News from the Serranía de Ronda & Sierra de Grazalema (and beyond!)

The ramblings of an aged bird guide - Peter Jones

Winter very gently melts to spring and holds as yet an unfulfilled promise of summer….
It has been a non typical kind of winter and spring this year with prolonged cold and wet spells interspersed with days when sun and warmth gave an unfulfilled promise of a return to normal weather. Even now, late May, the hope for settled and warm balmy days is seemingly forlorn. Yet there is always hope, as in all things, and yours truly is forever the optimist. Our birds here seemed to reflect the uncertainty of the climate with spring migration coming in fits and starts. Certainly our Bee Eaters and Golden Orioles lingered in Africa this year before deciding conditions were inviting. Neither of these species made a return in anything like normal numbers until well into April and many of their usual breeding territories remained unoccupied until the beginning of May. No such delays were evident for departing winter visitors as they were magically cast away in the first week of April, one minute they (Chiffchaff, White Wagtail and Meadow Pipit et al) were here and then gone!

January started as it intended to go on, with mountains reaching up and holding onto the clouds, refusing to let go until they had extracted every last drop of rain and snow. After five years of official drought, we received the long promised rains. Our mountains, where they reached above 1600m, were draped in snow and made for some stunning panoramas. Alpine Accentor, as the name suggests, were made to feel at home and although many Ring Ouzel and Black Redstart chose to move further south, many remained and were joined by Fieldfare, Redwing and large numbers of Song Thrush. My own excursions into ‘my patch’ were limited by a couple of tours and later by preparations for our annual tour to Costa Rica. And yet, despite the cold, Hoopoe and Wryneck proved hardy wintering birds, refusing to renounce their favoured and chosen winter’s quarters.

For the first-half of February I was leading our tour in Costa Rica and this year we registered 425 species, quite apart from enjoying being back in this wonderful country. I believe, based on the emails I had received, that everyone really enjoyed the experience and the customary friendliness of the Costa Rican people. We always make our visits as diverse as possible and stay at locations which all represent the remarkable differences in landscape for such a small country. Of course such diversity in habitats means we also give ourselves the chance to see a wide ranging list of species including many endemics. For many our tours to Costa Rica are among the best birding and wildlife holiday they have experienced. Certainly I recommend all who will listen to an old bird guide, that Costa Rica is a ‘must’ visit country. We always attract many couples on this particular tour and I guess the locations, accommodation, food and longer times spent in each place is appealing if a partner is also keen to enjoy the country not just its birds. With river rides, looking at a volcano whilst having a drink, great photo opportunities and time to relax Costa Rica is a great favourite of mine.

I returned to the Sierras during the third week of February and again the weather was not so welcoming. A visit to the Cadiz area was well worth the effort and a few early Short-toed Eagles and a few hundred Black Kite rewarded the adventurous side of my weather weary nature! Juan Serratosa (a guide for Spanish Nature) told me they had also seen a solitary Subalpine Warbler, so hope renewed I looked forward to the remaining half of February and the beginning of March.



A collection of photos celebrating my first 5 months of 2009


March began well for me with only until the 8th available for searching my area. By the 9th I was off leading a tour to Morocco, so I tried to get in some local birding before departing. Do you ever get one of those days, when sitting quietly and surrounded by the sheer beauty of nature, that a feeling wells from inside and creates a feeling of such tranquillity as to be almost spiritual? I had this experience. Deciding to forsake the million things to do on the dreaded computer, I set-off for a tour via the Sevilla road to Montejaque, Benaojan and then to Indiana on the Rio Guadiaro. Prior to Montejaque, near to the famous ‘I don’t work’ dam I had a small herd of Ibex and tumbling through the blue skies above were passing flocks of Black Kite. On top of the pyramid shaped monte corto sat two Short-toed Eagles, looking strangely out of place perched as they were amongst at least fifty Griffon Vultures. Lesser Kestrel were calling and busy hawking insects just above the defunct dam with Blue Rock Thrush and Black Wheatear sat in the gallery watching their mastery of the air. Crag Martins seemed more intent on playfully skipping across the contours of the many rock faces than seriously looking for food. After a brief, but highly satisfying lunch at the Bar Stop at Benaojan Station, I arrived at Indiana. Here, accompanied by the sound of water tumbling over the crafted round stones that form the riverbed, the bright sunshine reflected like jewels in the crown of the Rio Guadiaro and after some minutes I felt the hair on my neck prickle from a sensation of bliss. Little Egrets danced after fish in the backdrop of my view and Green Sandpipers ran comically along the water’s edge. From the rock outcrops of the riverbed, White Wagtails and a solitary Grey Wagtail hopped and jumped after insects as they passed over their heads. It seemed that every overhanging bush or reed had its own Chiffchaff that would dart from their perches and join the wagtails gorging on a most perfect day for insects. Occasionally a Cetti’s Warbler would burst into song and for a brief moment drown the sound from the rushing river. A flash of blue and a Kingfisher cut through my vision and awakened me from my slumbering watch. Probably just as well as I wanted to go further up river and check for a few more birds!

