An Optimistic Birder – A member’s article

I fell in love with Andalucia way back in 1965 when as a young back packer I spent eight weeks bumming around the Spanish coast from Gibraltar to Barcelona. I recall TorremoIinos was a quiet fishing village with two quaint double storey hotels.  I did manage to get a job for a week or so at the Rock Hotel in Gib as a swimming pool assistant but when they found out I could not swim, I got the chop. I do recall I came over all indignant as all I was doing was serving drinks to wealthy tobacco merchants. We stayed at a Toc H hostel where our bunks where open to the elements.

That was a long time ago but I’m still drawn to Andalucia with a pull, which overwhelms. Although I’ve been back countless times I still get excited planning my next visit. I have a wee house in northwest of England. There’s nowt better, when the wind is blowing hard outside and the rain is pelting down, making pinging sounds on the window pains, my optimism drives me to pore over my Andalucia maps, websites and visit reports, so that I can to plan my next trip.

Just what is it about Spain in general and Andalucia in particular that fires up a birder’s imagination? Sure there are many new bird species to be seen but Britain and Spain roughly have the same number of species, just over 600 each. Spain is more or less twice the size of Britain and holds about two thirds of Britain’s population of 67million. Distances between towns and villages are greater in Spain. I’m talking about the vast red interior and conveniently ignoring the sprawling Mediterranean Costas.

I understand that urbanisation is a major environmental threat in Spain, but once out of town Spain feels to me like one huge nature reserve. It’s as if wherever you can stop the car and take a stroll you find something of genuine birding interest.  On my last trip in April I was leaving the unkempt outskirts of Campillos when I spotted clouds of Insects rising over a small pond and local swallows were having a feast day. I counted over 80 and tried to take some decent shots from the car but I only stayed for twenty minutes, conscious that I was parked illegally on the continuous white line. There are other examples, but Spain offers the delight of the unexpected. I’m a bit of a photographer and friends always say I must have unlimited patience. If truth were known my patience is easily exhausted, but my optimism is key. Optimism trumps patience any time.

Let’s get back to the environment and in particular the countryside. Modern, intensively farmed Britain has turned great swathes of what was once mixed farms of open countryside into sterile single crop holdings.  Whether it’s the acres of farmed daffodils in Fenland, the swaying wheat fields of Cambridgeshire, the quiet sterile conifer plantations of the Forestry Commission or the over-fertilised dairy farms of my Cheshire roots, the situation is grim indeed. Gone are the Skylark, Corn Bunting, Grey Partridge, Yellowhammer, Spotted Flycatcher and many more. Intensive farming has many aspects, but crucially the use of pesticides has a lot to answer for. Very recent studies have shown that we in the UK have lost 75% of our insects since 1990.  Gone are the days when a drive out in the countryside resulted in a windscreen covered in the mortal remains of hundreds of insects. What has happened to our insect population is an ecological catastrophe. Intensive farming is leaving all our nature reserves increasingly isolated pockets of biodiversity. Open mixed farms should be the connecting network joining all our natures reserves, providing corridors where wildlife can prosper, but our reserves are fast becoming disconnected oases.

We have plenty of very good natures reserves managed by three organisations, the RSPB, WWT and Wildlife reserves and they are doing a very good job, but our farming practices are leaving them marooned in a sterile sea.

Note. There is also The National Trust but their remit is more the conservation of buildings but they too own plenty of land.

I may be wrong, (I was once – it was a Tuesday afternoon in 2007 ha-ha) but it seems to me that intensive farming of the British model has not yet arrived in Andalucia. Yes there are acres of contoured monoculture wheat fields and endless olive groves but bird life co-exists. Intensive farming of the sort I see in England, I don’t see in Spain, but then I don’t live in Spain. I come to visit and enjoy the people, food and birds and conveniently ignore the high-rise and litter.

I have to admit that I’m not up to speed on Spain’s efforts to protect their environment. There are many very large natural parks, which look to provide a respite for nature. From the visitor’s perspective they seem to be working but I’m sure they too face problems after the economic crisis of 2008. Perhaps it’s also a size thing. With two thirds of our population and twice the land mass there is more room in Spain and nature appears to have managed in a less brutal fashion.  Optimism is also rewarded when your guide turns a corner on a country lane in a farming area and there sits a Roller, a Woodchat Shrike, an Olivaceous Warbler or whatever.  My optimism is also at play when I find myself getting up early, wherever I’m staying, to walk the hotel’s gardens or local lanes just to see what might be up and about.

For me there’s one valley that sums up this world of unbridled hope and promise. Christina, one of Peter’s guides, took me to this valley after a delightful light lunch in Benaojan, near Grazalema.  We were already in the Parque Naturel de Sierra de Grazalema and we headed back up the road to Montejaque. We climbed up through the main street and caught the sign to Llanos de Libar. Christina promised me a very special place of nature’s magic. The unpretentious road out of the village passes a row of extra large refuse bins before slowly crossing over to the left hand side of what looks to be an impressive valley. Smallholdings of a few hectares cling to the roadside. Fruit trees spread their boughs wide and neatly tended vegetable plots combine in a mish-mash of shapes. A few dogs rest contentedly in the early afternoon’s heat watching us drive slowly by. Soon the road begins its climb and the green sward valley on the right sits regally under the sun’s rays.

The road soon becomes a well-worn gravel track. We stop in a shaded area near some sheer rock faces on our left. We get out and there above us are three Griffon Vulture looking at us in their nonchalant way. Meanwhile we scour the skyline and Christina points out a small speck of a bird. It was a Black Wheatear no less, given away by that white flash of rump and tail.  The Griffons effortlessly floated away from the face, taking the updraft and thermals to cross the verdant valley to another peak.

The road continues and winds along the southern side of the valley. I spot another Black Wheatear sitting obligingly on the rock wall, begging to be photographed.  We edged closer in the car and click I have a picture. Christina is true to her word. This is a magic place. The green meadows are behind us as we enter a more rugged landscape of boulder strewn steep valley sides. An immature Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush sits perched on a small boulder in the mid distance whilst an Iberian Grey Shrike darts to the ground, collects lunch and returns high up in a favourite bush. A Red-legged Partridge sits conveniently for me to photograph as it checks out a family of Ibex.

There’s a summit ahead where the gravel track bears left. Behind us the rugged valley falls away and coils of vultures are slowly soaring.  We are high up now but the magic is not over.  Suddenly, there laid out before us is the greenest green and the flattest flat, valley floor.  We could be in Shangri-La.  A few cattle chew on the greenest grass and a Golden Eagle displays its magnificence as it hugs the mountainside and slides slowly by with just a quick nod of acknowledgement. A flock of 200 or so Red-billed Chough plays over distant peaks. A Short-toed Eagle winds it way past us and nearby Griffon Vultures take to the thermals.   Another Andalucia trip comes up with the goods once again. Optimism rules OK.

Article: Bruce Kendrick
Photos: Bruce Kendrick – 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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