Category Archives: Nature

The natural world of the Serrania de Ronda, including the natural parks, fauna and flora, Ronda mountains, activities, and nature photos. Many of the visitors to Ronda will be here for a single day, or at most two days, and by reading our nature articles (frequently updated) we hope visitors will be able to fully enjoy the scenery of Andalucía.

Our most popular articles are the Griffon Vulture, Bonelli’s Eagle, and the Woodcock Orchid.

The Sierra de Grazalema

Walking in the Sierra de Grazalema

Andalucían landscapes and wildlife have been bringing pleasure to visitors for decades. The south of Spain and especially the interior of Andalucía holds many wonders and surprises. The “real Spain” has little to do with beach resorts or whirlwind tours of Andalusian cities.

You are discovering the white town and “City of Dreams” that is Ronda and will be amazed by the beautiful Puente Nuevo, the architecture and history, the Plaza de Toros. But, take a moment to enjoy the stunning views from the balcony behind the Parador and the Paseo de los Ingleses. The mountains in the near distance are known as the Sierra de Grazalema. One of Spain’s most famous natural parks. A fabulous location to spend time be it resting, walking, bird watching or photography.
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Little owl on the tajo bridge, Ronda

Birdwatching in Ronda’s El Tajo

The El Tajo gorge offers a wealth of bird species to watch, in fact many tourists book rooms in hotels overlooking the gorge specifically to setup their binoculars on hotel terraces away from the crowds.

The area between the Puente Nuevo and the Jardines del Cuenca is a deep almost enclosed part of the gorge that buzzes with life, from flying insects to spiders, lizards and geckos, and of course the many birds that nest in the gorge or hunt for food here.

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andalusian-sierras-malage-to-gibraltar-crossbill-guides

Book Review: Andalusian Sierras, from Malaga to Gibraltar (Crossbill Guides)

From the jacket, “At the Strait of Gibraltar, where Europe touches Africa, Spain shoes its rugged side. The jagged mountain chain that lies at the very southern end of the peninsula is one that harbours many delights. Dense, fern-draped forests alternate with unexpected bare mountaintops and dazzling steep cliffs. Flowery rock fields on windswept crests overlook picturesque white villages amidst green oak groves. These are the Sierra of Western Andalusia, an enchanting region with an incredible natural diversity.”

The first thing that stands out when picking up a copy of the Crossbill Guides Andalusian Sierras, is the heavy paper, and full colour photos and maps. The quality of the paper makes a huge difference to your enjoyment of this guide, which should accompany you in the car. Buy a second copy to keep on the coffee table, for easy reading at home.

At 208 pages, this is a meaty guide that is also only slightly wider than a paperback novel, and very easily fits in a daypack when you’re walking or hiking around the district. Though district might be too localised a description, since the area covered in Andalusian Sierras stretches from the Bay of Gibraltar, through the Alcornacales, Grazalema, Sierra de las Nieves, Torcal and Ardales-El Chorro parklands.

Visitors to the area are often struck by the contrasts between differing parts of Western Andalucia, that in such a small geographical area there can be so many ecosystems bordering each other. The terrain is unique in being the meeting ground where Africa is pushing into Europe, with high limestone mountains, rolling sandstone hills, and low fertile valleys.

Needless to say, the flora and fauna of the area can differ quite substantially. In Andalusian Sierras we are first introduced to the landscape, written in an appealing descriptive style, and heavy on facts. Climate and geology is discussed first, and includes schematics of the terrain explaining the various habitats to be found.

For the infrequent visitor to Andalucia, a book with 30 walks of the Serrania de Ronda is useless. Far batter to invest in Andalusian Sierras: From Malaga to Gibraltar (Crossbill Guides) with 14 excellent walks covering a wider area, that take in a broader variety of habitats. The majority of visitors to Andalusia are after all, only here for a week or two, and it would be a shame to not experience El Torcal, Grazalema, or the lowland walks of the Campo de Gibraltar near Tarifa.

Nature lovers who travel the world in search of new experiences will thoroughly enjoy the treatment of the the natural spaces in Andalusia by the Crossbill Guides Foundation. Whilst this guide only covers the nature of Malaga and Cadiz provinces, anyone familiar with the district would confirm that the native and migratory flora is amongst the richest in Europe.

Pages are colour-coded, and roughly divided into four sections, Landscape, Flora and Fauna, Walking Routes, and Tourist Information and Observation Tips.

The walking routes are graded, include a map, description of terrain, colour photos of highlights, and itinerary. The routes are; bird Migration along the Strait of Gibraltar, the Southern Alcornacales, the Northern Alcornacales, Climbing Aljibe Mountain, El Pinsapar Spanish Fir forest walk, Salto del Cabrero, La Garganta Verde, Along El Bosque river, the north slope of the Pinar mountains, the karst landscape of Villaluenga, the fir forest of Luis Ceballos, the hight mountains, El Chorro, and walking in the Torcal de Antequera.

