Category Archives: Alcornocales Natural Park

Breakfast with Lesser Kestrels

Jimena de la Frontera

I can’t think of  a better way to start a Sunday morning in March than to have an al fresco, or should that be an al aire libre, breakfast with friends in the Plaza of a Spanish Pueblo Blanco in the sunshine. Unless that is, you have all of the above with the added indulgence of some brilliant birdwatching without having to stir from your seat, which surely makes it almost blissful.

The Coat of Arms of Jimena features the Castle

Our breakfast venue is located in Jimena’s Plaza de la Constitutíon, the central large open public space that is typical of most Spanish towns and villages. The Plaza has been modernised and is attractively paved and furnished with trees, including Seville Oranges some of which currently have fruit and exquisitely-scented blossom, around its edges. The surrounding buildings are original, with whitewashed exteriors as befits a Pueblo Blanco and mostly used as commercial premises. The standout feature of the Plaza in more ways than one, is the tall historic Torre Campanario, or Bell Tower. More about that later, first, breakfast.

Plaza de la Constitucion and el Torre Campanario

We headed for the Bar de Tapas Pastor 2, perfect for us as it has plenty of outdoor tables – who wants to be indoors on a sunny, if cool Spring morning? And as I mentioned earlier, this is a great spot for birdwatching. Jimena lies beneath one of the main flying routes of vast numbers of migrating birds, many of which at this time of year are returning to their breeding grounds after wintering in Africa. Whilst chatting and waiting for breakfast we had already seen overhead White Storks, three Booted Eagles and a Short-toed Eagle. At this point, not far from their crossing point over the Straits of Gibraltar, and at this time on a cool day the birds are flying relatively low and seeking thermals that will lift and carry them without the need for energy-consuming wing flapping. Perfect for some close-up views with binoculars.

Breakfast arrived; huge slices of toasted fresh bread with garlic to rub on it before sprinkling with olive oil and loading it with jamón, queso and luscious flavourful sliced tomato sprinkled with herbs. All this accompanied with fresh orange juice and cups of good café con leche that looks milky and innocent but delivers an effective awakening caffeine hit. Simple but perfect. And served by the attentive proprietor who seemed to think we needed  feeding up and kept offering us more!

From our table we had an uninterrupted view to the afore-mentioned Torre Campanario – the Bell Tower, which we were watching in anticipation of seeing some of the special birds that return here each Spring to take up residence and raise their families alongside the pigeons: Lesser Kestrels.

The information in Spanish, loosely translated, tells that the Tower is all that remains of a former church. The first reference to the Church is from 1690 and found in the book of Fray Jerónimo de la Concepción, where he speaks of Cadiz and its Province. The original building was founded during the 17th century as the Church of San Sebastian, which was changed to the Church of Saint Mary in the last third of the 18th century. In 1736 records show the poor state of the building due to the deterioration of the multiple layers of clay of the slope on which the town sits. Such was the gravity and danger of collapse that the building was demolished in 1947, leaving only the bell tower which remained sound.

El Torre Campanario

Construction of the Tower followed the architectural tradition of other churches in the area, such as the Tower of the present Church of la Victoria and the towers that rose in the monastery of Los Angeles. The lower part of the Tower is completely flat, rendered and whitewashed, while the upper part of the Bell Tower is made from brick. My observation: Those bricks are tiny and must have taken a lot of work to manufacture and to lay. There are other decorative embellishments around the top of the Tower which have been worn down over time but are still visible if you look closely. I love the colours and textures of this ancient construction. 

Back to the present and we were delighted to see the Tower now had living embellishments in the shape of a pair of beautiful Lesser Kestrels.

Lesser Kestrel – Falco naumanni – Cernícalo Primilla

Lesser Kestrels are summer migrants to Iberia, returning to breed here during March/April after wintering in Africa and south-east Asia, where most will return in August/September. They are gregarious birds that nest colonially and there are often several pairs flying around and in and out of the Bell Tower here in Jimena, but today we saw just this one pair. No complaints though as the lack of numbers was more than made up for in the quality and length of the sightings we had today, giving us the perfect opportunity to get some brilliant close-up views.

Small birds of prey, the Lesser Kestrel closely resembles the larger Common Kestrel but has a proportionally shorter tail and wings.

The male was absorbed in some intense preening which gave us some lovely close-up views of his fanned-out tail feathers. In the next photograph you can see some of the grey patches in his wings and that the talons of his outstretched foot are a creamy yellow colour, a diagnostic feature of this species that you don’t often see; the talons of other falcon species are dark in colour.

The male Lesser Kestrel has a grey head and tail as does the Common Kestrel, but the Lesser doesn’t have the dark spotting on the back or the black cheek stripe of the Common. As I already mentioned the Lesser Kestrel also has grey patches in his wings which the Common Kestrel does not.

