Bee-Eaters

Bee-Eaters are most beautiful when perched – little living jewels. I once came out of the hospital near Velez-Malaga to be cheered by seeing a pair perched on the tramlines. Unfortunately I generally see them in flight, and you do not see the colours from below. Still it is a pleasure – their lovely soft call makes you look for the flock and there they are, five…no ten…no twenty birds flying above you, calling to keep the flock together. They are migratory so a pleasure to be enjoyed from some time in April through to September and then missed in the winter months, making the first sighting in spring a special pleasure.

Bee-Eater, Merops apiaster

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The Beach Scene

July and August and half the world heads to the beach. Even I hop over now and again, and not, really, to go wilding – too many people, cars, noise and too much heat. Still, there is life on the beach, and not just in the sea or on the jetties.

Female Sparrow – House or Spanish – in Torre del Mar

Sitting with a ice-cold beer in a beach side chiringuito you are greeted by the commonest of birds. You know it is a sparrow but is it a House Sparrow or a Spanish Sparrow? These two species are closely related and confusingly both present in the Med. Wikipedia states “Its taxonomy is greatly complicated by the “biological mix-up” but “In most of the Mediterranean, one or both of the two species occurs, with only a limited degree of hybridisation”. Very comforting. How to tell them apart? Well the male HS has a grey crown, while the male Spanish has a chestnet crown. But the females are effectively indistinguishable. So we have to stick to “Sparrow” and give them a few crumbs of bread.

Monk Parakeet & pigeons, Torre del Mar

Overhead, in the great wooden checkerboard that supports the palmtree’s crowns there are birds shrieking and squabbling. These are Monk Parakeets, which live in sizeable colonies all along the coast. They are feral birds whose forebears escaped from zoos or petshops – the species originated in South America – but they are found in many parts of Europe, including southern England. Nevertheless, a flight of bright green birds seems exotic. The palm trees camoflage them quite well but they make their presence known with a stream of noisy conversation. I’ve never got a good shot of one in the tree itself but I recently saw a couple on the ground, find out what the pigeons had found.

Pigeons in Malaga

There are pigeons, all along the coast, largely because we build towns and drop food all along the coast. They are endlessly overlooked by all because they are common, or disapproved of, because they dirty – though it is our dirty habit of dropping food that attract thems. All something of a nonsense.

Seagull, Malaga

Of course, there can be too many pigeons, they do become pests. But they are just birds, beautiful in their own right.

Gulls are the same. I see them in huge flocks around the fishing trawlers coming back into port, or singly, here and there, floating in the wide sky.

Perhaps the most interesting bird I’ve seen on a casual day at the seaside has been cormorants, beside the port at La Caleta, drying their wings off like angels of the south, or swimming low in the water. Alas, I couldn’t get close enough to get a good shot. If you look at this one with a magnifying glass you may get an impression of the birds I know are there. Even when I am snoozing under a sunhat after too many beers, I know that somewhere along the coast these haunting fisherbirds are there!

Cormorants
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The Eagles are Here!

Malaga is home to hosts of Eagles. When the great migrations occur in Spring and Autumn flocks of birders congregate in Gibraltar, competing for vantage points to see something extraordinary – raptors of all kinds flying in great numbers over the rock.

Now, I have to admit I have not, by any means seen all the Eagles there are here – no Imperial Eagle has, alas, tipped its wings in my direction. But those I do see are regular visitors, and impressive enough in their own right. Here is a quick summary

Booted Eagle mobbed by Common Kestrel, by Pete George, found on the IBC (Internet Bird Collection)

The Booted Eagle, a small-medium member of the family is a common sight here and in the light phase the clear white Y of body and upper wings with black outer feathers on the rim of the wings makes it unmistakable on a good view. As for the mobbing I witnessed the same phenomenon – described in Battle in the Skies

Booted Eagle, Hieraaetus pennatus

Shorted-toed (Snake) Eagle & Booted Eagle. Photo from Never mind the finnsticks.
Bonelli’s Eagle. Photo Dharani Prakash

These photos show two other species I see a regularly, along with the Booted. I have only seen Bonelli’s Eagles for certain a few times near Cerro Gavilan, well within the Natural Park. But Short-toed (aka Snake) Eagles I see regularly as low as the in the valley as Algarrobo and all the way up to Cerro Atalaya. To date I have only had definite sightings of light phase Short-toed Eagles.

