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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May Day walks

Unexpected chance to go walking with some lovely people on May day and the day after. It was a treat and we had lovely weather for it.

The first day was on the silk route, so called because it is one of two routes to the Puerto de Cómpeta – the pass between Sierra Almijara and Sierra Tejada into Granada province. The silk industry flourished in Al-Andalus from the 9th century and the Axarquía has a climate ideal for mulberry trees, so silkworm coccoons (and many other things) were traded using this route and  Granada silk was brought back for export from Torrox, the closest harbour.

Spanish broom

This walk, open with views all the way down to the coast (where you can glimpse Torrox Costa), also gives you stunning views of the dramatic Sierra Almijara. In May the scene is splashed with the bright yellow of Spanish Broom, spilling down the hillside. And beside the path, everywhere you looked there were flowers.

Linaria amoi, Axarquia Toadflax
Grey-leaved Rock Rose
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I was interested to see the difference, between two types of Jerusalem Sage . I rarely see the yellow ‘Wooly’ Jerusalem Sage, while the purple variety is everywhere. Nice to see the latter’s furry visitor, too.

Phlomis purpurae, Purple Jerusalem Sage, with visiting bee
Phlomis lanata, Wooly Jerusalem Sage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pinecone Thistle, Leuzea conifera

 

One of the other walkers spotted this young pinecone thistle too, a curious looking item but very distinctive.

 

 

We walked to the Venta Pradillos, which was once a fair sized Inn, with it’s own terraces, spring, stabling and threshing circle. Sadly, in the 40s the Civil Guard, in an effort to quash the last resistance to Franco, closed it and took the roof off to make it unusable, but it is in the most beautiful spot imaginable.  You can just see it here among the pines. It makes a wonderful spot for a picnic.

That, in fact, seemed to be something everyone agreed on. As we headed back we were met by a couple of Spaniards, then a small party of British walkers, then a large party of very friendly Irish walkers and finally a Danish family (the girl was afraid of our gentle but friendly dog) – all coming the other way and heading for the venta. I felt rather smug that we had got there first!

 

I generally prefer circular walks but there are advantages to a linear walk in a landscape this dramatic. The reverse view can be surprisingly different. Coming back the rocky outcrop of the Atalaya rose above us.

The turtle

I pointed out that Atalaya looks like a planetary land turtle, that has swum up from the molten core all the way through the outer layers of rock and soil to take a quick gulp of air at the surface. You can even see the lower jaw. Imagine my surprise when other walkers thought it looked more like a camel, or even an owl. It’s quite obvious to me that it is a turtle (I am typing this after a couple of glasses of wine, though).

The most exciting wildlife on the walk was only seen by a few of our us. Neil spotted Ibex running up a slope – probably to get away from Sybil, the lovely dog we had with us. They blend in so well that we wouldn’t have seen them unless they were running, so Sybil did us a favour.

That said we did see a wolf. Well… I saw a hole beside the footpath with a little network of needles and stones around the entrance. Easy to overlook, but I had seen this before. I teased a pine-needle into the doorway a little and was rewarded, by the home-maker’s brief appearance: a wolf spider. Is a wolf spider more exciting than ibex?

Wolf Spider, Lycosa tarantula

These are impressive spiders and can be quite big, so I was all the more surprised to say hello to another, smaller specimen, the following day near Sedella. Perhaps a male (they’re smaller) looking for a mate.

 

That was another fabulous walk. We took a turn around the town (Sedella is very attractive) before heading up to the old Mill, where you can see system for milling with water from the open water tank at the back to the channelling system for bringing it in and the old grind stones within the building itself. We strolled up from here to where the track splits beside a building for water purification, with the sensible party heading off to the picnic site and the rest of us heading over to the old hide where we looked out on what had been the vulture sanctuary and, as usual, saw no birds.

Spotted Rock-Rose, Tuberaria guttata
Umbrella Milkwort, Tolpis barbata

Wonderful flowers though. I was pleased to see both Spotted Rock Rose and Umbrella Milkwort, which someone had once i.d. for me the wrong way round causing me great confusion.

walkers at Sedella’s picnic ground

Then we went to the picnic site and re-joined the others. There’s one vulture there who is reliably available and readily posed for photographs.

Sadly the site has been paved, which is probably good for access but for my taste diminishes it: I liked the wooden tables and benches under the pines, with pine-needles underfoot. These are on the way out – the benches are mostly rotten – which seems a pity. Still, perched on a wobbly bench, eating our sandwiches, we watched a pair of eagles floating across the valley with great delight. A couple of us saw Sardinian Warblers and we all saw Serins and Goldfinches, but the eagles were the stars of the day.

Shorted-toed (Snake) Eagle & Booted Eagle. Photo from Never mind the finnsticks.

I was a bit cautious giving i.d.s because (I hate to say this) I hadn’t taken my binoculars (Ow! just kicked myself). Also on the silk route Maddy and Neil told me they’d seen 5 eagles (five!) eagles the day before – they were two pairs of Short-toed (Snake) Eagles, and then a fifth later on. Again they were told Short-toed, but were surprised: the bird seemed smaller and had a very clear white body and wings with an outer rim of black. Now, I know how very easy it is to reach for your first gut-instinct i.d. (especially something you have just seen) without thinking and then be embarrassed by a mistake – I’ve done it myself – but this sounds very much like a Booted Eagle to me. Size usually gives it – Snake Eagles head up towards a 6 foot wingspan; even Booted females aren’t much more than 4 foot. But having confirmed this on one day I didn’t want to get something wrong on the next.

Bonelli’s Eagle. Photo Dharani Prakash

The first eagle we saw while walking: a seriously big bird. I didn’t think it was as big as an adult Golden (around 7 foot wingspan!); I thought this was probably another Snake Eagle was best guess on balance of probability. But the two eagles that played out for us by the picnic ground for some 20 minutes seemed to me to be smaller – definitely bigger than the petite Booted, but not convincing me as Snake Eagles unless they were juveniles. The only bird that I have seen in the area that fits this would be a Bonneli’s Eagle – certainly a possibility. But I have to say, at that distance without binoculars, an educated guess is all you do.

 

Full of picnic we went down to the main road on the zigzag path. At one point there are hives on a sidetrack and someone had dangerously put one up on the main track (not heard of anaphylactic shock?). But mostly I enjoyed saying hello to lots of small pollinators, not to mention butterflies and crickets. The best of all were new to me – a gorgeous pair of antlion relatives with the lovely name of Owly Sulphurs. What better way to finish a wilding walk?

Owly Sulphers, Libelloides coccajus

 

 

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