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A Report from

Favourite birds, Flamencos and Flying Rainbows,

Mike King

Southern Spain - April 2001

This was a family holiday with my wife, Bridgette and son, Michael, on my first visit to Spain (although Bridgette had been before) I planned to watch birds and wildlife whenever I could. My major ambition was to see Bee-eaters, which I had missed all over the place for many years and had become my bogey bird. We stayed at the Los Amigos Beach Club near Fuengirola (which was excellent). This report concentrates on the birding I did on the trip. Over the week we drove 700 miles, sorry I should say Bridgette drove, she was fearless in the face of the aggressive Spanish drivers and found it more relaxing to drive herself than have a birder driving (you all know that problem every time something good appears) and I am very grateful for her doing so. The weather remained hot all week generally around 24ºC with westerly breezes for the first two days only and next to no wind after that.


DAY 1 S 7th April                      Quedgeley, Glos to Fuengirola, Spain
DAY 2 Su 8th April                    Laguna Dulce & Fuente de Piedra
DAY 3 M 9th April                     Serrania de Ronda & Ronda
DAY 4 T 10th April                    Los Amigos & Mount Calamorro
DAY 5 W 11th April                   Gibraltar & Torre Guadiaro
DAY 6 Th 12th April                  Los Amigos & Fuengirola          
DAY 7 F 13th April                    Sierra Nevada 
DAY 8 S 14th April                    Fuengirola to Quedgeley, Glos

DAY 1 S 7th April Quedgeley, Glos to Fuengirola, Spain

Weather : Hot and sunny with westerly breezes

We flew from Birmingham on an early morning flight with Monarch Airlines (excellent) and arrived at Malaga a couple of hours later. It was lovely to find that the weather was hot and sunny. My first bird in Spain was a House Sparrow at the Airport. We picked up our hire car from Avis and drove towards our apartment, which was near Fuengirola. As we could not check in until 4pm we parked up besides a beach and had an al fresco meal at a restaurant overlooking the sea. The air was full of swifts and on closer inspection I realised that they were all Pallid Swifts. I had only seen one before in Majorca so I was very pleased to see so many. The seafront produced good views of Yellow-legged Gulls, in a variety of plumages, two Sandwich Terns and a single Black-headed Gull.

On arrival at our apartment, once we had unpacked, whilst Bridgette and Michael explored the amenities on site, I went to investigate the far more tempting Mediterranean scrub just off site. Immediately I could see that this area was just buzzing with birds and I began to enjoy the variety of species that were here. There were many Stonechats, Goldfinches and tinkling Serins, male Sardinian Warblers seemed to rattle from every available bush and Nightingales sang from exposed perches unlike their skulking behaviour at home. My first really good birds were two Woodchat Shrikes that gave amazingly close views down to just a few feet. They were really smart birds with their beautiful chestnut and white plumage. Next I found Crested Larks which appeared to be everywhere. Fan-tailed Warblers zipped all over the place with their bounding flight and diagnostic calls. Best of all in the last remnants of a rapidly drying pond I found an adult Red-rumped Swallow amongst many mud-gathering House Martins and a few Swallows and a lone White Wagtail. I was especially pleased to get such good views of the Red-rumped Swallow, as the only one I had seen in Daventry was always distant and gave poor views. Not only that but also because two days earlier there had been news of one at a Foot and Mouth bound Slimbridge and no-one could gain access.

The next birds I saw were a life tick for me. A group of four Spotless Starlings gave excellent views. They were similar to our Starlings except that they were an all-over oily black, as if they had been dipped in tar, with contrasting pink legs and yellow beaks. I saw many over the coming week and one saw it as his duty to sit outside our bedroom window and serenade us around the clock.

I repeated the walk after our evening meal whilst the others rested up from the heat. The two Woodchat Shrikes had moved to the top of the hill and were probably migrants moving inland. Well over a hundred Pallid Swifts were in the air on the warm thermals at the hilltop, they appeared to be migrants and were steadily moving north. A Dartford Warbler carrying food was added to my holiday list as was a good selection of butterflies that included Swallowtail, Clouded Yellow, Marbled White and Large White.

