(with thanks to Bodegas Bentomiz for generous time on their grounds)
What’s in a vineyard?
Vines, of course!
And one or two wild things, too!
It is hardly surprising, hopping about the Malaga hills, that I happen on vineyards. It’s part of the territory; vines have been grown here for at least 3000 years (the Phoenicians were at it).
Our vineyards look wierd to wine buffs: instead of 10 or 20 hectares of climbers, growing on wires in straight lines we have up to 3 hectares of a thick low trunks – vine stumps – planted higgledy-piggledy on the steep terraces. In early spring when the ground’s cleared and the vines trimmed it looks as if someone’s hammered great wooden pegs in to mark out the slope. Come April those trunks throw out a thick bush of leaves that shade the flowers and fruit. That’s the point, of course – the plant shades its own fruit which stops our mad Spanish sun from frying the fruit dry before it is ripe.
The small vineyards are as much down to topography as anything else: after a couple of hectares there’s always another gully in this deeply dissected landscape. That means unfarmed slices of land. When this is combined with a few rental villas (with unfarmed land) or the occasional abandoned vineyard or olive grove there is yet more wild space. And best of all, some viticulturalists (grape-growers, that is) do not use herbicides or pesticides on their land. They may weed in spring when the vines are fruiting, but in winter the weeds don’t matter and can be left alone – to the very great benefit of wildlife. So, visiting Bodegas Bentomiz, for example, you find a vineyard that is full wild things. And lately it’s been chock-a-block with small birds.
All autumn the birds in the vineyards drove me crackers. We had some heavy rains early autumn then long warm dry spell. The weeds went crazy – flowers everywhere in the Axarquia’s lovely second spring. Then there were seedheads side-by-side with more flowers – so many that white fluff was blowing down the paths. The seed-eaters were very happy indeed. To be fair, the weather was pretty good for insects too – but this month a single day of steady rain brought more out and about yet and suddenly there were warblers as well as finches at the party.
I have my own particular friend – a reliable female black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros), that flirts and bobs her tail at me from the same terrace wall whenever I pass by. And this autumn winter round the vineyards I’ve seen the ‘ordinary’ English garden birds
robin, blackbird, song thrush. I’ve also seen the rather less common blue rock thrush, and the marvellous hoopoe, though none since early autumn.
I’ve seen goldfinches – flocks and flocks of them, gorging on thistle down – as well as great tits, blue tits, serin, chaffinch, northern greenfinch, stone chat, black cap, black redstart, wheatear, tree-creeper. (Okay, the tree-creeper was on a pine near the vineyard, not in it). Stone chats are frequent visitors. But I’ve also seen a lot of warblers – that much is easy to say. But while the Sardinian warbler (bless it’s cotton socks) is a synch to i.d., telling
the willow from the chiffchaff from the melodious from the olivaceous … very tricky. Song is a clue of course – I’ve certainly heard melodious once and chiffchaffs often but not, surprisingly, willow warblers.
And then there are larks. I have seen larks with crests, but were they crested larks (Galerida cristata) or thekla larks (Galerida theklae)? Were the none-crested a greater short-toed larks or a lesser short-toed larks? Were they larks at all? Have I gone mad yet?
Flocking to the feast
They came in gossiping, fluttering, squabbling flocks for the feast. They talked together in the pine trees before getting down to the ground and back again. They flew from one side of the road to the other past my car. And they always did it when:
- I didn’t have my camera
- I did have my camera but the battery had just gone
- I did have my camera and batteries and had nearly (but not quite) got them in focus…
I swear they do it on purpose. They know that until my ship comes in I will not have a professional, expensive SLR with manually adjustable shutter-speed to rapid-fire at a moving target and a zoom as long as a cannon. And they are revelling in taking advantage of it.
This is only a simple variant of the most familiar birds on the game the really tricky little buggers – warblers and such, so difficult to differentiate – like to play. You haven’t got your binoculars? I’ll stay put really close (but not close enough). You have your binoculars? I’ll sit against the sun. You are driving and can’t stop – here I am!
This was less of a problem for me pre-Christmas – my years old binoculars had disappeared somewhere on a valley walk in the summer. Now though, they can start again. Binos for my xmas present: game on. Just wait til the spring migration starts!
(click on the pictures to expand)