A little rain, a few clouds and temperatures abated to produce a perfect start to a birding extravaganza during the first half of September. The highlight for me was entertaining a group of UK birders under the leadership of my lifelong friend, and Patron of the Andalucia Bird Society, Tim Appleton MBE. Tim has been the founder and principal driving force behind the world’s largest bird-oriented fair that has raised over £40 million pounds towards various crucial conservation programs throughout the world and last year managed to contribute €100,000 to the wetland restoration fund at La Janda in Cadiz province. Tim, together with his partner Penny, had arrived in Andalucia to join in a presentation in front of the media to promote the upcoming Andalucia Bird Festival that will take place in the village of Montejaque 19th to the 21st of April 2024 link here. Montejaque is one of the beautiful and renowned los pueblos blancos up here in the Ronda mountains, and next year’s bird festival promises to be an event not to be missed by anyone interested in our fauna and flora, so make a note of the dates in your diary and do try and come along to this event.
I always find it immensely rewarding to show visitors our local wildlife and it was no less rewarding to accompany these visitors from the UK. We were able to find most target birds they wanted to see as we traversed Malaga and Cadiz provinces, but a day in the Sevilla Province around the Osuna area was disappointing as it was denuded of birds the landscape being severely affected by our sizzling summer, I have never seen the area so arid and lacking any water. The day was distressing for me as it is usually such a wonderful area for birds and to see it laid bare by the exceptionally dry and hot summer upset me. Still, our days spent in my mountains and the visit to the observatory near Tarifa were to more than compensate for the disappointment of the steppe area around Osuna. Our first day was spent around the reserve at Fuente de Piedra and despite the main lagoon being dry, there is a large lagoon kept watered by the water treatment works behind the visitor’s centre. Here we had a wide range of birds including the scarce Ferruginous Duck and reasonable numbers of Marbled and White-headed Duck, Greater Flamingo were surprisingly in good numbers on the main lake, even although they were restricted to a puddle sized area of water on an otherwise salt-stained dry landscape.
Our second day saw me in my element as we explored the track that takes you to an upland and open area named Llanos de Libar, my local patch! It was a morning sortie as we had to get back to Montejaque for the media presentation for the Andalucia Bird Festival being held in the middle of our day. The impressive number of Griffon Vulture here is always a surprise to visiting birders from the northern parts of Europe, and what a display they gave coming close and looking imperious as they were wheeling around updraughts and thermals. Red-billed Chough were seen in a large flock and both Short-toed Snake Eagle and Booted Eagle were overhead with the latter being harassed by a very persistent and playful Peregrine Falcon, quite a sight for our group. A refuge stands amidst the open upland area, it can be rented from the municipal offices in Montejaque, so we wandered around the surrounding area and managed several prime birds our visitors wanted to see including both Black and Black-eared Wheatear, whilst a migrating Northern Wheatear was seen and meant we had all the wheatear species occurring as breeding birds in western Europe. I saw my first autumn Whinchat of the year.
My third day with the group was to visit the scenically stunning National Park Sierra de Grazalema. We were all reminded just how serious the drought is as we passed a large puddle that was all that remained of the once extensive waters of the Zahara Reservoir. The reservoir is the header tank of waters eventually supplying drinking water to the city of Cadiz, so water is released here and supplies water to a chain of other reservoirs via the Rio Guadalete, it is a disaster zone and a very serious problem unless we have appreciable rains over the autumn. Undeterred we weaved our way up to the second highest mountain pass in the region to reach Puerto de Las Palomas, a wonderful mirador where views stretch as far as Sevilla on one side to the higher mountains of the Sierra de las Nieves on the other. Large numbers of House Martin, Barn Swallow, Common and Pallid Swift and some Alpine Swift moved ever southwards on their long journey to wintering grounds in Africa, the occasional Sand Martin was also seen, and it was evident, by the numbers involved, that Booted Eagles were also passing through. A lunch stop at the picturesque village of Villaluenga del Rosario produced not only a great feast, but also close views of a juvenile Bonelli’s Eagle, so a satisfying stopover. The rest of the day provided a few target birds including the endemic Iberian Green Woodpecker and Iberian Grey Shrike, plus some local birds such as Short-toed Treecreeper and Crested Tit.
Our fourth day was to last for over 13 hours in the field as we visited the major crossing point for the western flyway of raptors and other birds at Tarifa, used for a short 14km sea crossing to Africa by migrant birds. For many of the group, this was their first experience of the amazing spectacle of raptor migration as hundreds of Short-toed Eagles stacked up awaiting conditions to be favourable for the sea crossing. We counted 128 Egyptian Vultures, and these were complimented by a few hundred Honey Buzzard and Booted Eagles with the odd Black Kite also making an appearance. Sparrowhawks constantly passed over us as they too were making the journey to continental Africa. Of course, smaller birds were also in abundance as large numbers of Bee Eaters and Barn Swallows streamed passed. We later visited the site where Tim’s €100,000 was being used for wetland restoration work at La Janda and we were able to see firsthand the progress made so far, an impressive project and such an important initiative by the organisation Friends of La Janda. After an indulgent lunch of several local dishes, we rolled, rather than walked to the ever-improving nature reserve of the Barbate Marshes. Flamingo, Spoonbill, Audouin’s Gull and Slender-billed Gull were here in good numbers, whilst wading birds probed the shallows of the many lagoons. Most likely the highlight for the group was to see the rare Northern Bald Ibis as a small gathering were foraging among a herd of grazing cattle.
All in all, an amazing few days spent in the good company of our visitors from the UK and without exception they are determined to return for the Andalucia Bird Festival next April.
Article: Peter Jones
Note: Article first appeared in Costa Connection Magazine October 2023 edition.