Route: Sayalonga Ridge Walk

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Difficulty: Easy-Medium

Good Walk for: Staying on the flat (rare here): no steep climbs, only gentle downs, all on good track. Exposed to weather, so avoid on wild days or hot days: otherwise all year. Visiting each village. Views over the farmed valley

Distance:  7Km to Sayalonga;

Options: Detour to visit Bodegas Bentomiz, an excellent winery and restaurant (adds 0.5 Km, but worth it.

Continue reading Route: Sayalonga Ridge Walk


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.

Continue reading Short-toed Eagle


Heroic Orchids


Been getting the bus to work recently due. No one used to having a car at beck and call likes getting the bus, but it does have advantages. In my case the advantage is a 10 minute walk up a track between banks of fallow land. This may not seem like much of a gain considering the tiresome loss of independence (not to mention my stomach when Emilio is driving), but it is pure gold. After the frantic morning hour of getting self and family organised and out a perfect break into a silence noisy with birdsong: stonechat chipping away, flocks of goldfinch twittering, the cross wicker of a sardinian warbler. I’m afraid I can’t get photos – the overgrown olive groves on the higher bank are so overgrown the birds can laugh at me with abandon; I can only see glimpses. Still, I’m happy to hear them.

I walk slowly up, clearing my mind and looking at the weedy banks. They are unbelievably rich with moss – a bank of moss can be truly beautiful. The water from the recent rainfall doesn’t have a clear channel here so it seeps all through the bank enrich the plant-life. There are young giant fennel sprouting up, and alexanders. A few gorse bushes in flower, though no broom just here. The gorgeous french lavender is especially rich, early Spanish Vetchlings are coming out. And within the last week (my last carless, I hope) the orchids were in full flower.


I expected to see the Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula). This bank is the only place I see it; it’s here reliably every year and I greet it as an old friend.



Then I saw Pink Butterfly Orchid (Orchis papilionacea). This is the orchid I see most of within the valley, especially on the west side – the Cájula river valley, the Fogarate ridge – and it is a really beautiful flower, always a pleasure to show walkers new to the area.

I was a little surprised to see it this early – I expect late March-April and in looking this up had a surprise. The first was to discover that my nice family Pink Butterfly orchid is probably a heroic subspecies. The description (Kreutz, 1998) certainly fits: “O. papilionacea ssp. heroica has a shorter and wider egg-shaped inflorescence, besides bigger flowers and a rather, broad egg-shaped, light pink coloured lips”.

The second surprise was that plenty of sites were coming up with an entirely different name for the orchid. Not merely a different species name but a different genus, going from Orchis papilionacea to Anacamptis papilionacea. What?! Had I mis-id’d an orchid? Had someone rewritten the taxonomy? How many photos would I have to re-name? Turns out to be in dispute – the complex world of orchidology split by a modern attempt to reorder the genera causing great confusion. I greatly enjoyed a blog that described the conflict (A Hornet’s Nest) that is worth a read and relieved when the author concluded that he would be sticking to the old name. I wouldn’t need to revise all my photos anyhow.

All that was, of course, when I’d got home. But the Orchis papilionacea ssp heroica (that is absolutely what I am sticking with) was only halfway up the bank. I had one more surprise to come, a wonderful flower, the Woodcock Orchid (Ophrys scolopax). This I have only previously seen in the Cájula valley itself. It’s dark lobe reminds me of bee orchids, but the three pink sepals are unmistakable.

As I took the Woodcock shot my batteries packed up. Oh well, time for work. But half a dozen song birds, a short walk and orchids – not a bad start to the day.





Blade in the Sky

Kestrel, Falco tinnuculus, I see him most days: a silhouette against the clouds, a movement in the bright sky, a hunched shape on the electricity post. My first thought is falcon, to be rapidly filtered as I take in size, shape, speed, location, but even if I never get a clear view of the orange-brown back, one thing brings a species-name leaping to mind: he hovers on the wind.

Kestrels are a common birds of prey: they hunt confidently on so much small prey on road and waysides, field edges and motorways, that they can be overlooked. But the kestrel I see near where I work in Sayalonga is resident and I see him so often I feel connected to his hunting pattern. I work and he works, but his work is his life. José Manuel, Fauna SurThe demonstrations of falconer José Manuel, which I enjoyed in Salares in September, were a reminder to me of what I know of hawks and why they are never truly tame. Born to hunt, the bird’s drive to do so is an irresistible urge, whetted by hunger; it is the activity hardwired into the bird’s genetics, its nature. The falconer flies a hungry bird and it returns to the hand for one reward alone – meat. The fed bird won’t fly (or won’t return). So my  Sayalonga falcon’s endless patience in balancing above the vineyards and weeds to find finches, rodents, beetles or reptiles is driven by hard need.

Life’s not all about the belly though. When I walked from Saylonga to Cómpeta in September, a pair of the birds went tumbled through the air above the valley, catching each others claws and crying with hard high-pitched sharp calls, in courtship display. Romance!

800px-common_kestrel_falco_tinnunculus_andreas-trepte-www-photo-natur-deI can’t help romancing, either. He’s beautiful, my Sayalonga kestrel, from the gorgeous pattern of blue-black head and patterned brown-orange, to the endless grace of his movement in the sky. He turns into art in my head – Kes in the coalfields, Wart turned into a kestrel by Merlin in the Sword in the Stone. Shown below, Gerald Manley Hopkin’s beautiful poem The Windhover – which is the old English name for the kestrel – is a gloriously inflated piece of writing but it catches something of the raptor’s perfect grace. Yet for all this art, I know I’m getting carried away: I’m just watching another lovely bird flying over the hillside again.

