Category Archives: Jimena de la Frontera

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.

 

 

Flaming June

June 12th

Summer arrived overnight and the thermostat shot up a few notches this week giving us some scorching days and hot nights that don’t usually arrive till July. Today the local beaches were ablaze with colour, and car parks overflowed, as local families headed for the cooler seaside, a regular event throughout the summer on Sundays, but this was the first one to occur on this scale this year. Each family, that includes grandparents and every other relative through to infants, sets up a colourful camp of parasols and gazebos, collapsible chairs, tables and towels in one unbroken line where possible, extending from one end of the beach to the other, just a couple of metres back from the sea edge. They arrive early, equipped with portable barbeques, plenty of food and drink and many will still be there till very late in the evening.

There is none of the self-conscious display of reserve we’re used to on British beaches, where we set up our camps as far away from each other as possible in an untidy hotch-potch, surround ourselves with windbreaks for privacy as well as protection  and erect a unique (well we hope unique) makeshift flag so our kids can find their way back to us when they’re done paddling! Goodness knows how wandering children find their way back to their camp here, although I have heard it rumoured that each family has their ‘own’ spot on their local beach, and any unsuspecting tourist that may inadvertently set up in it will either be closely surrounded or otherwise encouraged to vacate it.

Monday June 13th

13/6/11-Tiny praying mantis

We discovered several tiny Praying mantids on a sage plant this morning. Perfect miniatures of the adults, they were maybe 2.5 – 3cm long and very aware of being noticed. They will have very recently emerged from their communal ‘ootheca’ or egg case, along with their siblings that could number up to 300 or more. Naturally they are very vulnerable to predation while at this stage and it will take the whole summer for them to grow into adults.

Generally most of the local birds appear to be done with nesting and on to the hard part – keeping up with their teenagers!

13/6/11-A young Blue Tit foraging in a cork oak tree

Wednesday June 15th

I see and hear families of Blue Tits, Great Tits, Goldfinches and Greenfinches most mornings as they are foraging in the trees in the cooler hours of the mornings, and I caught a glimpse of a male Chaffinch being very attentive to one of his very demanding youngsters.

15/6/11-A male Chaffinch feeding one of his offspring

I photographed them in our sprawling cypress tree, the one I think of in terms of ‘the big ugly’ as it is a bit of a pain, constantly dropping dead needles and is really not beautiful. But, it is such a haven for the birds and provides perches for the insect hunting Flycatchers as well as welcome shade. There’s food for some birds too at the moment, I’ve seen Great Tits and Greenfinches eating the seeds from its little cones, although only a few are open as yet.

15/6/11-A Great Tit flying towards me, looking like a tiny owl

15/6/11-A goldfinch enjoying a moment in the sunshine,perched on the cyprus tree

There have been several visits from Kestrels this week, and although I haven’t spotted one until it has flown up from its perch, usually high up in one of the palm trees, the smaller birds have always given it away. Blackbirds in particular sound a very loud alarm and the Spotted Flycatchers keep up a constant ‘tcking’, but most others are noticeable by their complete silence and lack of activity.

15/6/11- 11.55pm (Madrid time) - eclipse of the moon as we saw it

Our view of tonight’s eclipse of the moon was not as dramatic as we hoped, but we did almost forget about it. The photograph doesn’t do it justice as it did look truly beautiful; it was bright and luminous, as though it was lit from the inside and its features were very clear.

Saturday June 18th

I’ll be returning to the UK shortly and will be gone for most of the summer, so I drove over to Jimena this afternoon to spend a couple of hours with my friend.   As always the drive over there was scenic and I saw a surprising number of birds. The roadside are still full of wildflowers; there were masses of frothy white blossoms of wild carrot and related species and more fennel than I have ever seen, in fact there were some large fields absolutely covered with a tapestry of creamy white and lime green. In several places there were splashes of colour too, where clumps of the intensely pink common centaury were growing.

Summer is the best time to see raptors and on my short journey I saw a good few. I first stopped to watch a Kestrel hovering over a field close to the road, a lovely sight as it dived down then swooped up again, intently scanning the ground beneath it. Along the main road I couldn’t fail to see a large flock of Griffon Vultures that were circling low over the brow of a hill beyond one expanse of flowery field, they must have been intent on feeding, but I daren’t stop to have a proper look. I counted at least 30 birds and there were probably more behind the hill or on the ground. The collective noun for a flock of vultures is a ‘venue of Vultures’ , unless they are circling, in  which case it is a ‘kettle of vultures’. (wikipedia)

At the road bridge over the railway line there were three Lesser Kestrels flying around, but I was able to pull in for a quick look at them. I had a great view of a Short-toed Eagle as it flapped away low over a field too.

