This summer is bringing long-awaited books to the ornithological community. While we are still marveling with the Handbook of the Western Paleartic Birds, August brings “African Raptors” by Bill Clark and Rob Davies.
Africa is the continent of Raptors and, therefore, this comprehensive work will certainly fill a gap in the specialized literature. The book features all the 106 African Raptors. It includes colour plates by Rob Davies and over 300 photographs. In Birding the Strait we are pleased to have contributed to this work with some of our pictures, including: Black Kite, Egyptian Vulture, Rüppell’s Vulture, Short-toed Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle and Lesser Kestrel.
The Old Times
Inevitably, all this reminds us of the visit by Bill Clark and his team to Tarifa back in 2001. Indeed, it was with him that we photographed our first Rüppell’s Vulture in the Strait of Gibraltar. At that time the published information on this African species was frustratingly scarce. This was especially true regarding immature plumages. For that reason, Bill’s first-hand information came as a real treasure.
Over the last 3 years we have been intensively using the Vortex Razor HD field scopes in our Birding Tours in Spain, Morocco and beyond. On this post we reviewed our experience using the Razor HD 20-60×85 spotting scope. Last April, Vortex Optics kindly provided us with the New Vortex scope: the Razor HD 27-60×85 and here we give our first impressions.
At first glance, it becomes clear that this is a completely redesigned scope. While the external design of its predecesor was in line with the Kowa Prominar fieldscopes, the New Vortex shares common features with the benchmark Swarovsky ATS/X. The most eye-catching evolution is the single central focus dial. This leads to a cleaner design that takes up less space when carried within a backpack. As users, we found the transition from the previous double focus dial easy, and the new system efficient.
Unlike its predecessor, the New Vortex is fully rubber-armoured. On our review to the previous model we pointed out that “the bare part of the body is rather prone to scratches”. We find, therefore, this new feature a clear hit.
Remarkably, the New Vortex includes a free view-through case made of neoprene. It provides an excellent protection to the body and lenses. This is a real highlight, since most brands offer carry cases as notably pricey not-included accessories.
The zoom eyepiece has a new design as well. Like other leading manufacturers, Vortex leaves behind the classic 20-60x standard. In turn, it offers a 27-60x magnification range. We believe this new concept leads to a better performance. Contrary to what it may seem, the new system provides a wider field of view (2.2-1.3 degrees according to the manufacturer). Indeed, this wide angle feature has been considered a strength on other tests.
The attachment of the eyepiece to the body is secured by a well-engineered lock ring.
Here comes a big surprise! As for the technical specifications, the minimun distance the New Vortex can focus to is 16.4 feet (5m). Measuring-tape in hand, we can affirm that subjects at 11.1 feet (3.4m) can be perfectly focused.
This remarkable feature opens a new world of possibilities to observe wildlife. This way, focusing the scope on a Dragonfly perched within 4 meters creates a macro effect that unveils otherwise not discernible details on the insect, for instance.
We have tested the new Vortex scope while birding in varied environments and light conditions. Our first conclusion is that there are not perceptible chromatic aberrations. The scope creates a bright, sharp and vivid image that surpasses the standards set by the previous model.
Looking through this scope you inmediately get the very enjoyable feeling of “enhanced reality” that good optics provide.
Digiscoping brings out the strengths and weaknesses of the spotting scopes. Moreover, digiscoped images enable a more objective analisys on the optical performance of any given scope.
As shown by the following videos, the smartphone technology in combination with the New Vortex spotting scope (AKA phonescoping) produces highly satisfactory results. It is important to note that both videos were filmed handheld and with a rather poor 720HD. We are looking forward a deeper test of the phonescoping performance by means of 4K and using an specific adapter, stay tunned!
Male Red-backed Shrike with prey in Northern Spain, June 2018. Smartphone video camera in 720HD and Vortex Razor HD 27-60x 85 at 27x. The system provides excellent light transmition and colour fidelity. Note the nice subtle pinkish tinge on the breast of the bird. There is not any evident image distorsion or halo.
Adult and nestling Northern Bald Ibis on the nest, Strait of Gibraltar, April 2018. Filmed while causing no disturbance to the bird and fullfilling the Spanish Nature Conservation Laws. Smartphone video camera in 720HD and new Vortex scope Razor HD 27-60x 85 at 27x. Notice the quality on both blacks and whites. Fine details on the bird’s eyes and plumage are visible.
Vortex VIP Warranty
The unparalleled VIP Warranty that Vortex offers has been a key element on the rapid popularization of this American brand. It remains in force and may certainly tip the balance when comparing scopes of different brands.
The New Vortex Scope: Conclusions
The new Vortex scope has a great design and modern conception offering an excellent optical performance. With this evolution, the Vortex Razor HD fieldscope consolidates itself high within the overall top 10 fieldscopes for birders in the market, which includes scopes than broadly double its price. We consider that the increased price of the new model is encompassed by its improved features. Nevertheless, it remains in the middle price range. We believe that nowadays it is hard to find a better option within its price range.
The Handbook of the Western Palearctic Birds by Hadoram Shirihai and Lars Svensson is here! This is a milestone in global ornithology and Western Palearctic birding.
We just received the two volumes in the office and are quite excited. For this reason, we have made a new video with the unboxing of the most awaited bird book ever! It is now available in the most specialized bookstores. We got ours from Oryx.
Going over the images of this book reminded us of the days we spent with Hadoram Shirihai in the field, when he was photographing target birds in Andalusia for this project. We will surely spend a good time this summer reading and studying the texts and images! You can find more information about these long-awaited books here.
