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NSF Grant Empowers Student Research in Spain

Introduction by Greg Kaltenecker, Diane and Winston Moore Family Endowed Executive Director

Those of you who have followed IBO for a number of years will be familiar with our collaboration in Spain with “sister” organization Fundación Migres. Over the years we have sent a number of students to the city of Tarifa, Spain to participate in counts of soaring birds, trapping and banding of Black Kites, banding of songbirds and flamingos, and countless other incredible activities.

a view across the Strait of Gibraltar. In the foreground is dry dusty scrub habitat. in the center is the blue water of the strait. And behind in the distance is the other shore with some clouds and mountain ridges
A glimpse of southern Spain’s alluring coastal scrub habitat and a distant view of Morocco across the Strait of Gibraltar. Photo Credit: Eden Ravecca

In 2022 I collaborated with Boise State’s Raptor Research Center Director Dr. Jim Belthoff to submit a proposal to the National Science Foundation under their International Research Experience for Students (IRES) program. The project was funded, and the two Principal Investigators (PI’s for short) have been busy over the past several months planning for its launch in 2024. The project is funded for three years and will allow for teams of five students each year to travel to Spain in July and August. There they will be mentored by Spanish scientists and accomplish research projects related to raptor migration, climate change, and renewable energy.

 The south of Spain, a global-scale migration site, is the perfect location to do this!

During the summer of 2023 Dr. Belthoff and I sent two Boise State students, Eden Ravecca and Anna Connington, to Tarifa. Together they “piloted” the new project, worked out any kinks, developed ties with Spanish scientists, explored research ideas, and immersed themselves in the vibrant culture of southern Spain. Jim and I visited these students in early August and found them to be fitting in like locals, speaking Spanish fluently, working on a number of different projects as well as initiating their own.

It was our pleasure to spend time with these students and we remarked at how well they did and what they had made of this brief but significant opportunity!

five people sit around a table, smiling at the camera. vibrantly colored food and a bottle of wine rest on the table. In the background is a crowded scene with people chatting and socializing around tables
A phenomenal evening unfolds at a hidden gem restaurant in the town of Tarifa, Spain. Amidst the vibrant nightlife, meaningful conversations and memories are shared with Jim Belthoff (Boise State, Raptor Research Center), Greg Kaltenecker (IBO), Eden Ravecca (Boise State), Virginia Aguilar Clapes-Saganoles (scientist for the Spanish Government), Miguel Ferrer (Director of Migres). Photo Credit: Wait- Staff

I hope that you enjoy the article below written by Boise State Doctorate student, Eden Ravecca. Her fascination with the place, the work, the people, and the culture is obvious! So many of the articles in this newsletter hint at how the opportunities provided by IBO and our various projects are life-changing for students in so many ways.

To read these students’ testimonials brings tears to my eyes and gives me a deep satisfaction that I can’t put into words.

The IRES opportunity includes a spring course to prepare students for eight weeks of research at CIMA (Centro Internacional de Migración de Aves), the permanent field station of Migres located in Tarifa, and also travel to the annual conference of the Raptor Research Foundation. Students will participate in this professional conference by presenting results from their research to their peers. What an incredible opportunity! If you’re a Boise State Student, visit this page to learn more about this program.


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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