With the autumn slowly, but surely, passing into winter, many of our lingering migrants have ventured further south seeking warmer climes. Now our winter visitors are increasing in number as temperatures in the northern and middle reaches of Spain begin to fall. As in northern parts of Europe, the first bird to bring news of winter’s cold front is the beautifully coloured and elegant looking Lapwing Vanellus vanellus. The Spanish call this wader Avefria and loosely translates to ‘bird of the cold’. Hopefully I won’t be seeing many Lapwings then! In Andalucia we are lucky to avoid the worst of the cold fronts and generally enjoy moderate temperatures during winter. Taking advantage of these warmer temperatures, our resident birds have now been joined by Alpine Accentor, Ring Ouzel, Siskin, Brambling and odd Black Vulture and Long-legged Buzzard. It seems that in the case of Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus, sightings are becoming regular and this species has gone from being a distinct rarity to a scarce autumn and winter visitor. There are even reports of breeding near to the Tarifa area!
I am still managing the odd day’s work and visit my ‘favourite’ local area behind the white village of Montejaque as often as time allows. Here the hawthorn bushes are now frequented by good numbers of Ring Ouzel. These winter visitors arrive with a wave of migrants during October and although most pass-on to northern Africa, many stay to winter in this area. The large majority of those choosing to stay are of the race Turdus torquatus (originating from north Europe), but we also have the sub species Turdus torquatus alpestris (an alpine bird that also breeds in northern Spain), which winter in small numbers. It is remarkable that any T.t.alpestris winter here as the great majority winter mainly in north-west Africa, especially in the Atlas Saharien regions on dry and bare slopes or crests with juniper woodland. Joining these handsome birds this year are unusually high numbers of Redwing, certainly more than I have previously witnessed. The area high on this route behind Montejaque, known as Sierra de Libar, has been frequented by a family of Golden Eagle during autumn and the calls of the juvenile could often be heard resounding from the steep sided mountains that surround this high valley. More recently, and for a second time, I thought I was witnessing the pair of adults driving away another encroaching adult, but as the birds approached me, I could see the ‘other’ bird was a pale juvenile Imperial Eagle. Amazing, my first local sighting of this species for a couple of years!
I always find Black Wheatear a lot easier to observe at this time of year and reaffirming my idea on resident pairs is always a task I look forward to during this season. It is amusing to watch the antics of territorial pairs of Black Wheatear confirming their feeding rights by constantly chasing away Black Redstart, Stonechat and Blue Rock Thrush from favoured areas. Equally, a joy to the ears (cold as they might be) is the song and song flight of Blue Rock Thrush. These magnificent thrushes seem to sing at all times of year and, despite the best efforts of Black Wheatears, they can be frequently observed proclaiming their territories during winter.
Other birds which appear more confiding during this period are Rock and Cirl Bunting, although their habit of flocking outside of the breeding season obviously means you spot them more readily. Huge flocks of mixed finches are now common, feeding on fallow fields and the area near to Acinipo (old Ronda) allow close views of these and large numbers of Corn Bunting. This same area offers great chances to see Crested and Thekla Lark feeding alongside of each other. Another species which I managed to find in the almost down-land like habitat which surrounds Acinipo is Hen Harrier. The male of the species is spectacularly coloured and against an ink coloured sky, with its clear white under parts contrasting with black wing tips, can give an impression of an enormous gull species. It is also a very good time to find large flocks of Rock Sparrow, together with the huge flocks of finches; they also feed on open and fallow ground. These birds can be surprisingly difficult in the breeding season, as they tend to feed amongst Karst type habitats and you need them to pop-up on any prominent rock to see them clearly.
With further sightings of Wallcreeper behind Montejaque, this species has truly added itself to our winter bird list. Of course the bird is in winter’s dull overcoat, only joking, but you have to admit they look far more attractive in their summer’s breeding attire! I now wander the mountains here looking-up at every cliff face just to see if these super birds are present elsewhere. Apart from anything else, I now go around with a permanent neck ache!