Our hills are alive with the sights and sounds of nature

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I imagine that if you mention the Costa del Sol to the unknowing and the ill-informed, they conjure up a vision of sandy beaches, lots of concrete and fish and chips. And yet, just a short drive away, you can be immersed in a veritable wonderland for wildlife. Did you know that Malaga Province is the most ecologically diverse in Andalucía? Maybe as diverse as anywhere in Spain.

The nearest and best-known wildlife areas exist within the Sierra de las Nieves, an area approved to become the 16th Spanish national park and the 3rd in Andalucía during 2019. Here we can find mountains reaching a height of 1,919m (La Torrecilla) or 6,296 feet in old money. The park area, 93,930 hectares, is extremely rich in fauna and flora. During the 19th century the Swiss botanist Pierre Edmond Boissier studied the area and one of his discoveries led to an important reason for protecting the area, namely the forest areas of mature ‘Abies pinsapo Boiss’ the Spanish fir or otherwise known as Pinsapo. The Pinsapo is a preglacial species and is now considered at risk of extinction, so the park is now at the forefront of preserving, conserving and expanding populations of this jewel in the crown of Andalusian forestry.

Broad-leaved Iris
Broad-leaved Iris – Iris planifolia

Staying with a look into the flora of the area, February is a good month to venture up into the mountains to find early flowering orchids such as the Giant orchid Himantoglossum robertianum and also the low growing Broad-leaved iris Iris planifolia, which can form large carpets of blue in contrast to sparse covered rocky areas. Perhaps a familiar flower species to gardeners, that is abundant during the winter months, is the Paperwhite narcissus Narcissus papyraceus, this beautiful daffodil grows in a variety of habitats from cultivated ground to rocky scree. One of the attractions for flower lovers and botanists alike, is the protracted flowering times due to a wide range of altitudinal differences, the higher elevations producing later flowering.

Llanos de Libar
Llanos de Libar track in winter as snow covers the high peaks.

As the name of the park suggests (nieves), winter can see the higher mountains covered in snow. It is at this time that some of the iconic mammals in these mountains descend to the lower reaches to find exposed areas for grazing. None are more at home in this landscape than Southeastern Spanish Ibex Capra pyrenaica hispanica, a wild goat that is endemic to Spain. Another species to see around lower altitudes during winter is the mountain sheep Mouflon Ovis ammon musimon, a species introduced many years ago to the area by hunters. Other grazing mammals to see are Red, Fallow and Roe Deer, whilst the foraging Wild Boar is scarce and not to be confused with feral pigs that are more commonly seen throughout the park. Of the smaller mammals, most are nocturnal and in winter with the longer nights they are unlikely to be seen, although daytime doesn’t seem to deter the Red Fox.

Of course, finding and appreciating our wonderful plants is easier than finding the many animal species, for one thing plants neither run nor fly away! Yet, as often as not, it is the movement of both mammals and birds that attracts our attention. A great draw for people to visit the mountains is the presence of the largest of our local birds, the Griffon Vulture and weighing in at 8kgs and with a wingspan of 2.8m they don’t get much larger. These gregarious birds can often be seen in sizeable flocks as they soar on updraughts and thermals, one of the wonders of the Malaga sky, a true colossus among our resident birds. They have increased in recent times, aided largely by the provision of dead livestock placed strategically within confined and dedicated feeding stations.

Bonelli's Eagle
Bonelli’s Eagle has one of its major European strongholds here in the Andalusian mountains.

Of course, the birdlife here attracts a lot of attention from enthusiasts and with a great many visitors from outside of Spain visiting us just to observe our many species, birds have become an important part of nature tourism to the region. Even during the winter months, local birdwatchers are joined by visiting birdwatchers from the rest of Europe and overseas. Resident eagles, such Golden Eagle are a spectacle, but the resident Bonelli’s Eagle is a star turn for those living here and visiting. It is absent from northern and central Europe and we have one of the world strongholds for this medium sized eagle. Many mountain and resident birds help supplement and satiate the appetite for birdwatchers as they brave the winter at higher altitudes. One of my favourites is the Blue Rock Thrush, not only is it a handsome looking bird, but it is also one of our best songsters with it’s mellow and melodic song echoing through the rocky terrain it inhabits.

So, I hope I might have inspired you to journey from the coast to the nearby mountains and indulge in a little immersion with nature. It can surprise and reward the effort as well as provide solace in these uncertain times.

Article: Peter Jones
Photos: Juan Luis Muñoz and 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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