DAY 2 Su 8th April Laguna Dulce & Fuente de Piedra

Weather : Hot and sunny with westerly breezes

I awoke too early so I dozed until the later dawn started to break and after a quick coffee I headed out for the beach. I counted 11 Spotless Starlings around the beach bar and was entertained by their singing, displaying and squabbling. On some low rocks just offshore I was surprised to see some familiar faces in the shape of four Turnstones and a winter-plumaged Sanderling. A male Wheatear newly arrived was foraging along the strand line. With no gulls to examine apart from a distant Yellow-legged Gull I headed back for the scrub beyond the apartments.

Ten Pallid Swifts were overhead but the larger numbers of last night seemed to have moved on. A single Red-rumped Swallow was still showing well with the local martins. A Nightingale sweetly sang from overhead wires and was seen here regularly through the week by me. A Cetti's Warbler explosively joined in the dawn chorus but was far less easily seen. Two Fan-tailed Warblers circled the area constantly as if they were tethered on a long lead to a tree in the middle. A couple of handsome male Sardinian Warblers rattled from low bushes and added to the chorus. At the top of the hill I put up my first Hoopoe of the week, my favourite bird. It rose from right beneath my feet and flopped away on zebra-striped wings before landing and magically disappearing again. Returning to my apartment for breakfast I had my only Woodpigeon of the week and a single Yellow-legged Gull over. Butterflies noted this morning were Wall Brown, Clouded Yellow and Common Blue.

Around lunchtime we headed out for Fuente de Piedra where we hoped to see the flamingos. A few good birds were seen from the car on the journey including a Serin, four Spotless Starlings and a Woodchat Shrike at Cartama. Here another briefly seen shrike was probably Southern Grey but it was impossible to stop. We did stop however near some large cliffs the other side of Teba overlooking a large lake. The lake was fairly lifeless with the exception of a few Mallards and four Great Crested Grebes. A Cuckoo called loudly from the scrub at the base of the cliffs but was not seen. Two Choughs however were seen and were very welcome. It was now very hot and there were half a dozen Crag Martins flying up and down a deep gully. We stopped again near Campillos where a male Marsh Harrier quartered the fields but worse a distant eagle sp. was hazy and remained unidentified.

Our next stop was at Laguna Dulce where I met the only other birders I saw all week. I think they were Dutch? so we conversed with a field guide and Latin names. I gleaned enough to know I had just dipped another Southern Grey Shrike, a species I was destined not to catch up with this week. However a life tick was feeding right in front of the hide in the shape of a juvenile Greater Flamingo. It was a very pale individual and posed no identification problems at all but was nevertheless very welcome. This Laguna's most exciting birds were a flock of at least 100 Gull-billed Terns, having only seen two singles before in Britain it was great to see so many together. They were mostly sitting out the heat on some exposed mud together with both Black-headed Gulls and Yellow-legged Gulls.  Ducks were well represented with ten Shovelers, two males and a female Garganey, three Gadwall, a male Teal and a few Mallard, but unfortunately none of the rarer species. The only waders present were seven delightful Black-winged Stilts and a lone Black-tailed Godwit. Completing the picture was a Woodchat Shrike, two Corn Buntings, a Crested Lark and another distant Marsh Harrier.

As we pulled level with Fuente de Piedra we could see two huge pale pink islands out in the middle - these were all Greater Flamingos, and small groups and individuals were feeding everywhere. I estimated there to be at least 5000 birds here. A Raven flew over here. We drove round to the visitor centre where we were able to walk down to the shore and obtain good close views. Mostly all of the birds were a faded pale pink but when they flapped their wings in flamenco style or flew they looked as though they were bursting into flames, as the wing feathers were a brighter red colour. It was entrancing to see all the activity that was going on here. A supporting cast included another fifteen Gull-billed Terns, a Kentish Plover, two Avocets, four Redshanks and six Black-winged Stilts. Notable land birds were five Crested Larks a Corn Bunting and the weeks only Moorhen.

On the journey home a fly-over White Stork first spotted by Bridgette was pleasing but another large raptor was left unidentified, as there were no stopping places (I suspect it was Egyptian Vulture). In Malaga four Ring-necked Parakeets which flew in front of the car were more easily identified. In the evening an unseen Scops Owl was calling at Los Amigos.