Parking the car after the second bridge on the river track I unloaded the scope and focused on a nearby bluff and managed to locate a pair of Bonelli’s Eagle sat lazily on a protruding bush, looking totally disinterested in any activity. Just by this parking area a stream flows into the main river and I watched my first Red-rumped Swallows casually inspecting the under parts of the bridge. They are such an attractive bird, more glide than flap than we notice in the more common Barn Swallow. They, or at least what I take to have been the male, were calling and singing, a comical sound that is more like musical notes created electronically on a computer keyboard! I also saw half a dozen Sand Martins (again a first for my patch this year) doing a fly-by with several Barn Swallows. Feeling the sun and a tiredness induced by a more than sufficient lunch, I made my way back to park beside the river. A Water Pipit, getting its first signs of a pink blush, sat on an exposed part of the riverbed midstream. Whilst watching this fine Pipit I noticed that it kept flapping and moving around as if avoiding some unseen phantom. Training my binoculars on the bird I saw a very large Carpenter Bee literally buzzing the Pipit. It made for a highly amusing interlude and definitely a case of the ‘insect bites back’. My final sighting before heading home was a pair of Little-ringed Plover. Now here I have to admit to a very serious shortcoming. In my advanced years and after birding for more than fifty of them, I am prone to bouts of laziness and not writing things down. This deficiency brings me to a question. Little-ringed Plover breed on this river, but isn’t it a tad early for them to be back? No matter, the answer will surface eventually and I will remember whilst concentrating on something completely unrelated!

And so off again on our 13th tour to Morocco! It really doesn’t matter how many times I visit this incredible country it always has the ability to produce the thrills and wonders of Africa. Given its close proximity to Europe it is a surprise to one and all for how completely different a landscape it presents. I would imagine most people’s concept of Morocco is a country full of sand and dust, but nothing could be further from the truth. Conditions here, despite its close proximity to Europe, are very different with wadis, deserts, plains, forest, mountains, coasts and islands. The diversity of these habitats are reflected in the number of bird species found in this most exotic of north African countries, with over 450 species. It is a must visit country for any with a passion for our feathered friends or an interest in scenic and cultural holidays.

I must admit, when the mood takes me, to keeping a yearly list of the birds I have seen and with the help in guiding provided on the March Moroccan trip by our Steve Lister, then my list grew by more than just a few species. It was a pleasure to share guiding the tour with Steve and hopefully our fellow travellers will see more of him in the future. Regular birds we see on these safaris include some real personal favourites and this year with water collecting in rare lagoons we managed some great views of some of these. Blue-cheeked Bee eater is always a real treat and Pieter took some wonderful photographs of this fine bird near to one of the lagoons (I couldn’t resist including one of these below). Cream-coloured Courser was found at virtually all our main stops and the sometimes elusive and comical Fulvous Babbler also featured well on everyone’s list. For me the sites we visited for Mourning Wheatear will provide lasting memories with at least 4 males being seen, although I suspect the flight displays of Hoopoe Lark will have made a lasting impression on all members of the tour party.

Anyway, I am rambling on and mindful not to make my musings too long (failed again) I will move on. April saw yet another safari in Morocco (our 14th tour and must make us one of the most experienced companies touring the country). At home in the Sierras, the weather still continued to dominate proceedings, but as with May my local experience helped many visitors. A great plus to living and working around the Serranía de Ronda and Sierra de Grazalema is to know where the birds are at any given time and where to go according to local weather conditions. The area and its surrounds have to be one of the best birding hot spots in southern Spain. The choice of sites and species, at all times of the year, make it one of the most popular sites visited by nature tour operators and individuals (with an eye for bird) in Spain. My knowledge of the area, and in particular the variable weather conditions, helped several people get the best out of their time here during the beginning of May 2009. As with April the month has, so far, not really settled and we are still getting the odd day of low cloud and rain (much to the joy of the locals). A feature of the spring migration this year has been the on and off arrival of many of our summer residents. It has been strange to watch Bee Eaters going through for almost 6 weeks, but only see the occupation of breeding sites take place over the last fortnight. Golden Oriole has been very late to arrive at traditional sites and at least one star turn for the summer, Black-eared Wheatear, has failed to occupy many known and favoured areas. After five years officially declared drought years, we had substantial rainfall this winter and the consequence has been luxuriant growth to our vegetation, great for the wildflower enthusiast, but not so good if you are a Black-eared Wheatear requiring low field layers and bare areas.

