I think I first walked the goat path with Janet and David back in 2003, possibly the first time they visited Cómpeta. I had walked with them hundreds of times in the Lake District and Scotland but never before in Spain. Another couple of grasshoppers who liked hopping about hills and wild places, both were terrific walkers. Both loved wildlife: Janet was especially keen on birds and flowers. The April day I’m thinking of was beautiful – we saw violet-winged carpenter bees feeding on the Jerusalem sage’s pink blooms under the old olive trees. David and Janet were tickled when we meet goats on the goat path (how unlikely!) and, though they had no Spanish, enjoyed saying hello through me to Antonio, the goat herd. If I remember rightly when we got to Canillas we found a bar, drowned our tapas in wine, and staggered merrily out for a taxi to get back to Cómpeta quoting a walking song to each other:
“Before the Romans came to Rye or out to Severn strode The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road…”
I knew there were pine martens in the Axarquia’s forests. I believed I saw a glimpse of one on an early walk in late 2008, but couldn’t be sure. Then in 2010 I was saddened to see the corpse of a pine marten, shot by a hunter on the popular ‘silk route’ walk. Their presence was confirmed.
A couple of years later I was walking with a group of people when someone – I forget the lady’s name – pointed across the valley, crying, “Look! What’s that?” and we all looked. “No there!… There! Down there!” We were looking at a steep rock-strewn slope and I thought I saw a dark brown object flow behind the rocks – as quick as the Fuzzy Worm in Vision On (showing my age now) but then nothing. I was barely sure I’d seen anything, but the walker who had spotted it insisted she had seen it cross the scree. It had moved “almost like a cat” but ‘more fluid’ and ‘very fast’. It was clearly too small to be an ibex, too big to be a squirrel. I thought about a genet – we have them here too – but they have a very cat-like look and aren’t dark. This thought led me to martens and my doubtful i.d.: the stone or beech marten, Martes foina.
Having nearly, possibly, seen one, I naturally read up. Stone martens are very similar to pine martens but more adaptable, being quite happy on open scrub as in forests, while the pine martens stick to the pine woods as you might guess. They are crepuscular/nocturnal and omnivorous, eating lots of fruit and plant food alongside rats, mice, sparrow-sized birds, eggs and nestlings and the like: they may go even, on occasion, go after poultry.
Now that was a one-off and I mentally filed it as ‘interesting’ and then wrote it off as being highly unlikely to be seen again. Then, a couple of months ago, Margot got in touch. Not only had she seen stone martens, she has a family of stone martens living near her house and playing on her roof. And the glass roof of her conservatory. And she has a very good camera… lucky, lucky Margot. Better even than Spiders!
Lots of wildlife by water. Obviously the water-dwellers, from Water-boatmen to fish, but also amphibians. There’re those associated with water – dragonflies, and dozens of other insects whose nymphs live in it. Then there’s all the species that eat something that lives in or by water. And that’s not to mention all those animals that want a drink.
I’ve often heard about walks along the Levadas in Portugal. Our own acequias are a similar system of water channels for field irrigation that’s been in place for centuries. Open channels attract wildlife: I have had trouble walking along the acequia on a route between Sedella and Salares because bundles of bees had decided to enjoy the water, buzzing up from the shining shallow surface in annoyance when we wanted to pass. A friend of mine sat on the acequia that lay beside the Rio Turvilla just after the road bridge and before the waterfall.
It turned out others were using the concrete side as a highway. Distracted by his book my friend was surprised to look down and find a snake in his lap. He leapt so far he landed in the stream – not a good idea really, he would have done better to stay still. His new pal might have been anything – a Southern Smooth Snake, an Adder, a Ladder Snake, or even the venemous Montpellier Snake, which I’ve seen once or twice in riverbeds and on acequia banks. Much to my disappointment he couldn’t describe it, saying sharply, “It was a snake and it was in my lap, Grasshopper, that was all I needed to know!”
Tankfuls of frogs
I’ve mainly seen the Perez’s frog here – also known as the Marsh frog, the Iberian water frog, the Green frog… occasionally in the acequias, but mainly in the big open watertanks that are here and there in the park, not to mention the deposito for fire relief behind Salares. In spring there are dozens of frogs on the concrete lips of the pool croaking away – I hate to think of the rain of frogs that a fire in spring would cause!