I have seen the mighty Golden Eagle twice. I don’t say might flippantly. They are the 5th largest Eagle species with an adult wing span between 6 foot and 7.8 foot. A few years back when I went up onto the high meadows in winter I saw a single bird on the shoulder of La Maroma. My other sighting, though was more dramatic – a dark cloudy day and I was walking with friends through Cómpeta and looked up. Fairly low, below the cloud 6 Eagles were gliding – four adults, two juvs. The larger birds were ridiculously big, all were dark brown … I couldn’t believe what I thought I was seeing, when Martin got his binos in focus and said it: “Golden”. I was amazed to see a mini flock of these birds – I wonder if two of the ‘adults’ were youngsters from a previous year so all six were a family group.

They are a relatively widely spread species of eagle and the mountain ranges here do seem ideal for them, though there is a fair amount of competition, not just from other eagles but from a couple of species of vulture. There is also a strong hunting community, reducing available prey, so perhaps it is not surprising I see them fairly rarely.

Hopefully I will see them again soon. (You never know your luck).

Golden Eagle, Ávila, Spain -photo Juan Lacruz
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Short-toed Eagle

My best shot

The Short-toed Snake Eagle is one of the larger raptors I see most commonly in the Axarquia. That is partly because they are relatively easy to i.d., partly because they are pretty big – adults have a 6 foot wingspan – and partly because there is at least one pair that regularly fly over the Sayalonga valley.

I say they are easy to i.d. but should add a note of caution. There are juveniles, which will (obviously) be smaller, and all these birds can be hard to accurately pin down depending on the view you get. They have a distinctive white underside speckled with brown, with dark outer primaries but an angled view at a distance is a bad basis for an i.d. – the bird could be a juvenile golden eagle, a large Bonneli’s Eagle, or some other bird. I try to be honest when out with non-birders, in spite of temptation based on their ignorance – I’ve never forgotten the walker who said in surprise “Short-toed Eagle? You can see its toes? Wow!”

Wikipedia says they are fairly silent but I have many times witnessed, over several years a pair calling to one another in sharp shrill cries, and now an again seen them flying with a juvenile, presumable their offspring.

As you can see from the above I have taken one almost-decent photo of this bird – I was coming back from a long walk into the hills and, almost opposite Canillas de Albaida walked out onto a tiny promontory above the valley to admire the view and saw the eagle. The bird floated gently up from below me and past overhead while I frantically clicked and zoomed with my basic camera, and gawped with delight.

That was years ago now but I had a wonderful sighting just last week on a windy July day. I was at a music night at Bodegas Bentomiz near Sayalonga – a Flamenco performance due to start and people gathering in the forecourt beside the winery, with my friend Margot, who happens to be an excellent photographer and, even better, had her camera with her. Our Snake Eagle appeared from below the town and then slid across the valley towards us, turned and faced into the strong wind, effectively hovering like a giant kestrel while it inspected the land below for reptiles. Margot humoured me by taking a dozen shots, which I’m posting below. Wine, music and Short-toed Eagles – all round, a damn good night out!

White underside
Balanced on the wind
Short-toed Eagle, photo Margot Hillock
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Walking on sunshine – for Janet

I think I first walked the goat path with Janet and David back in 2003, possibly the first time they visited Cómpeta. I had walked with them thousands of times in the Lake District and Scotland but never before in Spain. Another couple of grasshoppers who liked hopping about hills and wild places, both were terrific walkers. Both loved wildlife: Janet was especially keen on birds and flowers. The April day I’m thinking of was beautiful – we saw violet-winged carpenter bees feeding on the Jerusalem sage’s pink blooms under the old olive trees. David and Janet were tickled when we meet goats on the goat path (how unlikely!) and, though they had no Spanish, enjoyed saying hello through me to Antonio, the goat herd. If I remember rightly when we got to Canillas we found a bar, drowned our tapas in wine, and staggered merrily out for a taxi to get back to Cómpeta quoting a walking song to each other:

               “Before the Romans came to Rye or out to Severn strode                                     The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road…”

 

Birding, La Rahige

When they visited in more recent years we did plenty of other walks – La rahige; the silk route on a very hot day; Puerto Collado to Acebuchal for a wonderful meal. I remember a trip with them during a rainy March to the magnificent limestone scenery of El Torcal where we saw ibex.

