The outings

The Gibraltar Ornithological & Natural History Society organise monthly outings for it's members within Gibraltar and further afield into Andalucía, visiting a variety of locations covering diverse habitats and offering the opportunity to see the wildlife of this beautiful area. The venues for the outings are chosen and timed to coincide with the season's happenings: see Cranes in their wintering grounds, Orchids in the spring, wading birds in the Doñana wetlands, butterflies and Ibex in the Sierras, come Autumn mushrooming in the Alcornocales and enjoy the spectacular sights of thousands of migrating raptors right on your doorstep.

For dates, contacts and how to join us, see the gonhs website

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Spring outing to the woodland of La Sauceda

19th March 2011                                                                      led by Paul Acolina

There was a good turnout for this outing and 16 of us, 17 counting Sophie the dog, stopped for coffee and toast en route at a venta just before the town of Jimena.The morning was already bright, sunny and warm as we set off for la Sauceda: the road up there is a long, climbing and winding  one, but very scenic and with some breathtaking views of the river Hozgarganta flowing through the rocky Jimena valley.

La Sauceda is located within the Alcornocales Natural Park, in the Sierra de Aljilbe and is right on the boundary between the provinces of Malaga and Cadíz. The highest peak of the range, el pico de Aljilbe reaches to 1091metres and it is possible to walk up to it, but special permission must be sought. Our route would be around the slopes of the mountain, an uphill walk but quite a gentle one. Historically much of this area was truly wild, untamed and barely accessible; reputedly the domain of bandits.There had been a settlement at la Sauceda since the 14th century, which by the 20th century had become a small village community with its own water mill, church and school.Its history came to a violent and tragic end, when during the civil war it became the refuge of rebels that brought about the destruction of the village and the execution of all its inhabitants.The village was not rebuilt and its ruins remains being slowly reclaimed by nature and gradually reabsorbed into the landscape.The area now has stone-built cabins that are available to rent for overnight stays.

A view from the road bridge in the car parking area 
Leaving our parked cars we were greeted with fresh but warm air, the sounds of water rushing over rocks and over that, birdsong. Within minutes we had seen and or heard Blackcap, Serin, Goldfinch, Greenfinch and heard what was to become a familiar sound throughout the day, singing Iberian Chiffchaffs which Paul informed us breed here.
Following a well-trodden path through the woodland

Star of Bethlehem- Ornithogalum 
Inside the perimeter of the park we once again found Sawfly Orchids (see previous post) and kneeling to the photograph them I quickly realised the ground was very wet. Setting off along the path it became increasingly so, and we found ourselves splashing through standing water and squelching through mud; quite a novelty as we don't get to do that too often in this part of Spain. Paul steered us up onto a higher path and we soon found ourselves on drier ground on a meandering path through the beautiful woodland.
There were the sights and sounds of spring all around us, the almost-bare leaved Holm Oaks are laden with new leaf buds whilst the remaining old dry ones are still in the process of being shed, showering down onto the ground at each breath of wind. Teline shrubs are in full golden blossom and at ground level there were pretty little flowers, golden lesser celandines, periwinkles,daisies and the more showy blooms of Star of Bethlehem, Three-cornered Leek and crocus-like Romulea. I also came across a couple of Bluebells, one very tightly in bud, the other beginning to open. There are signs of more flowers to come - the leaves of  Spotted Orchids and Foxgloves are there and later on in April there will be Rhododendrons in bloom here.

Spanish Bluebell- Scilla hispanica 
Flowers were easier to spot than birds and definitely much easier to photograph. We managed to see a few Robins in the shady woodland and heard Wrens. There were a lot of Blue Tits about and we stood for a while watching Nuthatches high up in the top branches of a tree. There were glimpses of a Short-toed Treecreeper and of Firecrest too, always a challenge to see as they are so tiny and move around very quickly; they often give their presence away by the soft, light whistling calls they use as contact call to others close by.

Blue tit - Cyanistes caerulius

Our path was an uphill one, but the surroundings were more breathtaking than the climb 
Spanish Festoon - Zerynthia polyxena

The bright sunshine brought out some beautiful butterflies, a pristine Spanish Festoon and a rather faded Large Tortoishell. I also saw a Small Copper, several Large Whites and in the open area around the ruins of the church, a Moroccan Orange Tip.
Trees, rocks and the sound of running splashing water are a magical combination

Iberian Chiffchaff ?
Reaching the site of the old church and the cabins that are now rented out to people wishing to stay in the park, some of the group went down to the river while others wanted to explore the ruins.