During days when conditions have made birding difficult in the high Sierras I have tended to go to a couple of lowland sites. It is so good to report here how good Fuente de Piedra has been this spring after such a disaster last year. The spring of this year has seen the lagoon and surrounding scrapes with plenty of water producing great relief for the breeding Greater Flamingo (some 20/25,000 are currently there) and migrating waders. Some notable birds seen there this year are White-winged Black Tern, Pectoral Sandpiper, several Temminck’s Stint and up to 7 Lesser Flamingos (reported to be breeding this year). It has been great to watch several wader species pass through in their full breeding plumage none more colourful than the many (brick red) Curlew Sandpiper and watching displaying Ruff has been both amusing and a privilege. Even the gull enthusiast could find solace so far from the coast with both Mediterranean and Slender-billed Gull putting in appearances. A solitary drake White-headed Duck has remained at one of the lagoons for a few months now and seems to like the company of the Red-crested Pochard, often in the company of the males perhaps it prefers blonds! I have also managed a few excursions off the Sierras to the Jimena area and this month has been extremely good for the elusive Rufous Bush Chat, always difficult I now have the perfect spot for them. In the same area I had high numbers of Tawny Pipit, Melodious Warbler and some tremendous views of Honey Buzzards wheeling their way northwards.

By now our summer residents are back on their familiar territories, whilst late northern migrants such as Whinchat, Honey Buzzard and straggling Black Kites continue to make their long journey to higher latitudes. A surprise sighting for me on the Rio Guadiaro was 3 Squacco Heron and all this whilst watching Wryneck, Melodious and Olivaceous Warbler! Little-ringed Plover are sat tight on their eggs and our Bonelli’s Eagle are all very busy feeding young, although they continue to be easily distracted by Griffon Vulture and any other raptor that has the bare cheek to wander too close to their nest. It was amusing for me to watch a male Bonelli’s Eagle getting some of his own medicine near to Cueavas by receiving the unwanted and persistent attention of 2 Raven. Higher in the uppermost reaches of the Llanus de Libar Woodlark are now being accompanied by fledged young as too are Stonechats. Around the villages young Swallow can be seen flying around the rooftops with both Pallid and Common Swift as company. Cuevo de Gato is always an attraction at this time of year with its large colony of Alpine Swift and large numbers of Crag Martin, strangely absent but present further down river is Golden Oriole. Apart from the ever present Grey Wagtail, it has also been a feature of this site to see Dipper and I guess this is due to the recent cleaning of the river (the sewerage plant in Ronda is at last functioning). The high area of the Alta Genal has produced great days out this month with the discovery of a pair of sub-adult Golden Eagle attempting to breed. Whether these two youngsters will be successful remains to be seen, but they certainly add to the many reasons for visiting this wonderful route. Along the rocky areas of this route is good for Blue Rock and Rock Thrush, Black Wheatear, Black-eared Wheatear, Chough and many raptors.

It will soon be time for me to get to grip once more with ringing adult Subalpine and Bonelli’s Warbler and before I know it (age has this affect) I will be concentrating on autumn migration!

Keep well and please do stay in touch.

Warmest best wishes,
Peter Jones



Do you consider a friendly atmosphere, comfort and relaxation, as well as value for money, an essential part of any well earned holiday? If you do, then all our birding and nature tours have been specifically designed to suit you!

If you require further information please Contact Us or telephone: +34 636 291 714
Spanish Nature, not only for bird watching holidays in Spain, but also worldwide including Morocco, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Galapagos, India , Brazil, China, Thailand, Kenya, The Gambia and Botswana


Visit Nature Forum, located in Andalucia (Southern Spain), with all latest news for Birdwatchers


Moroccan Birds. A must visit for every Birdwatcher, or considering a Birding Holiday in Morocco


Online Now

We have 311 guests and no members online