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An Immersion in the Science, Culture, and Migration of Southern Spain

By Eden Ravecca, Boise State Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior PhD Student

It’s not every day that you get to embark on an adventure that feels like a dream. I had the privilege of working as an International Research Intern with IBO and the Spanish bird conservation organization, Fundación Migres, at a site in one of the world’s most important migratory flyways.

If I could sum up my six-week internship in Tarifa, Spain, it would be an experience that redefined the way I see the world.

It was an unforgettable journey in a place where the Atlantic Ocean cozies up to the Mediterranean Sea and where European Bee-eaters serenade the skies.

A long bridge jetty stretches out away from the camera into the distance, with water on either side. Two signs are on either side, with cursive script cut out of metal in a silhouette design. The left sign reads "mar mediterraneo" and the right reads "oceano atlantico"
The bridge that connects the town of Tarifa and the island of Tarifa, considered the official divide between the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of southern Spain. Photo Credit: Eden Ravecca

The Vibrant Energy of Tarifa

Tarifa is a town where the energy is as vibrant as the Mediterranean sun. Tarifa by day, is a lively coastal town with a beachy vibe, offering an atmosphere that invites you to live in the moment.  As the sun sets, the town undergoes a beautiful transformation. Its quaint, cobbled streets, steeped in history, come to life with live Spanish music, while the town’s culinary scene blossoms into a haven of delicious food and drinks.

The skies of Tarifa were a spectacle and nothing short of magical.

a vast beach with scattered people is dim in the evening light. The sun is setting and casting classic golden rays high into the sky through thin clouds
A sunset over the Atlantic Ocean paints the skies of Tarifa in hues of gold. Photo Credit: Eden Ravecca

At any given moment there were thousands of soaring birds circling above or migrating in masses over the Strait of Gibraltar. The nights were equally enchanting; I counted migrating birds as they passed in front of the moon during a full-moon night survey and regularly heard the evening melodies of Tawny Owls and Little Owls.

a tiny brown owl with long legs and intense yellow eyes stares at the camera. it's surrounded by dry scrubby looking vegetation. It looks quite similar to a North American Burrowing Owl.
Adult Little Owl (Athene noctua) perched on a tree branch at sunset in Tarifa, Spain. Photo Credit: Eden Ravecca

Collaboration with Fundación Migres

The awesome people I had the pleasure of working with in Tarifa were one of the brightest highlights of this experience. The scientists at Fundación Migres were so welcoming and generous with their immense knowledge. Their expertise, from the local systems to the evolutionary ecology of the area’s flora and fauna, was mind-blowing.

two images show a biologist holding a small brown bird in leg-hold grip. in one image he is holding a wing ruler and pointing at the birds head feathers. In the second he is spreading out one of the bird's wings to show its flight feathers
Dr. Alex Onrubia, the program coordinator for Fundación Migres, teaches students how to age a Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus). Photo Credit: Eden Ravecca

We delved deep into ecological relationships, I learned about the modern challenges faced by local wildlife, and explored the wide-ranging conservation efforts happening in southern Spain. One of the most fascinating topics I learned about was on the intricate evolution of migration, exploring the drivers of migratory behavior on both geological and contemporary time scales.

Guided by the local scientists, each day was like stepping into a world of endless discovery.

three scientists stand or sit in camp chairs to document bird migration. Each woman has either a scope, binoculars, or datasheet as they work. Around them are some short prickly looking shrubs and dry sandy rocks. In the background is the ocean with some high cumulus clouds.
Soaring bird migration count site in Tarifa, Spain with the Strait of Gibraltar in the distance. Pictured here are two Boise State students, Eden Ravecca and Anna Connington, and two Spanish graduate students. Photo Credit: Eden Ravecca

The work I did over the course of my internship was diverse and exciting. It began on Isla de Tarifa, the southernmost point of Spain and the European continent.

This island was a peaceful outdoor “office”, with views of Morocco in the distance.

I counted shearwaters, seabirds, cetaceans, and whales that migrate along the strait between the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

As the weeks went on, I had the opportunity to participate in a variety of research work, including monitoring a supplemental feeding station for Egyptian Vultures and contributing to the reintroduction projects for Osprey and Spanish Imperial Eagles.

a small white vulture with dainty yellow face, and a larger bulky brown vulture sit together in a gnarled bare tree. Behind them two other large vultures are soaring in the blurred background
Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) (top) and a Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) (bottom and soaring in background), perched above a supplemental feeding site in Tarifa, Spain. Photo Credit: Eden Ravecca.

I also worked on some of the long-term projects, including counting the mesmerizing river of Black Kites, White Storks, Short-toed Snake Eagles, and Booted Eagles that migrate across the Strait of Gibraltar on their way south to winter in Africa.

Two people seen from the back sit in foldable camping chairs. They are looking out across a rocky beach and water, with distant mountains barely seen in the haze across the strait. They have spotting scopes set up on tripods looking out over the water.
Seabird migration count site on the Island of Tarifa with Morocco, Africa in the distance. Pictured here is Boise State student, Anna Connington, and Fundación Migres lead scientist, Alejandro Onrubia. Photo Credit: Eden Ravecca

The field work I enjoyed most involved banding Black Kites and documenting their molt patterns.

These stunning birds, often overlooked because of their generalist nature, are not just common; they’re magnificent and strange, and successful because of their ability to adapt to a variety of different habitats.

a biologists hands hold a black kite, grasping the talons and body in one hand, and the outstretched wing in the other. The bird is held in front of a white backdrop and in a standardized way to show its flight feathers for documentation purposes
Ventral right wing of an after-second-year Black Kite (Milvus migrans) showing molt pattern, and part of Eden Ravecca’s collaborative photo-documentation project with Fundación Migres. Photo Credit: Eden Ravecca.

Reflecting on the Tarifa Experience

Reflecting on my time in Tarifa, I can’t help but marvel at how much I learned in those six weeks. But this internship was not just a learning experience; it was a cultural immersion.

A life-changing adventure, where every day was a new opportunity to be amazed by the wonders of the natural world.

a black kite looks straight at the camera with an intense stare! its amber brown eyes, bold black and yellow bill, and striking tan and brown contrasty plumage give this photo an intense and beautiful feel
Full-face portrait of an adult Black Kite (Milvus migrans). Photo Credit: Eden Ravecca

The mix of nature and culture, the incredible people I met, and the beauty of this unique corner of the old world have left an indelible mark on me. The town of Tarifa was a learning environment like no other – a place full of history and charm, where the skies came alive, and where the magic of southern Spain replenished my soul.

a photo of white and cream colored Mediterranean style buildings and a cobblestone street. the buildings have the classic european look with wrought-iron balconies, window boxes, and plants. A few trees that look like olive trees line the street.
A cobblestone street full of timeless charm in the town of Tarifa, Spain. Photo Credit: Eden Ravecca

This article is part of our 2023 end of the year newsletter! View the full newsletter here, or click “older posts” below to read the next article.

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