Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Memory Cake and ingredients

Cooking up a Memory Cake. Main ingredients: self-indulgence 20%, stock of reflective moments 20% and lots of fun 60%. It has always been motivating for me to aim to make each year better than the last, or at least not worse. The last 12 months have been a real rollercoaster ride of thrills, spills, fun and lots of great memories, what a ride. I quite deliberately setout to travel less over the last 12 month, but still managed South Africa, Morocco x2, UK and not least a special, self-indulgent premiere visit to bird in Canada. Of course these travels always produce great memories, but my local mountains also continue to come up trumps for scenery and special moments. I wanted and achieved more time here in my mountains; my wildlife and me danced a dance of pure bliss through the year’s seasons.

So here is a pictorial of the preceding 12 month and unusually for me, no words, just captions. And this is where the self-indulgence comes into play, sifting through photos and remembering sweet times.

Reminding me of times in South Africa, great to lead this tour with such good friends travelling together
Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, South Africa just so much more than safaris and better known animals
Exotic species or travelling friends? Wonderful companions for me touring Morocco
Yes! At last a good photograph of the elusive Orphean Warbler. Morocco delivered memories in March 2017
During a Spanish Tour a Booted Eagle provided a laugh or two with it's beady eye following a flyby pigeon 
Spanish Tour and got so so lucky with Griffon Vultures up close enough for my point and shoot camera
What better or appropriate on my Canada Tour than a lifer, the beautiful and memorable Canada Warbler
Cuteness and a lifer to boot, a Boreal Chickadee fledgling hops around below parent birds, what a memory!
I looked happy being replaced as Chairman of Andalucia Bird Society, then being voted as President, but Elli wasn't sure!
Big day during my summer. Actually getting a Two-tailed Pasha to sit still long enough for a photograph - a result.
The summer also became very satisfying when a homemade pond saw 12 species of dragonfly and damselfly ovipositing
After over 40 tours in Morocco I finally get a winter plumage photograph of  a male Seebohm's Wheatear, excited.
Morocco and the Sahara Desert always acts as a magnet to me, attracting me back year after year. A wonderful destination
As winter takes hold of my mountains, we still get warm days and here an Ocellated Lizard takes advantage of sunshine
Not a decent photo, but a birding highlight recently as a Hawfinch male attempts to take a chunk out of a Ring Ouzel male
Well that's a brief taster of my year and all that remains is to wish my many friends and readers a Very Happy Christmas and a Peaceful and Healthy New Year! Take care and catch-up again in 2018. Peter

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Winter Wildlife Serrania de Ronda

Winter has encroached on my mountains; autumn’s soft embrace has released its hand on the landscape and submitted almost unnoticed to the cold of winter. The unpredictable has returned, from warm days to biting cold nights, to strong winds, which can herald the long awaited rains, to ashen clouds cloaking the high mountains later to reveal white peaks on the most grand of my mountains. It is a welcomed respite from the searing temperatures of summer that had parched the landscape, turning the views to golden browns for as far as the eye could see, though the large forested areas of evergreen oak beautifully frame the golden colours with their shades of green.

Yet through November and December, during the onset of winter, there are so many interesting features to my natural world here in the Serrania de Ronda. These months see the main rutting period for Iberian Ibex Capra pyrenaica hispanica, a time for keeping a sharp eye to the mountainsides. Males now actively seek females, who themselves are now divided by those able to breed successfully and those immature of 1 to 2 year olds who attempt to avoid contact with active males. Ibex are an interesting animal, many things attract me to their lifestyle and to give one example they have a special mechanism in the kidney that stores fat in order to be used as energy in the colder winter months.

From the every present, high flying and soaring Griffon Vulture, other birds too are more noticeable, as they flock and are concentrated in areas where food remains plentiful. Haw Berries and Rose Hips still glisten red in the day’s sun and are a much favoured food source for thrush and starling species, of course other birds too are attracted to these berries such as Blackcap, who are present in their thousands during our winter. The more open lower slopes and valleys attract huge finch flocks; ground feeders such as Meadow Pipit, White Wagtail and various lark species join these, whilst Corn Bunting too is now seen in large, highly mobile, flocks.

