Tag Archives: Nature

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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

Birdwatchers Paradise

Birds of the Serrania de Ronda, A Systematic List

Birds of the Serrania de Ronda, A Systematic List also subtitled “A Birdwatcher’s Paradise” produced by a collaboration of Peter Jones and the rural tourism authorities of the Serrania de Ronda is billed as the most complete list of birds commonly and uncommonly seen in the district, with every bird having been confirmed by a panel of experts.

Ronda and the surrounding district is a birdwatchers paradise, being a primarily rural area with three natural parks in the area; Grazalema, Sierra de las Nieves, and Los Alcornacales. As well as being mountainous (the penibaetic range and Sierra Nevada) lending a favourable environment to birds of prey, prevailing wind patterns make the district appealing to migratory birds who are able to rest or follow the wind over the mountains to the flat plains north of the district, or use strong gusts to propel them over the straits of Gibraltar toward Africa.

Terrain in the Serrania ranges from limestone peaks, sandstone outcrops, forests of pine, Spanish fir, cork, oak, as well as grasslands and scrub in the lower reaches. In addition several rivers and tributaries have carved gorges and valleys. With terrain like this it’s easy to see why the Serrania de Ronda is called a birdwatchers paradise.

Birdwatchers Paradise

Amongst the better known birds of the area are: Golden, Bonelli’s, Booted, and Short-toed Eagles; Peregrine Falcon; Lesser Kestrel; Eagle Owl; Griffon and Egyptian Vultures; White-rumped, Alpine, and Pallid Swifts; Blue Rock Thrush and Rock Thrush; Black Wheatear; Black Redstart; Chough; Rock Sparrow; Rock Bunting; and Crossbill.

“Birds of the Serrania de Ronda” lists all of these, and many more, in fact there are 209 birds listed as frequenting the Serrania at various times of the year. The only downside of the systematic list is that a seasonal calendar isn’t provided, with birdwatchers needing to cross reference against other birding books.

Sites of special interest are also listed all of which are reasonably accessible to any birdwatcher who has access to a car. These are the Sierra de Libar, Puerto de las Palomas, Rio Guadiaro, Ronda Tajo, Sierra Blanquilla, Sierra de las Nieves, Genal Valley.

Download “Birds of the Serrania de Ronda, A Systematic List“, and for further information about guided birdwatching tours we recommend Peter Jones of Spanish Nature, the most experienced guide in the district, and an internationally recognised expert.

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Dar Gabriel Riad Hotel in Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen in Morocco has many historical links with Ronda and is known as the Pearl of the North. Its only a short trip across the Straits of Gibraltar yet you will be transported into a world apart, and is well worth a visit if you are looking for something a little bit different and extra special. We were lucky enough to pay a visit to this beautiful town and stayed at the lovingly restored Riad hotel Dar Gabriel. An oasis of tranquility from which to discover this interesting area.

The hotel has seven beautifully decorated bedrooms all of which are ensuite, with the added luxury of a comfortable sitting room,  heated in winter by a wood burning stove, an intimate dining room where you can also enjoy traditional home cooked meals by your hosts Ben Salam and Izza- amongst the delights on offer are tajines; a moroccan traditional dish cooked in a conical clay pot on hot coals, this method of cooking leaves all the flavours intact and the meat succulent. We particularly enjoyed the chicken, almonds and apricots accompanied by a fresh Moroccan style salad. Izza explained that all the ingredients she uses are bought locally and are mainly homegrown. After our meal we just went up onto the spacious roof terrace to enjoy the views, sights and sounds of this magical city. By day we explored the myriad of tiny streets, lined with all sorts of merchants selling local handicrafts for which the town is famous. Relaxing in the main square with a glass of Moroccan mint tea was a favorite past time after a long days shopping.

It wasnt long before we decided to venture a little further than the town itself. Chefchaouen  is surrounded by beautiful, unspoilt countryside, so we decided to take advantage of one of the walking routes that the hotel has to offer. It was a bit of a difficult choice as there were four trails to choose from, but we opted for the Bouhachem Barbary Macaque Conservation trail, where we hoped to see the Barbary Macaque monkeys ( the same as can be seen on the Rock of Gibraltar) in their natural habitat. Guided by a local naturalist, we were treated to an interesting trek, highlighted by the monkey sightings, wild flowers, and bird watching. If you are at all interested in wildlife this is definately the trail for you. Our hosts Izza and Ben Salem, explained that there were also trails to cristal clear waterfalls, that were a must in the hot summer months, and a visit with an overnight stay to the natural park of Tallasemtane where the luggage is carried by a mule and one can also cool off in the refreshing rock pools at the end of a long days trekking.

