Category Archives: WOODLANDS

Sunday afternoon in a pine forest

Pinar del Rey – The King’s Pine Forest, lies to the north of the town of San Roque. It was planted in 1800 by the Spanish Navy to provide timber for building ships; the planting consisting of a combination of Stone Pines and Cork Oaks. In 1804, following the defeat of  the combined navies of Spain and France at the Battle of Trafalgar, the Spanish no longer needed the timber and the plantation was gifted to the people of San Roque by King Ferdinand VII as compensation for losing Gibraltar 100 years earlier.

A path through the pine trees

The area has long been used by the local people as a recreational area and now there are picnic areas and barbecues set up in cleared areas beneath the trees, some of them quite extensive. The shady woods are a lovely outdoor ‘breathing space’ for families living in the local towns and villages, and are probably the most popular nature spot for miles around. Many families spend a day out in the country here, and it is especially busy on a Sunday, the traditional ‘family’ day.

On Sunday outings I normally steer clear of any area I know to be a popular family venue. Today, feeling in need of some fresh air and gentle exercise, and persuading Jon that he did too, I went along with his suggestion to drive out to Pinar del Rey, albeit with some trepidation on my part. It’s not too far from where we live and once through the small town of San Roque you are out in the countryside. It is still green, and colourful now with the tougher flowers of summer, purple thistles, patches of yellow Spanish Oyster plant and the lime green-yellow flowerheads of Fennel. Turning into the entrance to the site it was immediately apparent that although it was by now late afternoon, there were a lot of people here: families sitting chatting around the wooden tables, lingering over their picnics, children playing amongst the trees and people just strolling along the shady pathways. It is great to see folks out and about and making the most of this wonderful public space, but, very selfishly I know, we were hoping for something a little more peaceful where there may be a chance of seeing some of the wilder residents of the area. There is just one paved road for cars that eventually reaches an abrupt end and the only way forward is on foot. That is where we stopped today, in a spot where there were no other cars or people in immediate sight and close to the beginning of one of the marked footpaths, the ‘Sendero de las Aguilas‘.

Stone Pines backlit by the sun with Cork Oaks behind

This is a lovely path, pleasantly shady and the air fragrant with the fresh resinous scent of Stone Pines. A Blackcap was singing, moving from tree to tree as we approached but picking up the song each time he changed perch. I heard a Greenfinch calling and caught sight of a Blackbird, otherwise all was quiet. The track is almost on the edge of the part of the forest dominated by Stone Pines, its edge is marked by a water course bounded by other tree species and shrubs such as Oleander; and beyond it is more woodland comprised mainly of Cork Oaks.

There were several patches of some very pretty and delicate flowers growing alongside the path that I had not seen before, coloured in various shades from pale mauve to purple and magenta.

The little purple flowers are held on very thin stalks

I discovered later that the plant is  a Campanula (Campanula specularioides). Apparently it got its latin name because of its similarity to the flowers of Venus’ Looking-glass, (sp. Legousia), which used to be called Specularia. (Betty Molesworth Allen).

A patch of campanula with bigger flowers showing several variations inn shade

While I was busy with the flowers, Jon discovered a very intriguing scene that was being acted out on another part of the forest floor; where ants were milling around a large hole and running back and forth over a pile of freshly excavated soil.Some of them were actually carrying grass seed heads and there were a great number of similar seedheads piled around the edges of the soil pile, clearly harvested by the ants, that were either being carried into or out of the hole.Perhaps the oddest thing was the presence of four beetles, a couple of which were being harassed by ants, while others seemed to be burrowing into the piled up seedheads.

An intriguing scene involving harvesting ants and round-bodied beetles

Meanwhile, up in the trees a Crested Tit foraged around the pine cones. These lovely little birds are one of the most elusive species for me in terms of getting photographs and today was no exception. It was too shady there to get a decent picture anyway as I discovered when I attempted to capture an image of a pair of Blackcap in another treetop. A Jay was a little more obliging, sitting halfway up a better-lit trunk.

Jay - Garrulus glandarius

We heard a Robin singing and spotted him perched on a low branch next to the path, flying off as we approached.

