Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Torre de Meca

I've been interested in the association of planet positions during Spring for a good number of years now and as an avid observer of quite a lot of nonsense, have noted that the position of planets do have a rather remarkable influence in the timing of our seasons according to our position on planet Earth.Spring will be early this year and already I have seen flowering orchids for two weeks along the pathways in the local forest.

Living creatures, including Man feel the change and force of these planetary influences and it triggers all kinds of behavioral activities, least of all breeding. I love birdsong and our garden and the surrounding cork-oaks and pines are alive with life. Birds are also starting to look their very best and their behavior is markedly different.

Today was a lovely day with the wind now coming back in from the west with not a cloud in the sky and the temperature hovering around the low 20's.

Orchid - Ophrys tenthrendinifera
I have already seen some Brimstone butterflies over the last week, lots of Large Whites, some Painted Ladys, Orange Tips and today we had a Small Tortoiseshell flitted briefly past.

A Brimstone feeds on Cape Sorrel

Mediterranean flowering Maquis has erupted and the sights and scents in the air are already attracting numerous insects to feed on the rosemary, lavender, yellow flowering cistus and vast swathes of the beautifully bright (also yellow-flowering) but alien Cape Sorrel.

Wild Asparagus
Locals have been busy searching for and collecting wild Asparagus in the woodland and country lanes and there were good quantities of different wild mushrooms to be found.

We took a walk through the pine forest and Parque Natural of Las Breñas the other day to the Torre de Meca, one of the many 18thC lookout towers built along the coast. It was windy but we thought that the forest was the place to be when the levante or east wind blows. We all needed a walk and this was the ideal solution!

We did see a migrating Ospery being buffeted over Cape Trafalgar as it struggled to make progress North. Despite the wind we saw a few birds that included Common Kestrels, Red-legged Partridge, Blackbirds, Goldfinches, Linnets, Great Tits, Chaffinch, Cirl Bunting, Sardinian Warblers, Serin and one Great Spotted Cuckoo - disturbed by asparagus searchers.

Migrating Osprey heading North

Cape Trafalgar with its lighthouse out on the sandy spit and the town of Los Caños de Meca below the Tower or 'Torre

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Gulls and Plastic Bags

It looks like a record gull winter with some really unusual records coming in, particularly after the 'Great Storm' experience.
This was the tail end of the very fellow that gave me and my companions such an 'interesting' sailing trip south on the 'Gloria'!

BL Kittiwakes were pushed so far south that they are still trying to recover northwards, Subsequently reports are coming in all along the SW coast of sightings of these northern birds - same goes with Northern Fulmars. I photographed some very close to Lanzarotte.
Rare Birds Spain will give those interested to look further the best information - save me trying to keep up with the whirlwind of reports...
The seashore was a wash with plastic last week and now we have had four unrelenting days of pure-full-on Levante wind. This is one of these world winds that has a place somewhere in the Guinness Book of Records. It blows non stop out of the Mediterranean Sea and is caused by a little bubble of a 'Low' somewhere over St Tropez, Port Grimaud et al or something more expensive. Anyway, we bear the brunt. From Cabo de Gata to Cape St Vincent, it howls for days. I mean, you can hardly light a fag! (Not being a smoker myself of course).
This palstic mess that gets washed up on all the beaches after all the churning on the shallower waters, just shows us how we dispose of our waste. OK - crews aboard ships, boats or vessels should know better. The cruise ships tell us that they only dump biodegradable waste over the side. What, like the other food that they just can't eat.... Why can't they be like all submariners and compact everything into compressed bales and keep it all nice and tidy until they get ashore... Then dump it with some mattresses and old fridges in a deep leafy copse in Much-Bribing-in-the-Marsh, Hants.
I find it inceasingly difficult to tell my kids that we are all responsible for this and how it came to be. 'Didn't you tell them to stop' came the straight question from a six year old. What? Well, some did, but Yes, all of us live our lives so conveniently without too much thought and not nearly enough protest. Everything is too easy and we have little attention span for one thing. Flick the remote to another channel.
All my beers come wrapped in a seagull-killer plastic maze that if you don't get it off your bill in four miutes, then you are doomed. We often play at Gulls - I jest not... (I snip mine into a squillion bits - although I have been known to forget and get the kids to make a sea turtle collage...
Just to depress one further, there was a real shocker of a report in the Independent recently. Worth a read.
Heres the teaser map.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Birds Crossing The Strait

The weather has been absolutely stunning the last two days and I took friends, Cath and Nick out for a morning's bird watching down to the Sierra de la Plata. Later we drove back along the main road to La Janda and along the main track there.