DAY 3 M 9th April     Serrania de Ronda & Ronda

Weather : Hot and sunny

Waking at 4am due to a spot of over-indulgence at the welcome buffet, I could again hear the Scops Owl calling loudly outside the bedroom window. Carefully opening the window I spotted the owl just 10m away sat on a solar panel. As the whole area was lit up I had the most amazing views of this lovely little owl. With its call being easy to imitate I was able to duet with it for a good ten minutes before it eventually flew off in the direction of a distantly calling bird. What a spot of luck!

Getting up at around seven I left everyone sleeping and headed out into the dawn. All the usual suspects were seen including 24 Spotless Starlings, five Crested Larks, three Serins, a Cetti's Warbler, six Sardinian Warblers, fifteen Pallid Swifts and five Fan-tailed Warblers. Approaching the beach I found three Red-rumped Swallows on low wires and had stunning views down to 2m, of course I had left the camera behind. I saw two more at the beach, which may have been two of this trio. The numbers of waders at the beach had increased to fourteen Turnstones, four Kentish Plovers, three Sanderlings and two Ringed Plovers. At sea I saw six Yellow-legged Gulls and a Sandwich Tern. A Great Tit in a beachside tennis court was one of only two seen during the week. When I returned home the Nightingale was singing from its usual place on the wires, a White Wagtail foraged on the roundabout flowerbed and a Willow Warbler was fresh in. New butterflies this morning were Painted Lady and Speckled Wood.

We had decided to go to Ronda for the day as it is part of the tourist itinerary and it also had the attraction of lots of good birds. Once we left the coast road the road up through the Serrania de Ronda climbed rapidly and with more twists and turns than a John Grisham novel. At my request we stopped at a couple of points on the way up. The first outlook over wooded hills proved to be inspired. I immediately located an eagle sp. flying along the ridge. It eventually came closer until it landed atop a pylon and I was able to scope it and identify it as a Short-toed Eagle. It sat and preened and characteristically stretched its neck and head and looked around before flying out of view. Although it was distant I was pleased to get this new bird and hoped for better views later in the week. I scoped the ridge again and locked on to a juvenile Golden Eagle being mobbed by a Bonelli's Eagle, the latter being another new bird for me. I got much better views and was able to i.d. it quite quickly. It chased the Goldie remorselessly until I lost both from sight after an action-packed five minutes.

We stopped again at Km 154 and I could only find a Wheatear and a lonely Crag Martin (I also saw singles as we drove by Kms 153 and 134). Our final stop before reaching Ronda was at Km 150 when we simultaneously spotted that the air was full of large raptors. We leapt out of the car and enjoyed stunningly close views of at least eight Griffon Vultures, my third new raptor species of the day. I suspect there were actually many more as they kept disappearing over the ridge. Michael counted eleven together. One came low over the car park and craned its neck down to look at us as if doing a health check. I saw another four at Km 134 and on the way back down two at Km 144 and one at Km 147.

Arriving in Ronda we managed to park in a busy car park just outside the old city walls. My first bird sighting was of three Lesser Kestrels, two males and a female, circling an old church tower together with a few Choughs. The Lesser Kestrels were my fourth lifer of the day. They were elegant little raptors with subtle differences from Kestrel, however they all had much paler underparts appearing almost white in the bright sunlight. It was quite strange to walk around the town with Choughs wheeling about and calling harshly but nevertheless a memorable moment.

When we arrived at the town's famous bridge the view into the gorge below was awesome. It must have been quite a feat to have bridged the gorge in the first place. The other really good thing about the gorge was that it was alive with birds. There were lots of Crag Martins, a few Serins, at least another twenty Choughs, a Pallid Swift, another pair of Lesser Kestrels, a male Kestrel (for comparison) and two Alpine Swifts. The latter was yet another lifer for me and finally laid to rest the 1988 Sandwell Valley bird which I had seen and photographed but could not count as by the time I got there the RSPB had taken it into care. 

We explored the town, admired the architecture, looked in the shops and ate al fresco whilst watching the antics of numerous House Martins and Spotless Starlings. A final look into the gorge on our way back to the car was rewarded with a singing male Blue Rock Thrush and an equally impressed female.

A stop on the way home to photograph a distant Gibraltar and African coastline was rewarded with a male Chaffinch, a Peregrine and a few lizards (probably Wall).