A very large old Stone Pine with a double trunk

Many of the pine trees are huge specimens that are reputed to be those originally planted in the early 1800s, they are impressive and beautiful and present countless opportunities for photographs; the light and shade on the trunks, the textures of the bark, the sunlight filtering through the canopy and so much more. Part of the track runs parallel to the river bank and the damper conditions here support a different flora, amongst which is the dramatic Acanthus. It is not a common plant in this area, except on calcareous outcrops, but it is often cultivated, so I am unsure if it would have occurred naturally here.

Acanthus leaf with greenbottle fly. The leaves of this plant were patterns for the design on capitals of many Corinthian pillars of the ancient world.

Acanthus mollis - flower. The common name of Bear's Breeches comes from the shape of the flowers.

The shape of the top of the tree gives it the common name of Umbrella Pine

We took a different route home as I was keen to see the progress of the Stork families, so at the entrance/exit to the park, rather than turning left towards San Roque town, we turned right to go to San Roque Estacion. This is a very quiet road, particularly since the new stretch of dual carriageway was constructed, and is not in very good repair, but it is much more scenic and tuneful too – we must have heard at least half a dozen snatches of Nightingale song as we passed by. We saw a Nightingale too, very unusually perched on a power cable near the junction of this road and the new one. We saw Storks on their nests from here too where the road crosses the railway line, but had much better views once on the road driving towards Jimena. Most of the nests had at least two or three grown-up young, and many were crowded with the whole family jammed in at once.

This is always a busy road, but we risked a very quick stop so I could take this photograph:

Parent White Storks with their grown-up young. The adult hiding her face at the back and looking a bit tatty is most probably the mother!

Jay antics

11th February 2011

I hear Jays most mornings as they make their way around the neighbouring trees calling noisily to one another, and although I’ve had glimpses of them I haven’t had a really good view of one for ages, so I was very happy to see one call in for a quick drink at the bird bath this morning. They are such beautifully marked birds and are intelligent and full of character, it’s a pity they have the cannibalistic trait that make them a threat to the smaller birds.

A very handsome Jay taking a drink

JAYGarrulus glandarius-SPANISH:  Arrendajo Común

Occasionally a Jay will stay to bathe and turns a visit into a proper spectacle, it is such an amusing sight to behold that I’m putting in some pictures I’ve taken before when I’ve caught them in the act.

A Jay creating a maelstrom

A refreshed Jay with a new punk hairstyle

A hilltop castle,Lesser Kestrels and spring flowers

6 February 2011

In need of a change of scenery and some fresh air we decided to take a drive up to the old town of Castellar this afternoon. From Sotogrande we drove along the scenic A-2100 road to meet the A-405 San Roque – Jimena Rd, turning left towards San Roque then right on the roundabout that is signposted la Jarandilla (CA-9201) and very helpfully also has a pictural sign of a castle . The road passes through cork oak woodland that is on the eastern boundary of the Alcornocales Natural Park. We often walk here in the area I describe as ‘la Almoraima’, but today being a Sunday and a sunny one at that, meant the popular venta was very busy and the car parking area was full, so we carried on past and up the narrow winding mountain road to reach Castellar.

Early spring wildflowers are beginning to colour the roadsides; there are large patches of pretty blue periwinkles and in sheltered spots the sunny yellow flowers of Teline, or Southern Whin as it is also known are out.

6/2/11-Periwinkle-Vinca difformis forms often very large clumps along the roadsides

6/2/11-Teline - Teline monspessulana


A view of Castellar town from the valley below

The views from this road are stunning, particularly to the left as you travel upwards, when you have views of the huge reservoir or embalse de Guarranque, backed by mountains.


View of the reservoir, embalse Guadarranque, from Castellar town wall

Castillo de Castellar was an early 13th century Moorish castle, built high on a hilltop about 15kms inland from Algeciras. The old town of Castellar de la Frontera, which includes the castle, was inhabited but pretty much deserted in the 1970s when the new town Nuevo Castellar de la Frontera was built some 5kms distant. It was subsequently repopulated by a number of people, originating mainly from central and northern Europe, who were seeking an alternative lifestyle.