Last April and May we were fortunate to run a tailor-made trip throughout Spain. We covered emblematic areas, such as Sierra de Gredos, Monfragüe and Doñana National Park, among others. This was, admittedly, a beautiful and fun trip, specially because the scenery looked spectacular after the copious rains in March and April.
We designed this tour for the spring season and customized it upon a few requirements from the participants. Spring is probably the best season to visit Spain, and we focused in all the specialties of the region that would be breeding at the time.
We also included, upon requirement, the visit to some historical sites such as La Alhambra and the Roman ruins of Mérida.
Some of the highlights of this trip in Spain:
The scenery on most of the trip was fantastic. The copious rains before the trip and the good weather through most of our itinerary made for an unforgettable journey. There were blooming flowers everywhere!
Monfragüe NP and the plains around Trujillo were very productive. It provided us with good views of the Spanish Imperial Eagle. Also, some distant views, but with excellent behavior, of displaying male Great Bustard and Little Bustard.
Getting to see an Iberian Lynx, one of the most critically endangered cats in the world was certainly another highlight. We had a Bearded Vulture observation the day after.
Fuente de Piedra was particularly good. There was a record number of Greater Flamingos breeding this year and we even got to see a few Lesser Flamingos!
The Doñana wetlands were teeming with life. There were good numbers of shorebirds and waterfowl, and had close views of key species like Marbled Teal and White-headed Duck.
We had brilliant local guides during our cultural visits to Merida, Cordoba and Granada. This added significant value to the tour and the whole experience.
Last, but not least, we ended on a high note in the Strait of Gibraltar. We got to see some raptor migration, including European Honey-Buzzards and Eurasian Griffons crossing from Africa; and saw great birds like Eurasian Eagle-Owl and Common Quail.
For those interested in knowing more about the itinerary we followed, detailed description of the tour and a full list of species, we have uploaded the Trip Report here. Let us know if you would be interested in a similar trip in the future!
Under suboptimal weather conditions, like strong crosswind and rain showers, the narrow sea crossing that separates Africa from Europe at the Strait of Gibraltar may present a major obstacle to migrating raptors. This is particularly true for the Eurasian Griffon, the largest soaring migrant in the area. In fact, the mere 14.5 Km that separate both continents is at times an insurmountable barrier, causing an undetermined number of vultures to fall into the sea every spring.
Instinct of survival
Once in the water, Griffons show an impressive instinct of survival and use their large wings as paddles in a desperate attempt to reach the shore. Except in the rare occasions when fallen Griffons are rescued by passing vessels, their fate is normally fatal. This is a highly dramatic scene and a brutal example on the forces of natural selection that we observe every spring in the Strait of Gibraltar.
But! Last 1st of May we witnessed the absolutely exceptional and unbelievable case shown in the following video:
With moderate westerly winds a group of 36 Griffons undertook the sea-crossing of the Strait. The crossing started on top of the Djebel Mousaa in Morocco, and headed to Punta Carnero in Spain. As they approached the European shore, we saw the kettle soaring in a thermal updraft over the Ocean. This is a rather infrequent event as thermal updrafts do rarely occur over water bodies. Nonetheless, the thermal seemed to suddenly dissipate and vultures did rapidly lose height. In a strenuous active flight, most individuals managed to safely reach the continent. Two vultures, however, did not have the strength to go on and hit the water!
Attack of the gulls
Their efforts to stay afloat an reach the shore “swimming” were hampered by the ruthless attack of Yellow-legged Gulls. This had us on tenterhooks for over 15 minutes. We finally saw one of them drowning while, to our surprise, one of them skilfully reached a rocky islet near the shore! After some 45 good minutes spreading its wings to the sun in a cormorant fashion, and boosted by a timely gust of wind, the vulture took off again and completed the intercontinental flight. This caused cheers and applause from all present observers!
Indeed, because of this kind of observations we will never have enough of raptor migration in the Strait of Gibraltar! Contact us if you want to arrange a trip to experience the Griffon Vulture migration.
In early May the Honey Buzzard play the leading role in the raptor migration in the Strait of Gibraltar. This is, no doubt, among the most celebrated and awaited periods for international birders and nature enthusiast visiting Tarifa. Thousands of this otherwise rather secretive and forest-dwelling raptors will cross the ocean between Africa and Europe in massive streams. Crosswind direction, westerlies vs easterlies, will determine the flyway, which may range from the Rock of Gibraltar to Sierra de La Plata and beyond.
The Honey Buzzard peak migration
The first big groups of migrant Honey Buzzards where observed last 2nd of May in the Eastern side of the Strait. Tomorrow, 5th of May, we expect a BIG DAY in the Tarifa area prompted by a shift in the wind direction. Indeed, the bulk of the Western European breeding population of Honey Buzzards will cross the Strait within the ongoing fortnight. The strength and determination while on active migration of these apparently delicate raptors is admirable. The spectacle is greatly enhanced by the striking diversity in their plumage colour. Indeed Honey Buzzards shows the most striking colour polymorphism among European raptors (with all due respect from Common Buzzard). This way, some individuals show a paler-than-an-Osprey plumage, while others look completely black.
Remarkably, only adults will cross the Strait during spring and juveniles (born in 2017) will extend their stance south of the Sahara until next spring.
Do not miss this animation, based on satellite tracking from the University of Amsterdam showing the 3D migration route of Dutch Honey Buzzard to Africa and back across the Strait of Gibraltar.
As every year, Birding The Stait will be in the frontline to admire this natural wonder. We cannot think of a better way to celebrate the Global Big Day! Contact us if you want to arrange a birding trip during the spring migration season. Be part of this phenomenal natural spectacle.