At my friend’s house it was scorching hot, the thermometer inside reading 26°C, and outside in the walled garden it was even hotter. We sat in the shade of the sun room, with a glass of delicious home-made lemonade, freshly made from fruit from her own tree. (Since it began to get very hot the tree has dropped all its remaining ripe fruit, probably as a way of conserving moisture for the new crop that is already beginning to swell.) There was entertainment too, a pale coloured gecko, possibly one of the biggest, plumpest ones I have ever seen, waddled over the wall and squeezed itself behind the wooden frame of a trellis.

18/6/11- A gorgeous gecko concealing itself behind the trellis

The area is being plagued by small black flies at the moment, troublesome to people, but they are being assisted in their disposal by Swallows and in particular House Martins that were swooping around, chattering constantly as they flew here, there and everywhere close together in family groups. The close views of their aerial acrobatics was delightful, particularly as parents were feeding young ones on the wing, the two hovering closely together for a split second to make the pass. They were momentarily stunned into silence, scattering into cover as we had a surprise, very close-up visit from a  Booted Eagle (light-phase), clearly drawn by all the activity and noise. Wow. It didn’t catch anything though.

The stars of the afternoon though were the Red-rumped Swallows. There have been one or two pairs returning to the immediate area for the last few years, and although they have shown interest in this garden and have roosted in the small covered area, have not nested – until now.

!8/6/11-The nest of the Red-rumped Swallow is a distinctive, upside-down igloo shape

The Red-rumped Swallow builds a very distinctive nest, made of mud as those of other hirundines, but with the addition of a long tunnel through which the birds access the main chamber. This one is in the shade provided by a concrete and cement block utility area attached to the house next door, but we had very good views of it over the top of the garden wall.

18/6/11-A swallow entering the nest, giving a glimpse of its red rump

The pair clearly have nestlings and the rate of their feeding was impressive, with one or other of them returning every 2 minutes or so at one point. Red-rumped Swallows are known to have regular ‘hunting’ routes and here they fly very closely to the house, sometimes skimming the swimming pool, then up and over the roof circling around to reappear from the garden on the other side to the one they are nesting in.

Returning from a wander around the garden, our attention was diverted to the ground by the sight of a mass of ants labouring to haul a butterfly chrysalis across the terrace. Back at the nest entrance they spent some time attempting to force the bulky prey in through the narrow crack in the cement between bricks, turning it this way and that to no avail.

18/6/11-Ants attempting to force a chrysalis into the entrance to their nest

18/6/11-Still trying to get the pupa in, another party arrived with a smaller bee

Naturally, being ants, notoriously resourceful and enterprising, they persisted in their attempts to get the pupa in. We thought they may have to resort to cutting it into smaller pieces, but then considered the possibility that it may well still be a bit of a gooey mess inside and may not store well if opened up.Meanwhile, another hunting party was returning with their ‘bag’ – a wasp or large hoverfly, still quite large but that appeared small enough to fit in with less problems. The others must have thought so too, so moved their chrysalis out of the way to let the wasp haulers through.

18/6/11-Those carrying the chrysalis moved aside to let the wasp party through

A hugely entertaining afternoon with some very special moments and all while enjoying a chat and hardly leaving our comfortable seats. Who needs TV?

Bee-eaters are back nesting alongside beasts

2nd April 2011 

As I mentioned at the beginning of the previous post, we had a list of birds we were hoping to see today, although we were well aware that it was still a bit too early in the season for some of them such as Woodchat Shrikes. I had however already seen and heard Bee-eaters as they passed across my locality and we do know a few places where nest sites are located, so as one is near Jimena we made a diversion on our way back to see if the birds had already returned to it. Much to our delight they had and we spent a very happy half-hour watching them there.

The nest site is on the side of a steep hill situated on farmland roamed by pigs and is devoid of any covering of vegetation such as grass or other herbaceous plants although there are bushes and small trees. At the bottom of the hill is a penned area that was full of young black pigs, every last one of which was stretched out fast asleep in the warm sunshine. 

All the piglets were fast asleep in the warm sunshine

The soil of the hillside is light and sandy, so easy for the birds to tunnel into. 