DAY 4 T 10th April   Los Amigos & Mount Calamorro

Weather : Hot and sunny

I was out early again and headed up the hill in beautiful sunshine as usual. Near the top several Blackbirds were making a tremendous din and I knew that something must have upset them. Suddenly a cracking Short-eared Owl flew up off of the ground and into some low pines. It was mobbed again there and eventually flew off into the distance. What an unexpected bonus!

As I approached the hilltop I heard a bubbling call which I was sure I recognised and then from below the rise two Bee-eaters flew around my head at close range. At last, flying rainbows, absolutely brilliant, my week was already made. They continued to fly around me very close catching bees and one took a Painted Lady all the while giving their lovely calls. As I reached the top there were another fifteen on high power lines and more continued to join them until there were 32 in all. I was sure that these were newly arrived migrants. I watched them for a long while just enjoying the sight and sound of these beautiful birds in the warm early morning sunshine. This was BE Day.

The supporting cast was also excellent this morning and included seven Hoopoes, seven Crested Larks, eight Sardinian Warblers, five Fan-tailed Warblers, a male Dartford Warbler, two Red-rumped Swallows, four Pallid Swifts, two pairs of Serins and five Spotless Starlings. A Corn Bunting was new for this site and all the other regulars were seen.

We spent most of a very hot day just chilling out on site and did not venture out until the early evening when it was cooler.

We went to Benalmadena and after a meal we took the cable car (770m) to the summit of Mount Calamorro. This proved to be very fortuitous for although it wasn't anything more than an evening out I gained a lifer at the summit.

There were a few butterflies at the summit mainly Painted Lady and Small Heath. The only obvious birds were twenty or so Pallid Swifts, which circled around us. I noted that their calls although similar to Swift were less harsh and tailed off at the end. I also found a couple of male Sardinian Warblers and a lone Spotless Starling. A sharp 'tsee' call made me look up to see a bird flying away that I didn't recognise. However when I heard it again from the lookout point below the station I saw two male Rock Buntings perched on gorse. They were beautiful birds, an all-over rusty orange-brown colour with delicate grey faces with zebra-black stripes. They were very elusive amongst the gorse and I failed to get Bridgette or Michael onto them. An excellent end to a wonderful day.

DAY 5 W 11th April Gibraltar & Torre Guadiaro

Weather : Very hot and sunny with light easterly breezes

Today was probably the hottest day of the week and we had decided to go to Gibraltar. We had pre-booked with the Original Dolphin Safari for 11:30am. The trip was an easy one with me spotting four Bee-eaters on wires at Calahonda and counting a total of 42 Spotless Starlings en route.

We found easy parking at La Linea in the final car park before the border (1000 ptas for the day) and negotiated Customs on foot with no problems, unlike the queues of traffic waiting to get in. After walking across the runway we soon found our boat in the marina, where Tim, the captain, met us. He said that as the winds, which had blown early in the week, had subsided it would be good for dolphin watching; however I knew that an absence of west winds meant no birds over the Rock.

We set sail on time with two crew and nine passengers and it was midway between Gibraltar and Africa before we found the dolphins. On the way out we had excellent views of five Mediterranean Shearwaters sat on the surface of the sea. Eventually the dolphins became very bold and surrounded our small catamaran. They were mostly Common Dolphins but there were a few Striped Dolphins with them. It was very entertaining for almost an hour as the dolphins swam around and under the boat, breached occasionally and one or two of the very young ones leapt out of the water completely. They were very difficult to photograph as more often than not I took pictures of the sea where they were a millisecond earlier, however I did get a few good shots. On our way back in two Loggerhead Turtles passed the boat, which was a surprise for everyone.

Arriving back on land we ate lunch before taking the cable car to the top of the Rock. As I had thought birds were noticeable by their absence although a few Pallid Swifts were ever present and Yellow-legged Gulls were present in hundreds. We watched the Gibraltar Apes from a safe distance, marvelled at St Michael's Cave and sweltered in the heat. A good selection of common warblers were probably new arrivals and comprised mainly of Blackcaps, Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs although one bird which showed only briefly was possibly Melodious. I did hear two Blue Tits from the depths of the deep cover swathing the Rock's sides but did not see them and to anyone who has seen Barbary Partridge there, well done, it looks impossible.