The back of the book gives a species list for plants, mammals, birds, invertebrates, and reptiles. Curiously, the editors have decided to provide English, Latin, German, and Dutch, but not Spanish. This isn’t a huge oversight, but does mean when speaking to Spaniards about fauna and flora, you’ll need to use the latin name to find common ground.
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Spanish Fir

The Spanish Fir, Abies pinsapo

Dotted around the mountains of Grazalema and the Sierra de las Nieves, and also in the city of Ronda itself, the observant visitor will occasionally run across a type of evergreen fir that looks different from others.

This is Abies pinsapo, the national tree of Andalucía, and one of a very few species that survived through the last major ice age into the modern era. That alone gives the tree special significance, and sadly Abies pinsapo is endangered. Reforestation efforts seem to be working, but the tree is often found in zones that have a high risk of fire.

In their natural environment the Spanish Fir tree is most comfortable at higher altitudes, typically above 900m, which means that in most cases you’re going to have to get out of Ronda and the valleys to see the tree. Driving from Ronda to El Burgo, or from Zahara de la Sierra though Benamahoma to Grazalema are where they are easily seen without stopping. Of course, I prefer to avoid a car, and simply walk over the mountains :)

A fully grown Spanish Fir will be tall and upright, tapering to a point at the top, though it isn’t unusual for older trees to become irregular in shape. The leaves of the Spanish Fir are my favourite aspect of them. They are glaucous (blue-green in colour), tubular, only 2cm long, and waxy to touch. The colour of the leaves can in fact give the entire tree a distinctly blueish look from a distance.

Abies pinsapo’ seeds are cone-like, and can grow to nearly 20cm. Typically the tree will seed in the summer, and by October the cones are mature and falling to the ground. They are pink and green, and can be quite attractive.

There are two varieties of Abies pinsapo, the one known to us in Andalucía, and another that is very similar but finds its home in the Rif mountains of Morocco.

Spanish Fir

Cork Trees

The Cork Tree, Quercus suber

In the surrounding area to the west of Ronda, from Grazalema south through the Los Alcornacales Natural Park, you’ll find an unusual tree that locals use for making cork. It is the cork tree Quercus suber, native to the Mediterranean, but harvested extensively in Western Andalucía.

In truth, the casual nature lover might at first glance assume the cork tree is an Oak, with a similar dark coloured knobbly bark, at least this is what many travelers tell me when I encounter them. However, if you’re in the area shortly after the bark has been harvested you’ll quickly spot the difference.

The majority of harvesters will only remove about 1.5 to 2 metres of bark starting about half a metre from the ground. Taking too much bark can damage the tree since it is an essential part of the cork tree’s defence against fire. The summer months in Andalucia can be scorching, and the bark also helps maintain the tree’s stores of water.

After it is removed, the bark is soft and springy and children love to roll it around in their hands to see how much they can compress it. The processed cork is broken up and compressed and glued to form the cork sheets used in flooring tiles, gaskets, and the most well known, champagne stoppers.

The original invention of cork stoppers is credited to a Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon, whose name is used by Moët & Chandon on their premium champagne. Sadly there is no evidence he invented the cork stopper. You will however struggle to convince any cork harvester of this.

The Quercus suber is only able to be harvested approximately every ten years, and a mature cork tree of 50 years is needed to make bottle stoppers. Since the tree isn’t not cut down, cork forests can be left to nature for the most part, and have been known to live to more than 200 years.

The ecological benefits of cork cannot be understated, this truly is a renewable resource that allows for a complex eco-system of insects, reptiles, birds, mammals, and other flora to survive more or less uninterrupted by humans for centuries.

With Spain and Portugal together accounting for the lions share of global cork manufacturing, the financial benefits add to the ecological, and should be encouraged. so the next time you buy a bottle of wine, make sure it has a cork stopper in it.
Quercus suber cork tree Andalucia

Narcissus papyraceus

Paper White Narcissus (Narcissus papyraceus)

In the winter months around the Serrania, you really won’t need to go very far to see more Paper White Narcissus than you could ever dream of.

Around Ronda and the Pueblos Blancos – the white villages – you won’t even need to get off the beaten track. This highly scented flower blooms in December through to February while the weather is cool, and if March and April are wet and cold they may stay in flower.

According to all the guidebooks I’ve read, the Paper White Narcissus responds well to indirect light (and temperatures of 10 – 18 degrees celsius), and my own observation is that individuals may do well in full sun or exposed areas, but I generally see prettier clumps protected beside olive trees, or beside buildings.

They do seem to clump in sodden turf, and wherever the ground dries out too much they will quickly stop flowering, though this isn’t an absolute rule.

