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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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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La Maroma

La Maroma (photo Karen Spencer)

La Maroma is my constant backdrop. The edge of the Axarquia includes the intersection of two mountain ranges The easterly range is the Sierra Almijara with its spiky peaks and steep valleys. This range is rising due to tectonic plate pressure from the south. Then there is the Sierra Tejada, a limestone range of mountains thrust up ages upon ages ago from the sea-floor – rocks formed deep below the waves now rise up to make long whale-backed ridges. This range is, milimetre by milimetre, losing height but is the higher of the two. The biggest mountain in it is  Maroma, a great ridge of stone above the high green hills, with it’s south side, our side, patterned with dramatic cliffs. It’s highest point is at the western end, 2,068m high.

I’ve climbed it before, coming from Canillas de Aceituno and enduring a steep climb and bitterly cold strong winds. Exciting but exhausting. So when a visiting friend said, emphatically, that he wanted to do Maroma and nothing else would do, I decided to come from the other side, going from Fogarate, working up to the high meadows at about 1100m, then tackling the main ridge east to west.

We set out early on a beautiful day: bright and clear and the six of us were buzzing to be off. We saw the black-and-white swirl of hoopoes’ wings in the pine woods on the forest path, which zigzags, deeply rutted, steeply uphill, and opens now and again to glorious views.

Approach from high meadows

On the high meadows there’s a small herd of feral horses – friends have seen them on Maroma itself – but they weren’t interested in us. They lifted their heads, stared, snorted and turned their backs. This big green field, the end of the long grassy ridge that rises from the pine forest, felt like Base Camp.

Looking to the south west I could see the land on the other side of Lake La Viñuela, with specks of the villages – Comares, Cútar, Benomacarra. On the other side I noticed the round humped cushions of Hedgehog Broom, looking attractively soft and comfortable.

View north east

They are quite the opposite. A friend told me they are known as Monk’s Cushion because it’s a penance to sit on them: the stiff leaves make rigid sharp spikes.

Early flowers

But Hedgehog Broom also sums it up. Its prickly hummocks swell out of the rocks all over the mountain. In full bloom they are a gorgeous lilac blue making up for the brutal spikes around the flowers. Beautiful. Provided that you don’t sit on them, of course.

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Now we were off. The rocky path to a bleaker landscape was before us. With little plant cover, extremes of weather and a trail leading through and over outcrops of weathered rock the landscape is immensely dramatic and a touch bleak. It couldn’t have been more beautiful.

I loved the swirling lines you see sweeping across the ridge, made I guess by fault lines in the rock affecting the pattern of plant growth.

lines on the landscape

 

Drought dominates the plants here: although this mountain catches every cloud much rainfall sinks through the rock or runs off. And in summer there are months without rainfall and, even up here, baking temperatures. So the norm is small plants and small-leaved plants, often protecting themselves from grazers with spines and spikes, such as the brooms, thistles and gorse. The only trees are are pines.

Rhodedendron
Stone trough

However, we passed a stone water trough, which must be filled by a local spring, the water dribbling out and down a little narrow gully. In this tiny narrow spot, and here only, there were water loving plants like rhodedendron, brambles, hellibore and the like.

Brambles

The trough may once have been a watering point for mules brought to collect ice from the mountain – it was packed into a well or caves in winter and hacked out in summer by men who descended on ropes of woven grass called ‘maroma’ – that’s where the name came from, or so I am told. There would have been quite a market for ice in the summer! It must have been tough work and the race against the inevitable melting of the ice frustrating or dangerous but for centuries ice in Malaga’s summer would be water in the desert and worth the effort. 

 

View of Granada

The views on this day were superb. We were lucky: it was not (quite) too hot and since heat makes everything hazy we were delighted – stunning views of a glorious landscape all around. As we worked up onto the saddle (the low dip at the eastern end of the stony ridge) we could see right across the plain of Granada, with a glimpse or two of the blue surface of Los Bermejales, the reservoir,

The Sierra Nevada

and far beyond were mountains with clouds at their feet, the snow-capped Sierra Nevada among them. Looking back to the south east I could see the dramatic outline of our own Sierra Almijara, spiky marble peaks vying with each other, their colours shaded subtly from black to grey to blue.