The female Lesser Kestrel is larger than the male. She may weigh up to 170g, he around 130g. She too resembles the female Common Kestrel but she and the young birds of this species are slightly paler. Their differing calls and size may (or may not) help to separate them out in the field, but their behaviour and location are often the most help.

Lesser Kestrel female showing clearly her yellow talons – in other falcon species they are dark

From their behaviour it would seem likely that the pair haven’t nested yet. It’s still quite early in the season and there may well be other members of their colony still to arrive back.

What a beautiful couple they made. Let’s hope they went on to raise an equally beautiful family and that they will make this spot their Summer home for many years to come.

A handsome pair

ECOLOGY & STATUS 

Lesser Kestrels breed throughout the Mediterranean region and across to Central Asia. They are found in a variety of habitats including Steppe, farmland and in towns. Globally the species is widespread and plentiful and is classed by the IUCN as of Least Concern. However, throughout Iberia, where they were once an abundant breeding bird, Lesser Kestrel numbers have declined sharply during the past 30 years. It would seem likely that this is due to the increased use of insecticides on both breeding grounds here and in their African wintering areas. The bird feeds largely on insects and a marked reduction in the availability of this prey would undoubtedly have a huge impact on them.

 

 

Asphodels

In Greek mythology, the Asphodel is one of the most famous of the plants connected with the dead and the underworld: the Asphodel Meadows is a section of the ancient Greek underworld where ordinary souls were sent to live after death. The Oxford English Dictionary gives Homer as the source for the English poetic tradition of describing the meadows of the afterlife as being covered in Asphodel. The flower has been referenced by many romantic post-Renaissance poets including Milton, Tennyson, Longfellow and even more recently, Leonard Cohen.  

Members of the lily family, Asphodels are tall elegant but robust plants with tuberous roots and leafless stems rising above tufts of leaves that are long flat and narrow and taper to a point. The flowers are starry and white There are several species that look similar to one another, but in Southern Spain and Gibraltar the two most likely to be seen are the Common Asphodel and the White Asphodel.

Common Asphodel-Asphodelus aestivus (microcarpus)

Flowering January to March

Mainly a lowland plant, the Common Asphodel can be found in a range of habitats including coastal, light woodland, roadsides, rocky slopes and garrigue.


A medium to tall plant that often reaches up to 1m high. It has tuberous roots, which provide a firm anchor and store moisture. The leaves are long flat and strap-like, keeled beneath, 12-30mm wide and grey- green in colour.

The flowers are held in a much-branched inflorescence that puts me in mind of a slightly wonky candelabra; individual flowers are star-shaped, white and has 6 petals, or tepals,  each striped with a pinky brown midvein. Fruit is a small oblong capsule, less than 1cm across.

One of my all-time favourite sights of Common Asphodel is this one taken at El Faro, Alcaidesa where the background is of gloriously scented golden gorse, blue sky and an even bluer Mediterranean Sea.

Common Asphodel at El Faro, Alcaidesa, Cadiz

Common Asphodel- Punto de Canero, Straits of Gibraltar coast (March)

Common Asphodel in woodland clearing of El Picacho, Cadiz (March)

Common Asphodel can sometimes be seen covering large areas of open uncultivated fields. It’s unpalatable to animals, which graze around and between the plants; spot the cow doing just that in the left of the photograph below.

Common Asphodel covering a large field, La Janda, Cadiz (February)

I love this glimpse I got of a Cattle Egret tiptoeing stealthily through the forest of leaves.

Cattle Egret tiptoeing through a field of Common Asphodel, La Janda, Cadiz

White Asphodel Asphodelus albus Es: Gamon

Flowering March to June.

The White Asphodel also grows in a variety of habitats, in seasonally damp places, open woodland, meadows at low altitudes and is commonest in the hills and mountains.

White Asphodel-Mediterranean Steps, Gibraltar (March)

Similar in stature to the Common Asphodel, White Asphodel also reaches heights of up to 1 metre tall and has tuberous roots. The leaves are basal, linear, slightly grey-green, channelled and taper to a point at the tip. The flowers are borne in a dense, simple spike-like raceme; individual buds have a narrow brown midvein which may be less marked on the starry white petals; bracts are usually  dark brown. Fruits are almost round capsules.

I took my first photographs of this striking plant toward the end of a memorable walk around El Cabrito mountain. It was growing on the edge of a made track, bright sunshine cast the plant’s shadow onto the adjacent rock and also made it tricky to get a clear image of the bright white flowers.

White Asphodel, El Cabrito mountain (April)

Thankfully the varied greens of  heather and pine trees in the background helped the flower spikes stand out.