I met up with my pal Andy Patterson for morning coffee and he told me that the Ring-billed Gull was still hanging around Playa de Los Lances. There were the usual good numbers of Audouin's Gulls and a summer plumaged Caspian Tern.

We chatted about birding and what was current in both our areas. Andy lives along on the Costa del Sol and although he comes down to the Tarifa and La Janda areas fairly regularly, it's a two hour drive to get here. Andy is particularly interested in seabird records and we chatted about our observations and discussed thoughts relating to the recent storms that lashed the whole of southern and western Iberia. Andy also brought me a copy of the third and updated edition of 'Where to Watch birds in South-Western Spain', which he wrote with Ernest Garcia. A good, informative read and well worth having a copy.

We drove up past the Lomo del Bartolome to the magnificent limestone crags of the Sierra de La Plata and stopped to watch the activity on the sheer face before the mirador. Here, Crag Martins and Common Kestrels flew around displaying and Iberian Green Woodpecker were heard drumming with another bird calling from the nerby Eucalyptus grove.

A Great Spotted Cuckoo, newly arrived from Morocco flew past us and landed in a Stone Pine. This was a 'first' for Cath and Nick and we managed to get good views before it continued its journey North.

A single Sparrowhawk was also seen gliding and circling ppart of the mixed tree-line and just looked perfect against the clear blue sky.

Once at the mirador or look-out point I pointed out a Griffon Vulture nest with an adult incubating and egg. Other Griffons flew past, some also displaying right in front of our eyes and with the eastern end of The Strait of Gibraltar as a magnificent and most dramatic backdrop.
One Red Kite and three migrating Black Kites then came in from the sea, lingered a while above the crags, looked at the circling Griffons, gained height in the warm thermals, then headed off North. Just lovely!

A few Common Buzzards were seen on the way back to La Janda and with Andy following in his own car we stopped again on the main colletor canal track. A fair number of White Storks (one ringed plus coloured ID ring) were around with some nest building on the higher ground near the N340 where there is a small colony of tree nesting White Storks. Most of the wild Olive (
Acebuche) trees and Cork-oaks are getting a bit hard up from the effect of the uric acid from the fighting bulls (Torros Bravos) that are bred on this particular farm.

We did watch an adult Black Stork in flight and picked up a Great Egret - both were adults. A lovely male Hen Harrier flew low, quartering the rice fields and quite a good number of juvenile Marsh Harriers were around.

Purple Swamphens fed all along the reed fringed banks of the main canal although the recent flooding had drained, the vegetation was flattened showing very few of the smaller passerines except the ubiquitous Stonechats, Goldfinches and Zitting Cisticolas.

A few distant raptors were checked out and we said goodbye to Andy and headed back for lunch at Barbate.

It was a lovely morning - great company, good birds - many singing and it was so nice to be out in the warm spring sunshine.
I think that with all the rain we've had in Andalucia, there will be an exceptionally beautiful wild spring flower erruption this April!

Monday, 9 February 2009

The Last Few Days

I came back from Fuerteventura (not on this freighter..... but with Clickair!) after my intrepid sailing trip in force eight gales and in need of a few showers (avast ye swab! - dunno what it means but were were using this and other supposed nautical terms all last week as we headed into the eye of the storm...Aaaar!) I didn't expect more rain, but yes, there was the world record to go for and Andalucia looks like a winner...

What's current?

Well, We had a few Eurasian Spoonbills some with coloured rings (reports sent off) and some Greater Flamingoes on the Barbate Estuary two days ago.