Large Tortoishell-Nymphalis polyochros
From the riverside, some of us watched a number of Black Kites above the mountain ridge, wheeling to catch thermals that would take them even higher. Griffon Vultures were also seen and others had had sightings of a Short-toed Eagle and a Booted Eagle. Others had discovered that a nearby marshy area had puddles of water holding wriggling tadpoles of varying sizes. After a few minutes of us being scattered around the site the majority regrouped and decided to walk a bit further along the track through the higher woodland while others opted either to wait for us there or to return to their cars.

This part of the woods has a quite different atmosphere. It is more open, the trees are mostly cork oaks that are quite evenly spaced and the undergrowth is largely bracken that is beginning to show green again. The trees will probably have been cultivated for their cork 'crop', but as much of  the ground slopes steeply and the trees lean and bend, the task of cutting the cork must be challenging.

We continued to walk until the woodland gave way to a clear area giving spectacular views over the mountains - the perfect spot for the group photo.

The majority of the group that carried on walking through the woods against the stunning background of the Serrania de Ronda, with what we believe to be the town of Cortes de la Frontera in the far distance.
Similar view without the people
There were more Bluetits here and we heard Great Tits calling. We turned around here to walk back along the forest track, stopping for a few minutes to watch a pair of Nuthatch that were in  trees close to the path, calling to one another. As we had seen one in almost the same place on our way through the first time we thought they may well have had a nest site close by.
Back at the river past the bridge where the water runs fast through rocks, a Grey Wagtail was spotted hunting insects.

Romulea - Romulea bulbocodium

Well into the afternoon now, the thought of lunch was foremost in most of our minds and our walk back to the cars was made at a much quicker pace; it was downhill too, which helped. We did well and resisted stopping, well except once when Paul found a newt in a shady pool for us to look at.

Being such a lovely sunny day, the venta looked to be very busy when we arrived; the car parking areas seemed full and some of our party decided not to stay, reducing our numbers to just 7 for lunch. Those of us that stayed enjoyed it nonetheless - and those that didn't missed out on a menu that included locally hunted game, venison,wild boar, partridge etc. and freshly picked wild asparagus. A very pleasant way to end a lovely outing.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ready for next Saturday's outing to La Sauceda?

I'm sure next Saturday's outing to la Sauceda is already marked in all your diaries and that you're looking forward to it as much as I am. (Fingers crossed for good weather!) I thought I'd put up a few photographs from the last outing we made there in March 2009 to remind those who came what a beautiful location it is, and without giving too much away, perhaps tempt those who haven't visited the area before to join us and see it for themselves. 

The area we visit surrounds Pico del Aljibe (1091), the highest point of the Sierra del Aljibe located at the northern end of the Alcornocales Natural Park and on the boundary between the provinces of Malaga and Cadíz.  
Willow trees grow along the sides of the stream

The woodland contains an interesting mix of trees, cork oaks, holm oaks, ash and by the stream, willow from which the location takes it name.
There are lovely spring flowers, we found some unusual ones, Sawfly orchids and several Fritillaries.
Sawfly Orchid - one of the earliest to flower

Male Blackcap in full song
There were woodland birds  singing and as the holm oaks were still leafless, we were able to see them. Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs, Blue Tits and Chaffinches were particularly noticeable. 
There are some massive specimens of Cork Oaks, this one has a colony of ferns growing along a branch

There are lovely trails through the woodland and we chose a lovely spot amongst the trees to eat our picnic lunch. After lunch some folk decided to make their way back, others felt more energetic and carried on walking. A few of us went off to find the lagoon that was signposted but not too clearly. It took quite a while to find, probably because we went wrong a few times, but we had some spectacular views along the way.
The views across to the Ronda mountains are spectacular
We eventually found the lagoon, which was well worth the effort of tramping across muddy fields to see.
Laguna de Moral
We realised, of course, that there was a much easier way to get there - from the surfaced track we took back down to the car park, but our way was much more interesting...

