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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Heroic Orchids

Chiffchaff

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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

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Grasses

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

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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.

Corumbela

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

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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Día del Nispero, A Fruity Fiesta

Nispero
Nispero

“Nispero?” It’s a fruit. A rather strange fruit. It’s Japanese Medlar in English, or Loquat (from Urdo), but most people look as blank at those names as they do at the Spanish word.

The nispero tree
The nispero tree

This is because the tree is not commonly grown in Europe, preferring a sub-tropical climate to fruit well…a sub-tropical climate like the one in Sayalonga.

Nispero are, I understand, quite difficult to cultivate. Sayalonga, however, excels in their cultivation; the district is the main producer of fruit in the whole of Andalusia. Heading down towards the river ford from the Corumbela side you walk past acres of these low growing trees with long green leaves, heavy, in April and May, with yellow-orange fruit.

Nispero harvest
Nispero harvest

Years ago, heading this way with some Dutch walkers, I came across a family harvesting the fruit into crates, who told us their name and were amused at our puzzled reaction. They gave us each a fresh nispero to try – my first bite of the juicy summer fruit. I was amazed at the size of the seeds, like a set of wooden blocks packed inside the flesh. Mmm.

 

Nispero on street sign
Nispero on street sign

This is the fruit for Sayalonga, a stand-out symbol for the town, that appears on paintings, mosaics and street signs: no wonder it has its own fiesta. The Día del Nispero has been celebrated for over 80 years; it is held on the first Sunday in the month of May.

Serving nispero
Serving nispero

This is a lively party, full of fruit: you can taste the nispero: the fruit, the jams, the desserts, the liquors; bars giving free samples to the crowd and selling other drinks are normally found near the main square. There are normally stalls with other local products and a bouncy castle (or similar) for children, but the main action is the main square, where there are presentations, music, dancing, poetry, and speeches all day long.

 

2015 poster
2015 poster

The townhall present a “Nispero de Honor” to people or organisations from Andalusia, Malaga, the Axarquía and Sayalonga – this year this will include a flamenco guitarist, a women’s association supporting cancer sufferers, a local historian and firecrews without frontiers.

Poster 2016
Poster 2016

Equally memorable is the posters that will promote the festival – these are designed based around the winner of the yearly competition (first prize €1,500!) – always on the theme of … well, nisperos and Sayalonga, what else. The lower rooms of the towns Museo de Moriscos house previous paintings and they are wonderful, though you feel that the room should smell of nispero jam – there’s an awful lot of fruit!

The Día del Nispero is a great day to visit Sayalonga and take a look around the town’s monuments or lose yourself in the twisty streets in between watching the dancing and sampling the fruit. It is an attractive, typical ‘pueblo blanco’, to which the nispero celebration gives something unexpected and unique. Try the nispero liquor – sweet but very good! First Sunday in May … that’s 1st of May 2016 – just a week away. Put it in your diary!

Nisperos, Sayalonga

 

If you speak Spanish (and even if you don’t – some of it will be clear) here is a link to the Día del Nispero program 2016

 

 

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Rainy days

Rainy weather
Rainy weather

The spotting started about 10.20 am (I know, I was out) and didn’t stop until about 11.30 pm. During that period the valley from the Sierra to the coast filled with cloud (fog lights on). We had drizzle, rain, heavy rain, stair-rods and waterfall weather.

Street become streams in heavy rain
Street become streams in heavy rain

This is boot weather for the simple reason that the narrow streets are often stepped or cambered so that the centre of the street becomes a riverlet. The edges of the street are dry but they also receive the spouts loosed from every terrace in sputtering fountains. You can feel when half a river is roaring by outside and tumbling in a waterfall down the steps that the whole village will tilt, heave, and float away like a blocky white Arc heading towards the Med.

The next day it was windy and sunny; the day after, sunshine dawn to dusk.

Dark skies
Dark skies

This is not remotely untypical here. We have quite reasonable rainfall in the “rainy season” of September-May: an average of around 500mm in Sayalonga. That may not sound a lot but can feel like it because it all comes at once. We have a lot of hot weather and are near the sea – no wonder we get a lot of thunderstorms. They are always hard to predict but cluster on the mountains. Rising steeply from sea level to the Sierras, with dozens of deep cut valleys and gulleys channelling any weather into micro-climates the landscape was built by torrential downpours and encourages them! I have sat in the sun watching a thunderstorm that was hammering Cómpeta – barely 10 minutes away. I have left Salares in sunshine and then fought my way over the Fogarate ridge, barely able to see through the sheets of rain, the thunder growling in my ears. To be perfectly honest, I like the drama.

Cloud in the Valley
Cloud in the Valley

It is not that we never get sustained rain. We often get to see heavy swathes of cloud hanging on the mountain or creeping up the valley; you can be enjoying the sunshine in Sayalonga while Corumbela, across the valley, needs fog-lights and raincoats. And although it usually doesn’t stay for long, you can be unlucky. I have had friends who, after hearing how walkers I had been out with were sunbathing in the February (honestly) had booked 10 days in March … and got 9 days of rain. There was the October when I spent three weeks watching the grey rain and the delighted farmers and thinking glumly that the November walking I’d planned would be a bit damp. (I was lucky – the left at the end of the month having brought all the flowers out). Or there was the wet winter of 2009-10 when it seemed to rain non-stop from December to April. We changed walking routes because the rivers were unpassable. Lots of water damage with landslips and pipes exposed. The Mill below Canillas and the bridge and La Peña bar at Árchez were flooded. But although it sometimes rains for a while, its the violence of the rainstorms you notice most.

The force of water causes a lot of damage (erosion never stops) as well as flash floods at the coast, both regular problems. If you have ever driven on the autovia and wondered why the pathetic trickle you are crossing above deserves such a huge riverbed, this is the reason: narrow it and flash-flooding will get the town. In the same way after every rainstorm you must take the winding roads more carefully because great rocks may have come down into the track around the next tight corner. Erosion is something you learn to adapt to here, with retention walls, water channelling, bridge and the like: the tarmac roads get maintenance because without it they fall away; farmers bank their land or lose it.

Swallows in the rain
Swallows in the rain

And then it stops and the sun comes out. At least it is pretty well guaranteed – even after a rare wet winter – that you’ll get back to warmth and very steady sunshine. You can never guarantee that it won’t rain, but it’s a fair bet that rain today will be followed by good weather tomorrow. (Fingers crossed).

Canillas in a raindrop (Maggie Woodward)
Canillas in a raindrop (Maggie Woodward)
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