A brown lizard approximately 7" long (mostly tail) was probably a Wall Lizard and a smaller bright green lizard was, well, a Green Lizard.

Butterflies were in good supply and I had three species new to me in the shape of Scarce Swallowtail, Cleopatra and Spanish Festoon.

We left the Rock in the late afternoon and after a stop and search by the Guardia Civil outside La Linea we made good time until Torre Guadiaro where the traffic ground to a halt. So we pulled off onto the beach and took a break. A Little Egret was here, my only one of the trip surprisingly. A small roadside pond looked interesting so I investigated it. I found a pair of Woodchat Shrikes, a Fan-tailed Warbler and a drake Mallard. The beach held a pair of Crested Larks and three recently arrived Wheatears, two males and a female. The traffic having cleared we headed for home. I heard the Scops Owl again in the evening.

DAY 6 Th 12th April Los Amigos & Fuengirola

Weather : Hot and sunny

I went for my usual pre-breakfast stroll again. At the top of the hill on the high power lines were 22 Bee-eaters again. Small groups seemed to be moving off North constantly until all had gone when I went past on my way back. A mournful contact call alerted me to something new, I scanned the gorse tops and was delighted to find a beautiful male Black-eared Wheatear. It was in absolutely pristine plumage with its lovely gingery mantle and crown. I watched it for a long while until it flew off over the ridge. It was surely a new arrival, one for which I was very grateful, and yet another lifer.

Returning to the apartment a pair of Red-legged Partridges were new for the week. Another pair of Bee-eaters flew around outside the apartments.

The usual but more notable species were two Hoopoes, two Woodchat Shrikes, six Crested Larks, six Serins, four Fan-tailed Warblers, six Sardinian Warblers, six Pallid Swifts and six Spotless Starlings.

We spent a lazy day around the apartments playing tennis, sunbathing, swimming, having a curry and a few San Miguels and not venturing out until the evening. We went to a Spanish Horse Show at Cartujano in Fuengirola. It was an excellent show with the added attraction of two fly-over Bee-eaters, two White Storks, a Hoopoe carrying food and a Crested Lark.

DAY 7 F 13th April    Sierra Nevada

Weather : Hot and sunny

I had a quick stroll down to the beach prior to breakfast. There were three Turnstones still on the rocks and a single Kentish Plover on the beach. Other notable birds included nine Spotless Starlings, two Pallid Swifts (these had decreased in numbers all week), two pairs of the ubiquitous Sardinian Warblers, a Fan-tailed Warbler and a Crested Lark.

Today we had decided to go to Sierra Nevada stopping in Granada on the way to look at the Alhambra Palace. We could not get tickets for the Palace as they were all sold before we even set foot in Spain. Travelling to Granada we made one brief stop where I had seen a small flock of interesting looking larks on the other side of the motorway but I could not relocate them. Very frustrating as they were sure to have been something new to me. A few birds were around the lay-by and in the adjacent olive grove. There were four Serins, a Crested Lark, two Spotless Starlings and an unseen Cuckoo calling.

Arriving at the Alhambra we realised we had made a mistake, not only were we stuck in a traffic jam but we could only get a parking ticket for twenty minutes as we did not have tickets to the Palace. The car park was positioned so that we could not take photos of the Palace from it, the traffic queue took longer than twenty minutes to get out so we had to explain why in rough Spanish and something in the engine had over-heated and started to melt producing toxic smoke. Once outside we let the car cool down, we couldn't see an obvious problem, so we carried on to Sierra Nevada and luckily what ever it was didn't re-occur. I did see a Magpie mobbing a Kestrel whilst waiting for the car to cool, my first Spanish Magpie. Another pair were seen on the way up to Sierra Nevada. A single Crag Martin was seen at the same point.

Arriving at Sierra Nevada was like arriving in an alpine town of Austria or Switzerland. There were skiers and snowboarders everywhere. It was obviously a civilised town as a big sign said in several languages 'NO CARAVANS ALLOWED'. Our first priority was to get fed and there was plenty of choice. We found a nice restaurant in the main square and had a lovely meal. From the restaurant window I saw the first of at least four male Black Redstarts that sang from the eaves. The snow was still deep just outside of the town but the sun was shining beautifully and it was still warm. A short walk brought good views of nesting Crag Martins and a male Rock Bunting showed briefly until a Weasel scurried into the bushes where it sat.

