERRITORIAL WATERS

The Strait lies mostly within the territorial waters of Spain and Morocco, except for at the far eastern end. The United Kingdom (through Gibraltar) claims 3 nautical miles around Gibraltar putting part of the Strait inside British territorial waters, which then means that part of the Strait therefore lies in international waters according to the British claim. However, as we are aware, the ownership of Gibraltar and its territorial waters is disputed by Spain, and similarly Morocco dispute the far eastern end (of Ceuta), which is owned by Spain. It’s complicated.

Across the Strait to Ceuta and Jebel Musa from Gibraltar

The highest point of this photograph is Jebel Musa, which is 851 metres high and located five kilometres west of Ceuta in Morocco to the south. Together with the much smaller Rock of Gibraltar at just 426 metres, these two mountains guard the entrance exit to the Atlantic Ocean from the Mediterranean Sea and form the Pillars of Hercules.

GIBRALTAR FROM OTHER ANGLES

The distinctive Rock is visible from miles away. Often shrouded in mist, its unmistakable bulk can still be readily identified from many locations along the Spanish coast and particularly from the vantage point of mountains that have views to the south, all of which help to place it in the wider landscape.

Gibraltar seen from Alcaidesa on the Spanish coast east of La Linea

Gibraltar from alongside the Strait to the west of the Rock

View to Gibraltar from the summit of El Bujeo across the town of Algeciras

A Brief History of Gibraltar

Ancient times

View of the northern face of the Moorish Castle’s Tower of Homage. Built in the 14th century.

It is a unique and fascinating place historically and culturally. In ancient history its strategic geographical position on the northern boundary of the Strait of Gibraltar saw it occupied and influenced in turn by Neanderthals, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Visigoths and most pronouncedly by the Moors. The name Rock of Gibraltar originates from the Arabic  Jebel Tariq, meaning “Tariq’s mountain” was named after Tariq ibn Ziyad.

How Gibraltar became ‘British’

In 1462 Gibraltar was finally captured by the Spanish Juan Alonso de Guzmán, 1st Duke of Medina Sidonia. There was some to-ing and fro-ing of control amongst the Spanish themselves, but it remained Spanish until 1704, when during the War of the Spanish Succession, a combined Anglo-Dutch fleet, representing the Grand Alliance, captured the town of Gibraltar on behalf of the Archduke Charles of Austria in his bid to become King of Spain. In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht ceded control of Gibraltar to Britain ” in perpetuity”, to secure Britain’s withdrawal from the war. Unsuccessful attempts by Spanish monarchs to regain Gibraltar were made with the siege of 1727 and again with the Great Siege of Gibraltar (1779 to 1783), during the American War of Independence.

Britain’s interest in Gibraltar historically has been a military one. It became a key base for the British Royal Navy, playing an important role prior to the Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) and during the Crimean War of 1854–56, due to its strategic location. Its strategic value increased when the Suez Canal opened, as it lay on the sea route between the UK and the British Empire east of Suez. In the later 19th century, there were major investments in improving the fortifications and the port. During World War II it was an important base for the Royal Navy as it controlled the entrance and exit to the Mediterranean Sea, which is only eight miles (13 km) wide here. It remains strategically important to this day with half the world’s seaborne trade passing through the Strait.

Present Day Gibraltar

The last UK-based army battalion left Gibraltar in 1991 and the Royal Gibraltar Regiment took charge of local defence under the command structure British Forces Gibraltar. Today Gibraltar is used primarily as a training area for the British Armed Forces, due to its good climate and rocky terrain, and as a stopover for aircraft and ships en route to and from deployments East of Suez or Africa. (More information on British Forces Gibraltar  )

Today Gibraltar’s economy is based largely on tourism, online gambling, financial services, and shipping. The sovereignty of Gibraltar is a major point of contention in Anglo-Spanish relations as Spain asserts a claim to the territory. Gibraltarians overwhelmingly rejected proposals for Spanish sovereignty in a 1967 referendum and again in 2002. Under the Gibraltar Constitution of 2006, Gibraltar governs its own affairs, though some powers, such as defence and foreign relations, remain the responsibility of the British government.

We can only wonder what the future has in store for this iconic Rock, but whatever may happen politically and historically as a result of our human wrangles and power struggles, let us hope that its wonderful wildlife continues to survive and thrive.

___________________________________________

All photographs are my own. Other references include: Wikipaedia (various) and The Rock from Bottom to Top by Nick Nutter ISBN-13: 978-1530659449

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Birds in the hand in Gibraltar

There are many reasons to be cheerful about being able to spend time in both the UK and Spain, not least of which is the privilege of watching species of birds that migrate between northern and southern Europe or Africa in both locations at different times of the year. The location of our home in Spain, about a 20 minute drive from Gibraltar, is directly beneath one of the major migration ‘highways’, which passes over the Rock and Straits of Gibraltar to Northern Africa and beyond. As a result our avian population is boosted considerably during the main migratory periods of spring and autumn as birds take the opportunity to feed here, taking on fuel for the next stage of their incredible journeys.