I’ve found the best time to photograph the Paper Whites is a day or two after the rain, but make sure you wear good shoes because you will sink a couple of inches into the mud if you get too close to them.

With their slender green leaves, the Paper White can be difficult to identify if it isn’t in flower, but during flowering, and then after they are quite distinctive.

The Paper White has only a very small amount of yellow, in the stamens, the rest of the flower and petals being white. Immediately surrounding the stamens will be a round white corona, and then usually six petals.

The white petals of the Paper White can vary quite a bit, from six narrow petals, to a combination of three straight pointy petals and three shorter rounder petals, and I’ve been told, as many as eight or nine petals.

After the flower has died, a green pea will remain on the end of the stem.

Woodcock Orchid

Woodcock Orchid – Ophrys Scolopax

The Woodcock Orchid is my favourite flower any time I go into the countryside, even though it isn’t always visible since it only blooms from March to June.

To find this orchid really means getting off the roads in most cases and onto farmland or public land in the Natural Parks, preferably to areas that haven’t had sheep or goats present.

Whilst the Woodcock Orchid is found all along the Mediterranean, as far as nature in Ronda goes, you really want to get up to Grazalema, which is where you’ll have the greatest chance of seeing it accessibly.

Otherwise, I’ve also seen this flower around the back of Montejaque, on the hills above Jimera de Libar, and on the Ronda side of the mountains separating Ronda from Cartajima.  I tend to walk a lot over private land, which guidebooks and tour guides will often not do, so I see flowers in places other nature lovers might not know about.

The flower is an odd arrangement, with three sepals at the top, two of which point out to the side, and the third is concave, shorter, and angles forwards like the neck of a cobra. The variety of Woodcock Orchid most commonly seen in the Serrania will have sepals of  violet shading to white, with a green centre stripe.

Inside the sepals will be three smaller petals, two of them pointing up and out like pink horns, and a third will be green in colour pointing forward, and from the side will look like a duck’s head and bill.

The lip of the flower, which is the biggest part, will be a dark reddish brown with a waistcoat and two fluffy arms sticking out from the shoulders. I know my description sounds odd, but look at the photo! Also, be sure to check the Wikipedia page for Ophrys Scolopax for another photo in detail.

Typically you’ll find Ophrys Scolopax reaching heights of around 50cm, and rarely in clumps, so if you see one specimen, that might be it for a few metres. Most of the plants I’ve seen have been around 30-40cm, so watch your step.

Woodcock Orchid

Prickly Pear

Prickly Pear (Higo Chumbo)

Dotting the Andalucian countryside from high to low, the Prickly Pear, or Higo Chumbo (Latin name Opuntia) as it’s known in Spanish, has become one of the iconic symbols of the region. Even though the succulent is found from Portugal to the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean, in Andalucia the fruit is held in special regard as a dessert.

Looking like an unfriendly briar patch of thorns attached to flat green paddles, the Prickly Pear is a succulent that grows in dry and semi-arid conditions, and can be a large as a mini-van when fully grown. Typically they will clump together making an impenetrable wall.

The variety most often seen in the wild in Andalucia is green with a checkerboard pattern of the thorns on the flats of the leaves spaced about 2.5cm apart, and two rows of offset thorns around the outer edges. The fruit grows on the outer edges of leaves and begins as a green bulb that usually grows to about the size of a pear, but more oval in shape.

A round yellow flower grows from the top of the green fruit, and after this has died, the fruit will begin to change colour until it is cerise toned, after which it will fall from the leaf. The green fruit is considered better tasting, and if the fruit is left to ripen will probably never be harvested.

Originally from the Americas’, the Prickly Pear has invaded almost every square kilometre of land, and has proved difficult to remove, you might say it is an invasive species that in some places is not at all desired.

Fortunately the fruit is edible, is very sweet, gives you a vitamin boost, and also makes a potent spirit when distilled. The leaves of the Prickly Pear can be peeled and fried, and was a popular vegetable substitute in the past when Andalucia was impoverished.

Care must be taken when peeling the fruit and gloves are recommended. The spikes on the fruit are easily avoided, but the small hairlike glochids detach and embed under the skin and are almost impossible to remove. A sturdy pair of rubber or leather gloves will be needed.

And if you ever have a toothache, it seems that as many as 9,000 years ago in the Americas’ people knew of the medicinal properties of the Prickly Pear which could lower fevers from drinking a juice made from the fruit, or by roasting the leaves, inflammation and toothache could be relieved by using it as a salve.

In the autumn months you will often see people gathering in the main shopping street of Ronda, and the bigger towns of Andalucia with their supply of Chumbo fruit ready to be peeled, sliced, and bagged, and then sold to passers by. If you’d like to try some, they will often have some water in a cup to help wash it down.