The deposito near Cómpeta’s fábrica de la luz is always full of green-suited swimmers as shown above. It’s an ugly concrete tank in a lovely place but I always look in. I once counted 23 frogs (only the ones I saw). No wonder a fat Viperine Water Snake was coiled around the tank’s ladder!
But the tank on the flanks of Cerro Verde for years held dozens of tadpoles all year round, much to my surprise. I saw them in every season, and generally went that way at least every other month or more. They did not seem to change; I saw no evidence of metamorphosis.
The only adult I ever saw there was a spiny toad, spotted about 4 years after I’d first past the tadpole tank. The fountain of youth! Now the forestal seem to have refurbished the tank, emptying and painting it and putting up a sign to say how important such water tanks are for the wildlife. No sign of pond weed, dragonflies or tadpoles now….
Water tanks, just like natural pools, also attract other predators and not just snakes. Indeed a snake might well make a snake for a Cattle Egret, like this one seen near an open water tank near Árchez. This has to be the best bird shot I’ve got to date. I love it, even though grasshoppers are often on the menu.
The wildlife I’ve seen by swimming pools are generally accidental visitors, in need of a helping hand. Some are happier to be helped than others. Crickets are easy enough. Lizards, if they can be trapped have quite often got chilled and a sluggish enough to be guided or lifted out. Ditto snakes, though its best to lift them out with a net. But the yellow-necked mouse found trapped by the pool vent was convinced the net was deadly and kept taking a flying leap back into trouble.
There are two creatures that are very attracted to water to be wary of. One is the plague of standing water in warmer climes, the mosquito. I can’t say I have had a lot of mosquito bites in spite of living in Spain but I live in a town. When I’ve sometimes stayed at villas in the countryside, I remember one reason why I live where I do. The countryside mozzies come out and eat me alive.
The other species is more of a menace with moving water (streams, the sea) but is often seen at pools too. Flocks of them will appear, as if from nowhere, and create havoc. Human children. Watch out!
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.
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!
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:
Don’t forget to look again at what you think you already know: you might be surprised.
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:
To the marvellously named “Rhombic Leatherbug” – I think of it more as diamond shaped – which I saw on a window the other day.
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!
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!
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?
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:
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.
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.
I had a go at Cerro Atalaya a few years ago. The name means ‘the watchtower’ and this rocky pinnacle, which rises to 1,259m just beyond Cerro Verde, certainly has all round views of the Sierras Almijara and Tejada. I was intrigued by its dramatic stone summit and wondered if I could work my way up. It is easy to get to the coll below it and tempting to try to find a route.
That wasn’t truly my first look-see: I’d done a reccy before, but I was with a friend with no head for heights and so, having left him at the coll, only gave myself about half an hour to explore. When I got back he said that he’d thought I would appear on the summit any second because a small herd of ibex, disturbed by my approach, appeared and danced down from the rock above. No photos: he’d lent his camera to me!
But my solo attempt did not go well because I am just too damn clever for my own good. Go right round the back across nasty broken ground? What, when I can see a way to scramble up on a short-cut just here? I have to add that I do have good balance and am confident in scrambling as well as being reasonably fit, so I attacked the route I thought I could find with gusto. It took me about 20 minutes to decide this was a bloody silly idea. It took me nearly 45 minutes to get safely back down again.
Atalaya peak is not a good place to experiment. The rock is eroding, the surface unstable. You bank on the thick roots of spiky bushes holding but even these are in shifting pockets of soil. Large chunks of rock will occasionally come away under hand pressure. Yes, you can see a route that looks plausible, just up head, you just need an extra three foot … but it turns out that extra three foot is veering into High Risk. I love to walk and scramble but I don’t count myself a climber and this was close to climbing territory.