Bee-eaters close to nest holes

A pair perched at the top of an olive tree

We estimated that there were 20+ birds currently at the site, most of which appeared to be paired; a few single, younger birds were flying around, perching on power cables and on the rusty iron fencing.

Bee-eaters frequently utilize power cables as perches

Bee-eater watching for prey

Bee-eater profile and back view

Newly arrived back at the site the birds were still restless and easily spooked. Once or twice something happened to cause them all to take to the air at once: on one occasion it was as a result of the appearance of another flock of Bee-eaters that flew in over the brow of the hill, circled around a bit then flew back the way they had come. Another disturbance was brought about by the close proximity of two low-flying Short-toed Eagles that were circling slowly over the area.

FACTS ABOUT BEE-EATERS (FROM THE BTO):-

Bee-eater Merops apiaster   [Linnaeus, 1758]

Order: Coraciiformes Family: Meropidae

Length: 28cm Wingspan: 46cm

Conservation status: European: 3 concern, depleted. Most of the population are not in Europe and their global status is of least concern.

World distribution: S & C Europe, N Africa, S & C Asia. Bee-eaters winter in sub Saharan Africa and W India.The European population during the summer months is estimated at between 280-600,000 pairs. 

Habitat: Open country, woodland, farmland.

Diet: Flying insects, especially bees and wasps which are caught on the wing; stings are removed by rubbing against a perch. The birds require around 225 bees a day when they are raising their young.

Breeding: Bee-eaters nest in tunnels excavated in suitable banks or cliffsides. 6-7 eggs are laid in a single brood; incubation takes 20 days and is performed by both males and females. Both parents also feed their offspring.

The scientific name is derived from Greek: merops = the Bee-eater and Latin: apiastra= also the Bee-eater (from apis=bee)

 

Jimena river valley walk

26th February 2011

RED ADMIRAL - Vanessa atalanta

A very warm morning had built up to an unseasonably high temperature  by the time I arrived for lunch at my friend’s house at Jimena. Before I even knocked on the door I had the camera out and pointed at butterflies and Violet Carpenter bees that were very strongly drawn to a flowering shrub at the front of the house. There were 2 Red Admirals, several Large Whites and numerous Carpenter bees, but it was also quite windy and very difficult to focus on them swaying around.

Borage in flower along the sides of the road leading down to the river

We had lunch sitting outside in the garden, debating where to head for to walk this afternoon. We settled on a walk along the pathway that follows the río Hozgarganta upstream through the Jimena valley, a walk we have done several times that is always interesting and enjoyable. Whilst eating we kept an eye on the sky; migration has been slow to get under-way this year due to the weather, so on a warm sunny afternoon, although the wind wasn’t blowing in a particularly helpful direction, we thought a few determined birds may make it across. Luckily for us we happened to be looking up as two Egyptian Vultures flew over, low down and in no particular hurry- so a good omen for the afternoon.

View from the bridge Río Hozgarganta, looking upstream

On the other side of the bridge a large Striped-neck Terrapin was out enjoy the sun

Alder trees growing on the riverbank in fresh foliage

Looking both up and downstream from the bridge there were no signs of any wading birds, but in the alder and other small trees growing in front of the bridge, and in the tangle of  undergrowth below there were a good number of small birds; Blackcaps singing, Greenfinches, a Chiffchaff and a Sardinian Warbler were all there.

A stone outcrop sculpted and scoured clean and smooth, shows how high the river has been

Once past the houses and the domesticated area of the riverbank you can begin to better appreciate the more rugged and natural scenery created by the river, the rock formations and the wild flora. I spotted bright yellow flowers off to the side of the path and headed off  for a closer look. I quickly found myself in a wet, muddy marshy area and was about to turn back, when I noticed little frogs were popping about all around me. The flowers were Lesser Celandines, as I’d hoped.

A little Marsh Frog hoping I hadn't seen him

Leaving the frogs in peace and making my way back to the track, I caught sight of a small Lizard scuttling across a large rock.

A small, nicely patterned Lizard scuttled over a large rock

We hadn’t walked far before spotting another, larger lizard; he had clearly lost the end of his tail at some point and although it had re-grown he will never regain his colourful scales.