We came upon it again on El Bujeo mountain, which neighbours El Cabrito but has a different aspect and character. Here it was growing in a damp grassy clearing in front of a Rhododendron shrub.

White Asphodel- El Bujeo mountain (May)

And here it is in the forefront of this amazing view from the summit, which looks down over the busy port town of Algeciras and across the Bay to Gibraltar. I took this photograph way back in 2005 since when there has been a lot of development and construction on both the Spanish mainland and on Gibraltar itself, but I’m sure the view remains stunning.

Uses for Asphodel

The leaves are used to wrap burrata, an Italian cheese. The leaves and the cheese last about the same time, three or four days, so fresh leaves are a sign of a fresh cheese, while dried out leaves indicate that the cheese is past its best.

Although left alone by animals, the starchy tubers are just about edible by people and are known to have been used as food by poorer people, in times of  hardship and need; hence such food was thought good enough for the slaves.

Medicinally the Asphodel was supposedly a remedy for poisonous snake-bites and a specific against sorcery; it was fatal to mice, but preserved pigs from disease.

Libyan nomads made their huts of asphodel stalks.

 

Sources: Wildflowers of Southern  Spain – Betty Molesworth Allen; Mediterranean Wild Flowers-Marjorie Blamey; The Flowers of Gibraltar-Leslie Linares, Arthur Harper & John Cortes; Wikipaedia

Photographs: All my own work!

A hunt for early Orchids

Friday 1st April

My friends  generously rescued me from an otherwise lonely weekend and invited me to stay with them at their home near Jimena, which along with the hospitality also presented the opportunity to catch up with some of what is happening in that part of the countryside. As I’ve said before, I love the drive from Sotogrande down to the Jimena road always, but at this time of year it can be particularly special. I  was not disappointed, driving over last evening with the car windows down I heard plentiful snatches of songs of newly-arrived Nightingale and then reaching the bottom stretch of the road, the air was filled with the uplifting and heady perfume of orange blossom; a heavenly combination.

Later on we took a short walk down to the river where another Nightingale was singing from a tree at the top of the high bank that is surrounded by scrubby shrubbery and a tangled mass of brambles, another heavenly combination, but for the bird this time. There were Cetti’s Warblers calling from both sides of the river too, but as usual offered us only very brief glimpses of themselves as they dashed between covers.

Saturday 2nd April

We set off this morning with a bit of a list of things we hoped to see during the course of the day. We were heading up to Gaucín, our primary purpose being to seek Orchids, but then I also had a yen to find out if the Bee-eaters had returned yet to the nest-site I knew to be just beyond Jimena Estacion and additionally to maybe a  sighting of a Woodchat Shrike. A little greedy maybe, but I was anticipating leaving the country for a few weeks and hoping to see as much as possible before then; by the time I return the freshness of spring will have already passed into early summer.

The 'white town' of Gaucin nestles into the mountainside watched over by its castle

Our orchid hunt was to be along the same track we explored last April where we discovered a varied selection of the flowers.  That was on the 17th of the month, a couple of weeks later than now, so thought we may be too early, but we were delighted to discover an even better, fresher display today.

Spiny Broom, Grey-leaved Cistus, Periwinkle

Walking along this track on a sunny spring day is like walking through a beautiful wild garden, shrubs and flowers compete for the best patches of ground amongst the rocky terrain of the mountainside, interweaving to create artfully full and colourful displays that only pure nature could imagine. A photograph can only hope to highlight a tiny detail of the wholly glorious sight, no amount of words or pictures  can do it justice, you really have to get out there and experience it if you can.

Grey-leaved Cistus

The petals of the pretty flowers of the cistus resemble crumpled paper and last only a few brief hours. This one is being devoured by a chafer, its hairs stained with bright yellow pollen.

Blue Alkanet

A Yellow Anemone, Anemone palmatum hosts a murder scene- a tiny spider preying upon a hoverfly

A view of the mountains in the direction of another white town, neighbouring Casares

The Orchids

Some of the orchids are soberly coloured and surprisingly difficult to spot, until you’ve found the first ones.Once we began to pick them out today we were surprised by their numbers, there were a lot more individual plants than we had seen last year and some impressively large colonies too. There were very good numbers of Mirror Orchids, an attractive and distinctive species that is easy to identify.

Mirror Orchid

A large colony of Mirror Orchids together with other Ophrys species, growing in dry gravelly soil at the side of the track

Also plentiful, the Yellow Ophrys is again distinctive and unlikely to be confused with anything else.

Yellow Ophrys

Sombre Bee Orchid-Ophrys fusca

The Sombre Orchid (or Dull Ophrys) also grows abundantly here. First impressions are of a slender plant, often taller than the Mirror or Yellow Orchids. They have a dark-coloured lip and a two- lobed blue speculum. There are also other species growing alongside them that have a similar appearance, but that have subtle differences. One such is Ophrys iricolor

Ophrys iricolor is similar to Ophrys fusca

The two species are  very similar in their general appearance, but when you look closely you can see there are differences, most noticeably Ophrys iricolor has a more squared speculum with different patterning.

