End of Aestivation

Took this shot of a snail while out on Tuesday. This snail is still in “aestivation” the state of dormancy snails here use to outlast the heat. Slugs and snails are not ones to appreciate a really hot summer, so they skip the whole thing, sealing themselves into their shell with a thick mucuous membrane.

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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

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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.

.

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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Sedella

Popn: approx 670

Sedella lies south of the main bulk of La Maroma, the great mountain of the Sierra Tejeda, which rises dramatically above this attractive village. Like all the villages it is not far from water – the Rio de la Fuente passes just to the east. It is surrounded, on lower slopes especially, with farmed lands but to the north you are immediately into the natural park. Molino MontosaWalking routes bring you to the Water channels above Molino MontosaMolino Montosa, an attractive old mill; go above it and you find first a clear demonstration of the water system and then the reservoir used to supply it.

 

From the mill you can go on to the ‘buitrería’ – this was a vulture sanctuary for injured birds. There is still a birders’ hide, but this is essentially obsolete since the resident birds that were fed here (leading to visits from large flocks of wild vultures) have now died. I still live in hope of seeing what a friend once witnessed: a flock of more than 20 taking off from the bank below the hide. Failing this I can always head to a small picnic site, to round off this nice walk with an encounter with a vulture that is always happy to pose for photos.

Sedella’s neighbours are the nearby Árchez, which is easy walking distance (see Silk to Salt) and the more distant Canillas de Aceituno (though Canillas de Albaida is actually closer).

Sedella wall mosaic, with an illustrated text about Malaga’s silk industry during the Nazari period

I have heard different accounts of the origins of the town’s name: a Cómpeta couple told me years ago that it derives from silk, the Spanish word being ‘seda’. Silk production was a significant industry here during Muslim times. However, other sources say different. Guide writer Hilary Gavilan, Andalucia.com, and the Diputación all mention the Latin word Sedilia, meaning rural possession as a possible name source. The latter two also mention Sedille as used by the Visigoths. Then there is the fact that, post-reconquest, it was referred to as Xedalia (an Arabic word, surely). Finally there is a long-standing tradition that the Catholic Queen Isabela created the place name on being told of a battle that took place nearby, when she said, “Sé de ella“, which means I know about it. No mention, it seems of silk. Perhaps the ‘seda’ in Sedella is mere coincidence.

I can wholeheartedly agree with Gavilan’s assessment of the town in her book The Axarquia, East of Málaga: “a delightful village with interesting alleyways and narrow streets. Well worth exploring”. Like so many of these villages there are lovely streets, attractive metalwork balconies and unexpected views.

As well as walks to the Puente Romano, the Molino Montosa or the Buitrería, there is great pleasure in just strolling through the streets. There is church and chapel – the Chapel de Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza has a forecourt built with embedded stones in front of it, an old threshing circle. The little townhall is in an attractive square, just near the bus stop. There are several attractive and interesting mosaics in this square giving explanations of the towns history. There is also the old public wash-house, with the spring waters that come down from the sierra filtered through a dozen sinks. I imagine the centuries of work that would have been done by the town’s women here – hand washing all, linen, all garments, all fabrics – and in a climate like this, they would have needed endless washing. No more though: it has now been turned into a mini garden, decorated and full of plants. With such a simple adaptation they turn the utilitarian into an unexpected attraction.

Facilities

Centro de Visitantes (with parking for mules)

Centro de Visitantes

This is the visitors centre for the Natural Park and an attractive facility with good displays, maps, explanations, and even some conference rooms for visits from the great and good, as well as toilets and a little shop. I wish it were open a little more, but it is worth taking a look round.

 

Restr. Lorena, Sedella

Cafes/Restaurants

Restaurante Lorena is the only one I’ve eaten in here, being served good, traditional local food, though the boars’ heads displayed don’t appeal. The owners, who cure their own cheese and ham, are very pleasant, in spite of being Real Betis fans (I’m Malaga, of course).

On the same street (Villa del Castillo) there are two others, Chiringuito and Meson de Franco, which seems like a well-set up bar. In the Plaza, near the San Andrés Apostol church, there is also a bar. It is pretty basic but I’ve been perfectly happy to enjoy a beer or two here after a long walk.

Fiestas & Events

January 17th: Fiesta de San Antón. Like the Canillas de Albaida fiesta (also the 17th) there is a procession followed by the blessing of animals that have been part of the procession.

Easter: several sources say that the Easter celebrations in Sedella are particularly deeply felt and so attractive to watch.

August: Celebration of the Day of Our Lady of Hope (to whom the chapel is dedicated)

 

Also of interest

Walk route: Silk & Salt – from Sedella to Salares (or vice versa)

History of Sedella

Blue Colour of the Sky, Sedella

in Spanish:

Subida a Sierra Tejada

Do you know Sedella? Have I missed anything? Feel free to let me know – add a comment of email me at grasshopper@wildingmalaga.com with additions or corrections.

