High Mountains and high winds …
The Sierra de Grazalema is one of the most scenically stunning areas in the whole of Spain. It is a diverse UNESCO Biosphere Park containing habitats ranging from mixed oak woodlands, pine forest and upland pastures to high mountains where life clings-on in the extremes of seasonal climate change. Temperatures are wide-ranging throughout the park influenced by altitudes from 400m to 1600m above sea level, as well as the eastern areas benefiting from the Mediterranean climate the western facing slopes are affected by the Atlantic climate. Unsurprisingly such a varied habitat and range of altitudes produces a great diversity in flora and fauna. Our ABS Field Meeting for December visited this important area and gave attending members a chance to marvel at the landscape and, as always, enjoy each others company.
Grazalema – one of the area’s famous white villages
I promised members a relaxed day, an amble through the park and a chance to see some of the very best scenery the park has to offer. We started the day by gathering at the pre-arranged meeting point of the Venta Tropezon, where we enjoyed some local hospitality and some warm beverages before setting off on a slow journey towards Zahara. The lake (reservoir) is the largest surface area of standing water in this region, but as many other man-made reservoirs, the gradients of the shoreline are too steep to support marginal vegetation and hence it has a sterile feel to it’s presence in the park. Despite the lack of any large numbers of birds, we did manage to see some of the fish eating specialists that visit the reservoir, what the lake lacks in birds, it certainly makes up for in fish stocks, so it was we had good views of Cormorant, Great-crested Grebe and Grey Heron. Cattle Egret, Mallard and Coot were about the extent of aquatic species, but around the eastern boundary large finch flocks were feeding and amongst those were small numbers of Rock Sparrow and we also observed an Iberian (Southern) Grey Shrike. Cetti’s and Sardinian Warbler gave good views near the shoreline.
Skirting the lake we wound our way to the impressive village of Zahara, a striking example of the local white villages to be found throughout the area. I admit to an ulterior motive for a stop here, having been primed by my wife that the ladies in the group might welcome a browse around a local craft market being held on the premises of the premiere restaurant El Largo. It also gave the men an opportunity to tuck-in to homemade mince tarts whilst scanning for birds! Black Redstarts were plentiful and it wasn’t long before we had a large flock of Chough wheeling and playing in the distance, on the slopes below our vantage point we saw Red-legged Partridge, Blue Rock Thrush, Rock Dove and a solitary Mistle Thrush among the olive groves. A contingent of the local Jackdaws passed in front and a few Greenfinch fed on the remains of the year’s crop of thistle plants. The ladies curiosity and the men’s stomachs satiated, we made our way upwards on the mountain road towards Grazalema. A Little Owl graced the journey, while finches and thrushes accompanied our passing. We stopped briefly at a mirador at a halfway point to watch large concentrations of Griffon Vulture floating on thermals and up draughts, I was telling everyone to always look above these gatherings of vultures, as very often eagle species would be circling above them. Within a few seconds there were cries of eagle above the vultures! It was a Bonelli’s Eagle cruising the thermal and in bright sunlight showing the underside markings for all and enabling them to clearly identify this fine raptor.
Although the sun was shining, the wind at higher altitude was biting our ears and any exposed parts, so we were all keen to proceed to the high pass, Puerto de las Palomas and see if we could escape the bitter wind. Pulling into the car park area we were straight the way confronted by a fine male Ring Ouzel, although not all of us were able to get good views. It was a target species for many on the day, so we set about listening, looking and anticipating sightings of this elusive thrush. Next to the car park and slightly below there is a drinking trough for cattle, this was attracting many species of small bird including another scarce winter visitor the Dunnock. With so many species coming to drink we decided to concentrate our efforts on the trough and the slope below. It wasn’t long before we saw Ring Ouzel making their way towards us. Eventually, accustomed to our presence, both males and females gave great views as they perched on nearby trees and even better, on the side of the drinking trough. I’m sure some members will have taken some great close-up photographs of these super birds. Although the winds were still biting and causing eyes to water, everyone was too distracted by the Ring Ouzels to complain. Black Wheatear and Blue Rock Thrush were also seen here and a few members laid claim to another target bird for the day, Alpine Accentor. All of this as Griffon Vulture cruised close overhead, hardly noticed by many in our excitement.
Well, cold winds, exciting birding all conspired to build appetites for our scheduled lunch stop in the village of Grazalema. It was fortuitous we made decisions to take our lunch when we did. It seemed half of Spain had decided to descend on the local ventas and free dining space was at a premium. A few members wandered around the local ‘hole-in-the-wall’ shops for preserves and other goodies, whilst a group of us headed to the favoured lunch stop, La Posadilla, to reserve enough tables and seating. Great food, reasonable prices and lots of chit chat made for a welcome break in our day, before we again headed out to look for some other local birds, well mostly Water Pipit with a few other, as yet not seen species. As a birder, you have to question your sanity sometimes and as you all know, a sewerage farm can be ‘bird’ productive, smelly yes, but capable of producing a bird or two. We were in luck; the first bird to be spotted was the target, Water Pipit. From the pungent scent of the sewerage farm we carried-on further into the valley and a water meadow area next to the source of the Rio Guadalete. We spent time just watching bird activity around bushes next to the river and in the fields either side of the valley. Here we managed Corn Bunting, Sparrowhawk, Kestrel, Stonechat, Song Thrush, Serin, Chiffchaff, Blackcap and a host of other species. I kept gazing above us as this is a good area for hunting Long-legged Buzzard, but try as I might the effort was unrewarded. Still we managed a very good number of species on our day and had a great time to boot. Now for the serious business of preparing for the Chairman’s Report to be presented at our next meeting, being held in the visitor’s centre at Fuente de Piedra 21st January 2012, I’d rather go birding!
Zahara – a beautiful and scenic village
Birds seen on the day:
Red-legged Partridge, Mallard, Great-crested Grebe, Grey Heron, Cattle Egret, Great Cormorant, Griffon Vulture, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Bonelli’s Eagle, Common Kestrel, Coot, Rock Dove, Woodpigeon, Collared Dove, Little Owl, Southern Grey Shrike, Jay, Chough, Jackdaw, Coal Tit, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Crested Lark, Woodlark, Cetti’s Warbler, Common Chiffchaff, Eurasian Blackcap, Sardinian Warbler, Spotless Starling, Ring Ouzel, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Robin, Black Redstart, Stonechat, Blue Rock Thrush, House Sparrow, Rock Sparrow, Alpine Accentor, Dunnock, White Wagtail, Water Pipit, Chaffinch, Serin, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Linnet, Corn Bunting.
Peter Jones – Chairman of Andalucia Bird Society
Peter is also a wildlife guide