The species also cross-pollinate and produce sub-species, so there are even more variations to be found, but naming them is another thing!

Quite unique, the fascinating Man Orchid is easy to identify:

The Man Orchid is unlikely to be confused with any other species

There were fewer specimens of the pretty and more showy Sawfly orchid to be found, but we did find a few, including this lovely large fresh specimen sited on a rocky slope and with other species behind it.

Sawfly Orchid

There was so much to enjoy on this walk, the warm sunshine, the glorious sight and wonderful scent of masses  of golden flowered broom, the orchids and other early spring flowers and then an unexpected bird treat. Sitting quietly for a few minutes while I was photographing flowers, Jill heard two birds calling to one another as they worked their way towards us through the branches of a pine tree. When one popped out of cover she saw they were Crested Tits; I arrived to get a quick glimpse and a very quick photograph just before the second one flew out and away.

A little Crested Tit amongst the cones of a pine tree

Griffon Vultures circling overhead are very much a feature of this mountainous area and we had several sightings of them today. We also saw a few other migrant raptors including Black Kites, Short-toed and Booted Eagles. We were pleased to hear our first Cuckoo and when we first arrived a Nightingale, but   Sardinian Warblers were our most seen and heard birds throughout our time here today.

(For further details of Orchids, including scientific names etc, please see page listed under Flora)

Glorious spring flora

7th March 2011

Following last Saturday’s high the week’s temperatures rapidly descended back to winter lows and we had rainy days, climaxing over the weekend with torrential downpours and thunderstorms. I have only ventured out for short walks during pleasanter parts of days, so for now I thought I’d do an update on some of the most commonly found plants that are presently flowering throughout the region.

Beautiful flowering shrubs and plants, many of which are widely cultivated and grown, or attempted to be grown in gardens throughout Europe, flourish here in some seemingly inhospitable places. Most thrive in a variety of different habitats, on dry sandy and often stony soils, in salty air by the sea and on rocky slopes. The plants compensate for the lack of available moisture with leaves that help to conserve it, these may be thick and felted, tough and leathery or needle-like. Many also protect themselves from being eaten by grazing animals with sharp spines or by producing chemicals that make them unpalatable. They flower early in the season to allow time to set seed before the summer drought begins.

Shrubs

SPINY BROOM – Calicotome villosa

An uplifting sight of bright yellow broom against a blue sky and sea

Shrubs are covered in a profusion of blossom

Flowering: February to April (May)

Habitat: Open spaces, especially dry hillsides with Genista and Gorse bushes and often in coastal places close to the sea.

A very spiny shrub that is often confused with gorse. The flowers are a rich yellow colour, very scented and are so profuse that when they are fully out they hide the leaves. The flowers almost always come out at the same time and a mass of the shrubs growing together is a spectacular sight. The formidable spines are 3-4cm long,  straight and tough, at the tips of the short leafy twigs and remain on dead wood.

*The spiny branches are so complexly interwoven that a stand of the shrubs is almost impenetrable and in the past, goatherds would cut bushes to use as fencing to corral their goats.

FRENCH LAVENDERLavandula stoechas

French Lavender – Lavandula stoechas

The colourful 'petals' at the top of each flower-head are actually bracts, the flowers are tiny and purple.

Flowering: Nearly all year round, but flowering is most profuse from late February to April/May.
Habitat: I used to struggle to grow this lovely plant in Wales, but here it grows in a wide variety of habitats. It is very common in sandy and acid soils; also in limestone areas, in light woods or in open places amongst open larger shrubs.
French Lavender is  a small woody perennial shrublet : all parts of the plant are slightly aromatic. The leaves are pale to mid grey-green, softly hairy and pointed. The flowers appear in elongated heads that are topped with purple to lilac or pink bracts varying in shape and length from about 1-2.5cm long. The flowers are tiny and usually purple in colour.
*During the intense heat of summer the normally pleasant scent of the plant tends to alter, taking on an almost ‘goaty’ scent. It is a very old medicinal plant and its essential oil was used here as an  antiseptic forwashing wounds.