Gibraltar is an important link in the chain of gaining knowledge of the movements of migrating birds and many thousands of raptors are observed and counted from vantage points as they pass overhead. Smaller birds are monitored through their initial capture in mist nests and subsequent ringing at the designated Bird Observatory, where I recently spent a fascinating morning observing the observers and their work. The main purpose of my visit was to gain an insight into the process of bird ringing so that I might write a piece for the gonhs member’s outings blog, which I have done, but it was too interesting a day not to share here too.

Gibraltar Bird Observatory 

The home of the Gibraltar Bird Observatory is a small building perched high on a ledge carved into the the Rock on its north side. It is set within the Nature Reserve at Jew’s Gate and levante mist permitting, has superb views across Gibraltar Bay to the headland of Tarifa and across the  Straits to North Africa.

A view from the bird observatory across the bay to Tarifa. The monument 'The Pillars of Hercules' represents and show the orientation of the twin mountains either side of the Straits, Gibraltar being one and Monte Hacho, at Ceuta.

The Pillars of Hercules (Latin: Columnae Herculis, Greek: Ηράκλειες Στήλες, Spanish: Columnas de Hércules) was the phrase that was applied in Antiquity to the promontories that flank the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar. The northern Pillar is the Rock of Gibraltar in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar. A corresponding North African peak not being predominant, the identity of the southern Pillar has been disputed through history, with the two most likely candidates being Monte Hacho in Ceuta and Jebel Musa in Morocco.

“The function of the Observatory is the monitoring and research into passerines and non-passerines, with particular emphasis on migration.” (gonhs website)

The first stage in the process is first to catch the birds. This is achieved by setting up a series of strategically placed lengths of fine mist netting, which the birds fly into.

A Chiffchaff temporarily held in a mist net

Clearly the birds struggle to free themselves, but the strands of netting are very fine and they are not left there for long as the vigilant ‘ringers’ make frequent rounds of the nets and quickly retrieve them.

A Chiffchaff is gently and expertly extricated from a net

Once freed from the netting the bird is carefully placed into a clean cloth bag for transportation to the nearby observatory for ‘processing’. It is important that the birds are subjected to the least amount of stress possible and they stay calmer if visual stimuli are eliminated.

Back at the workbench in the observatory the bags containing the birds are hung onto hooks that are numbered to correspond with the number of the net they were taken from. Most of the birds remain still and quiet whilst awaiting their turn to be weighed and measured, although there are always the odd one or two who express their annoyance by wriggling around or chirping.

A Robin having its wing length measured

Bird ringing is carried out under the auspices of the BTO, British Trust for Ornithology, and Gibraltar uses British rings. Processing involves the careful and accurate  identification, measurement and general assessment of each bird in turn. The data taken is collated for serious scientific records and research into birds’ migration and movements and great care at each stage to ensure that those criteria are met.

A beautiful Chiffchaff fully processed is held in the appropriate 'ringer's grip' to allow me to take its picture, then released.

Once the required data is logged, the bird is free to go. Most are eager to make good their escape, but a few will sit quietly on the ringer’s hand for a moment or two before leaving.

A female Blackcap sits quietly before taking off

This was a wonderful opportunity to see some beautiful birds at very close quarters. They always appear much smaller when seen this way that when they are flying free and the subtleties in the plumage are evident.

A perfect male Blackcap

A Song Thrush eager to leave

During the course of this morning the two current resident ringers, with some assistance from two trainees processed 113 birds. The species ringed included Black Redstart, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Robin, Serin and Song Thrush. It was fascinating to enter into their world for a few hours and witness their work first-hand and a real privilege to have such close views of some beautiful birds.

A bumpy landing, but good to be back

I have been back in Spain for a week or so now following my three month retreat to the UK for some cooler weather. That worked, as anyone else there for the summer will confirm the lack of summery weather, particularly during the month of August. I had a wonderful time aquainting myself with some of the wildlife of North Wales, which anyone interested can see on my other blog ‘everyday nature’. I will be attempting to continue both blogs, concentrating on aspects of life and wildlife that relate only to this part of southern Spain here and then anything that crosses over in the other one. (For example many species of woodland birds are found in both northern & southern Europe, with many migrating or passing through the two areas.) It is quite fascinating to witness the similarities and differences in behaviour of the same species of bird in the different areas too.

The seasonal progress into autumn was apparent as soon as our plane came in to land at Gibraltar. Departing from, and landing here is always an adventure as the Rock is very exposed and at the mercy of the elements from both the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic.Consequently, flights in and out are frequently diverted to Malaga. Today our pilot announced that he would be approaching the runway from the north-east, which involved circuiting the Rock, but the reason why only became apparent as we were on the way in. The short approach was very bumpy, with the wind buffeting the plane from side to side. It’s not fear for your safety that makes you cross your fingers for a safe landing though, it’s the dread of diverting to Malaga and a two-hour journey back by bus. All was well though and he landed us perfectly.

Aerial view of the Rock of Gibraltar, Mediterranean side, and Algeciras beyond the bay

Banking around the tip of the Rock

Approaching the landing strip