A week in the Costa del Sol at the end of August should bring plenty of good birds. Obviously birding in the midday heat is out of the question but one can usually manage a couple of hours after dawn when the family is still in bed. However, when the first day broke to a thick mist, worry began to set in:
I was based a couple of miles to the west of Estepona, about fifteen miles from Gibraltar. In theory, I should have been able to see "The Rock" from my apartment, but not this week! The introductory picture shows Gibraltar, looking back from Europa Point, probably the prime seawatching site in the region. (but not when it is misty!)
For up to date ornithological information on the area it is a good idea to visit the bird observatory at the Jews' Gate. The observatory is just inside the "Upper Rock Nature Reserve" and access to this is, at the time of writing, £5.00. For a first time visitor it is a good idea to get an idea of the geography of Gibraltar by taking one of the tourist taxi tours. (Don't look for them, they will find you!). The tour includes access to the nature reserve, a stop at the Pillars of Hercules, (right next to the observatory - there is time to check "what's about?" - I did!). It also goes to the Apes Den, the summit of the Rock and St. Michaels cave. With a running commentary (and the tickets also allowing access to the Siege Tunnels and the Moorish Castle), £10.00 a head is pretty good value.
The Botanical Gardens, adjacent to the main car park can be good for migrants. I saw mainly House Sparrows! If you are only interested in birds, visit Gibraltar during westerly winds. If the winds are even slightly from the east, then head for Tarifa, over the border in Spain.
As I left the Rock, (long delays at the border crossing.) the skies began to clear!
The Sierra Crestellina
The Sierra Crestellina is a small range of jagged limestone peaks about ten miles north west of Estepona. My first attempt here coincided with the worst mists of my trip. Just a few Stonechat and a solitary Southern Grey Shrike were seen. As the sun eventually broke over the peaks, everything was thrown into a savage silhouette. Clearly, evening, with the sun on the face would be a much better bet.
Two days later, returning from a family trip, we passed the Sierra at about midday. My first bird was an Egyptian Vulture closely followed by a Short-toed Eagle. A spiral of about twenty Griffon Vultures was a fine sight as they soared upwards on the other side of the road. The midday sun is not ideal for birdwatching and I soon retreated to the comfort of my air-conditioned hire-car. On the drive back towards Manilva, a pair of Booted Eagles displayed near to an area of limestone pavement, that surely deserves further exploration.
Billed as one of the few remaining wetlands on the Costa del Sol and an important area for migrant waders, I set of to Sotogrande with great optimism. My telescope had fallen of its mountings the previous day but I could manage with my binoculars!
The Estuary of the Sotogrande has now been heavily developed with up market accommodation and the now famous Valderama Golf Course. I was able to drive in without any questions although entry was via a security barrier. Entry to the reserve was via a passageway between some villas. A small, poorly appointed hide, looked over an overgrown pool. (one Moorhen). On walking down towards the sea, the true horrors of what had happened to the reserve began to sink in.
The area was entirely boxed in by stick fencing and a huge sign proclaimed proudly that over 200,000,000 Pts (about a million pounds) of EU money had been spent (wasted, certainly - misappropriated, probably) on improving the area for birds. A several hundred metre raised boardwalk led between the southern edge of the reedbed and the stony spit formerly used by roosting gulls. It would be hard to come up with a better way of scaring birds but the designers here had managed it! At the end of the boardwalk was a large open-sided "bandstand" (hide?) over looking a small scrape devoid of birds except for a solitary Black-winged Stilt (and a rusty old fridge.)
The walk back to the car did provide views of Sardinian Warbler, Serin and Fan-tailed Warbler.
At the northern edge of the reserve was another raised boardwalk, slightly less intrusive this time as it lead through fairly tall scrub. I followed it more in hope than expectation. Perhaps a superbly appointed wader scrape? (But I should have known better.) The boardwalk finished abruptly at the underside of a dirty, dusty road bridge and some joker had actually put two picnic benches there!
The quest for the White-rumped Swifts.
Two places on the Costa del Sol where White-rumped Swifts breed are Casares and Jimena. Both are easy drives from the coast. White-rumped Swifts should be present from late May into September. They associate with Red-rumped Swallows, whose nests they use.
Casares is easily combined with a visit to the Sierra Crestellina, being situated just a couple of mile to the south. The best place to watch from is the ruined castle on top of the hill. It is best to park as soon as possible, on entering Casares, as the roads are very narrow and and there is no parking in the centre of town. It is a stiff, though short, walk to the summit. The views were excellent but there were few birds. Several Spotless starlings whistled from the ruins, and a Crag Martin joined the resident House Martins. A single Common Swift flew quickly by. There was no sign of the White-rumps. (Or of any Red-rumped Swallows.)
Jimena was a slightly longer drive. Again the best place to view from is a castle on top of the hill. This time however, there is a sensible one way system through the village and a small car park just below the Castle. The birds here were of a slightly better quality than at Casares. Crag Martin were common, an Alpine Swift flew by and several of the "ubiquitous" Griffon Vultures soared overhead. Bee-eaters were common on the wires just out of town. Unfortunately, once again, there was no sign of the White-rumped Swifts or their Red-rumped Swallow hosts. I can only conclude that they had finished nesting and had now departed. A pity as this was my main target species for the trip. (can anyone update me on the status of these birds?)
John Girdley (9/9/99)
Collins Bird Guide Europe's best Field guide?
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