A plant growing in light woodland amongst limestone rocks

TREE GERMANDER: Teucrium fruticans

TREE GERMANDER- Teucrium fruticans

Most common colour of this species are very plae lilac and almost white

Flowering: January to June

Habitat: A very common plant in a wide variety of habitats, woods, heaths, thickets, open spaces with other shrubs from the coast to mountains, on any soil type.
Tree Germander is a woody shrub that may reach a height of 2m, but usually much less. The leaves have  short stalks and are arranged in opposite pairs; the upper surfaces of fresher leaves is slightly downy, the undersides white felted.  The flowers are usually out two at a time on a twig end; colour is variable from pure white though pale lilac, pinkish or pale blue-lilac, very rarely dark blue. The plant is frequently cultivated, especially the deep sapphire-blue flowered form which originated in North Africa.
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Climbers

DUTCHMAN’S PIPEAristolochia baetica
 

DUTCHMAN'S PIPE -Aristolochia baetica

FLOWERING: Over a long period from autumn to early spring.

The plant takes its common name from the shape of its flowers

HABITAT: In almost any soil and a wide range of habitats, often in semi-shade on woodland edges, but also in more open places where it has support.

Dutchman’s Pipe is a robust, tall hairless creeping plant that will clamber high into trees, through shrubs or along the ground. The leaves are dull, blue-green and attractively heart-shaped.The flowers are about 7cm long, curved and a dull red-purple to brownish-red in colour: the plant takes its name from their  curious shape that are designed to entice in insects  to pollinate them, holding them captive until the job is done.

*The roots of the plant have been used in Spain since at least the 16th century for reducing fever.

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Bulbs & corms

STAR OF BETHLEHEMOrnithogalum orthophyllum (collinum)

STAR OF BETHLEHEM

FLOWERING: Feb/March to April/May

HABITAT: A variety of locations including light woodland, grassy roadsides, rocky ground and sandy coastal places.

A beautiful bulbous perennial with quite large star-shaped white flowers, 30-40mm across. Commonly cultivated.

ONE-LEAVED SQUILL, SCILLAScilla monophyllus

FLOWERING: Feb/March to April/ May

HABITAT: Light woodland, sandy and stony places.

A pretty, delicate-looking small bulbous perennial that produces a single long basal leaf that often bends over from the middle so the tip reaches the ground. The flowers are bright blue and star shaped, 7-9mm across and are held in compact spikes of 1-12 florets.

ROMULEA-Romulea bulbicodium

FLOWERING: January to March, April in the hills

HABITAT: Not fussy- sandy, stony or heavy rocky soils, open places or in light woods, coastal; very common.

Small, slender plants growing from corms, resembles a small crocus but does not have the deep green leaves with the central white line. Flowers open in the sun and range in colour from almost-white or pale lilac-pink to deep lilac.

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Pretty but pestilential

BERMUDA BUTTERCUPOxalis pes-caprae

Bermuda Buttercup - Pretty but highly invasive

FLOWERING: December to early May, later in hills.

HABITAT: Nearly everywhere, mainly open places, but can quickly become a pest in gardens too; covering fields and roadsides in vast patches and quick to take hold on disturbed ground. In our area it grows in any soil from the coast to limestone crevices at least to 500m.

This enormously successful plant, (not related to buttercups), is a native of South Africa that has naturalised in most Mediterranean countries, in Portugal, Florida & Bermuda and is ever-increasing its range. It does look pretty when it cloaks fields with its soft primrose-yellow coloured flowers, but it is a serious pest, covering many acres of agricultural land. The plants contain oxalic acid are not eaten by domestic animals. It is seriously difficult to eliminate as it has bulbs deeply buried in the ground, and new methods of controlling it are being sought.

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Herbaceous plants

COMMON ASPHODEL- Asphodelus aestivus

Common Asphodel against a background of Spiny Broom & the sea

Ashphodel with fruits & a visiting Violet Carpenter Bee

FLOWERING: January to March, April

HABITAT: Very common and widespread on rocky slopes, waste ground, woodland clearings, open coastal areas.

A tuberous perennial that often forms extensive colonies as it is unpalatable to grazing animals. (See post -GONHS  trip to La Janda) This is a very robust plant with tall stems that can attain 1.5m or more in height.  The flowers are white, 20-30mm across and the tepals have a pink-brown mid-vein. they are born in a much branched inflorescence that resembles a candelabra.

* The roots bear spindle-shaped tubers that are rich in starch, they are just edible and have been used as food in the past; they were also used to make glue.

ANDALUZ STORKSBILL – Erodium primulaceum

Andaluz Storksbill - one of the prettiest of the early flowers

FLOWERING: December to May

HABITAT: Sands, gravel and grassy fields; amongst scrub and in light woods; common across lowlands to hills.

A delightful, small annual plant that may grow to 30cm but is frequently smaller. The leaves are deeply cut and fern-like; the flowers are supported by long thin stalks with 2 to as many as 6 heads to each. Individual flowers are about  2-2.5cm across, with two petals larger than the other three, each having a dark pink mark near its base. The colour of the flowers ranges from pale to mid-pink, occasionally white. In early spring it can be more conspicuous when it forms large patches of pink in fields and on roadsides.