I tried again with another friend, on a cloudy January day, starting in sunshine from Canillas de Albaida’s Fábrica de la Luz and ascending via the firebreak to be enveloped in scudding clouds. The change in vegetation at the top of the hill was as dramatic as the change in weather – no more swathes of rock-roses, Jerusalem sage and rosemary – lots more tiny flowers peering from cracks in rocks. The lemon thyme was intensely scented, and there were plenty of stone crops, and some shrubby helichrysum. There are prickly juniper and gorse bushes quite high and lots of common orange lichen on the rocks and branches (I guess this is Xanthoria parietina!).
The summit itself is quite accessible, provided you have a good head for heights and we delighted to make it to the top. We were just disappointed to see no ibex waiting for us there and that the views were completely lost in cloud, so I had to make do with trying to capture the drama of the cliffs.
Last year I went up again in March on my own, taking the way described here in Route: Atalaya! and it was simply glorious. For one thing, being alone in early spring, all the wildlife came to see me: a fox ran across my path as I walked from the turning circle; ibex looked out from the pine woods on the right; when I turned off at Fuente Borriquerro there were great tits, blue tits, a goldcrest and chaffinches in the trees. I heard a woodpecker drumming. Heading up towards the firebreak I saw a Short-toed Eagle drifting up the gully on the left hand side.
I reached the coll and then took the little trail past the stony block that forms the summit. The views as you come out between a couple of holm oaks are wonderful. This is the perfect place, ordinarily, to find a spot to picnic and enjoy the height and sunshine, but I wanted to do the full climb.
The last stretch before you get to climb the rock is only about 200 metres, but it’s tricky. You have to track right across the slope, round and up to pass a big separate rock I call “the tooth”. There is no clear path, nor any significant way markers; the ground is steep and difficult.
As I had done before I found myself unintentionally losing height and had to back track and start again, but eventually, after 40 frustrating minutes I got there. I’ll bore you by again saying the views… no, you can already guess! Fantastic!
The final path up is not as challenging; it needs a good head for heights but the route is obvious and even the final scramble isn’t physically challenging though the broad clefts you step over and the vertical drops at hand can make you a little … edgy!
The summit itself is almost level. There was even a little patch of grass. I sprawled out and ate my lunch with great contentment. I was looking forward to see some big ocellated lizards. Andrew, a friend who has climbed Atalaya many times, said that he sees them on the summit if he stays quiet for a bit. None came out for me: I only saw a little psammodromus. However on the summit’s edge a lark perched and hopped confidently, giving me the chance to get my favourite summit shot.
I have identified it as a Thekla lark, rather than a Crested Lark, but they are fiendish to separate – this is simply on the basis of probability given that the latter prefer cultivated fields and the former prefer rocky wilds (me too!)
I came down very content and, having come back across the nasty slope below the tooth, picked up a trail that leads to the Cruce de Canillas, near Venta María on the Silk Trail. This path is rather overgrown, but not difficult to find; you do tend to blunder through bushes so I was surprised (and a little alarmed) to come across a Montpellier snake. I might have expected it to have sense my approach and disappeared before I saw it. I came down to the crossroads, ready to take the track down through the pine forests and, for a final hurrah, saw more raptors sailing through the blue sky. The larger I believe was another Short-toed Eagle, but what the smaller bird was, without a better zoom, I couldn’t guess.
As you can see I love this walk. It can be done in 4 or 5 hours and it has something of everything. I have, however, written up the route without the summit ascent, which is risky enough that I would hesitate to recommend it and, unlike Andrew, or local ‘multi-adventure’ company, Salamandra, I’d be dubious of guiding people up it. But it is not necessary. I hope you get a chance to do the Atalaya route with or without the final climb. It’s terrific!
(with thanks to Bodegas Bentomiz for generous time on their grounds)
What’s in a vineyard?
Vines, of course!
And one or two wild things, too!
It is hardly surprising, hopping about the Malaga hills, that I happen on vineyards. It’s part of the territory; vines have been grown here for at least 3000 years (the Phoenicians were at it).
Our vineyards look wierd to wine buffs: instead of 10 or 20 hectares of climbers, growing on wires in straight lines we have up to 3 hectares of a thick low trunks – vine stumps – planted higgledy-piggledy on the steep terraces. In early spring when the ground’s cleared and the vines trimmed it looks as if someone’s hammered great wooden pegs in to mark out the slope. Come April those trunks throw out a thick bush of leaves that shade the flowers and fruit. That’s the point, of course – the plant shades its own fruit which stops our mad Spanish sun from frying the fruit dry before it is ripe.
