Introduction:

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Ten years of saving my Shell Petrol Air Miles finally came to a wonderful conclusion as I flew into Gibraltar airport!

Having been to this part of Spain before, there were only a limited number of birds that I needed to target and so my main aim became seeing as much new habitat as possible and hopefully getting a few photographs for this Web-site. In the end I still managed four lifers and had some real quality birding.  

My usual procedure on a family holiday is to spend early mornings birding and the afternoon with my family. This is largely what I did this time. However, the weather was still unseasonably wet and cool and so I did manage to "escape" for the odd afternoon!  First light was about 7.00 am with a full dawn chorus. Birds didnít really start flitting about until 7.30 -- 8.00 am.

Sites visited: Malaga Province first.

The Sierra Crestellina:

The Sierra Crestellina is a prominent west facing escarpment, about 15km NW of Estepona, This is definitely a site to visit in the afternoon, with the sun on the face and the Vultures soaring.  This year I had my best ever views of Bonelliís eagle at this site.  The Griffon Vulture colony is towards the north of the range and easily seen from the road.  Four Black Kites played in a thermal at the southern edge of the area but were probably only migrants moving through.  Amongst the smaller birds by the road, a Woodchat Shrike chasing Stonechats provided amusement. 

The eastern side of the Sierra can be accessed via a minor road from behind Casares.  The road is opposite the Bar Laura and is clearly sign-posted.  Park after about a mile where the metalled surface ends.  I had Golden Eagle from here and at the other extreme, my only Blue Tits of the trip!

Casares

Casares is a known breeding haunt of White-rumped Swift.  I saved my visit until the last day of April, in the hope that one or two might be in early, but to no avail.  Mid May seems to be the time they arrive.

By way of consolation very large numbers of Pallid Swift breed here.  Five hundred plus may be a conservative estimate.  They can be seen from any vantage point, but looking down from the ruined castle offers the best chance of picking up anything flying with them.  The few common Swifts can be awkward to pick out and House Martins from above can look remarkably White-rumped and swifty!

There is a Lesser Kestrel colony on the cliffs below the castle.  I saw about ten birds here.  Whilst watching them an Alpine Swift flew over, the only one of the trip.

South of Casares and north of the town of Manilva, is a limestone plateau region.  Corn Bunting were especially common here but the highlight was a female Montagu's Harrier quartering the fields.

Ronda

No visit to the area would be complete without a visit to Ronda.  The road from San Pedro, near Marbella is excellent though very windy. There are several stopping places along the road.  One parking area next to a prominent group of pines about half way to Ronda gave me good views of Black Kite and Crested Tit.

Viewing from the town walls reveals Lesser Kestrel, numerous Crag Martins and more Choughs than in the whole of Wales!  The finest viewing area is without question the historic bridge.  For the energetic, a walk down into the gorge should reveal yet more birds including Alpine Swift and Rock Sparrow.   Views to the north of the town are tremendous. 

On my way back I drove along the northern flank of the Sierra Bermeja to Gaucin and then returned to the coast from there.  This road is narrower than the main road to Ronda and stopping places are less obvious.  It is hard to recommend any particular area as better than the rest, all have great potential.  I did see my only Short-toed Eagle of the trip from here, near to the village of Algatocin. 

Estepona Golf Course.

I visited this site only because I was staying almost opposite and I didn't feel like driving far that morning. The entrance road is about one mile west of the western most roundabout of Estepona, immediately after the Rio Vaquero. I parked at this point and walked the rest of the way.

Nightingale and Cetti's Warblers were especially common. A small lake on the golf course initially had me excited, with four Red-crested Pochard, but when they were joined by Mandarin, Wood Duck and Black Swan, I lost interest!

Best birds of the morning were Cattle Egret, Woodchat Shrike Bee-eater and a presumed migrant Osprey.

Valley of the Rio Genal

The Manilva - Gaucin road passes over the Rio Genal, about five miles north of the Sierra Crestellina. My guide book promised a woodland walk along the NW bank of the river and I was hoping for a few warblers in the trees. After walking a couple of hundred metres, the path ended, washed away by a river in unseasonal spate and I was unable to go any further. There was a small Bee-eater colony, and I was able to add Cirl Bunting and Blackcap to my trip list. Nightingale and Cetti's Warblers were again numerous.

Cadiz Province

Palmones Estuary

This is apparently the last remaining bit of marsh land in Gibraltar Bay. It can be viewed from the river front in the town of Palmones, but the birds will be rather distant.  Much better is to approach via the small town of El Rinconcillo and to keep on driving east until the only option is to head through the dunes.  With a short walk it becomes possible to view the main area of mud flats. There is a hide / observatory in the middle of the area but I was unable to find an access road that didn't end in a tall, locked gate.

Best birds were three each of Flamingo, Spoonbill and Little Egret and two White Storks overflew. Kentish Plover and Whimbrel led a cast of eleven species of wader. Four Whiskered Terns accompanied the Little, Sandwich and Common Terns.