FIELD MARIGOLD – Calendula arvensis

FIELD MARIGOLD -flowers appear in a variety of sizes depending on location

FLOWERING: Almost all year round, but mainlyJanuary to May/June

HABITAT: Sandy, stony soils, often favouring disturbed and cultivated ground. Widespread across the region.

An annual plant with tiny flowers, 1-2cm across that range in colour from bright yellow to orange.

FEDIA – Fedia cornucopiae

Fedia is very attractive to butterflies and bees

FLOWERING: December right through to April/May

HABITAT: Grassy roadsides, damp pastures and disturbed ground.

A small, low-growing and spreading annual, very common and widespread plant and having a very long flowering period. The leaves are oval, quite a dark green and hairless. Flowers are borne on  stems that branch into two at their end, with two leaf-like bracts at the joint; each stem then bears a densely clustered flower-head. Flowers are about 1.5cm long pink to dark red in colour.

BORAGE-Borago officianalis

Borage is a good honey plant and is grown as a culinary herb in gardens

The flowers are gentian blue

FLOWERING: February to May.

HABITAT: Country roadsides, seasonally damp fields in sandy or rubbly soil; often cultivated; mainly located in lowlands.

An annual plant that grows to about 70cm tall, it is much-branched with hollow stems. All parts of the part except the petals are covered with short, sharp and pale-coloured hairs. The leaves have a puckered surface and are variable in size. The deep blue flowers  are held face-down on short bent stalks and are almost scentless, which is a pity as they are quite beautiful.

Common Cranes and so much more at La Janda

12 February 2011

The first GONHS outing of this year took us to La Janda, nr. Tarifa, the place to visit during the winter to see large numbers of Common Cranes and White Storks gathered together as well as a myriad of other wintering and passage birds that are attracted to this rich, open agricultural site. This trip was a little different to our usual outings as we were guided by Stephen Daly, a professional guide who knows the locality inside out, is very aware of  what may be around at any given time and where best to find it. He also has privileged access to areas that are on private land and usually closed off, so although many of us on the trip have visited the area many times before, we were able to view parts of the site that were fresh to us.

A large group of members (21 of us), met up with Stephen at the Apollo XI venta, conveniently located a short way from the entrance to the La Janda site. After coffee and breakfast there was a little shuffling around to find everyone a seat in a 4X4, as the tracks around the site are weather-worn and not particularly friendly to ‘normal’ cars. We set off as a convoy of 6 cars, showing number plates from Gibraltar, Spain and the USA which evoked quite a bit of curiosity amongst other road users throughout the day.

We began our birding quest on land belong to el Cortijo de Haba, scanning the ploughed fields either side of a track. It was cold and quite misty there, but there were still birds to be seen, albeit mostly distantly; we  saw our first Common Cranes flying and quite a few Cormorants crossing back and forth. There were Storks, Cattle and Little Egrets present, a Buzzard hunched up on a distant fence, Red-legged Partridge at the field’s edge, Corn Buntings and Stonechats. We could hear Larks in the bare muddy fields, most likely Crested, but their superb camouflage made them difficult to pick out and although there was movement amongst them flights were low and short and not at all helpful to us.

We drove on to the La Janda site and turned in to be greeted by mist that shrouded the land to either side of us. The first birds we picked out were Lapwings that were flying around despite the reduced visibility that landed in the grassy field to our left.

A damp Cattle Egret stood in the damp mist, shaking out his feathers

The sun, quickly gaining in strength began to burn off the mist and birds began to move around more freely. Perching places are sparse in this part of the site; a sizeable mixed flock of Linnets, Goldfinches & Chaffinches flew into this small bush, with more alighting on the grass stems below to feed on grass seeds.

Birds in a bush-Linnet, Goldfinch & Chaffinch

There was an interesting departure from our usual route at this point; we would have continued driving and made a left turn onto the long main track here, but Stephen had gained permission for us to pass through a post and wire gate to the right, so we left our cars and continued along here on foot.

A spider’s web beaded with water drops sparkled in the sunlight

An old wasps nest attached to the wire fence that was probably concealed by reeds or long grass when it was built

The track leads between fields with the river on one side and a dry ditch on the other. There were numerous Chiffchaffs along here amongst the reeds, Stonechats perched up  atop stems and posts and Corn Buntings sang from the wire fence. Stephen had visited the site during the last week when there were large numbers of Snipe and Common Cranes here, but the field was being ploughed this morning, moving the Cranes on. We did however see Meadow Pipits, a Green Sandpiper and more Lapwings and there were still Snipe  in the field opposite, with Calandra Larks. With binoculars it was possible to see very large numbers of Storks gathered at the back of the fields and another perched Buzzard. By the time we turned around to walk back the sun had all but burnt off the mist and it was feeling much warmer. To our delight Calandra Larks were flying up high to sing and to display flights against the clear blue sky.

