Beware of the Crag Martins

Crag Martins (Ptyonoprogne rupestris)

Minding my own business on the way up the steps to the office and suddenly have a shrill “CKREE” spiking the air just over my head. I look up, instinctively ducking and find I’m being dived at by a crag martin. Hold on, second bird coming in and … wo … zooming past angrily, not more than 2 inches from my head. Mad birds – weighing less than a cup of tea – trying to intimidate a giant who weighs … well, let’s just say, a bit more than that.

Over the last few years I’ve become intimately familiar with the crag martins, since they nest in the overhang just outside the office window. One of the pair I first saw doing so was recognisable as an individual as it was missing a primary feather – Gapfeather was a reliable summer visitor to the vineyard.

I say summer visitor – most crag martins in southern europe are resident, and I see them in winter in the countryside – they avoid the villages and towns. The nesting birds I’ve observed don’t stay where they breed outside of the season.

They are the most extraordinary fliers – gliding on updrafts beside the cliff-face of slate that is the building, sweeping away to sweep low over the vineyard and the rough ground beyond, going high with a quick flutter of the wings to chase one another over the tree tops. I wasn’t surprised to learn they are close relatives of barn swallows – their flight patterns much closer to them than the local busy fluttering of house-martins.

This year, alas, Gapfeather has not appeared. No surprise I’d seen him or her raising chicks over around 4 years – an impressive span for a small bird. This spring I saw more crag martins than ever. In March there were 4 or 5 regularly chasing through the sky, sometimes along with red-rumped swallows from below the track and even a swift or two. Maybe with Gapfeather gone the overhang was prime-real estate up for grabs, hence the competition.

The winning couple have been quick to defend their territory, but that’s typical for this bird. When a Woodchat Shrike that was stunned on the window was placed in the shade to recover the martins harrassed it mercilessly ’til we moved the bird. But then shrikes are predatory.

More farcically, one year a red-legged partridge got onto the roof. Its exploration led it to the corner above the nest site and I was entertained by the rage of the martins and the panicky clucking and flapping of the partridge. It took it a good while to get the message. Partridges have never struck me as the brightest of birds.

But back to this year – the active couple have had great success with 5 chicks to the brink of fledging. First there were nest repairs. Then fuzzy heads, which ducked when a shadow of movement was seen. Then adults sweeping in and 5 little heads popping up and demanding the food. Me! Me! Me! Me! Me! said the row of little gapes.

The feeding schedule was every 5 minutes or so during daylight. Lots more cheaping and fidgeting as the nest became over tight. Finally the first almost-fall flight and panicky return – leading the test flights.

Two nights ago I watched all five make hesitant flights above the balcony. I feel quite proud in a parental kind of way (as if I had anything to do with it). They are still being fed, in the nest and near it. They need to enjoy it while they can and get those wing muscles in trim. Before long I think there will be a new clutch to worry about – and their impatient parents will chase them off. I do hope next year one or two will return and set up a another nest site nearby – so I can enjoy being dive-bombed by more swooping birds.

Thinking about coming back next year?
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“You can’t kill chumba” … Prickly Pears and the Cochineal Beetle

‘Chumba’. As a walker I used not to like them. Trails past old bothys are horribly close to their vicious spines. One friend blundered his shoulder against them. The superficial scratches were nasty but the depth those thorns slid in was worse: an inch or more, with nothing but the dark end point showing. We had to tweezer the damn things out. And they’re everywhere on the lower hills. Prickly pears, I thought, were here to stay.

But now these resilient plants are being bled dry. The last few years banks of them have stopped looking smugly impregnable and started looking withered, whitened, weak. They’ve shrivelled. They seem to be covered in a sticky white foam. They look terrible. They die and look like haggard grey-wood sculptures to their former selves.

So what has happened? An illegal immigrant – an invasive bug. A fascinating and famous bug – the cocineal beetle (Dactylopius opuntiae). This is the scale bug whose crushed body, with a little calcium salt, is used to make the natural dye, carmine. It is (or certainly was) a significant contributor to the scarlet smear of lipsticks (now there is a lovely thought). Native, like the prickly pear, to south and central america it has arrived in Spain. Tourists notice the problem when clouds of white flies (the males) appear in the swimming pool or round the lamp and when swatted left a sticky red smear.The females, meanwhile, have their heads inserted into the plants, while the miniscule young hang in those white filaments which adorn the stricken plants, ready to be taken away by a gust of wind.

It seems … sad.

So what has happened? An illegal immigrant – an invasive bug. A fascinating and famous bug – the cocineal beetle (Dactylopius opuntiae). This is the scale bug whose crushed body, with a little calcium salt, is used to make the natural dye carmine. It is (or certainly was) a significant contributor to the scarlet smear of lipsticks (now there is a lovely thought). Native, like the prickly pear, to south and central america it has arrived in Spain. Tourists notice the problem when clouds of white flies (the males) appear in the swimming pool or round the lamp and when swatted left a sticky red smear.The females, meanwhile, have their heads inserted into the plants, while the miniscule young hang in those white filaments which adorn the stricken plants, ready to be taken away by a gust of wind.

It seems … sad.

I’ve come across a slightly hysterical blog complaining bitterly that the government will do nothing to save the cacti since the plant itself is an invasive species. I don’t know if that is true but I have also found articles saying some farmers are working with cocineal bugs in Lanzarote – harvesting them for carmine. Carmine is still big business – Peru exports something like 200 tonnes of the stuff. I’ve read articles saying that Spain has had occasional plagues of cocineal bugs for decades – and I certainly think it likely that the insects were introduced in the distant past. Given that it survives in South America but is dependant on the Prickly Pears there suggests that the Pears do come back after occasional plagues.

Now, walking past the corpses or withered sick stumps of the cacti I once disliked, I find myself missing them – or at least disliking the sight of their demise. Cacti are hardy in specific areas – drought resistant, heat resistant – but they grow in surprisingly limited locations, which leaves them vulnerable to change and human disruption. Here’s one cacti that travelled and adapted well – I just hope it has a trick up its spiky sleeve to come back from the white-death.

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A pair of Moths

I’ve recently found two lovely moths on the cement forecourt at the winery I work at. Both were alive but so dopey I was able to pick them up. Both got a bit of a photo-shoot since their discovery interrupted a tour – so 5 minutes of fame – before being putting into the scrub to (hopefully) recover.

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Caminito del Rey

Oh! It was awful! Horrible!

My friend Henry, on the famous Caminito del Rey. “I didn’t realise it was a one way thing so I couldn’t back out once we’d started. I tried not to look. You could see through between the planks all the way down to the rocks! Even looking ahead you saw nothing but the awful gorge … But then there was – that bridge – I thought I’d never get across. You couldn’t look down, but when you looked up – you saw vultures!”

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Route: Ups and Downs, Canillas de Albaida

The route. To see full screen click on map.

Difficulty: Medium (due to steep ground, not distance)

Distance: 2,5 Km

Good for: exercise! two fair downs, 2 steep ups on rugged paths, to get your heart racing and your lungs working! Great views of Canillas de Albaida, the mountains behind and the valley in front. Also good if you are short of time – it can be quick as long as you are willing to work.

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Ups and Downs

An autumn afternoon walk has limits. Daylight time is shorter anyway and in deep valleys disappears even quicker. It can be warm in the sun, but in those valleys it can be chilly so some steep uphill is good if it warms up you without killing you off! My original plan, in the middle of a November afternoon was hiking up the Cájula valley and to Salares, but Hannah, my companion, wanted something shorter as she had studies to get back to. However, she is a keen keep-fitter, though, agreed to do some ups and downs. Or vice versa.

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