The Windhover
To Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.




Grasses, SayalongaI remember a poem I read years and years ago by a writer commenting on how beautiful these plants are – on how we overlook their individual beauty because we see them only en-masse, in the lawn, the quilted field, the organised planting. I think his last line was

“Grasses, like people: trampled; beautiful.”

I see an outcrop of grasses almost every day at the mo. They have darkened from very pale cream to a purplish colour. Every day I am struck again by how very beautiful they are.

I would like to quote the full poem but, though I find Wordworth and Dickenson, Whitman and Pound on grass – I find no one noticing the individual plants and flowers, writing of grasses.

Grasses, Sayalonga


Views among the Villas

Lagartija sign, near SayalongaComing from Sayalonga to get to Cómpeta the shortest walking route given that you shouldn’t walk the main road, (it is neither pleasant nor safe) is the wide, well used track that runs along the top of this side of the valley ending at Portichuelo, one of the upper entrances to the second town. You can reach it by heading up the hill that rises on the right hand side from the main road to Cómpeta and is used by many to find a space to park; at the top the track goes left and winds on and on and on.

We went in the early afternoon – a bit hot for walking – but we were in no hurry, kicking up dust on the quiet road, enjoying the views, admiring the villas. These are rural lands, alternating between small farms or country houses bedded in among the vineyards and olive groves and little knots of (often) foreign owned villas, many of which are beautiful.

If you go left at the ‘Lagarjita’ lizard sign, you join the track that winds down to Bodegas Bentomiz. This is the home of the gorgeous Ariyanas wines and is worth a visit – they do almost daily tours and wine-tastings, as well as an elegant restaurant serving wine-centred lunches. We went the other way – up and on to reach the ridge and continue towards Cómpeta.

Grapes in the raisin-beds
The vines leaves are just taking a hint of yellow as we head into autumn, but the grapes were still being dried into raisins in the white-walled paseros, darkening to a rich sweet red. vineyards in the valleyLooking across the valley the breadth and depth of this ridged and channelled land striking. It is easy to forget how long and deeply this region has been farmed and, eager to reach the natural park, miss the beauty of the vineyards and olive groves on all hands.


We reached the ridge, opposite Corumbela, with wonderful views of Cómpeta and Canillas de Albaida ahead.

Canillas and Cómpeta




Our route was enlivened by a pair of kestrels in airborne courtship display: we heard the sharp cries, saw them tangle in midair, land briefly and then they flew again.

In these tamed lands you are not likely to see anything wildly unfamiliar, but the garden escapes mixing with wayside plants are very pretty. And Cómpeta is more beautiful than ever in the evening light.dscf7113







The Crash

This is a story from Clara of Bodegas Bentomiz, the excellent winery found in the countryside 5 minutes or so from Sayalonga. Their lovely building is clad in slate, complete with balcony and overhangs, so Crag Martins have taken it for a lovely big crag and built their nest there, raising chicks each year. Every day Clara sees them swooping past her office.

Crag Martin at the nest
Crag Martin at the nest

Yesterday they seemed to be agitated but Clara was busy working and so did not investigate until a bird crashed into the window. This happens now and again; sometimes the bird is just stunned and recovers; sometimes they have sadly broken their neck. Clara picked up the little body – a small bird, not a martin, black and white with a red-brown head. She was not sure if it would live or die but put it on the balcony, hoping it would recover.

Then she noticed that the Crag Martins were flying at the crash-victim – mobbing it, as if hoping to force it from ‘their’ ledge. This year’s young Crag Martin is already a chunky flyer, but perhaps the bird was too close to their nest for their comfort. Clara took it out onto the terrace at the back of the building, well away from the martins.

However, the bombardment did not stop. To her astonishment, Clara found they were still flying at the bird, even while she was there. It seems strange that such a small bird could seem so threatening to them. As  it began, at last, to recover she took these photographs:

photos, Clara Verheij
photos, Clara Verheij

20160619_photo Clara Verheij


This handsome bird is a Woodchat – specifically a Woodchat Shrike, a species I haven’t previously seen here and know little about.

What surprised both Clara and me was the aggression of the Crag Martins; the Shrike may have flown into the window in the first place because of them mobbing it.  Aware that I am ignorant about shrikes, I looked them up on Wikipedia and this sentence sprang out:

eats large insects, small birds and amphibians

How could such a small bird eat such big prey? Well, it turns out the Shrike is the butcher bird: it impales its prey on thorns, barbed wire or any other handy spike to eat fragments off as they loosen and come back for more the next day – a meat larder – which may help them tackle beasts they can’t gulp down.

Given that it was about the same size of as the martins I can’t imagine the bird attacking an adult and can only guess they feared for future nestlings and wanted to beat the stranger out of town to be on the safe side.

This time they failed though. The Woodchat flew up onto the roof, rested for another quarter hour and then flew off, possibly blowing a raspberry at the martins on the way past. They were happier though – they had ‘their’ balcony back.

Crag Martins at Bodegas Bentomiz
Crag Martins at Bodegas Bentomiz


With thanks to Clara Verheij of Bodegas Bentomiz for the photos and story.