 

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Day out in Malaga

MálagaMalaga city is sometimes overlooked by visitors. It is the drop-off for the tide of tourists the sun brings to the Costa del Sol: they arrange their transfers to Torremolinos or Fuengirola, leaving as soon as they arrive. Those who loathe the packed beaches and Union-Jack bars associate them with the city’s name and shudder. Those who aren’t out for beach, bar and booze often head off into hills or on to other places, other provinces.

Malaga Port
Malaga Port

But such people are missing out. Malaga is a brilliant city to visit, even just for a day visit. The port has been refurbished, making it an very attractive centre point, with some good bars and restaurants, a feris wheel, and easy access to the central shopping area of Calle Larios and many of the arts centres.

Museo Pompidou
Museo Pompidou

Malaga is art-rich. Not surprisingly, the Picasso museum gets most of the attention, but the port also boasts the only Pompadou centre outside of France, it’s unforgettable ‘cube’ drawing the eye. For a more traditional museum try the Maria Thyssen – its got a good range of Spanish artists and is well set out. There are still other places to visit – a dolls house museum, for example, or the astonishing “Museo Automovilistico” – a car museum, which also displays haute couture fashion and hats!

The art is wonderful but Malaga – such an old city – would be enriched by a really good history museum. I’ve yet to find anything that plugs this gap here or elsewhere: history does not seem to be celebrated much. Perhaps it is because there is so much that it is taken for granted. There is a certain Spanish reluctance to look at recent history, for reasons connected to the agony of the civil war. Perhaps there is also a feeling that, since the Al-Andaluz heritage is all around us, and there’s the Gibralfaro still to be seen on top of the hill, ancient history (not to mention the bits in between ancient and modern) does not need explaining. This is a great pity of course, but I take comfort in the fact that the Gibralfaro certainly is splendid – a dramatic Roman ampitheatre at the foot, a glorious walk up the hill, a mini-Alhambra at the top: fantastic!

Gibralfaro, photo andreisandreis, malaga 14

Gibralfaro, photo andreis

Varekai, the Cirque de Soleil in MalagaThere’s always something on in Malaga, from the incredible week long fiesta in August, to theatre works, musical shows, special events at the Palacio deportivo or concerts, conferences and exhibitions at the Palacio de Ferias y Congresos. I don’t get out  as often as I’d like, but I vividly remember the Cirque de Soleil I saw here at the start of the year – an incredible performance – or the very strange Russion Army Ballet on at the theatre one Christmas – or the Dinopeatra! exhibition caught a few years ago (just a big kid really!).

Malaga black squirrel
Malaga black squirrel!

Red squirrelWildlife here is city wildlife, of course. You see fish in the port, pigeons in the town, plants and flowers in the gardens. Linear park, MalagaThe parks are lovely though a little sparse – I like the linear park alongside the coast. But it is always worth keeping your eyes open. I have seen squirrels here – red squirrels, I believe, though the colour seems much closer to black on first sight. I’ve found no reference on the internet to a black squirrel! Parakeets (the noisy buggers) love the palms. I uSeagull, Malaganderstand Parakeets are taking over the south of England, but they seem so much more of a natural presence when there are palm trees for them to squabble and nest in. Occasional raptors glide overhead on the thermals. It doesn’t make town a wildlife paradise, but even pigeons and seagulls are wild birds; they are simply common enough to be overlooked. They, too, can be beautiful: look how they bring a fountain to life!

 

Pigeons, Malaga city

 

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A Prickly Problem

The thistle-like flower

Yesterday I walked from Salares back to Finca El Cerrillo with some lovely people who are staying there. Someone asked me, as we came to the end, what a sea of lilac thistles were called and I was ready with the answer – Carduncellus Caeruleus. Then I looked closer and they weren’t.

Prickly stem

Spanish Oyster Plant
Spanish Oyster Plant

Thistles are common here. They fit in. In lands with long droughts the juicy stems and leaves of plants are asking to be eaten: prickles are the obvious defence. We have brambles of course, gorse, prickly juniper, prickly pear and the invading agave cacti are happy and healthy. The spikes on every side make summer walking (when wearing jeans is unbearably hot) interesting: I generally choose shorts anyway but I know I will come back bearing scars!

And thistles, as you would expect are so common you take them for granted. Big base rosette of white and green thistle leaves? Milk Thistle. Unbelievably vicious, vigorous tall spike? Spanish Oyster Plant. Lilac thistle flower? Carduncellus Caeruleus (CC for short). I had stopped actually looking. And that’s a terrible thing to do!

