Into the Spanish Mountains

I recently spent a week on the south-eastern coast of Spain as my friend Ted and his family kindly invited me on holiday with them. Although much of the time was spent relaxing by the sea, we did make a couple of trips into the nearby mountains. Here are a couple of accounts of our days bird-watching in some beautiful locations.

Ronda

We gradually made our way along the road as it wound its way higher through the mountains. The landscape of holiday resorts and new-build apartments vanished behind us as the landscape transformed into an expansive of steep rocky valleys, cork forests and high peaks. The road cut its way through vertiginous mountain passes and eventually the road stopped climbing and the mountains opened up, giving way to an expansive vista of plains. Out of the barren, scrubby landscape rose the El Tajo Canyon, upon which sits the ancient city of Ronda.

As we entered the city these views vanished behind church walls, restaurants and gift shops. However, we walked north through the town, on a pilgrimage to the Citys’ most impressive feature Puente Nuevo –  New Bridge. Peering over the side of the bridge the landscape once again opened up. The views instantly filled me with a rush of awe and adrenaline. The precipitous landscape below was both unexpected and incredible. Puente Nuevo is one of three bridges that cuts across the El Tajo Canyon, which was carved out by the Guadalevín River that flows 120 metres below. Steep cliffs rise up from the edge of the river, and these create perfect nesting habitat for birds. In a similar way to coastal cliffs, these precipices are rather inaccessible to the hungry mouths of predatory mammals, making them a relatively safe haven for eggs and chicks.

 

It was interesting to see red-billed chough nesting on the cliff-face, just meters away from me. I’m so used to seeing choughs braving the cold and windswept Cornish coastline, but here they were enduring the searing heat miles away from the sea.   Hundreds of common and alpine swifts, joyful and energetic, whizzed and screeched passed us. Fast and agile, swifts truly are masters of the air. I will never cease to be amazed by the fact that swifts may remain on the wing without touching terra-firma for over nine months outside of the breeding season. Occasionally I notice swifts launch themselves from the cliff edge. I ponder – do they enjoy resting their wings while they nest, or do they revel in every moment spent in the sky?

 

Red-billed Chough1
Red-billed Chough perched near one of the viewpoints. 

 

There were plenty of kestrels nesting on the cliffs, too. The cliffs make a great vantage point from where kestrels can hunt for small mammals and passerines in the surrounding plains.  It wasn’t the common kestrel we had come to see though. Lesser kestrels, the common kestrels smaller sister species, also nest here. We checked each kestrel carefully as they soared effortlessly below us. The lesser kestrel can be distinguished from the common kestrel by its plain rusty upperparts and a blue-grey panel on the upper-side of the wings. Lesser kestrels have a different hunting strategy to common kestrels, feeding mainly on large insects. After a lot of searching we finally glimpsed a lesser kestrel, way down in the canyon, a great conclusion to the day’s birdwatching.

Caceres

Time for another pilgrimage into the mountains. Up at the viewpoint, we were treated to panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. Huge feathered figures stood hunched on the rocks – like statues overlooking the valley. The sun was breaking through the thin hazy clouds and the air was warming up rapidly. The birds heaved themselves off of the rocks, climbing up with a few heavy flaps and circling towards us. These were griffon vultures, truly hefty birds with a 2.5-meter wingspan. Griffon vultures are gregarious birds preferring to congregate in groups, relying on each other to find carrion on which to feed. Over a dozen birds soared almost effortlessly over our heads. It’s impossible not to feel insignificant when such magnificent birds, the flying carpets of Europe, are glaring down from just meters above. There were booted eagles here too, which were dwarfed by the vultures. Who knew eagles could look cute?

Griffon Vulture 4
Just look at that wingspan!
Booted Eagle 1
A booted eagle – it was dwarfed by the vultures!

We took a short walk into the hills. Griffon vultures continued to soar over the peaks and in the distance an Egyptian vulture joined them. Up close Egyptian vultures look somewhat comical, though in a rather sinister fashion – with a spiky white hair-do but a pointy and bare-yellow face.  I feel blessed to see so many magnificent birds. Although there are fairly large populations of griffon and Egyptian vultures in Spain, as well as booted eagles, all are under threat from issues such as habitat loss and persecution.  I hope that they can thrive in the future and still put on such spectacles in years to come.

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