Parasitic Skuas, Northern Gannets and some Cory's Shearwaters could be seen this morning from the breakwater at Barbate's port.
( A Good Viewing Location Tip)

Northern Bald Ibis were also doing a flypast over the town this morning - they could be off anywhere. I learned that an English couple had recently reported seeing two of them in their garden in Granada. I think I've said this before but there is the chance to have birds from the project turning up anywhere at all. The ones on the Algarve golf courses are still there, some are in Morocco and the rest are not too far away - with most returning to the aviary each night. The chick from last year has been regularly seen flying with its parents and they too have a hankering for a 'probe' on local golf fairways either at Montenmedio near Vejer or at Benalup Golf.

Two Black Vultures turned up in the La Janda area last week as Squacco Herons and Eurasian Spoonbills were watched feeding. Our resident Griffon Vultures are sitting on eggs and Little Bustards have been seen displaying. Most of the White Stork nests are occupied (have been for quite a while!) and the addition of new twigs creates more nest sites for the House and Spanish Sparrows that live within some of the larger structures.

Great Spotted Cuckoos haven't had many caterpillars this month as they also arrive from Morocco in ever increasing numbers.

The cold wet weather has reduced insect life and although Stonechats are sitting on eggs already time will tell if any early hatched broods can be sufficiently fed by their parents.

Black Kite numbers are also up and Common Crane numbers down dramatically than in warmer winters.

La Janda, Barbate Marismas the Rio Jarra area at Tarifa and the Bay of Cadiz area are all under lots of water. Lesser Kestrels have been back in Vejer de la Frontera for a few weeks and my kids keep on telling me to shave off that jaggy beard that I've kept from my sailing trip ....Aaaar!

Sunset over Vejer de la Fontera

Friday, 6 February 2009

Sailing and Birding

For more photos of us sailing - click on the yacht
To see the bird photos - click on the Fuerteventuran Chat

Sailing South and The Birds of Fuertevetura

I've done some sailing over the years but I wouldn't say that I have any great experience, but I am interested enough to find out first-hand what a long sea-voyage on a yacht would really be like!

I attended an outward bound course at Applecross on the mainland of NW Scotland when I was seventeen, literally learning the ropes on twin masted open cutters. These clinker-built, sail boats were remarkable easy to handle and great fun as well. We sailed all round the Inner Sound to
Scalpay, Skye, Raasay and Rona, camping, fishing and having great adventures learning how to handle this very forgiving of yachts.
We could anchor in any of the small bays and use the dingy to go ashore to pitch our tent. We were told that it was an initiative course on survival out in the elements. I was appointed team leader and had nine other lads with me, also eager to survive. We had to punch cards on various islands and get back after a minimum of five nights out with snares to catch rabbits, tea bags, waterproof matches and the like. Using my own initiative I set sail duly for all the rendezvous points and duly marked my sheet on the first day. We then set sail for the island of Rona where the Royal Navy had a torpedo testing range and there was also a lighthouse which was manned in those days. Well, we hit the jackpot and of course survived eating and drinking courtesy of the Navy and Northern Lighthouse Commission!

Years past and it wasn’t until I was living in Germany that I took up sailing once more. This time crewing a small “Bavaria” yacht with three German Police officers, around the Mediterranean coast from Port Grimaud and other posh places like St Tropez. This particular adventure was really a bit of a laugh and, well, there wasn’t much wind to speak of and half of the time we were forced to use the motor. Then again everyone else in the race was in the same (boat ...oops!)of near breathless conditions and we all had to make our way to a different port each nightfall. Needless to say there was a fair bit of boy’s nonsense including gastronomic food, good wines and lots of incidental drinking to be done in order to qualify for the regatta in the first place! We were never going to win this but then again we all knew this well in advance.

Ten years later and my good friend Roger who is the proud owner of a 72’ twin masted yacht called the ‘Gloria of Greneda’ asked if I’d like to join him to sail from Spain to Madera and then on to the Canaries. This was back in November last year and my mate Mick from Devon, a sailor and yacht owner was also to be included in the crew. Sadly the date had to be postponed due to repairs to the main mast that required a long wait for parts and specialist welding bits for thicker aluminum. (Mick went back home and is now taking a break on Trinidad and Tobago birding and relaxing in the sun with Amanda his lovely wife.)

