Sunday, 23 December 2007


As often as not when in Spain I awake with every intention to go off birding somewhere, but this resolve frequently lasts only as long as it takes me to investigate the view from the terrace. To a large degree this is because it is simply the most convenient spot from which to see raptors. To date I’ve seen seventeen bird of prey species from the terrace (Griffon & Egyptian Vultures, Osprey, Short-toed & Booted Eagles, Red and Black Kite, Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers, Common and Honey Buzzards, Goshawk, Sparrowhawk, Common and Lesser Kestrels, Hobby and Peregrine). Frustratingly I’ve had Hen Harrier fly over the edge of the village plus Black-winged Kite, Bonelli’s Eagle and Merlin within a few minutes drive Although my maximum species total for any one day has been “only” 12 species, the numbers of birds seen must run into hundreds. Lesser Kestrels often provide much of the entertainment and the chance of good views of this charismatic little falcon that draw me to the terrace and the lure of passing migrant birds of prey that keeps me there.

Being big broad winged birds vultures don’t tend to be early risers (another advantage!) and generally drift into sight mid or late morning. This isn’t always the case as one memorable morning on 10th April 2007 demonstrated. I padded up to the terrace at about 8:00 without any expectation of seeing much more than Spotless Starlings and Lesser Kestrels particularly since the early morning mist had yet to dissipate. Both the expected birds were sitting in the trees opposite, but I was astonished to see Griffons circling round beneath the low cloud and even some sitting in trees below. In all some 200 birds were loafing about around the house. Even when the sun came out they stayed around to fly low over – and below – the terrace. It was a bizarre experience to look out of the downstairs windows and see one of these huge birds pass by at eye level!

In most birds in flight the head is held more or less level with the body, but with Griffon Vulture the long neck allows it to be carried well below the body line. This clear adaptation to their lifestyle isn’t obvious on most views since you tend to see them as they sail effortlessly above. That morning as they paraded past the terrace not only did they demonstrate the extraordinarily good view they had of what passed below them, but also, somewhat disconcertingly, swivelled their head and neck to get a better look at what was behind them! They might look big in most circumstances, but at that range they were damn enormous! It was a relief to reflect that they prefer their food to be dead before they move in!

Although this encounter with such a large number of low flying vultures was remarkable, seeing them glide low over the house isn’t too unusual. In fact, I’ve never seen them so close anywhere else. This is another reason to stay put along with the fact that one of the earliest records of Rüppell’s Vulture in Spain was from Alcala. Naturally, it helps that there’s a constant supply of food and drink nearby!

Saturday, 15 December 2007

The Molinos Valley

The Molinos valley stretches east from the edge of the village into the Alcornocales Natural park. Although the drover’s road here once went all the way to Jimena, it now only takes you to the head of the valley (about an hour’s walk from the village). Here a path continues path up into the hills to the old ruined mills that give the valley its name. There’s a sizable vulture roost in the rocky peaks at the far end of the valley. This makes it a good place to see Griffons all year round, but particularly when numbers are low elsewhere. As may be expected these low mountains are good for other raptors; Egyptian Vulture, Booted, Short-toed Eagle, Buzzard, Peregrine, etc. However, the real prize here is Bonelli’s Eagle. Although they can be elusive I’ve had more sightings here than anywhere else locally. It also holds Barn, Tawny and Little Owl whilst it’d hard to imagine some of those rocky bluffs don’t harbour the odd Eagle Owl! The valley also seems to be a natural funnel for migrants. Flocks of Bee-eaters, hirundines and various small passerines certainly seem to channel through here in good numbers. Indeed my only local records of Tawny Pipit, Great-spotted Cuckoo and Rock Sparrow have been here. In spring and summer Woodchat Shrike are abundant and Southern Grey Shrike occasional. Look out too for Black-eared Wheatear at the entrance to the valley as this is the most regular site that I’ve found for them in the area. Sardinian Warblers and Black Redstarts are common and Stonechat ubiquitous.

At the far end there’s a small venta which, despite serving indifferent coffee, is always packed at the weekends so might be worth exploring for lunch. (There’s also a large camp site here). Beyond the venta, the road rapidly degenerates into a rough track before it reaches an old gate and the track gives way to a footpath. After heavy rain the claggy clay here makes it almost impassable, but when dry this is a terrific walk. Look extra carefully at those Crested Larks here as some of them are actually Theklas! The path is tightly hemmed in by rocky extrusions to the left and a stream to the right, but fortunately the path is sandy here. The rocks to the left usually hold Blue Rock Thrush although they nest below the castle in the village, the birds here are often easier to see. As you reach an open area the clayey subsoil returns to make progress difficult after heavy rain. This isn’t a bad spot to stop for a picnic if you don’t want to walk any further. Look out for Cirl Buntings here.

However, if you want to go further then bear to the left of a large, incongruous Scots Pine and follow a narrowing path towards craggy topped hills. When you get high on the flanks of the hillside the path seems to be a dead-end, but if you look closely the path corkscrews and squeezes between rocks to take you to the narrowest of clefts in the rocks. This is a terrific spot to pause and admire the view. It’s also a place to ponder how many past generations have walked this way. Look carefully at the crags as I’ve had ibex here. The path then drops down towards the old water mills. This is an even better spot for a picnic! The path crosses the stream and continues upwards towards a forest road, but it becomes much less distinct here and this is as far as I’ve gone.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Not just birds!

