Inland Birding during the Winter – Serranía de Ronda

It’s amazing just how quickly time seems to flyby. It was only yesterday when summer’s visit painted our skies in the deepest of blue and softened the rough hues of our mountains with shimmering haze. It was only yesterday when Black Kite, Honey Buzzard wheeled high in their thousands gathering to make their southwards pilgrimage to Africa. But now our autumn has abruptly cast her door wide open, and the days seem grey, trees baring their skeletal shapes, where once they had been adorned in many hues of green. It’s a time where nature takes a rest, where life seems to move along at a leisurely pace and prepare itself for the harshness of winter.

Common Sandpiper

A lazy sun casts deep shadows on the hills and mountains of my landscape giving a velvet texture to the high slopes, but Bonelli’s Eagle are already pledging themselves to their partners, ignoring the message of winter and preparing already to reaffirm their bonds of parents to be. Late departing Barn Swallows still chatter and busy themselves over our local river, whilst newly arrived Chiffchaffs hawk insects from every vantage point aligning the river’s edge. It is here where winter will first be felt with the cooling waters spreading their mist and clinging to all that are unable to escape its reach. Green Sandpiper and Common Sandpiper use this river as a highway to warmer climes, but some are attracted to spend winter here and lend character to a day’s foray by birders, their constant bobbing and strutting combining to perform a dance to entertain the observer, a performance enhanced by a watery reflection.

In the higher reaches of the surrounding mountains, Ring Ouzel have at last arrived in good numbers and are busy raiding the horde of Hawthorn berries that are so bountiful this year. Song Thrush and an occasional Redwing join the harvest, whilst Alpine Accentor put in brief appearances before vanishing behind the rock-strewn slopes beneath high mountain crags. A Mistle Thrush performs a forlorn defence of its chosen fruit tree and is distracted; overwhelmed by sheer numbers of marauding Ring Ouzels, whilst large flocks of Spotless Starlings join-in the sacking of the bird’s chosen cache. And all played out beneath the ever-watchful eye of a Sparrowhawk, that has taken to the valley as a likely winter’s retreat. Crag Martins skip the rock face and mock the Sparrowhawk with twists and turns unmatched by their would-be foe. In the high grasslands, Meadow Pipits tiptoe and are joined by ever increasing numbers of White Wagtail, where Water Pipits have recently arrived to feast on various larva in the soft grounds surrounding small pools of the Llanos de Libar.

With an optimistic gaze, my eyes are always drawn skywards for autumn and winter raptors. The area can have an attraction, even a mystical lure, not just for me, but for the wanderings of such species as Black Vulture and Imperial Spanish Eagle. For the most part, these scarce birds tend to be juveniles, displaced by the sudden chastening of their parents. Lost souls searching for their place in an unforgiving world, they must find a niche and wander far on a journey of discovery. Merlin and Hen Harrier put in fleeting appearances, whilst individuals can also take-up winter residence. Golden Eagle is another species increasing and often rewards my diligence, whilst scrutinising the circling clusters of Griffon Vulture, a practise regularly enacted when looking for raptors, many birds of prey seem attracted by circling Griffon Vultures and normally these take the high space above these large and apparently intimidating vultures.

It never ceases to amaze me, and others accompanying me, the diversity of habitats within my patch. In just a few minutes you can pass through mountain terrain, woodland and rolling hills, through dramatic landscapes and over soft green hills. My patch is a far cry from what many of the uninitiated perceive or imagine as Spain. The epicentre of such a stunningly beautiful landscape, fauna and flora rich area is the historical town of Ronda, nestling between 2 large UNESCO Biosphere Parks and giving a focal point for visitors and residents alike.

The area has become famous with birdwatchers from around the world and it has the added value of being scenically stunning and accessible. This wonderful area of Spain also has the advantage of being easily reached via the many airports close to its heartland i.e. Malaga, Seville, Gibraltar, and Jerez. The Serranía, famous for its white villages, culinary delights and historical monuments is certainly one of the friendliest places you will ever visit in Spain, quite apart from being a haven for a rich diversity of wildlife.

Throughout the province of Andalucia there are many great expanses of wild places and natural parks, including some of international importance for both flora and fauna. Many readers will already be familiar with nature reserves such as the wetlands of Doñana and the cultural centres of Seville and Granada and yet the Serranía de Ronda provides the most accessible of all wildernesses and cultural areas within the province. The road network throughout is extensive and together with park tracks, much of the interior can be safely explored, in fact the adjoining natural park of the Sierra de Grazalema is also famous for its fauna and flora which gives further reason for any visitor to base themselves in the Ronda area.

Emblematic birds for the area include resident Griffon Vulture and Bonelli’s Eagle, both have populations here that are of international importance, other breeding raptors include Golden, Short-toed and Booted Eagle. In more recent times Egyptian Vulture have declined, but both Black and Rüppell’s Vulture are becoming more frequent, so pay attention when you see those large flocks of Griffons! Many smaller birds are noteworthy such as Black Wheatear, Common Rock Thrush, Rock Bunting, Orphean and Subalpine Warbler, with some good populations here of Olivaceous Warbler and Iberian Chiffchaff. It is a fantastic area, and some great birding can be achieved here.

Hopefully such a wealth of scenery and wildlife might tempt you to explore this wilderness, I thoroughly recommend a visit.

Article: Peter Jones
Photos: Peter Jones

Note: The views expressed in articles are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of the Society.

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