To book a visit at Dar Gabriel visit www.dargabriel.com or contact Kit or Penny Hogg direct on 0034 952 11 74 86 or mobile 0034 686 888 409 or email on penny@dargabriel.com.

ABS Members near Osuna, Sevilla

Andalucia Bird Society hold their first AGM

The Andalucían Bird Society, based in Ronda, yesterday held their first Annual General Meeting, marking a club milestone, and demonstrating the founding members commitment to birding and the environment in Andalucía.

Yesterday’s AGM took place at El Saucejo in the Sevilla province after a successful morning of bird watching attended by more than 20 members from as far away as Marbella, with one member flying in from the UK for the field trip and AGM.

Birding in Spain generally comes under the auspices of the umbrella society, the Sociedad Española de Ornitología (SEO/Birdlife) and the Andalucían Bird Society is loosely associated with the national organisation, though members prefer the less formal approach and emphasis on socialising that is a hallmark of the ABS.

Club President Juan Onate, and Chairman Peter Jones, long time biologists told Ronda Today the club is predominantly made up of foreign residents, but in recent times a number of Spaniards have joined who have very good working knowledge of the terrain in Andalucía.

Alfredo Carrasco, well known locally as the man responsible for promoting tourism in the Serranía de Ronda was voted secretary of the club, and Jesús Contreras, a biologist, elected conservation and education officer. David Hird was elected to a new position survey and projects officer, Pieter Verheij was re-elected treasurer, and Tony Bishop becomes press and public relations officer.

Membership of the society is open to anyone with an interest in birding or the environment, and with monthly field trips being organised across Andalucía (the three most recent have been in Málaga, Granada, and Sevilla provinces), Peter Jones, an internationally renowned birding expert told Ronda Today the club is a natural home for all birding enthusiasts throughout Andalucía.

For more information about membership, or to attend field trips, please visit the ABS website – www.andaluciabirdsociety.org.

Some pictures from the June field trip;

Ronda Bonelli's Eagle

Bonelli’s Eagle, Icon of the Serranía

Ronda Bonelli's Eagle

Bonelli's Eagle in the Serranía

Bonelli’s Eagle (Hieraaetus fasciatus) master of our skies.

If you were to search for an emblematic species which would define the importance of the Serranía de Ronda for wildlife, then the Bonelli’s Eagle (Hieraaetus fasciatus) would be the definitive and unequivocal choice.

Among the rarest species of raptor in Europe, the Bonelli’s Eagle has perhaps, for the moment, its highest breeding density in the world right here in the Serranía de Ronda!

With a wingspan of up to 1.8 meters the Bonelli is a medium sized eagle and although it is known to sometimes nest in trees, in the Serranía its preference is for rocky crags and faces. The pairs form lifelong and all year round partnerships staying in or close to their breeding territories throughout the year.

Usually nests are re-furbished during late December and early January. During this period pairs can be witnessed indulging in flight-play with one, normally the male, dropping a stick and the other retrieving it before it reaches the ground! The first egg is laid during February and although a clutch of 3 is possible the most usual is for 1 to 2 eggs.

Incubation normally takes around 40 days and usually a single young is fledged after a further 60/65 days, exceptions where 2 young are fledged normally relate to older and more experienced adults, these older birds seemed to have learnt to supply more food for the successful rearing of all their offspring.

These eagles are extremely agile flyers and one of the most aggressive. Protection of the nest site during the breeding season is a spectacle that can provide the fortunate observer with a life time experience. The male will often pursue and sometimes inflict fatal injuries on much larger birds such as Griffon Vultures who venture too close to the nest. I have often seen unfortunate Griffons retreat from areas minus a few feathers!

Unlike many other eagle species, the Bonelli’s are capable of flying-down their prey and over long distances. Most large raptors avoid long distance pursuit in order to save energy, but these eagles, once giving chase, will continue to fly-down prey over considerable distances. Hare, Rabbit, Partridge and other large birds form the largest part of their diet, although some reptiles are also taken.

The current status of this magnificent and spectacular eagle is officially listed as being under danger of extinction. So it is essential we afford them the highest possible protection. Although some of their nesting sites are close to populated areas, they remain intolerant of human disturbance, so close observation should be avoided at all times.

Also they tend to have defined hunting routes and are sometimes seen daily on these routes, so not only do their nest sites need urgent protection, but also their feeding areas. Their continued presence in the area depends on us and our willingness to afford them the special protection they need and deserve. Our skies would be the poorer without them.