 

Sierra Almijara

 

Neil who is an artist would stop to paint the view in his sketch book at the drop of a walking stick. He has done this in the Alps and Nepal and astonished me by the speed with which he could capture the scene before us.

Neil Pittaway, sketching

 

 

 

 

 

 

The path headed down to the north, just enough to dip towards the pine woods growing up the slope. These woods are growing far higher than they do on the exposed south side, but may exist partially due to planting: we passed fenced areas filled with what looked like tree guards, though there weren’t any seedlings. Perhaps our very dry spring has lead to a failed planting.

Pines

 

As we came up away from the pines we heard red-billed choughs calling and saw a pair. We kept hearing them now and again while we were on the ridge and above the cliffs saw a small flock dipping and floating in the void. I also saw a couple of larks, probably Thekla larks and, right on the summit, a wheatear. Otherwise birds seemed rather absent – the constant twitter of little flocks of goldfinches or siskins that you hear on the lower slopes was missing.

The most dramatic point of the ridge is not the summit itself but the point at which the path comes close to the south-side cliffs. It is not difficult – basic common sense will keep you safe – but you see instantly why the mountain top could be a dangerous place in bad weather.

       

There was still a way to go to the summit from the cliffs, though. I tried not to stop too often to hunt shots of lizards and flowers to avoid being left far behind and needing to jog to keep up. It is the burden of the wilding geek – to do the very best long walks in good company sometimes you have to put the camera away. This was especially important as we were beginning to see other walkers on the trail. In fact, due to a short rest near the cliffs (with me taking photographs, Neil painting and sensible people have a snack) we were – horror of horrors – overtaken. Some walkers are like storm troopers, but you don’t see the views or the wildlife. So, no sour grapes at all, then, when I say “I bet the walkers who beat us didn’t enjoy it as much as us!”

 

  

Finally we reached the summit. I’ve previously said it is like the surface of the moon to indicate a dramatic, broad, barren landscape. It was magnificent but felt, in the hot sunshine, less isolated than in that windswept November. There are shallow stone rings, likely where people put tents up on  midsummer’s eve (yes, really, people come up to spend the shortest night up here) and we took one over to picnic. There is a sign to indicate the presence of the snow-gatherers’ well (a hole in the ground) and a great pillar as Trig. Point, with a couple of plaques cemented to it in memory of deceased walkers and with steel rungs on the side by which it can be climbed. This inevitably means that a queue of walkers head up and down for photos and views. It was a pity that by this time the heat had drawn up more of a haze and faint skeins of cloud were gently drifting over.

Final furlong
Still a glimpse of Sierra Nevada

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t judge the people climbing the pillar (in fact I climbed it myself) or taking selfies or asking for group shots. The cameraderie you get in a gang of walkers who’ve done a tough walk to this fabulous summit – perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime event – merits celebration. We gathered for our own grinning group shot but it was on Jon’s camera so I can’t post it here.

Heat haze
Trig point

After lunch it was time to head back; we did the walk as a linear jaunt, but on the second leg we were very much relaxed and glad we had been earlier rather than the herds of walkers now heading up (probably no more than a dozen, but still). We enjoyed another brief sojourn at the cliff edges. I am not a climber and am fairly cautious but am deeply grateful I don’t suffer from vertijo, which could stop me enjoying scenes like these.

In addition to more choughs, lizards, and lots of tiny flowers on the way back I especially enjoyed finding a fellow grasshopper, (orange, with a ridged pronotum) attempting to hide in asphodel leaves. I have yet to i.d. it. But you know me, I love a challenge.

And then we were down and heading, with aching feet, weary muscles, and a touch of sunburn, for a few beers at El Curros in Árchez. It was generally agreed to have been a brilliant day: good walking, great views, good company. Special thanks to Steve Gilkes, and everyone else. Next time you want to do a mountain, Jon, just give me a shout!

 

Sketch from Maroma by Neil Pittaway
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