We decided to take the chair lift to the Parador at the top. More Crag Martins were seen nesting in the upper station. Although my research suggested Alpine Accentors should not be too difficult to find I didn't despite a really good search. I went and had a good wander whilst Bridgette and Michael went to hire a sledge. I did find three pairs Black Redstart around the Parador, a pair of Rock Buntings, a White Wagtail and a Coal Tit (my only record). A final look over the edge of a steep crag brought an unexpected bonus in the form of another lifer. I could hear a bird singing and I knew it something different and eventually a superb male Rock Thrush flew towards me perched on a boulder and sang again. A real vision in cobalt blue and fiery orange with a white patch on its back. I soon picked out the object of its serenade, a drabber female lower down the crag. I returned to Bridgette and Michael and had time to have a go on the sledge before we had to head back.

On the journey back an eagle sp. flew towards us as we went round a u-bend on the winding road near Granada, as we came out of the bend we drew level with it. It was a Short-toed Eagle; it hovered briefly before plummeting down into the gorge and out of sight. As with most Spanish roads there was nowhere to stop unfortunately.

A quick rest stop at Santa Fe was excellent for Goldfinches, a common bird in the South of Spain. Also in a small paddock were eight Rock Doves, which looked as tickable as they get, they all looked the same, with all the right characteristics and no hint of feral blood.

A fly-over Grey Heron on the A92 at Km195 was my only record, as was a single Cattle Egret in a horse paddock near Malaga.

After a superb evening meal in the restaurant I took my bedtime cup of coffee out onto the balcony and was amazed to find the Scops Owl sat there, I think we were both surprised, and he soon flew off into the darkness.

DAY 8 S 14th April   Fuengirola to Quedgeley, Glos

Weather : Hot and sunny

We got up early and left for the airport in Malaga at 7:30am. The resident Nightingale sang beautifully from wires as we loaded up the car. Half a dozen noisy Spotless Starlings also heralded the new day and House Martins were already busy feeding their young. A lone Pallid Swift flew over just before we entered the airport.

The flight soon passed and it wasn't until we were at about 200ft before we could see a grey, wet and dull Birmingham. All good things must come to an end I suppose.

Advice to Visitors

You will need a 100ptas coin for a luggage trolley at Malaga Airport although the trolleys themselves tend to be rarer than Andalusian Hemipode. You will also need your Boarding Card in the Duty Free Shop.

Don't try and park beside any of the main roads except at obvious parking spots. If you stop with a wheel over the white line and into the road you will be in trouble if caught. The Guardia Civil and the Police are constantly patrolling the roads in this coastal area.

Do try and park as soon as you approach Ronda, it is not a town to be driving in. Similarly don't even think about taking your car into Gibraltar. You are liable to be queuing both ways for a long time. Take your passport to Gibraltar or you will not get in.

There is a large reasonably priced multi-storey car park as you go in to Sierra Nevada. This is useful if you want to see the town as well as the high tops. You can drive to the top but it was incredibly busy, and the views from the chair lift were spectacular. Tickets for the chair lift must be bought from the ticket office next to the Information Centre in the main square.

If you are planning to go on a dolphin safari in Gibraltar, book ahead, and try and book with the Original Dolphin Safari. We noted that all the other boats were in and out in half the time that we spent watching dolphins. The Original Dolphin Safari catamaran was stable, crewed by English people who were very informative. Take a change of clothes or swimming gear and a towel, there is an opportunity to sit on the front of the boat and get wet with the dolphins, as Michael did.

Always carry bottled water, Spain can be a thirsty place when it is hot as we had it. Also make sure you have plenty of petrol before heading into any of the mountains. Petrol stations can be few and far between here.

Tickets for the Alhambra Palace have to be obtained in advance from the Bank of Bilbao and even then at busy times they may be full (as they were the week we were there). It may be possible to book ahead from England?

© Mike King 2001

The Gloster Birder

Where to watch birds in Southern and Western Spain
Ernest Garcia and Andrew Paterson: Buy from or

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