In El Torcal

We followed that with a walk up the Cájula valley, though the bad weather continued, telling ourselves the weather was clearing up a bit … maybe … as the stream lapped our boots and the rain became heavier and heavier. We took shelter in the doorway of one of the ruins en-route. “Is this revenge for all those wet walks we dragged you out on in the Lake District?” asked Janet. “Definitely,” I said, “but I never expected to wreak my revenge out here”.

 

But then a couple of years ago Janet got sick, a nasty form of cancer attacking her bones. For months this active woman was stuck, unable to go swimming, unable to enjoy long walks, unable for back-pain to drive – hardly likely to come out to play in Spain. She said to me later that it had been horrible but she’d tried to keep walking every day if she could “Even if it was only as far as the gate posts, on David’s arm”. I loved her bloody mindedness, finding what she could do instead of focusing on what she could not. A keen and capable gardener, unable to tend her garden, she told me she’d been working on plant pots: “It’s so good to have my fingers in the soil again”.

Some 10 months and a grim winter after the diagnosis, Janet’s condition was better: she could even take a short ‘treatment holiday’. David and Janet immediately booked to come over (‘Oh to get some sunshine!’) and said they would like to walk but that she would struggle with distance and hills. Now, obviously I like walking, but I probably like a good all-day walk best. I prefer going uphill from down: great long marches that make you heart thump and bring you sweating to see the most spectacular of views. Flat, easy walks are not abundant in the Axarquia.

Nor on the net. I had a look, in case I had simply missed some easy walks but found that most walking sites, routes, or suggestions on-line focus on the macho full length stuff. I thought the valley walks (flatter) would be too rough – and besides, wanted to bring my English visitors into the light uplands. Tricky, this. Even when I go from Canillas to Cómpeta I choose the high road over the goat path.

The Goat Path! Of course! Mainly flat, beautiful, simple, a village end with access to a cafe to recover in. But would Janet be able to do the 3 Km? Her condition had been bad enough for that there was some doubt.

It was May and a simply glorious day. From Santa Ana in Canillas, all along the path there was a mad profusion of flowers – poppies and periwinkles, bindweed and bugloss. At the start we saw bushes spread with the skirts of funnel-webs. Janet never like spiders much but the webs in the shade were holding beads of water and were beautiful.

Janet & David, near Santa Ana, Canillas

Janet absolutely gloried in it; from flower to flower, view to view she loved it. “So close to the town and yet we are right in the heart of nature. People may not realise what they can get to see” she said, and we talked about how people who can’t walk easily like people who live in town and cities may feel they can’t go birding, see wildflowers or wildlife.

Leaf Beetle

Yet from tower blocks to tube-lines there is always something to see, because nature finds a way to get everywhere. Janet always found a way, too – a way to enjoy beauty, a way to take part, a way to live.

 

A yellow serin perched in a bush over our heads and sang it’s twittering little song, over our heads and stayed and stay ed above us: it was a delight. “Seranaded by a serin! Wonderful!”

The serin, David’s photo

 

Half way point

Perhaps you appreciate things most when you’ve missed them. Janet had not be certain she’d ever again be able to go walking with me among the Spanish hills. She was radiant that day from start to finish – it shows in the photos – not merely enjoying the sunshine but revelling in it. She made me appreciate more what I have here on my doorstep.

 

It was, in part, Janet, and especially this walk with her and David, that inspired me to start this blog. I wanted to share my love of wildlife, walking and Malaga, not just with the serious hill walkers and the macho mountaineers, but with people who can appreciate these things but may not be able to hike up El Lucero. I wanted to write up some walks that almost anyone can enjoy.