Carduncellus Caeruleus (beside a vine)
Carduncellus Caeruleus (beside a vine)

The plant I saw yesterday had the same lilac-coloured petals in a typical thistle head, a central disk of small yellow petals, and a bulbous, thistle-like bract supporting the flower. The disk told me it wasn’t CC) but more importantly it lacked a fundamental of thistles. Where were the spines? The only leaves I could locate were small lance-shaped stem leaves – not the familiar lobed, thorn-edged variety. I realised, with some embarrassment that I had been walking half the spring past a swathe of flowers I could not name. This one had to be hunted down!

Two books and one website later I was getting a bit prickly myself. I could not find something that was so like a thistle that wasn’t a thistle. At a certain point I decided Centurea Pullata looked likely and foolishly tweated this pre-checking. Unfortunately Centurea Pullata has lots of leaves crowding up the plant stems.

It was La Flor de Málaga (Antonio Miguel Pérez Ortigosa) – the only flower book on my book shelf specific to the province – that finally gave me the clue I needed. and invaluable for clues on a hard to track plant. The detailed photos of Cyanopsis muricata looked identical to my mystery thistle. Following links and checking websites suggest that it is in the sunflower family, is of North African origin and is also known as Centaurea muricata, Volutarella muricata and (my favourite) Morocco knapweed. But I’m happy this is it. And I have learnt two useful things:

  1. Don’t forget to look again at what you think you already know: you might be surprised.
  2. Never tweet before you checked!

 

A verge full of Moroccan Knapweed
A verge full of Moroccan Knapweed
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Bugs

Very fond of bugs, among which are some of nature’s most peculiar beasties. I like them because they are strange and interesting, I like them because I can get quite often catch them on camera, I like them because, like the mountain, they are there!

A couple of years ago I saw these lovely Dock Leaf Bugs – dozens of them, mating or looking for a partner on a few leaves by the river – in the Cájula Valley.

I was with a group of walkers and commented, “I think I can promise this is the only group sex you will see on the walk!” Not a line I often get to say!

A few bugs seem to be named for their shape from the Shield Bugs like this one:

Hairy Shield bug, Dolycoris baccarum
Hairy Shield Bug

To the marvellously named “Rhombic Leatherbug” – I think of it more as diamond shaped – which I saw on a window the other day.

Rhombic Leatherbug, Syromastus rhombeus

Then you get creatures that are just very odd like the jumping bristletail, which I often see on house walls around the town. I know it is not a true bug – true bugs have a “stylet”, a straw-like mouth to suck juices out of plants (or blood out of animals in the case of, say, bedbugs) – but it is a curious wingless insect and I’m including it in this blog!

Jumping Bristletail
Jumping Bristletail

 

Now I have a puzzle and – sorry about this – a bit more sex (only one pic!). This spring, as every year I have seen the BlackandRed bugs I have long identified as ‘Lygaeus’, specifically Lygaeus equestris. It is an attractive little book and very common during the spring to see on the stony paths or in the vineyards as per the pair mating in one of the pictures below.

In the vineyard next to my work they have recently been weeding and I took the opportunity to wander up with my camera to see what had been disturbed. Initially I thought the only creatures visible were disturbed ants getting very agitated…their movement drew the eye but in the photo they are hard to see – there are at least 9 here if you can find them!

Black ants...can you see them?
Black ants…can you see them?

Then I saw a nervous, rather handsome bug trying to avoid contact with the ants. Having seen one I realised there were half a dozen in the area. What were they?

Spilostethus pandurus, bug nymph_BB_2016 (4)

I struggled to i.d. it and, after failing with books and general searches, got onto ispotnature, the Open University site, and Natural History Museum’s NaturePlus. Both are helpful and interesting sites, both came back with a suggested i.d: the nymph of the Spilostethus pandurus bug.

Nymphs are junior bugs, a common feature of insect life-cycles: it is the same, as it happens, for grasshoppers: egg turns into tiny nymph but as the exo-skeleton doesn’t allow for growth once it has hardened (which it does rapidly) the next stage is a moult, producing a bigger nymph. Followed by a bigger nymph again … this can go on and on in some species … followed, eventually, by an adult. It is like this:

Grasshopper lifecycle

In some insects the nymphs look identical to the adult, in others they are radically different. I didn’t know the Spilostethus pandurus that, apparently, my nymphs would become so I looked it up. And got a shock. It looked exactly like the bugs I’d designated Lygaeus equestris.

How could I have missed this? See what you think. Here are pictures of the two species taken from Wikipedia.

Lygaeus_equestris
Lygaeus_equestris
Spilostethus pandurus
Spilostethus pandurus

 

 

 

 

 

To me the colour – red or orange – is the only obvious visible difference. It does suggest that, annoyingly, I shall have to re-designate my familiar redandblack bugs from Lygaeus to Spilostethus, which is harder to say. It is true; the orange coloured bug is what I normally see.

I’m left feeling rather less smug about my bug-knowlege, and wondering what else I might have i.d.’d incorrectly.

With a bit of luck I’ll see some more interesting nymphs – and find out.

 

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