View through the archway leading into the enclosed old town

Today the walled ‘town’ is dramatically different and is more or less a holiday resort; much cleaner, painted up and in a better state of repair than previously, I think it has also lost much of its character. The old castle has been converted into a smart hotel and many of the old cottages upgraded to chic ‘casas rurales‘ or holiday cottages, so walking around the narrow cobbled alleyways now makes you feel like a bit of an intruder. On the plus side you can go into the hotel, buy a cup of coffee and take it outside to an open terrace that has wonderful views. The place gets busy at the weekends, I think mainly with people who have enjoyed lunch at the venta down below and then driven up to admire the spectacular 360° panorama of scenery spread out beneath from this accessible viewpoint. The views are breathtaking, extending to Gibraltar and beyond to Africa, around to the Sierra Bermeja and the Sierra Ronda and across the reservoir to the rocky peaks beyond. You are still within the boundaries of the Alcornocales Natural Park here, and the surrounding area is quite hilly and rocky, but few of the peaks exceed 350m in height.

This is often a great place to get close-up views of Griffon Vultures that sometimes may be just a few metres above your head, although there were none to be seen today. We have also had good sightings of Blue Rock Thrush and Crag Martins are resident here but spend the winter months lower down nearer the coast; they’re not back yet, but doubtless will return very soon. In the front wall of the castle (sorry, hotel) are numerous holes, many of which are occupied by pigeons, but some are historically the nesting sites of a small colony of Lesser Kestrels. Prior to the breeding season it is possible to catch sight of these beautiful little raptors around the railway bridge on the A-450 that is located just before the turning to San Enrique and almost adjacent to the bridge that crosses the river Hozgarganta; we believe they must be from the colony that breeds up at the castle. The bridge is a tricky place to stop to  look over its edge as the road is fairly constantly busy, but there is a track to one side that you can pull in to and then walk from. I was lucky one February morning: I left home early to pick up my friend from Jimena and as I was driving a 4 x 4 that is higher up than a ‘normal’ car, I could see over the parapet that two kestrels were sitting on the power cables that cross the railway track. There was very little other traffic, so I managed to stop and take some quick shots from inside the car.


11/2/07-Lesser Kestrels perched above the railway track

Lesser KestrelFalco naumanni SPANISH -Cernícalo Primilla


Lesser Kestrel (m)

The adult male Lesser Kestrel differs from the Common Kestrel in having blue-grey greater secondary coverts, an unmarked rusty-red mantle and in his less patterned underwings.


Lesser Kestrel (female)

The female is very similar to a Common Kestrel female, but has a shorter tail, usually with slightly projecting central feathers and also paler underwings.

We took the short walk (signposted) from the road along the old cobbled track that leads to an old well. Both sides of the track are vegetated with cork oak trees, wild olive trees, lentisc mastic, dwarf palms and various other ‘scrub’ plants. Every few metres we walked we seemed to disturb a bird, I had glimpses of a Robin, several Sardinian Warblers, a Blackcap and Blue Tits. I heard a Chaffinch singing from a cork oak tree, but couldn’t spot him.

The cobbled track leading to the old well looking upwards towards the castle

Ripe wild olives and the feathery seedheads of December clematis

Andaluz Storksbill - Erodium primulaceum

A little patch of pretty pink Andaluz  Storksbill pushed through on a grassy bank; this is the plant that becomes conspicuous on roadsides where it can form large patches in early spring. It is generally a common plant from lowlands to hills, that thrives in sand, gravel and grassy fields, is found amongst scrub and in light woods.

Walking back up the track we spotted two birds high up above the castle, very pale undersides made my first thought Lesser Kestrels but I couldn’t be sure until we reached the front of the building and they were directly overhead with a third bird, calling distinctively.

6/2/11-Lesser Kestrel - has slightly projecting central tail feathers

Hopefully they will be joined by more and the breeding colony here will continue.

PS – I was reliably informed that the Kestrels were seen flying into at least two of their nest sites just the day before, although they were apparently having a bit of trouble with squatting pigeons.