It is in these low lying areas I tend to spend more time during the winter months. The wild grasses and other plant life are emerging, recovering from the lack of rains during the summer months, in turn insects are plentiful as well as fallen seeds from the autumn. Birds are numerous; altitudinal dispersal also brings flocks of Rock Sparrow to these feeding grounds, with Blue Rock Thrush appearing around waste grounds. Another attraction is the small stands of water that appear on these open, flat and uncultivated sites. Here many birds will visit for bathing and drinking and if for no other reason I love to visit these sites to witness the bobbing and scuttling behaviour of the hundreds of White Wagtail, coming to perform their pampering before departing to their roosts.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The ubiquitous wintering White Wagtail

Wintering birds in the Serrania de Ronda are increasing as temperatures in northern Spain plummet. An annual event here as many birds find refuge in temperate areas surrounding this southern most outpost of the Baetic System of mountain ranges. Involved as I am in a winter survey of birds here, one of the most commonly encountered species is the White Wagtail Motacilla alba alba. Surprisingly widespread, even at higher elevations, this enigmatic bird has to be one of the most attractive and entertaining of our annual visitors.

Common on open cultivated farmland and in Olive groves
We have a small breeding population here, but they are scarce and at times hard to locate. In contrast, they are among the most common of wintering birds and passage migrants. Summer's end and early autumn see huge numbers arriving to these parts, no coincidence that this mass arrival coincides with the cultivation of cereal and other cropped fields, most of which had been fallow for the greater part of July and August. It is a common sight to see several hundred birds following the plough and feasting on exposed worms and the many species of beetle larvae. Many of these birds will continue to journey south and winter in North Africa, but as autumn progresses so too will numbers increase of those birds choosing to winter here.

Water always an attraction to this and other wagtail species of the region
Wintering birds tend to be social and gather together on favoured feeding grounds, these are mostly open cultivated areas, but also they frequent pasture, upland scrub and open woodlands with grassland as an understory, olive groves are also much favoured. Of course their habit of attending communal roosting sites, allows for a more accurate way to assess and count numbers of birds during winter. The prerequisite to roosting is the need to drink and bathe. One of the most enjoyable experiences of following these birds, is to watch them gather at traditional bathing areas. They are my comic relief on cold and late afternoons, I can only admire their diligence with the bathing and attention to each feather during temperatures that keep most of us behind a car window or cowered by a our firesides.

Cold sunny afternoons see many gathering at favoured watering places to bathe
As winter settles into the familiar and somewhat local pattern of cold nights and temperate days, our birds can be found more thinly spread throughout the mountain valleys and cultivated areas, reflecting the need to search more widely for diminishing insect life. Although omnivorous, these wagtails have a preference for insects, however, it is notable during the months December through to February, that they can be more commonly encountered on pastures and tracks where verges produce a plentiful supply of seeds, plus longer grasses hold a good population of spiders as another favoured food source.

Attention to detail, pre roost preening is an essential ritual for these wagtails 
During the depths of our winter there is no discernable fluctuation in numbers, it is only during very cold weather do I witness a reduction and then only temporary as warmer weather sees their return. These colder periods most likely result in short distance dispersal, possibly altitudinal dispersal to lower and warmer elevations. Our wintering population normally drifts northwards during March and this spring migration is hardly noticeable as other birds are also returning from Africa. The absence of appreciable numbers only becomes apparent during the early part of April, when quite suddenly they have gone, then again it is also a time when Yellow Wagtail are returning in numbers and this tends to soften my disappointment.

I hope you enjoyed this brief account of my wintering White Wagtail

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Morocco de Lux Safari 2018 - Spain Tour Optional Extension


Morocco de Luxe - 22-31 march 2018
The Atlas and Saharas

Morocco is one of the most beautiful countries in the region and one of few places where you really can get the true 1001 nights feeling. On this trip we focus on the inner of Morocco´s mountains and deserts. A road-trip for the adventurous who likes the idea of traveling a bit off the beaten track to see special birds and habitats. We will however stay in very comfortable Kasbah style hotels and taste genuine, local food. When we get to the real desert, we will be driven in 4x4 vehicles so we can move freely in the habitat and seek the birds we want. Our leader has done more than 40 trips to Morocco and knows all the best sites for all the specialities. In addition we also use local guides at times. Egyptian Nightjar, Cream-coloured Courser, Desert Sparrow, Pharaoh Eagle Owl, Fulvous Babbler, are some of the birds we will target in the Sahara. Sandgrouse, Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, several species of Wheatears and Larks are also on the menu and of course the birds of the High Atlas like Crimson-winged Finch and Levaillents´s Woodpecker. This time of the year there´s also a lot of migrating birds around and any bush can hold interesting finds.

