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

Booted Eagle, Hieraaetus pennatus

Shorted-toed (Snake) Eagle & Booted Eagle. Photo from Never mind the finnsticks.
Bonelli’s Eagle. Photo Dharani Prakash

These photos show two other species I see a regularly, along with the Booted. I have only seen Bonelli’s Eagles for certain a few times near Cerro Gavilan, well within the Natural Park. But Short-toed (aka Snake) Eagles I see regularly as low as the in the valley as Algarrobo and all the way up to Cerro Atalaya. To date I have only had definite sightings of light phase Short-toed Eagles.

I have seen the mighty Golden Eagle twice. I don’t say might flippantly. They are the 5th largest Eagle species with an adult wing span between 6 foot and 7.8 foot. A few years back when I went up onto the high meadows in winter I saw a single bird on the shoulder of La Maroma. My other sighting, though was more dramatic – a dark cloudy day and I was walking with friends through Cómpeta and looked up. Fairly low, below the cloud 6 Eagles were gliding – four adults, two juvs. The larger birds were ridiculously big, all were dark brown … I couldn’t believe what I thought I was seeing, when Martin got his binos in focus and said it: “Golden”. I was amazed to see a mini flock of these birds – I wonder if two of the ‘adults’ were youngsters from a previous year so all six were a family group.

They are a relatively widely spread species of eagle and the mountain ranges here do seem ideal for them, though there is a fair amount of competition, not just from other eagles but from a couple of species of vulture. There is also a strong hunting community, reducing available prey, so perhaps it is not surprising I see them fairly rarely.

Hopefully I will see them again soon. (You never know your luck).

Golden Eagle, Ávila, Spain -photo Juan Lacruz
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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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May Day walks

Unexpected chance to go walking with some lovely people on May day and the day after. It was a treat and we had lovely weather for it.

The first day was on the silk route, so called because it is one of two routes to the Puerto de Cómpeta – the pass between Sierra Almijara and Sierra Tejada into Granada province. The silk industry flourished in Al-Andalus from the 9th century and the Axarquía has a climate ideal for mulberry trees, so silkworm coccoons (and many other things) were traded using this route and  Granada silk was brought back for export from Torrox, the closest harbour.

Spanish broom

This walk, open with views all the way down to the coast (where you can glimpse Torrox Costa), also gives you stunning views of the dramatic Sierra Almijara. In May the scene is splashed with the bright yellow of Spanish Broom, spilling down the hillside. And beside the path, everywhere you looked there were flowers.

Linaria amoi, Axarquia Toadflax
Grey-leaved Rock Rose
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I was interested to see the difference, between two types of Jerusalem Sage . I rarely see the yellow ‘Wooly’ Jerusalem Sage, while the purple variety is everywhere. Nice to see the latter’s furry visitor, too.

Phlomis purpurae, Purple Jerusalem Sage, with visiting bee
Phlomis lanata, Wooly Jerusalem Sage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pinecone Thistle, Leuzea conifera

 

One of the other walkers spotted this young pinecone thistle too, a curious looking item but very distinctive.

 

 

We walked to the Venta Pradillos, which was once a fair sized Inn, with it’s own terraces, spring, stabling and threshing circle. Sadly, in the 40s the Civil Guard, in an effort to quash the last resistance to Franco, closed it and took the roof off to make it unusable, but it is in the most beautiful spot imaginable.  You can just see it here among the pines. It makes a wonderful spot for a picnic.

That, in fact, seemed to be something everyone agreed on. As we headed back we were met by a couple of Spaniards, then a small party of British walkers, then a large party of very friendly Irish walkers and finally a Danish family (the girl was afraid of our gentle but friendly dog) – all coming the other way and heading for the venta. I felt rather smug that we had got there first!

 

I generally prefer circular walks but there are advantages to a linear walk in a landscape this dramatic. The reverse view can be surprisingly different. Coming back the rocky outcrop of the Atalaya rose above us.

The turtle

I pointed out that Atalaya looks like a planetary land turtle, that has swum up from the molten core all the way through the outer layers of rock and soil to take a quick gulp of air at the surface. You can even see the lower jaw. Imagine my surprise when other walkers thought it looked more like a camel, or even an owl. It’s quite obvious to me that it is a turtle (I am typing this after a couple of glasses of wine, though).