This site would certainly repay a repeat visit, anything could turn up in the right conditions.

El Pinar del Rey

El Pinar del Rey is a sizeable area of Stone Pine woodland with associated heathland, situated three km north of San Roque. It is a haunt of Red-necked Nightjar, which should be present from mid-April. Being one of my few target species, I visited early one morning, only to miss my way and eventually end up in the wrong part of the wood. There were plenty of the more common woodland species. About an hour later, I found myself in the heathland at the northern end of the woods and by chance flushed a Nightjar which flew straight into the rising sun and so had to remain unspeciated.

The next morning, I returned to the same spot, pre-dawn. There were several RN-Nightjars calling but not one of them showed! (I ticked the birds anyway, on the combination of sight one day and sound the next!)

Other species here included Woodlark, Cirl Bunting, Woodchat shrike and Serin.

About four km west of El Pinar del Rey, at the junction with the N3331 was an extraordinary area of railway sidings with White Stork nests on the top of every flood light and pylon. My young son counted 37 nests.

Castellar de la Frontera (Old Castellar)

This is another old frontier town complete with ruined castle. It is another known haunt of White-rumped Swift. It also has a sizeable Lesser Kestrel colony.(Ruined castle seems to be the main habitat requirement of this species) The view down the valley towards Gibraltar is stunning and on a good migration day, I would expect the air to be alive with raptors. I saw Booted Eagle and some very close Griffon Vultures before the rain came down. (Nice rainbow however!)

Old Castellar has a resident population of "new age traveller" types and their mangy dogs. They were disconcerting but seemed harmless.

La Janda

La Janda is the site of an ancient lagoon, drained earlier this century. Access is north from the N340 opposite the junction with the Zahara road near a building called the Venta de Retin. There is well over a hundred square miles of exceedingly flat habitat to explore.

It gives a taste of the Steppe species seen in Extremadura. Little Bustards are apparently fairly common, although I scanned every field over a fifteen mile length of road before I saw my first group. (and my second group in the next field!) Apparently a tiny relict population of Great Bustards survives here, but finding these must be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

There are several habitat types, huge prairie type arable fields, (with few birds), Sparse cork oak woodland. (Lots of Cattle Egrets), Reed lined drainage ditches and some some traditional flower meadow and pasture (where I eventually saw the Bustards near the town of Benalup).

The more interesting species seen included Calandra Lark, Squacco Heron, Storks, Egrets, Black-winged Stilts, Quail, Great Reed Warbler and Black Kite. Commoner Mediterranean species like Crested Lark and Fan-tailed Warbler were numerous.

Punta Carnero / Punta Secreta

Punta Carnero is the headland guarding the westernmost entrance to Gibraltar Bay. Just round the corner from here is Punta Secreta which sticks a little further out into the sea and is a potentially brilliant sea-watching point for anything flying into or out of the Med. It also has high potential as a raptor watchpoint in calm or light westerly winds. The Moroccan Rif Mountains are just 22km away. Access is via the first, unsignposted minor road on the left after leaving the Algeciras by-pass. The road passes through a nice little wetland area in the village of Getares.

On my dawn visit there was a constant stream of Yellow-legged Gulls plus a few Gannets and Sandwich Terns but surprisingly little else. Perhaps I was too early or the winds were wrong?

Tarifa

With easterly winds blowing through the Med., Tarifa is the place to watch for migration from. Tarifa Island is the southernmost point on mainland Spain. Unfortunately it is controlled by the military and access is not allowed. However, on a good day, there could be a constant stream of birds overhead. The harbour wall at Tarifa could be used as a sea watching platform.

If there is nothing doing on the visible migration front, then the place to visit is the Playa de los Lances (or Tarifa Beach). Access is from just to the west of Tarifa Town. (Park near the football pitch) or via a campsite about 2km down the road. There are shallow pools at the back of the beach with lots of small waders. Avocets and Kentish Plover were prominent on my visit. The salt marsh had lots of small brown birds, mainly Larks. I gained the feeling that a major rarity could turn up here at any time.

El Mirador and the Montes de Tarifa.

Heading out of Tarifa, back towards Gibraltar, there is a Mirador at Km91. There wasn't a bird to be seen on my short visit but others, have reported the sky to be alive with raptors later in the day. Behind the Mirador a dirt track leads into the Montes de Tarifa. There is a covered raptor viewpoint for those wishing to escape the tourists at the Mirador.

This area offers some rewarding birding. Griffon Vultures fly by at eye level. There are lots of warblers in the scrub and trees. I saw Bonelli's Warbler here. On good migration days, I am told, raptors can cover the hillsides like sheep. One thing that you cant miss however are the wind-turbines that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Conclusion.

I had unseasonal rain and blocking north-westerlies for most of my two week stay. I still managed four lifers and saw some excellent birds, some in greater numbers or with better views than I have managed before. The potential for good birds was immense, I'd do it all again.

John Girdley.

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