Calandra Lark, male displaying & singing

Calandra LarkMelanocorypha calandra-SPANISH: Calandria común

Calandra Larks are big, heavily built larks with a large head, stout Greenfinch-like bill and a black patch on neck-side. Characteristic in flight, with dark wings (all black below) with broad white trailing edge. Display sings in circling song flight, often very high up; the long black wings and closed tail give the impression of a much larger bird. A typical Steppe species favouring fertile grasslands, widespread over much of Spain and parts of Portugal, generally below 600m. There has been a noticeable decline in numbers in recent years due to modern agricultural practises. Feeds on seeds, shoots & insects. Calandras are thought to be non-migratory.

A Spoonbill was spotted flying, seeming to be trailing a leg. Back at the bottom of the track we heard Fan-tailed Warblers ‘zitting’ amongst the long grass, heard a Cetti’s Warbler from somewhere by the water and saw a pair of Mallard flying.

Driving along the main track we had some great views, a Swamp Hen (I still prefer Purple Gallinule), Coots, loads more Cattle Egrets, Corn Buntings and Stonechats. There were Little Egrets, Grey Herons, and a distant hovering Kestrel. We stopped to photograph 3 Cranes close by in a field, that turned out to be our best view of the day of Cranes on the ground.

Three Common Cranes, our best view of the day

The convoy came to a halt to admire three beautiful Spoonbills that stood at the edge of a flooded field, settling down to take a rest.

Three Spoonbills on the edge of a distant flooded field

We stopped again a little further on as Golden Plovers, still in winter plumage and incredibly well camouflaged against the bare brown earth were spotted in a field together with yet more Lapwings. Visible only with the aid of a telescope, we may well have passed them by if they had not been pointed out to us.

There were Golden Plovers in the flat bare field beyond the reed-fringed river

Lapwings were everywhere today, flying and feeding on the ground

An elegantly poised Grey Heron alone in a stubble field

We turned right off the main track, crossed the bridge over the river and then drove down the length of straight track lined with small willow trees,  currently bearing catkins. The track surface here was full of potholes to avoid and from our position at the back of the convoy, the only birds we saw were a couple of Chiffchaffs and Goldfinch. We stopped briefly and getting out of the car inadvertently disturbed a bird we were hoping to see – a Great Spotted Cuckoo left the cover of the shrubs and flew low down, close to the hedge back along the way we had just driven.

The rest of our party had stopped a bit further on to watch a well-spotted Black-winged Kite perched at the top of a small tree. The beautiful bird then flew out across the field it had been scanning, hovered Kestrel-like over a spot on the ground then returned to its perch.

A distant view of a Black-winged Kite

The next spot was of a Little Owl that had been sitting up on one of the huge arms of one of the irrigating contraptions; it was long gone by the time we tail-enders arrived! We did see a Marsh Harrier here though,  quite distant above the hills to our left, but still good to see. Causing a little more excitement a Hen Harrier flew into view on the opposite side of the track, again distant, but it was possible to see it was a female that was then joined by another bird, probably the male. As we drove off we spotted a very tight flock of dark-coloured birds flying away from us that turned out to be Glossy Ibis.

We carried on up to the farm, leaving the cars once again to the scan around the very different terrain here. To one side there is rough pastureland where cows were grazing around clumps of flowering Asphodels; this is part of the Hen Harriers’ territory and they would have been around here when we saw them from lower down.

A huge field full of flowering Asphodels with grazing cattle, cork oaks and distant mountains – this is Hen Harrier territory

Parked close to a cow shed with a very muddy enclosed area in front of it that was full of curious cattle, the air around us was rather pungently fragranced, which some felt added to the campo atmosphere but which others found strangely offensive (townies!). But, where there are animals there are generally insects and small rodents, therefore birds. There were large numbers of Jackdaws all over the place that Stephen told us nest on the rock faces of a local quarry, and a little crowd of Chiffchaffs that were perching in the squares formed by a wire fence surrounded by yellow mustard-type flowers, diving out acrobatically to chase flies. A single Barn Swallow was spotted and a Booted Eagle that was perched up on a telegraph pole pointed out, 2 Buzzards circled, then a Hen Harrier flew in and scanned the area in front of us (pastureland surrounded with olive and cork oak trees and other scrubby vegetation). We heard the distinctive honking of Cranes flying and two separate groups headed straight for us then passed close over our heads. Lovely views of these large, elegant birds.

Cranes flying over our heads

Absorbed by the Cranes we had failed to notice that a huge flock of White Storks had gathered behind us and were beginning to wheel characteristically and drift across above us: a breathtaking display.