 

Now Janet has died. But every time I walk the goat path this spring – and probably on many other walks too – I will be thinking of her, showing her in my mind the things I see, the birds I hear. I’m thankful that we shared a life-long love of the natural world and that her passion for it, her appreciation of it, and her courage in all things were inspirations to me. She was wonderful.

 

 

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Battle in the Skies

Booted Eagle, Common Kestrel. photo: Pete George, IBC

Went back to Sedella this week for another stroll above the village. Fascinated to see a Booted Eagle being attacked, repeatedly a common kestrel. This went on for a good 5 minutes or more with both birds flying right across the sky. This is probably territorial defence – the kestrel doesn’t want a big competitor clearing the area of prey – which sounds very sensible, but was shocking to see – the tiny attacking hurtling in at a much larger bird.

Field of gold: Purple Vipers Bugloss to the fore, mainly umbrella milkwort, behind

Lovely flowers in abundance too, especially Spotted Rock-Rose and fields full of Umbrella Milkwort. There were also agave cactus putting up flower spikes at about 15 at this stage with more to go, beautiful big Broom, Mallow-leaved Bindweed, Creeping Jenny, Purple Viper’s Bugloss, Wild Artichokes and much more!

Agave cactus

 

 

 

 

 

Wild Artichoke

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were bugs and butterflies too, including dozens more Owly Sulphers – only seen these near Sedella. I caught a couple again: the singles don’t stay still for long enough! But nothing topped the aerial display at the end of the walk!

 

 

 

 

I must add a thanks for your company to Mychaela, Pauline, Keith and especially Sybil.

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Terrace Time

I’ve talked in some of these blogs about how much wildlife you can see on short walks, road or track walks, which you can do even if you are not a strong walker. I see wildlife even walking around the village – though it does help when you are surrounded by natural park or farmland.

But last night I sat on my tiny roof terrace and watched birds. In the long warm part of the year – from about April to about October – our village skies are full of activity from what I call the summer birds, and they were there: I could tick them off mentally – multiple fluttering house-martins close overhead; occasional swallows and a swallow that perched on the rail of an abandoned half house giving a familiar twitter-and-buzz; a few swifts with their thin-winged arc flying higher but faster than the martins against the bright blue sky.

There were stout pigeons that flew through the busy skies too, and others: a pied wagtail, a bird I’m always seeing on road edges out of town but rarely among the houses. It came and perched (and wagged) on a tv aerial in front. On another aerial at the back (these things were surely put up for birds to perch on!) a pair of spotless starlings stopped in and gave a few wolf-whistles.

And finally (it was edging towards evening with the temperature gently dropping and the light draining slowly, slowly from the sky) the mad flittering of the crop-caped bat. I think they nest below the roof tiles – that is my guess. Always happy to see these fascinating flying mice, sharing the sky with birds.

All that in just half an hour of watching these crowded springtime skies. It may not seem very exciting – nothing exotic – but every one of these creatures is extraordinary in its own right!

 

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Nest Defender

I have known for some time that there was a pair of Red-legged Partridge living somewhere near Bodegas Bentomiz – perhaps in the abandoned vineyard nearby, which would give good cover for ground-nesting birds. I often hear them clucking and one morning saw them heading up towards the vineyards, very unconcerned at my approach. I even got a little video clip of them, lazily heading away:

RL Partridge

I also knew that the Crag Martins that nest on the building there can be fairly territorial. They buzz visitors to the winery if they are standing a bit to close to the relevant corner of the building. They virtually attacked a woodchat shrike that stunned itself by flying into one of the windows – but considering the predatory nature of the shrike that is no surprise.

Today I heard a panicked partridge clucking and couldn’t place it. I scanned the vineyard, the neighbouring ground and the track. As I did so a Crag Martin shot past like a bolt from a bow whizzing over my head. I followed the line of flight and saw the partridge sticking its head over from the corner of the roof.

How did it get up there? I think of it so much as a ground bird, and it has always seemed so reluctant to fly, I had almost forgotten it can. Why was it in that particular corner? It was driving the martins crazy – and vica versa. They were mobbing it, pass after aerial pass low over its head and every time it squawked and flapped as if in surprise.

I was certainly surprised: pot shot at a partridge on the roof!

Incoming!
“I’m off!”

 

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