A bigger Wall Lizard with a shiny new bald tip to his tail

Cork Oaks and shrubbery on the valley sides

We spotted birds hovering high up  in the sky that we could make out as Kestrels and wondered if they may be Lesser Kestrels as there were two close together. There was still a fairly strong wind blowing and the birds were making good use of it, their wings were extended as though to hover, but holding them still they were able to maintain an almost motionless position for impressively long periods. As we watched one of the birds flew into a hollow in  an outcrop of rock; as it happens this particular rock is one we have often commented on, as its shape and the hollow put us in mind of an animal’s raised head, mouth wide open…? Anyway, inside the hollow is a further smaller cavity and we located the Kestrel sitting on its edge. We continued watching as two more Kestrels appeared that seemed to have gone down on the other side of the outcrop. Now we had seen more than two birds we were happy to conclude that they were indeed Lesser Kestrels and that we had discovered their nesting place.

Looking up a rocky slope towards the outcrop where Lesser Kestrels appear to be nesting

Lesser Kestrel

We continued on our walk enjoying the dramatic scenery and the warmth of the sun, until we reached a spot overlooking the river that looked like a pleasant place to sit. It was a good decision to stay still for a while, as it gave us the opportunity to fully appreciate our surroundings and to notice the details of it. We timed our break well too, we spotted raptors flying over, a Booted Eagle (light phase) and a Short-toed Eagle, the first individual of the latter species that either of us had seen so far this year. The  Kestrels were very visible, flying back and forth over the ridge of hills in front of us and close enough for us to identify properly and confirm that they were indeed Lesser Kestrels.

The view upriver from our stopping place

The rocky scene immediately behind us

There were more sightings of a Short-toed Eagle; we thought at first that we were seeing the same bird that was circling around, but then decided that was unlikely and it was more likely to have been three individual birds on passage.

Short-toed Eagle - The views we had today were of birds flying too high for me to photograph effectively, so this is 'one I made earlier'

Some plants are flowering now, most abundant was French Lavender growing amongst rocks and bushes of bright yellow broom.

FRENCH LAVENDER-Lavendula stoechas, growing amongst rocks

As we moved off to begin our walk back I spotted a green Tiger Beetle scurrying over a rock. It stopped so I focused the camera on it and realised it was actually two beetles, a mating pair, showing the considerable difference in their sizes, the female being the largest.

Mating Tiger Beetles

 

A male Serin singing with gusto

Perhaps my favourite sighting of the day was of this male Serin, singing his socks off from the top of a shrub just a short distance away from us. He was in bright sunlight and very colourful.

Griffon Vulture-Gyps fulvus

You do have to be quite unlucky not to have sightings of Griffon Vultures in this area, but we had especially good views of these magnificent birds today when five of them flew in a straggly line along a low ridge to the side of us. We have no way of knowing whether they were part of the local flock or just passing through, but either way they were, as always a dramatic sight.

 

A bumper crop of Avocados hanging high above us

Arriving back at where the town meets the river, the wild flora begins to blend into the cultivated and there are fruit trees growing that may once have been in a garden or orchard, but are now untended. This Avocado tree has grown so tall, we only realised what it was because there were fallen fruits beneath it. Looking up we saw a heavily-fruited branch high above us, overhanging the path. They looked perfect, what a shame they’ll probably be wasted.

 

Oranges and lemons growing on the same tree

What appears to be two trees here, an orange and a lemon, is in fact one tree. Apparently it was common practise to graft one of each onto a single rootstock so both could be grown more compactly in a small patio garden. This particular one seems to have got a little out of hand but has produced abundant quantities of fruit.

Apple of Sodom plant with Jimena castle in the background

On the subject of fruit, this one is definitely one never to be eaten; it is the Apple of Sodom – Solanum sodomeum, a member of the Nightshade family and a fairly common plant on disturbed earth and waste spaces. The fruit looks attractive, but like all parts of the plant are very poisonous.

Back at the house, a lovely, very large Moorish Gecko sunbathed on the stem of a palm frond. Looks more like a baby alligator.

We got back to the house at about 6pm, admired the big gecko on the palm tree then took another cup of tea out into the garden. It was still very warm, the outside thermometer reading 19°C, 2° more than inside – Spanish houses are built to stay cool, even in the winter. Collared Doves, currently nesting in a tall cypress tree were very noisy and active, and there were a good few Barn Swallows flying around. Then the Cattle Egrets, having spent the day hunting in the nearby fields, began to pass overhead on their way to their night-time roost. There must have been at least a hundred of them, in parties of varying numbers and they were very close overhead. They looked so pretty, white birds tinted faintly pink by the lowering sun, against a still-blue   sky. Last treat of the day was a Buzzard, flying so low it almost skimmed the roof.