Tag Archives: lesser kestrel

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


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.



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.

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.