Autumn in my mountains

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As autumn is set every crook and cranny of my mountains has its outline softened as shadows deepen and grow as a consequence of the low November sun, my jagged mountains have been transformed into the appearance of soft folded velvet, an illusion belied by outline of the rugged peaks of mountains as they tower into the sky. For much of my local flora it is a time of rest and recouperation following the searing heat and drought of our summer, leaves tumble as some trees fall into winter slumber while some plants awake from months of gathering strength to burst forth into an array of colour in defiance of cold nights and shorter daytime sunlight. Deer and Ibex celebrate autumn with their ritual rutting as males vie with each other for the attention of watching females, each male hoping to win their right to procreate with the onlooking bemused and anticipating females. As if in response to the nuptial needs of grazing animals, grasses recover as rains quench the thirst and turn the summer’s golden-brown landscape into carpets of green and so autumn is not only a time of rest, but also a time of renewal and hope for my local fauna and flora.

Birds brighten my days during November as wintering birds provide spectacular scenes and a few surprises. Common Cranes will provide the backdrop to the spectacle as they arrive in their thousands and the ever-increasing reports of Pallid Harrier wintering here will increase the chances of seeing the unusual. Wildfowl will be headed here in their thousands but doubts as to whether they will remain is fuelled by our lack of standing waters and dried wetlands. We can only hope long awaited and meaningful rains will help to replenish water levels in such important winter wetlands as the Doñana. The dispersal of juvenile Spanish Imperial Eagle, Black Vulture and Bonelli’s Eagle will see these birds being recorded away from their breeding areas and give an opportunity for many more birders to see them. Of course, we have some wonderful birds that remain with us all year round and some of these attract birders from northern Europe to spend a winter holiday with us to view these local birds. Blue Rock Thrush, Black Wheatear, Griffon, and Black Vulture, Bonelli’s, Golden and Spanish Imperial Eagle are major attractions alongside many others including the beautiful small raptor Black-winged Kite. There will also be opportunities to see rare birds such as the Rüppell’s Vulture that has now been added to our regional resident bird list. To compliment this exciting list of resident birds and providing incentives to birders from outside of our region to visit, we also have the endemics Iberian Green Woodpecker, the colourful Iberian Magpie (formally known as Azure-winged Magpie) and the handsome Iberian Grey Shrike.

From a personal perspective, I am always intrigued and excited by the ‘thrush extravaganza’ an event that can vary in degrees every year with migrant thrushes arriving to winter here or pass through on their way to the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Some years huge numbers of thrushes can appear overnight and provide me with endless hours of birding bliss, these falls of thrushes will include Ring Ouzel, Redwing, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush and to a lesser extent Fieldfare. Perhaps surprising to many is the huge number of Blackbirds that accompany these influxes, I am sure many are unaware of this thrush also being a migrant and most likely just see them as an ever-present member of our local bird community, although we do have our own resident population. The great majority of these thrushes will have travelled (mostly at night) from Scandinavia and are long distant migrants. Aside from Blackbird and Mistle Thrush, these other thrushes are only here in our winter.

My mountains, my heaven and realm has seen the arrival of the most common winter visitors such as Black Redstart, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, White Wagtail, Meadow Pipit and Ring Ouzel, as well as the more localised Alpine Accentor. Up on the high hills of Old Ronda there are super large flocks of mixed finches, spectacular sights as the flock are constantly disturbed by wandering cow herds, passing cars or the villain of any peaceful finch flock, the Sparrowhawk! It is always worth scanning these flocks for the unusual or scarcer finch and spending time revealed Brambling among the many Chaffinches, whilst the field margins with their high fennel plants can hold small flocks of Siskin. Just lazing around this wonderfully scenic area can take your breath away, a total contrast to summer months when bright light and haze gives an almost one-dimensional appearance to both hill and mountain. Higher in the limestone mountains, where haws and hips provide food in abundance, Ring Ouzel has appeared in very good numbers, slightly later than normal. These handsome thrushes, so scarce and hard to find in North Europe, regularly use my high mountain areas to winter, along with Redwing and the much rarer Fieldfare. My maximum count for this thrush, during 2009, was 200+! Some of these birds will continue to journey south and eventually spend their winter in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, but a good many will winter here in times when there are plenty of haws and hips.

The time of year makes it difficult to concentrate solely on birds; autumn colours just wash the landscape with their golden yellows and reds. It is mission impossible not to get carried away with the colours and shoot several scenes without regard for flying birds or anything else that should catch the eye. I spend a lot of time doing a rough loop, striking out towards El Gastor, via old Ronda, then taking a route to the historic town of Olvera, then back again via some off-road tracks hoping to see a few raptors and winter finch flocks. It was a journey of rich reward both scenically and for birds.

Article: Peter Jones
Photographs: Peter Jones

Article first appeared in Costa Connection November 2023 magazine.

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

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