Friday, March 11, 2011

Winter outing to la Janda

12th February 2011                                                     report & photos by Theresa Leverton

The first GONHS outing of this year took us to La Janda, nr. Tarifa, the place to visit during the winter to see large numbers of Common Cranes and White Storks gathered together as well as a myriad of other wintering and passage birds that are attracted to this rich, open agricultural site. The trip was led by Dr. Keith Bensusan  and was a little different to our usual outings as we were guided by Stephen Daly, a professional guide who knows the locality inside out, is very aware of  what may be around at any given time and where best to find it. He also has privileged access to areas that are on private land and usually closed off, so although many of us on the trip have visited the area many times before, we were able to view parts of the site that were fresh to us.
A large group of members (21 of us), met up with Stephen at the Apollo XI venta, conveniently located a short way from the entrance to the La Janda site. After coffee and breakfast there was a little shuffling around to find everyone a seat in a 4X4, as the tracks around the site are weather-worn and not particularly friendly to 'normal' cars. We set off as a convoy of 6 cars, showing number plates from Gibraltar, Spain and the USA which evoked quite a bit of curiosity amongst other road users throughout the day.
We began our birding quest on land belong to el Cortijo de Haba, scanning the ploughed fields either side of a track. It was cold and quite misty there, but there were still birds to be seen, albeit mostly distantly; we  saw our first Common Cranes flying and quite a few Cormorants crossing back and forth. There were Storks, Cattle and Little Egrets present, a Buzzard hunched up on a distant fence, Red-legged Partridge at the field's edge, Corn Buntings and Stonechats. We could hear Larks in the bare muddy fields, most likely Crested, but their superb camouflage made them difficult to pick out and although there was movement amongst them flights were low and short and not at all helpful to us.
We drove on to the La Janda site and turned in to be greeted by mist that shrouded the land to either side of us. The first birds we picked out were Lapwings that were flying around despite the reduced visibility that landed in the grassy field to our left.

A Cattle Egret stood in the mist, shaking out his damp feathers
The sun, quickly gaining in strength began to burn off the mist and birds began to move around more freely. Perching places are sparse in this part of the site; a sizeable mixed flock of Linnets, Goldfinches & Chaffinches flew into this small bush, with more alighting on the grass stems below to feed on grass seeds.

Birds in a bush-Linnet, Goldfinch & Chaffinch
There was an interesting departure from our usual route at this point; we would have continued driving and made a left turn onto the long main track here, but Stephen had gained permission for us to pass through a post and wire gate to the right, so we left our cars and continued along here on foot.

A spider's web beaded with water drops sparkled in the sunlight

An old wasps nest attached to the wire fence that was probably concealed by reeds or long grass when it was built
The track leads between fields with the river on one side and a dry ditch on the other. There were numerous Chiffchaffs along here amongst the reeds, Stonechats perched up  atop stems and posts and Corn Buntings sang from the wire fence. Stephen had visited the site during the last week when there were large numbers of Snipe and Common Cranes here, but the field was being ploughed this morning, moving the Cranes on. We did however see Meadow Pipits, a Green Sandpiper and more Lapwings and there were still Snipe  in the field opposite, with Calandra Larks. With binoculars it was possible to see very large numbers of Storks gathered at the back of the fields and another perched Buzzard. By the time we turned around to walk back the sun had all but burnt off the mist and it was feeling much warmer. To our delight Calandra Larks were flying up high to sing and to display flights against the clear blue sky.

Calandra Lark, male displaying & singing
Calandra Lark-Melanocorypha calandra-SPANISH: Calandria común

Calandra Lark display flying, note stiff wings
Calandra Larks are big, heavily built larks with a large head, stout Greenfinch-like bill and a black patch on neck-side. Characteristic in flight, with dark wings (all black below) with broad white trailing edge. Display sings in circling song flight, often very high up; the long black wings and closed tail give the impression of a much larger bird. A typical Steppe species favouring fertile grasslands, widespread over much of Spain and parts of Portugal, generally below 600m. There has been a noticeable decline in numbers in recent years due to modern agricultural practises. Feeds on seeds, shoots & insects. Calandras are thought to be non-migratory.
A Spoonbill was spotted flying, seeming to be trailing a leg. Back at the bottom of the track we heard Fan-tailed Warblers 'zitting' amongst the long grass, heard a Cetti's Warbler from somewhere by the water and saw a pair of Mallard flying.
Driving along the main track we had some great views, a Swamp Hen (I still prefer Purple Gallinule), Coots, loads more Cattle Egrets, Corn Buntings and Stonechats. There were Little Egrets, Grey Herons, and a distant hovering Kestrel. We stopped to photograph 3 Cranes close by in a field, not brilliant, but  turned out to be our best view of the day of Cranes on the ground.