The most exciting wildlife on the walk was only seen by a few of our us. Neil spotted Ibex running up a slope – probably to get away from Sybil, the lovely dog we had with us. They blend in so well that we wouldn’t have seen them unless they were running, so Sybil did us a favour.

That said we did see a wolf. Well… I saw a hole beside the footpath with a little network of needles and stones around the entrance. Easy to overlook, but I had seen this before. I teased a pine-needle into the doorway a little and was rewarded, by the home-maker’s brief appearance: a wolf spider. Is a wolf spider more exciting than ibex?

Wolf Spider, Lycosa tarantula

These are impressive spiders and can be quite big, so I was all the more surprised to say hello to another, smaller specimen, the following day near Sedella. Perhaps a male (they’re smaller) looking for a mate.

 

That was another fabulous walk. We took a turn around the town (Sedella is very attractive) before heading up to the old Mill, where you can see system for milling with water from the open water tank at the back to the channelling system for bringing it in and the old grind stones within the building itself. We strolled up from here to where the track splits beside a building for water purification, with the sensible party heading off to the picnic site and the rest of us heading over to the old hide where we looked out on what had been the vulture sanctuary and, as usual, saw no birds.

Spotted Rock-Rose, Tuberaria guttata
Umbrella Milkwort, Tolpis barbata

Wonderful flowers though. I was pleased to see both Spotted Rock Rose and Umbrella Milkwort, which someone had once i.d. for me the wrong way round causing me great confusion.

walkers at Sedella’s picnic ground

Then we went to the picnic site and re-joined the others. There’s one vulture there who is reliably available and readily posed for photographs.

Sadly the site has been paved, which is probably good for access but for my taste diminishes it: I liked the wooden tables and benches under the pines, with pine-needles underfoot. These are on the way out – the benches are mostly rotten – which seems a pity. Still, perched on a wobbly bench, eating our sandwiches, we watched a pair of eagles floating across the valley with great delight. A couple of us saw Sardinian Warblers and we all saw Serins and Goldfinches, but the eagles were the stars of the day.

Shorted-toed (Snake) Eagle & Booted Eagle. Photo from Never mind the finnsticks.

I was a bit cautious giving i.d.s because (I hate to say this) I hadn’t taken my binoculars (Ow! just kicked myself). Also on the silk route Maddy and Neil told me they’d seen 5 eagles (five!) eagles the day before – they were two pairs of Short-toed (Snake) Eagles, and then a fifth later on. Again they were told Short-toed, but were surprised: the bird seemed smaller and had a very clear white body and wings with an outer rim of black. Now, I know how very easy it is to reach for your first gut-instinct i.d. (especially something you have just seen) without thinking and then be embarrassed by a mistake – I’ve done it myself – but this sounds very much like a Booted Eagle to me. Size usually gives it – Snake Eagles head up towards a 6 foot wingspan; even Booted females aren’t much more than 4 foot. But having confirmed this on one day I didn’t want to get something wrong on the next.

Bonelli’s Eagle. Photo Dharani Prakash

The first eagle we saw while walking: a seriously big bird. I didn’t think it was as big as an adult Golden (around 7 foot wingspan!); I thought this was probably another Snake Eagle was best guess on balance of probability. But the two eagles that played out for us by the picnic ground for some 20 minutes seemed to me to be smaller – definitely bigger than the petite Booted, but not convincing me as Snake Eagles unless they were juveniles. The only bird that I have seen in the area that fits this would be a Bonneli’s Eagle – certainly a possibility. But I have to say, at that distance without binoculars, an educated guess is all you do.

 

Full of picnic we went down to the main road on the zigzag path. At one point there are hives on a sidetrack and someone had dangerously put one up on the main track (not heard of anaphylactic shock?). But mostly I enjoyed saying hello to lots of small pollinators, not to mention butterflies and crickets. The best of all were new to me – a gorgeous pair of antlion relatives with the lovely name of Owly Sulphurs. What better way to finish a wilding walk?

Owly Sulphers, Libelloides coccajus

 

 

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