It has been estimated that an annual total exceeding 15,000 birdwatchers visit the Serranía and without doubt this eagle is a star attraction. So the Bonelli’s Eagle is important to the local economy! Any unwanted or unsustainable developments that adversely impact on the numbers of this threatened species of eagle i.e. Los Merinos Golf, will by definition have a very real and negative affect on the area’s tourism, economy and people.

If you would like a guide day tour of the Serranía de Ronda to see Bonelli’s Eagle, Griffon Vulture, and other bird species of the Serranía, we recommend Peter Jones from Spanish Nature. Some locations of Bonelli’s Eagle may be difficult to reach, and for ecological reasons many locations are a closely guarded secret. Contact Peter beforehand for advice on health requirements for walkers. Twitchers wanting to see particular birds are very welcome.

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Fuente de Piedra, Flamingoes, and the Andalucian Bird Society

Last Saturday the 24th April, an enthusiastic group of 21 members and guests from the Andalucían Bird Society met at Fuente de Piedra, near to Campillos for their monthly field meeting.

Organised by Peter Jones, the birding group met in the car park near the visitor centre, and with scopes and cameras in hand, made their way through the lagoon walking tracks to watch the magnificent greater flamingoes that nest at Fuente de Piedra every year.

As recently as 2008 a major drought in the area saw nesting flamingoes plummet to just a few handful, but this year Peter told Ronda Today the numbers are back up to their highest levels, in excess of 30,000 birds, and in many places they can be viewed close to the edge of the lagoon which is almost full after the rains of 2010.

The Fuente de Piedra lagoon is an area of major natural significance, and has recently undergone significant renovations with a new visitor centre, carpark, and walking tracks, as well as fencing to keep people and dogs away from the birds; all in all a birders paradise.

The lagoon itself is saline, at its deepest not more than a metre deep, and is fed by fresh water springs, however the water passes through mineral salt deposits, giving the lake a low salt index. In Roman times the townsfolk from Antequera (20km away) were known to visit the lagoon to bathe and recuperate, whilst in the 16th century the city of Antequera built a renal spa on its shores.

Migratory birds frequently stop at Fuente de Piedra, including the greater flamingo for which the lagoon is the largest breeding ground in Iberia. Each year hundreds of young flamingoes are ringed as part of global conservation efforts.

Here’s the list of species seen on the day by ABS members;
Wood Sandpiper, Black winged stilt, Marsh Harrier, House sparrow, Greater Flamingo, Barn swallow, Little Stint, Little Ringed Plover, Ringed Plover, Cm Sandpiper, Spotless Starling, Mallard, Gull-billed Tern, Pochard, Moorhen, Avocet, Mongrel duck, Yellow wagtail, Coot, Ruff, Squacco Heron, Gadwall, Gt Spotted Cuckoo, Crested Lark, Sand Martin, Gt Crested Grebe, Spanish Sparrow, Lssr Kestrel, Goldfinch, Red Crested Pochard, Green Sandpiper, Reed Warbler, Little Grebe, Stonechat, Kentish Plover, Lssr Black-backed Gull, Yellow legged Gull, Black Headed Gull, Purple Heron, Montague’s Harrier (m), Little Egret, Black necked Grebe, Garganey, Bee Eater, Turtle Dove, Cm Swift, Pallid Swift, House Martin, Red-rumped Swallow, Collared Dove, Corn Bunting, Shoveller, Woodchat Shrike, Greenfinch, Serin, Lapwing, Whiskered Tern, Black Tern, White Wagtail, Short Toed Eagle.

Please help support conservation and promote birdwatching in Andalucia by joining the Andalucía Bird Society

Autumn Mandrake near Ronda

The Autumn Mandrake

The mandragora autumnalis is an autumn and winter flowering beauty here in Andalucia and is a plant totally surrounded in myth and folklore. The mandrake belongs to the Solanaceae or Potato family and has been mentioned over the centuries many times, even in the Bible it was noted as an aphrodisiac.

From September to March it can be seen in olive groves, in fields or even along the verges growing as a large clump of enormous dark green leaves. If you take a closer look you will see the wonderful lilac-pink crocus like flowers, often 10-30 on a single plant and after flowering there are enormous yellow/orange seedpods.

It has a taproot of 90cm-1.20m (3-4 feet) long, often forked and said to resemble a woman with an enormous hairdo. If you are a Harry Potter fan you will recognise the mandrake from the Herbology classes at Hogwarts! You’ll find the plant in numerous sites, from Sierra de Grazalema, Canete La Real to Olvera, you just need to get out there and have a look.