Three Common Cranes, our best view of the day
The convoy came to a halt to admire three beautiful Spoonbills that stood at the edge of a flooded field, settling down to take a rest.

Three Spoonbills on the edge of a distant flooded field
We stopped again a little further on as Golden Plovers, still in winter plumage and incredibly well camouflaged against the bare brown earth were spotted in a field together with yet more Lapwings. Visible only with the aid of a telescope, we may well have passed them by if they had not been pointed out to us.

There were Golden Plovers in the flat bare field beyond the reed-fringed river

Lapwings were everywhere today, flying and feeding on the ground

An elegantly poised Grey Heron alone in a stubble field
We turned right off the main track, crossed the bridge over the river and stopped a bit further on to watch a well-spotted Black-winged Kite perched at the top of a small tree. The beautiful bird then flew out across the field it had been scanning, hovered Kestrel-like over a spot on the ground then returned to its perch.
We continued down the length of straight track that is lined with small willow trees,  currently bearing catkins. The track surface here was full of potholes to avoid and from our position at the back of the convoy, the only birds we saw were a couple of Chiffchaffs and Goldfinch. We stopped briefly and getting out of the car inadvertently disturbed a bird we were hoping to see - a Great Spotted Cuckoo left the cover of the shrubs and flew low down, close to the hedge back along the way we had just driven.

A distant view of a Black-winged Kite
The next spot was of a Little Owl that had been sitting up on one of the huge arms of one of the irrigating contraptions; it was long gone by the time we tail-enders arrived! We did see a Marsh Harrier here though,  quite distant above the hills to our left, but still good to see. Causing a little more excitement a Hen Harrier flew into view on the opposite side of the track, again distant, but it was possible to see it was a female that was then joined by another bird, probably the male. As we drove off we spotted a very tight flock of dark-coloured birds flying away from us that turned out to be Glossy Ibis.
We carried on up to the farm, leaving the cars once again to the scan around the very different terrain here. To one side there is rough pastureland where cows were grazing around clumps of flowering Asphodels; this is part of the Hen Harriers' territory and they would have been around here when we saw them from lower down.
A huge field full of flowering Asphodels with grazing cattle, cork oaks  & distant mountains - this is Hen-Harrier territory
Parked close to a cow shed with a very muddy enclosed area in front of it that was full of curious cattle, the air around us was rather pungently fragranced, which some felt added to the campo atmosphere but which others found strangely offensive (townies!). But, where there are animals there are generally insects and small rodents, therefore birds. There were large numbers of Jackdaws all over the place that Stephen told us nest on the rock faces of a local quarry, and a little crowd of Chiffchaffs that were perching in the squares formed by a wire fence surrounded by yellow mustard-type flowers, diving out acrobatically to chase flies. A single Barn Swallow was spotted and a Booted Eagle that was perched up on a telegraph pole pointed out, 2 Buzzards circled, then a Hen Harrier flew in and scanned the area in front of us (pastureland surrounded with olive and cork oak trees and other scrubby vegetation). We heard the distinctive honking of Cranes flying and two separate groups headed straight for us then passed close over our heads. Lovely views of these large, elegant birds.

Absorbed by the Cranes we had failed to notice that a huge flock of White Storks had gathered behind us and were beginning to wheel characteristically and drift across above us: a breathtaking display.