Day 1 22nd March
Common Bulbul and breakfast
We plan to arrive on the afternoon in Marrakech. It means we stay the first night in Marrakech to load our batteries with a nice evening meal and a good night´s sleep. The hotel has a lovely garden/park area where some birds can be seen. Night in Hotel Farah.

Day 2 23rd March
After breakfast we will begin our journey across the Atlas Mountains south towards Ouarzazate, that is our first destination on the tour. But we will have time for many stops before that, especially up in the mountains where we will keep our eyes open for Levaillant's Woodpecker,  Barbary Partridge, Tristram´s Warbler and Moussier´s Redstart. Raptors to look out for are Barbary Falcon and Golden Eagle, but since it´s migration time, anything can come across. We will do stops on above 1.000 meters, so warm clothes can be good to have ready. We recommend you to bring a warm sweater, and a windstopping jacket & trousers, even if we only spend the first and the last days at this elevation. Pretty soon we will start to see the first ”exotic” Wheatears; Mourning Wheatear, Black Wheatear, White-crowned Wheatear and eventually perhaps the first Desert Wheatears. Our base Hotel Dar Chamaa in Ouarzazate lies surrounded by palm trees with the Atlas mountains in the backdrop. There´s a pool and a nice terrace embed with trees and bushes. The weather varies a lot here between cool or balmy, mainly depending on the wind. Northerly winds will produce cold weather, but normally days are pleasant and nights are cooler this time of the year. (Today´s transfer is 198 km, effective travel time estimated to 2 hours, 52 min)

Male Desert Wheatear
Day 3 24th March
Our journey continues south through palm tree plantations in the Agdz and Draa Valleys, where there could be all sorts of migrating birds around; Raptors, Wheatears, Warblers, Wagtails and Pipits. Maybe we have already seen the first Subalpine Warblers in the hotel garden before breakfast.  Most likely also the first Common Bulbuls and House Buntings. Temperatures down here will be considerably higher than yesterday and it will feel nice to stretch our limbs on a walk along the river to find some new birds. A first stop by a shallow lake is usually productive with Ruddy Shelducks, different Waders, Terns, Herons, maybe Flamingos, etc. We follow the valley and stop in different, small wadis where the green habitat can attract migrants. Laughing Dove, Spectacled Warbler, White-crowned Wheatear  and Blue-cheeked Bee-eater are some of today´s target birds. We will also look for Bonelli´s Eagle, Streaked Scrub-Warbler and Seebohm´s Wheatear. Kasbah Sirocco is a charming and and comfortable hotel, surrounded by palmeries near Zagora. The bar area by the pool is a nice place for a get-together and to go through the list of birds we´ve seen during the day. We´ll then enjoy some good local cuisine in this nice as well as traditional environment. If weather is good we can sit outdoors. (Today´s transfer is 163 km, effective travel time estimated to 2 h, 46 min)

Laughing Dove
Day 4 25th March
Today we need to start early to make the 300 km we need to travel to reach the sand dunes of the Sahara. We we still have time for plenty of bird stops. We´ll keep our eyes open for birds like Trumpeter Finch, Lanner Falcon, Desert Wheatear, but also different migrants. White Wagtails of the handsome subspecies subpersonata are not numerous but we´ll certainly try our best to see some. The open habitats is a tough challenge when it comes to spotting birds, but the more eyes…We might be rewarded with Spotted- or Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Fulvous Babblers, Cream-colored Courser and other good species. When we arrive there will be a little more choice on which activities you want to participate in, since we are staying two nights at Auberge Kasbah Derkaoua. A small hotel with low buildings, named after the ruins of an old sufic shelter, built by traditional ”bricks” of straw and clay. A selection of tents and gazebos offer shelter from the heat and sunshine. Kasbah Derkaoua is surrounded by desert and a little oasis in it´s own right. It´s also the place that many travelers have used as a base for their desert adventure in Sahara spelled Erg Chebbi! - the famous sand dunes that have become a main image of Moroccan Sahara, but in fact isn´t a common habitat at all. Here the 150 meter high sand dunes rise just near the hotel and covers an area of 50 km. (Today´s transfer is 305 km, travel time estimated to 4 hours)

