Estrecho Natural Park
Created in 2003, the Parque Natural del Estrecho is the southernmost protected area in Europe. It is made up of a long stretch of coastline covering 18,931ha from Cabo de Gracia in the west near Bolonia and Punta del Carnero in the east, south of Algeciras. It includes the Duna de Bolonia Natural Monument and the Playa de los Lances Natural Area.
The park contains two separate seas, which meet at the Strait of Gibraltar: on the western side of the park is the Atlantic Ocean and to the west, the Mediterranean. The park's maritime area is exceptional for its biodiversity, with over 1,900 species of marine flora and fauna recorded.
The park has an impressive range of variety of habitats; a total of 18 range from mobile sand dunes, cork oak woodland and offshore submerged sand banks.
This coastline is famous for its strong winds, the levante (east wind) and poniente (west wind), making it a world famous windsurfing site. These winds, however, also mean that some days it's impossible to stay long on the beach as the wind whips up the sand.
Its location on the Strait of Gibraltar also makes it a prime location for birdwatching, as it is on the main migration route for birds between Africa to Europe.
The long stretches of fine sandy beaches to the west of Tarifa - the Playa de los Lances (a protected area), Playa de Bolonia and Playa de Valdevaqueros - are easily accesssible, but those to the west of Tarifa are smaller, pebble beaches and harder to get to.
The park has many archaeological sites, the most famous being the important Roman town of Baelo Claudia, which was established in the second century BC. It was famous for its preservation of fish through salting and the production of a fish sauce known as garum, made from tuna and mackerel. The remains of a fish factory and huge stone vats where the garum was made can still be seen today.
There are around 30 caves in the park, many with rock paintings, and also several defensive watchtowers along the coast. The park's position in an area of strong winds and currents mean that there are important underwater archaeological sites of shipwrecks.
The southernmost tip of Europe and only 10km from Africa is the Punta de Tarifa or Marroquí. Around it is an area of sea rich in marine life where, for example, 29 species of sponges have been recorded. Strong currents in this part of the Strait of Gibraltar have made it inaccessible to all but the most experienced divers, which means that it has remained largely unspoilt.
The N340 passes close by and through sections of the park, from where it is easy to access various parts of the park, both on the coast and inland.
Inland in the Sierra de la Plata is dense cork oak woodland and Mediterranean scrubland, with Kermes oaks, lentisc, dwarf fan palms and wild olive trees. There are also some newer patches of pine and eucalyptus trees. Inland from Tarifa are pine tree and cork oak woods., while around Bolonia there are stone pine woods.
The hinterland to the coast west of Tarifa, especially around Bolonia and the Sierra de la Plata, is famous for its spectacular so-called painted fields in spring, when there is an abundance of wildflowers, such as wild tulips, Spanish irises and palmate anemones. Endemic species include the narcissus (narcissus viridiflorus), genista (genista triacanthos), the scratchy shrub chamaespartium tridentatum and the relatively rare Portuguese sundew (drosophyllum lusitanicum).
Around Punta Paloma and Punta Camarinal are stone pines, with patches of Phoenician and prickly junipers (juniperus phoenicea, j.oxycedrus) close to the dunes. Slightly inland from Punta Camarinal are lentisc, rockroses and camarina (corema album), the latter giving the headland its name.
On the dunes at Cerro del Estrecho are rock samphire (crithmum maritimum), marigolds (calendula suffructicosa) and yellow sea asters (asteriscus maritimus).
On the sandy seabed between Tarifa and Bolonia there are patches of marine vegetation belonging to the cymodoceion nodosae and laminaria ochroleuca. Offshore on the rocky seabed, at depths of around 40m, is red coral (corallium rubrum), a threatened species. There are also significant areas of cystoseira seaweed.
The most important fauna in the park are birds. As the Strait of Gibraltar is at its narrowest point between Tarifa and Africa, it is crossing point for over 300 million migratory birds, with some 350 different species, which migrate between Africa and Europe every year.
Sixty percent of Europe's raptor population passes through here, as well as virtually its entire population of storks. Swifts are also here in staggering numbers, with more than 400,000 passing through this area. For details of the best sites for watching the migration,
The list of birds in the area is extensive. At migration times there are herons, storks, flamingos, spoonbills, honey buzzards, golden eagles, ospreys, kingfishers, nightjars, owls, cuckoos, warblers and wagtails, among many others. Any time of year birds in the park include Bonnelli's eagles, goshawks, kestrels, crag martins, blue rock thrushes, crested, wood and Thekla larks and barn, tawny and little owls. Around Tarifa there are colonies of Griffon and Egyptian vultures, the most southerly in the Iberian peninsula, with 50 pairs of Griffon vultures recorded here.
Among the seabirds there are gannets, Cory's and Balearic shearwaters, Andouin's gulls, kittiwakes, puffins and razorbills.
In the protected area of sea within the park there are some fauna species noted for their rare or endemic nature. Among these are sponges (axinella estacioi), jellyfish (merona ibera, cervera atlantica and scleranthelia microsclera) and a great number of molluscs and crustaceans. Twenty three species of fauna in particular are under threat due to the destruction of their traditional habitats, including the largest limpet in Europe, the patella ferruginea, the fan mussel (pinna nobilis) and the date mussel (lithophaga lithophaga), as well as sea turtles.
There are also dolphins and whales in waters of the park. In Tarifa there are several companies that run boat trips to see whales and dolphins.
When to watch
Although migration takes place virtually all year round, the largest movements from Africa north to Europe across the Strait of Gibraltar are between March and late May. The most important movements south are between August and October and this southerly migration will involve many more birds since they have been breeding and increasing their numbers.
Some species are more predictable than others as to when they fly; white storks, for example, may fly north much earlier than other birds, in November, or as late as May.
If it's raining heavily or the weather is stormy, there won't be any birds flying.
Where to watch
Choosing a site depends on wind direction, as birds will glide and soar on migration, following the thermals, rather than follow a direct route. So if the wind is coming from a westerly direction, a site in Gibraltar or Punta del Carnero would be best. Easterly winds mean that sites between Tarifa and Algeciras would be better.
The Mirador del Estrecho on the N340 5km east of Tarifa is the most popular place but this means that it also gets overcrowded. Just east of the Mirador del Estrecho is the turn-off the N340 for the Valle del Santuario site. At Km 91 on the N340 is a track that heads north and after around 10km there is the road to the Sanctuario de la Luz. For the viewpoint at El Algorrobo, turn off the N340 at Km 99.1 onto a track that heads north for a short distance.
Also off the N340 are the sites at La Hoya and Cazalla. The seafront in Tarifa is an excellent spot. South of Algeiras on the coast road towards Getares Bay is the headland Punta Secreta, another good vantage point. For watching seabirds like gulls and gannets, visit Tarifa or Punta Carnero.
What to take
Make sure you have a pair of binoculars and a good field guide.