It is said that in Medieval England it grew beneath the gallows of murderers and sprang up from their sperm, but woe betide anyone who tried to dig up the plant. It was said that the taproot would scream, driving mad the person trying to excavate it so, eventually, they learnt to tie dogs to the roots to pull them out. Of course it didn’t matter if the poor dogs died mad.

In the Harry Potter book the young magicians have to wear ear-mufflers to protect their ears and to stop them from going mad. The root itself is highly toxic, it is rich in alkaloids, for example scopolamine and atropine and therefore anyone playing around with it could very likely kill himself or someone else! It is probably best appreciated through the lens of a camera.

Manuals of Magic say that the root of the mandrake wrapped in silk and kept in a chest will ensure that you are never short of money (I must get around to trying this one day). There is also a saying in some parts of England that if you manage to keep a mandrake plant for 7 years it will turn into a child! This child will follow you everywhere and do your bidding! I don’t think I will give it a try thank you very much.

For more information on the wildlife of our area please see www.spanishnature.com

Andalucían Alpacas in the Snow

Andalucían Alpacas in the Snow

Nigel and Ginny Cobb, a local couple who pioneered Alpaca breeding in Andalucía sent us this photo of their Alpacas sitting under a tree when the first snow arrived in Ronda a few days ago.

Their fibre keeps them warm and so long as they can get food (Nigel and Ginny go round with avena every day) they are quite happy.

Alpacas are originally found in South America but seem to thrive in Spanish conditions and their hair makes an excellent wool. Apart from Nigel and Ginny Cobb between Arriate and Setenil, there are also other breeders near Arriate and two breeders near Gaucín.

Nigel and Ginny are quite happy to meet people who might be interested in seeing their Alpacas, meetings can be arranged on their property near Ronda, and they often exhibit their Alpacas at local agricultural shows.

Too learn more, visit the Andalucían Alpaca website.

Griffon Vulture Soaring

Griffon Vulture of the Serranía

A colossus in our mountains! With a wingspan of 2.8 metres and weighing 8 kilos, that’s 9 foot and 17lbs in old money, Griffon Vultures Gyps fulvus is our largest resident raptor here in the Serranía de Ronda and Sierra de Grazalema.

Essentially a specialist carrion eater, this enormous bird is spectacular and the most easily seen raptor in our mountains. Throughout Spain, this species has increased steadily over the past 15 years by the provision of feeding stations, the last official census carried out to ascertain the number of breeding birds put the population at 17,000 pairs.

EU legislation threatened the status quo with the banning of artificial feeding stations. With the advent of mad cow disease (BSE), legislation was introduced requiring all dead carcases to be incinerated limiting the possibility of any further cross-contamination of this disease.

The affect upon many areas was a disaster for Griffon Vulture populations and other carrion eating birds. In fact, some Griffon Vultures, normally a placid bird, took to attacking livestock where feeding stations were closed! Happily, due to pressure from various conservation and agricultural organisations, feeding stations are now to be permitted again and will be regulated to include fenced off compounds sited more than 500 metres away from human habitation. Of course all carcases will have to have been tested negative for BSE!!!

Many visitors (and possibly those living in the area) find identification of raptors difficult and confusing. With 4 breeding species of eagle and other large raptors in the area, then I think this is not surprising! However, as far as our Griffon Vultures are concerned, identification is made less difficult if we take account of its unique flight silhouette. Next time you see this bird in flight, either at close quarters or in the distance, make a note of the almost total lack of tail in relation to overall size.

The depth of wing (leading to trailing edge) is very much greater than tail length. In many other raptors the tail is as long as the depth of wing. You could say, when in the air, Griffon Vultures look rather like a huge flying moustache!

Our local breeding population of circa 600 pairs and probably as many non-breeding birds, make this area one of the most important in Europe for Griffon Vultures. Perhaps not the best looking of birds, whilst perched or feeding, seeing these birds in flight is a natural wonder. They are among the best aviators in the bird world, using up-draughts and thermals to perfection.

In common with many large birds, Griffons save energy by finding airflows which reduce the need for the flapping of their wings. In fact, apart from take-off and landing, it is rare to see these giants of the skies flap their wings. Young birds can take 6 years to mature sufficiently to become breeding birds and this makes their adolescence one of the most protracted of all birds.

Adults can live beyond thirty years and once established in an area will rarely venture far from their home territories. Non-breeding birds however will range over wide areas, with some choosing to venture as far a field as Africa.

This article is provided by Peter Jones as part of Ronda Today’s series of birdwatching articles. Help support bird conservation in Andalucía and join the Andalucían Bird Society.