I see our resident Crag Martins all year. They are the only martins I’ve seen here in the winter – I tend to spot them when walking in fallow land or on the edge of the natural park in rocky … well, craggy … places doing wonderful displays of aerobatics. Walking up the back road to Santa Ana in Canillas de Albaida, looking out over the valley towards La Maroma is a favourite spot – I think they roost in the unclad stonework of the old chapel.
This afternoon I was walking down the path to a carpark near Sayalonga when I saw it. And it saw me and looked at me with serious doubt in its triangular pinpointed eyes.
I think this lovely little beast is a Mediterranean Mantis, Iris oratoria, on the basis of the relatively short cerci (the paired spikes on its back limbs) and eye shape, comparing it to internet images of this species. This seems annoyingly vague for a species that has a gigantic dead-give-away i.d. card – the enormous fake eyespot on its hindwings when flashed in defense. It looks something like this:
That’s a pretty good clue. But there is a reason this is CaPro’s shot via wikimedia commons and not mine. I like bugs. Even mantids. I feel privileged that this particular creature chose to give me a good hard stare, pose for a set of photos, sway like a leaf for a minute and, when I waved a boot to encourage it off the path to safety, shuttled promptly into the grasses. To get the threat pose from the creature I would need to … well, threaten it. But I hate baiting wildlife. It seems a dishonourable thing for a wildlife lover to do. So I shall have to state my best guess and leave it at that with nothing but a mantis’s hard stare between my conscience and perfect peace.
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.
Pffff! horrible near miss. Not a car-crash (well, not quite). A road-bound chameleon, looking like a straw-yellow, wind-blown twig, partway into the road.
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.
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.
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.
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. The 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!
I 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.
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.
I 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.