Wheeling White Storks
Moving along a short way we stopped again as Stephen spotted a Great Spotted Cuckoo that had been perched but that dropped to the ground, disappearing from view. Somehow someone picked up a Little Owl sitting in a tree above a bramble patch, but I could not see it, sorry.
So, onwards to lunch - which all GONHS outing regulars will know and appreciate is an essential part of the day's proceedings. Stephen did us proud, guiding us to 'Cortijo Los Monteros', which is located on the Medina-Benalup road (km6). We all enjoyed our choices from the tasty and generously portioned, but very reasonably priced 3 course 'menu del dia', that we ate seated at a very long table in front of a huge roaring wood fire.
After lunch Stephen was taking us to a nearby reservoir. We stopped en route at a beautiful woodland spot along the road to look out for the rare Spanish Imperial Eagles that nested here for the first time last year, an unexpected event that has caused much excitement.

A lovely healthy-looking cow with a fearsome set of horns and dangly earrings grazed with her calf on the lush grass, guarded by her own personal 'tick-picker' (cattle egret).
We had no luck with the Imperial Eagles, but we thoroughly enjoyed the moments of peace and tranquillity of our surroundings and while some of us were content to wander around and take it all in, others were diligently scanning the sky for the elusive raptors. Stephen heard a Green Woodpecker, or Iberian Woodpecker as he referred to it and whistled back to it, hoping to bring it to us, but it could probably see we were quite a crowd and chose not to. More Buzzards and a Sparrowhawk  were spotted and then excitement was aroused by two beautiful Red Kites directly overhead. They seemed as interested in us as we were in them and they spent some time moving around us slowly, whilst peering down.

A stunning Red Kite, looking a bit frayed around the primaries peering down at the strange gathering of humans below it
Arriving at the reservoir we got our bearings and realised we were at the far side of the huge expanse of water that lies to the left of the main AP-4 the Algeciras - Sevilla road, that we had all seen and wondered about dozens of times but had no idea how to access. Well now we know - it is the Barbate reservoir constructed in 1992 to prevent the agricultural land at the site we had just visited from flooding. That seems a little ironic as that site was historically a lake that was drained so the land could be put to agricultural use. The reservoir is absolutely huge, stated as covering 2,537 hectares, but now undoubtedly swelled by the recent heavy rainfalls. As with most reservoirs it appears to be a fairly sterile environment for birds, although apparently Osprey have nested there in previous years. There was not much to see here, we could hear Sardinian Warbler amongst the scrub growing on the bank we were standing on and some distant ducks were Mallard and possibly Pintails, but apart from a herd of goats grazing in an idyllic spot on a grassy hill near the water, there were no signs of activity. It's a lovely spot though with views to Sierra del Algorrobo and their highest peak, el Picacho, the location for several previous GONHS outings.

View to el Algorrobo mountains
A happy band of members at the end of a great day out
Bird List for the day: Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo, Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis, Little Egret Egretta garzetta, Grey Heron Ardea cinerea, White Stork Ciconia ciconia, Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia, Glossy Ibis Plegadiss falcinellus, Mallard Anas platyrhyncos, Pintail Anas acuta,Red Kite Milvus milvus, Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus, Hen HarrierCircus cyaneus, Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus, SparrowhawkAccipiter nisus, Buzzard Buteo buteo, Booted Eagle Hieraaetus pennatus,Kestrel Falco tinnunculus, Red-legged Partridge Alectoris rufa, Pheasant Phasianus colchicus, Coot Fulica atra, Swamp Hen (Purple Gallinule Porphyrio porphyrio, Common Crane Grus grus, Golden PloverPluvialis apricaria, Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus, Snipe Gallinago gallinago, Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus, Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus, Woodpigeon Columba palumbus,Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto, Great Spotted Cuckoo Clamator glandarius, Little Owl Athene noctua, Green Woodpecker Picus viridis (Iberian race sharpei)(heard), Crested Lark Galerida cristata, Calandra Lark Melanocorypha calandra, Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica, Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis, Pied(White) Wagtail Motacilla alba, Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros, Stonechat Saxicola torquata, Fan-tailed Warbler Cisticola juncidis (heard), Cetti's Warbler Cettia cetti (heard),Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala, ChiffchaffPhylloscopus collybita, Spotless Starling Sturnus unicolor, JackdawCorvus monedula, House Sparrow Passer domesticus, Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis, Linnet Carduelis cannabina, Corn Bunting Miliaria calandra (51 species)
Further information & links:
Stephen Daly keeps a photoblog that has loads of  stunning photographs of the many birds he encounters in the area, including Great Spotted Cuckoos, Black-winged Kite and Imperial Eagle:  http//:www.