With repairs completed in Portimao, Portugal, Roger and George his crew mate set sail to Gibraltar. John, another friend who lives and works on boats in the Algarve came by car. The plan was that Roger, John and George would organise that George’s VW camper van would be put on the car ferry in Cadiz (for an extortionate sum of money) and they would then collect it when they arrived in Lanzarotte. All of this was arranged and after getting supplies on board at Gib on the Friday the 29th we were ready for our journey south.

Our immediate neighbours at the marina were a family sailing around the world on their large catamaran. We were invited aboard for drinks in the evening once their two small children went to bed. It was a great evening and we certainly had a lot to talk about. They had had some hairy experiences with their yacht in the Mediterranean and they were forced to make some emergency repairs in Algeria. Here they met great workmen involved in another project who gladly helped with repairs and made their yacht sea-worthy again in order for them to continue their journey.
Lee, had been an admiral in the US Navy and had at one stage in his long service commanded the aircraft carrier the USS Kittyhawk for two years. He was a flier himself and had started on carrier based F4 Phantoms and later the F14 Tomcat. We had lots to talk about as my interest extends to everything that can fly!
We got to our bunks not too late and heard on the weather forecast that there was going to be a lull in the string winds that had beaten the south-west for days and we could make a start around mid-day.

Just before it got dark I saw a Short-toed Eagle and a young Marsh Harrier heading south in The Strait!
We left the marina at Gibraltar on Saturday the 30th of January and the wind was coming straight in our face as we headed across the Bay of Algeciras and out into The Strait of Gibraltar. We tacked back and forth making slow progress and it was getting dark with a heavy swell when we passed Punta Paloma beyond Tarifa. We shared night watches into three hours each and turned south as we came passed Cape Espartel on the Moroccan coast.

The Strait of Gibraltar is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and constant vigilance is needed at night with so much heavier traffic about. Once clear of the cape, we tacked once again almost due west as the wind changed in direction and strength. We left sight of Morocco and the lights twinkling from the shote towns and villages and sailed further west into the blackness of the Atlantic Ocean. The swell continued and on each watch we checked the radar and constantly adjusted the heading on the autopilot according the the wind direction.
Sleeping isn’t all that comfortable on a boat in a rolling sea and when it came my turn to bed down for a few hours I found it even difficult to lower myself into the lower bun in my cabin without crashing against the wall, door or sink! Eventually I managed to strap my canvas sheet tight across the front of the bunk and wedge myself in. This was to be repeated on every night but one during our journey south. As dawn broke and the rest of the crew were in equally silent mode, we turned and tacked almost in a straight line for the Canaries. The distance is roughly eleven hundred kilometers from Gib to Lanzarotte and I could already see that it may take longer in this latest bout of rough weather.
With appetites at a low and all eyes focusing on the horizon, we sailed south for the next two days. I wanted to look for as many sea-birds as possible on this Pelagic trip but I had virtually no chance to get any photos of really good sightings of rarer birds like Storm Petrels or the one Black Browed Albatross we saw on day three. Northern Gannets were plentiful and we always seemed to have a Black-legged Kittiwake to our stern and we did end up feeding one with a trailing leg that was damaged in some way. Northern Fulmars and some Cory’s Shearwaters and two different species of Skuas were also seen and a migrating Osprey heading north high in the sky about 50 NM west of Agadir!

Dolphins at night were absolutely spectacular. We had these lovely creatures for company on brief periods every night alongside the boat. The minute luminescent sea plankton was always visible at night and looked like a thousand stars twinkling as the boat passed by and they lit up. When a Common Dolphin swam through them they lit up the dolphin and the surrounding sea that made the animal seem to have mobile underwater searchlight pointed at them. As they accelerated to get to the bow of the yacht they shone even brighter. This was something I think that will stay with me forever and is really one of those sights that make your heart sing. A Hawksbill Turtle was another lovely sight, paddling past our stern.