Wheeling White Storks

Moving along a short way we stopped again as Stephen spotted a Great Spotted Cuckoo that had been perched but that dropped to the ground, disappearing from view. Somehow someone picked up a Little Owl sitting in a tree above a bramble patch, but I could not see it, sorry.

So, onwards to lunch – which all GONHS outing regulars will know and appreciate is an essential part of the day’s proceedings. Stephen did us proud, guiding us to ‘Cortijo Los Monteros’, which is located on the Medina-Benalup road (km6). We all enjoyed our choices from the tasty and generously portioned, but very reasonably priced 3 course ‘menu del dia’, that we ate seated at a very long table in front of a huge roaring wood fire.

After lunch Stephen was taking us to a nearby reservoir. We stopped en route at a beautiful woodland spot along the road to look out for the rare Spanish Imperial Eagles that nested here for the first time last year, an unexpected event that has caused much excitement.

A cork oak tree reflected in a flower-covered pool which was well-populated with frogs

A lovely healthy-looking cow with a fearsome set of horns and dangly earrings grazed with her calf on the lush grass, guarded by her own personal ‘tick-picker’ (cattle egret).

We had no luck with the Imperial Eagles, but we enjoyed the moments of peace and tranquillity of our surroundings and while some of us were content to wander around and take it all in, others were diligently scanning the sky for the elusive raptors. Stephen heard a Green Woodpecker, or Iberian Woodpecker as he referred to it and whistled back to it, hoping to bring it to us, but it could probably see we were quite a crowd and chose not to. More Buzzards and a Sparrowhawk  were spotted and then excitement was aroused by two beautiful Red Kites directly overhead. They seemed as interested in us as we were in them and they spent some time moving around us slowly, whilst peering down.

A stunning Red Kite, looking a bit frayed around the primaries peering down at the strange gathering of humans below it

Arriving at the reservoir we got our bearings and realised we were at the far side of the huge expanse of water that lies to the left of the main AP-4 the Algeciras – Sevilla road, that we had all seen and wondered about dozens of times but had no idea how to access. Well now we know – it is the Barbate reservoir constructed in 1992 to prevent the agricultural land at the site we had just visited from flooding. That seems a little ironic as that site was historically a lake that was drained so the land could be put to agricultural use. The reservoir is absolutely huge, stated as covering 2,537 hectares, but now undoubtedly swelled by the recent heavy rainfalls. As with most reservoirs it appears to be a fairly sterile environment for birds, although apparently Osprey have nested there in previous years. There was not much to see here, we could hear Sardinian Warbler amongst the scrub growing on the bank we were standing on and some distant ducks were Mallard and possibly Pintails, but apart from a herd of goats grazing in an idyllic spot on a grassy hill near the water, there were no signs of activity. It’s a lovely spot though with views to Sierra del Algorrobo and their highest peak, el Picacho, the location for several previous GONHS outings.

A view across the reservoir

View to el Algorrobo mountains

Bird List for the day: Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo, Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis, Little Egret Egretta garzetta, Grey Heron Ardea cinerea, White Stork Ciconia ciconia, Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia, Glossy Ibis Plegadiss falcinellus, Mallard Anas platyrhyncos, Pintail Anas acuta,Red Kite Milvus milvus, Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus, Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus, Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus, Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus, Buzzard Buteo buteo, Booted Eagle Hieraaetus pennatus,Kestrel Falco tinnunculus, Red-legged Partridge Alectoris rufa, Pheasant Phasianus colchicus, Coot Fulica atra, Swamp Hen (Purple Gallinule Porphyrio porphyrio, Common Crane Grus grus, Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria, Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus, Snipe Gallinago gallinago, Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus, Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus, Woodpigeon Columba palumbus, Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto, Great Spotted Cuckoo Clamator glandarius, Little Owl Athene noctua, Green Woodpecker Picus viridis (Iberian race sharpei)(heard), Crested Lark Galerida cristata, Calandra Lark Melanocorypha calandra, Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica, Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis, Pied(White) Wagtail Motacilla alba, Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros, Stonechat Saxicola torquata, Fan-tailed Warbler Cisticola juncidis (heard), Cetti’s Warbler Cettia cetti (heard),Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala, Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita, Spotless Starling Sturnus unicolor, Jackdaw Corvus monedula, House Sparrow Passer domesticus, Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis, Linnet Carduelis cannabina, Corn Bunting Miliaria calandra (51 species)

Further information & links:

This blog has pages relating to La Janda, including directions for getting there and previous trip reports.

Stephen Daly keeps a photoblog that has loads of  stunning photographs of the many birds he encounters in the area, including Great Spotted Cuckoos, Black-winged Kite and Imperial Eagle:  andalucianguides.blogspot.com