The small vineyards are as much down to topography as anything else: after a couple of hectares there’s always another gully in this deeply dissected landscape. That means unfarmed slices of land. When this is combined with a few rental villas (with unfarmed land) or the occasional abandoned vineyard or olive grove there is yet more wild space. And best of all, some viticulturalists (grape-growers, that is) do not use herbicides or pesticides on their land. They may weed in spring when the vines are fruiting, but in winter the weeds don’t matter and can be left alone – to the very great benefit of wildlife. So, visiting Bodegas Bentomiz, for example, you find a vineyard that is full wild things. And lately it’s been chock-a-block with small birds.
All autumn the birds in the vineyards drove me crackers. We had some heavy rains early autumn then long warm dry spell. The weeds went crazy – flowers everywhere in the Axarquia’s lovely second spring. Then there were seedheads side-by-side with more flowers – so many that white fluff was blowing down the paths. The seed-eaters were very happy indeed. To be fair, the weather was pretty good for insects too – but this month a single day of steady rain brought more out and about yet and suddenly there were warblers as well as finches at the party.
I have my own particular friend – a reliable female black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros), that flirts and bobs her tail at me from the same terrace wall whenever I pass by. And this autumn winter round the vineyards I’ve seen the ‘ordinary’ English garden birds
robin, blackbird, song thrush. I’ve also seen the rather less common blue rock thrush, and the marvellous hoopoe, though none since early autumn.
I’ve seen goldfinches – flocks and flocks of them, gorging on thistle down – as well as great tits, blue tits, serin, chaffinch, northern greenfinch, stone chat, black cap, black redstart, wheatear, tree-creeper. (Okay, the tree-creeper was on a pine near the vineyard, not in it). Stone chats are frequent visitors. But I’ve also seen a lot of warblers – that much is easy to say. But while the Sardinian warbler (bless it’s cotton socks) is a synch to i.d., telling
the willow from the chiffchaff from the melodious from the olivaceous … very tricky. Song is a clue of course – I’ve certainly heard melodious once and chiffchaffs often but not, surprisingly, willow warblers.
And then there are larks. I have seen larks with crests, but were they crested larks (Galerida cristata) orthekla larks (Galerida theklae)? Were the none-crested a greater short-toed larks or a lesser short-toed larks? Were they larks at all? Have I gone mad yet?
Flocking to the feast
They came in gossiping, fluttering, squabbling flocks for the feast. They talked together in the pine trees before getting down to the ground and back again. They flew from one side of the road to the other past my car. And they always did it when:
I didn’t have my camera
I did have my camera but the battery had just gone
I did have my camera and batteries and had nearly (but not quite) got them in focus…
I swear they do it on purpose. They know that until my ship comes in I will not have a professional, expensive SLR with manually adjustable shutter-speed to rapid-fire at a moving target and a zoom as long as a cannon. And they are revelling in taking advantage of it.
This is only a simple variant of the most familiar birds on the game the really tricky little buggers – warblers and such, so difficult to differentiate – like to play. You haven’t got your binoculars? I’ll stay put really close (but not close enough). You have your binoculars? I’ll sit against the sun. You are driving and can’t stop – here I am!
This was less of a problem for me pre-Christmas – my years old binoculars had disappeared somewhere on a valley walk in the summer. Now though, they can start again. Binos for my xmas present: game on. Just wait til the spring migration starts!
I mentioned the change in light: from the flat lands of Cheshire to Wiltshire woods England seems shockingly dark after southern Spain. And, in spite of some wooded hillsides, flat. Wet? The start of the “rainy season” had been pretty heavy – the Axarquia gets good rainfall but it runs off or soaks in more: I returned to rediscover mud.
But flowers? In December? Not just winter-flowering cherry but periwinkle, primroses and … wild strawberries? That was really strange. Hello warming world. First EP then Wilshire’s beautiful woods …