Our appetites did return and only one of us was physically sick overboard. It wasn’t me, thank goodness but the curries I made seemed to heal us all rather than hinder our growing of ‘sea-legs’!
The weather changed and we were almost becalmed with eighty NM to run to Lanzarotte, so we motored the Gloria at 10 knots on a calm but still rolling sea. This must be why the others wanted to surf on the islands many surfing beaches. The waves just kept on rolling in from the west. Once we berthed at El Barquito Marina, south of the island’s capital Arrecife we had our first good nights rest.

When dawn came the first thing I wanted to do was to have a good shower. Although there were showers on board the gloria, standing up was our biggest problem never mind holding a bar of soap soap. Now that’s just asking for an accident to happen!
I said my farewells to Roger, John and George who I had found excellent travelling companions and we all had some great laughs.

Now For Some Birding...
I then took a taxi to the port of Playa Blanca and caught the morning fast cat ferry to Fuerteventura.
Once on the island I took another taxi to the airport, which was going to be the place of departure back to Andaluca, and hired a car for three days. The two taxis and ferry across the small strip of water cost as much as my internal flight to Gran Canaria and the onward leg to Seville! Come to think of it, the car hire was cheap too at only 57 Euros. Ah well, I wanted to go birding but why did I keep on rolling about on dry land and everytime I lifted my bins to look at a bird I felt all queasy... I had one day of clouds and sun on Fueteventura, one day of torrential rain and one day of sun and clouds.

I wanted to get close to photograph some of the exciting species like the Houbara Bustards, Black-bellied Sandgrouse and Cream Coloured Coursers on the island but had only distant views of both on my day of rain. The other photos, like the Fuerteventuran Chat, Barbary Partridge, Berthelot’s Pipit Trumpeter Finch were all quite pleasing and I was satisfied that they were all fine to look at and study properly.

I did have quite a few Fuerteventuran Egyptian Vultures and several Booted Eagles which are always lovely to watch. The Common Kestrels there and the Common Ravens are great as well and I did have a surprise young Lanner Falcon that completely took me by surprise. There were a pair of mating Laughing Doves too that seemed to be quite happy and I’m still not too sure of their status.

All in all I was happy to have had the wonderful sailing experience and to have had such good company with the lads and the birds on Fuerteventura. I will be going back some time and perhaps it may be possible to combine a family holiday. I don’t think sailing there with my girls would be a good idea!


Black Browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys)
Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)

Cory’s Shearwater (Calonectris borealis)

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Litte Egret (Egretta garzetta)
Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)

Ruddy Shellduck (Tadorna ferruginea)

Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus)

Booted Eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus)

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo insularum)
Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus dacotiae)
Lanner Falcon (Falco biamircus erlangeri)
Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)
Barbary Partridge (Alectoris Barbara)

Houbara Bustard (Chlamydotis undulate fuertaventurae)

Cream-coloured Courser (Cursorius cursor bannermani)
Stone Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus insularum)
Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius)

Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula)

Dunlin (Calidris alpine)
Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)
Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)

Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)

Common Redshank (Tringa tetanus)

Greenshank (Tringa nebularia)

Common Sandpiper (Actites hypoleucos)
Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola)
Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

Parasitic Skua (Stercorarius parasiticus)

Pomarine Skua (Stercorarius pomearinus)
Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)

Yellow-legged Gull (Larus cachinnans atlanticus)
Audouin’s Gull ( Larus audouinii)
Sandwich Tern (Sterna sandvicensis)

Black-bellied Sandgrouse (Pterocles orientalis)

Rock Dove (Columba livia)
Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocta)
Laughing Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis)

Hoopoe (Upupa epops)

Lesser Short-toed Lark (Calandrella rufescens polatzeki)

House Martin (Delichon urbica)

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
Berthelot’s Pipit (Anthus berthelotti)

Fuerteventura Chat (Saxicola dacotiae)

Spectacled Warbler (Sylvia conspicillata orbitalis)

Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala)
Fuerteventura Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus degener)
Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius meriodonalis koenigi)
Common Raven (Corvus corax tingitanus)
Spanish Sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis)

Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris)

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
Linnet (Acanthis canabina harterti)
Trumpeter Finch (Budanetes githagineus amantum)

Corn Bunting ((Emberiza calandra)