OK I'll admit that I'm not the all-round naturalist that I'd like to be, but every so often I do look at other kinds of wildlife! Admitedly the mammal list from the terrace is pretty feeble compared to the bird list - three "species" of bat (pipistrelle sp., noctule sp. and that big low flying one) and, if I can count dead animals, one shrew sp (it was dangling from a Lesser Kestrel's bill!).

However, if you look there are things to see. That said, a good few of the wild rabbits I've seen here have been on large plates next to a pile of chips (Venta Puerto de Gallis is reknown for its game). Still, it's good to see them about since, after all, it's the animal that gave Spain it's name. Hares are a bit less frequent, but as most authorities reckon they're a seperate species, Iberian Hare, worth catching up with if your fanatical lister. Predators I've seen include Fox (much less easily seen than in the UK), Otter (once) and Mongoose (three times), but the mountains are supposed to harbour Genet & Beech Martin. One surprise recently was seeing some Ibex at the far end of the Molinos valley - according to the relevant Spanish atlas they shouldn't be there! With the nearest population over in the Grazelema Natural park.

The mammilian highlight, though, is a trip out into the straits from Tarifa for cetaceans - Bottle-nosed & Common & Dolphins, Pilot and Killer Whales.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Boring bits about the the house ....

Above left is an incomplete view of the terrace - there were a table and four chairs behind me when I took the photo. Whenever possible (which is most days) we eat here enjoying a cool breakfastin the morning and fabulous sunset views in the evening. To the right (above) and to the left are two views of the the downstairs room. One looks towards the stairs and the other towards the kitchen area. The kitchen has a hob with four gas rings, a toaster and a microwave. There is also all the cultlery, plates, etc that you need. Set up for two, the table can be moved into the kitchen so you can enjoy the view when you eat. Don't worry if it's raining (which isn't often) as the table opens out to seat four people. In the 'living area' there's a large coffee table (with masses of information on the area stored on its lower shelf) and a small stereo system. There are a dozen or so CDs (inc. one of Spanish birdsong!), but fortunately the stereo plays recordable CDs. A shelf on the stairwell houses field guides to birds, plants, butterflies and mammals plus various 'Where to watch ...' guides.

First left is the main bedroom which has a double bed - despite the angle it's a good sized room with a chest of draws, a wardrobe and a large armchair.

Second left is the twin bedded room which also has a wardrobe. Both rooms share the panoramic view with the terrace although views of Lesser Kestrel are better from the main bedroom!
The bathroom and a large corridor is also on this floor. The former has all the usual utilities (inc. a full sized bath) whilst the corridor has room for a couple of chairs - often a pleasantly cool place to sit on a hot day.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

A stroke of luck!

A few years back Liz and I were holidaying in Gaucin and, hoping for a good lunch at a rustic venta we headed into the mountains. Naturally, this being Sunday afternoon, the venta was packed and we couldn't get a table. Now ravenously hungry, we continued on our journey towards the nearest village - Alcala de los Gazules. Here we found an excellent meal at Pizarro's and, despite the rain, were very struck by the view from the top of the village. Accordingly when we were out in Spain again we gravitated back to Alcala and weren't disappointed. If the village still managed to look charming in the rain, then it looked positively stunning in the sunshine. Not only did we find the view, but also some very obliging Lesser Kestrels to watch. This seemed to amuse one of the locals who witnessed, from his terrace, my antics in the street below as I tried to photograph the birds. As we turned away I looked enviously at the small house with such a fantastic view and commented that it would make a fabulous home for a birdwatcher. The journey back to Gaucin as the light began to fail, a thunderstrom crashed about us, hailstones whitened the road and reduced visibility to nil feet was an utter nightmare.

However, the memory of the handsome little village persisted. When, a year or more later when we unexpectedly found ourselves in a position to buy a house in Spain, we knew we had to go out and look in Alcala. In a morning trudging round the village we'd seen a couple of pleasant properties, but our guide told us of one more we had to see that afternoon. As we walked up the road that afternoon to our incredulous disbelief, we paused outside that same house to be told that this was the property we were to see. Few estate agents can have made such an easy sale, but once we'd seen the view from the terrace (see the photo above) we'd no doubt that we'd found the right place!

Tumbling Lesser Kestrels

One of the highlights of staying in our house in Alcala for me are the Lesser Kestrels. Despite being largely summer visitors to Europe, a few of these charismatic birds are present throughout the winter around Alcala. Come February - which is hardly the spring let alone the height of summer - they can be present in good numbers. With 40 or 50 over the whole village there are often a few dozen bouncing around above the terrace at this time. Keeping up a cheerful chatter, constantly playing tag and so full of energy that they constantly race across the skies, they bear an uncanny resemblance to a mob of small children in a school playground! One favourite trick is for the adult males to dive bomb rivals as the hover. There's little doubt that these lads are showing off to the ladies! Superb views can be obtained of the birds as they perch on the trees opposite the house particularly from the bathroom. You do get some strange looks, though, as you scuttle up to the loo armed with binoculars, camera and telephoto lens!