White-crowned Wheatear
Day 5 26th March
Today we well explore the areas around the Erg Chebbi – so we will enter 4x4 jeeps and drive straight out into the habitat. The area around Merzouga is also interesting with the temporary lake Dayet Srji. If it holds water it attracts Flamingos, a variety of Ducks and Waders and other migrating waterbirds. However it can be dry for several years, so nothing is guaranteed. Nonetheless today we have good chances on seeing local specialties like Fulvous Babbler - not always easy - , African Desert Warbler, Cream-colored Courser, Hoopoe Lark and Spotted Sandgrouse. The gorgeous little Desert Sparrow is naturally in focus here as well, because the vast, remote desert areas with small human settlements, is the true habitat of this species. On the drive we pass tamarisk areas and small berber fincas, we look out for Sandgrouse, Brown-necked Raven, Bar-tailed Lark, Desert- and White-crowned Wheatears. As the desert changes in texture to finer sand and grass tussocks it´s time to look more carefully for one of the most charming species on the trip - Cream-colored Courser. Flocks of Trumpeter Finches, Desert Larks will most likely appear around us. As will the pale sandy brown desert form of Crested Lark that has just recently been separated to an own species named Maghreb Lark. After lunch in one of the nearby villages, we go to look for Pharaoh´s Eagle Owl and/ or the bird magnet Dayet Sjri if it holds water. We will also do our best to find the enigmatic Egyptian Nightjar.  On this destination we employ a local bird guide to find the rare birds. Night at Auberge Kasbah Derkaoua. Here we can let ourselves be embraced by the silence, the sky, the sand and the infinity of the Sahara.

Maghreb Lark
Day 6 27th March
A walk around the hotel garden - with old trees and green bushes, can produce migrating birds resting after their crossing of the desert. A nice pre-breakfast activity. Today we hit the road again and head back west towards the Todra Gorge and Boumalne de Dades. We will travel through a good mix of habitats from Tinejdad to Boumalne de Dades with it´s extensive palmeries, lush wadis and the Todra Gorge just north of town. If we haven´t seen Fulvous Babbler yet, today is the last chance. Lanner Falcon is to look especially for here. After lunch we will look through the stone desert areas around the famous Tagdilt track where we will look for specialties like Thick-billed Lark, Temminck´s Horned Lark and Red-rumped Wheatear. The last two have a good population here.  Hotel La Porte du Dades with it´s berber architecture is close to Tagdilt and have a nice view over the landscape, a traditional restaurant and lounge. (Today´s transfer is 260 km, travel time 3 h, 37 min)

Red-rumped Wheatear male
Day 7 28th March
If we feel need for more stone desert birds we take another drive down the Tagdilt track with inhabitants like Thick-billed Larks and Red-rumped Wheatears, Long-legged Buzzards and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. If we haven´t got proper views of Mourning Wheatear we will make a short detour to target them. We will try several small dirt tracks but will need a bit of luck with this tricky species. The time should allow us to check the reservoir by Ouarzazate where Crested Coot and Marbled Teal can be seen. Good chances on raptors on migration as well. The hills around Ouarzazate and Tiffoultote are covered with bushes and can attract tired migrants. We also look for Lanner and Barbary Falcons. Night at Hotel Dar Chamaa in Ouarzazate. (Today´s transfer is 117 km, travel time 1 h 50 min)

Temminck's Lark
Day 8 29th March
On our way back up through the Atlas mountains we can admire the landscape as we have more chances to look for birds like Seebohm´s Wheatear, Levaillents´s Woodpecker, Barbary Partridge, African Blue Tit, and most likely some raptors. Maybe we fancy a stop at the ruins of Taddert or the highest pass of the Atlas. New for this year is that we go further up into the high Atlas. Our last destination of the trip is Oukaimeden – a ski resort on 2.650 meters elevation.  A site known for good birds like  African Crimson-winged Finch, Rock Sparrow, Atlas Horned Lark and more. There can still be some snow around this time of the year so make sure to bring gloves, a scarf and a hat. The reward will be some really fine birds and amazing scenery. Night in hotel in Oukaimeden. (Today´s transfer is 229 km, travel time 4 h 30 min)

Crimson-winged Finch
Day 9 30th March
We do as much bird watching as we can around Oukaimeden before we have to drive the last 80 km to Marrakech to get our hotel in Marrakech, we will also bird our journey to Marrakech.

Alpine Chough
Day 10. 31st March
Rest morning before our group departs Morocco. Some to Sweden others to Spain.

House Bunting male - a species resident at our hotel in Marrakech

Spain Leg of Tour. Optional Tour Extension

Serrania de Ronda
Day 1. 31st March
Arrive Sevilla and drive to El Rocio hotel set in the National Park - Donana. We will bird lakeside in El Rocio and have dinner in the town square.

Day 2. 1st April
Birding the Donana and visiting various wetland habitats for special birds.

Day 3. 2nd April
Depart for Tarifa, visiting La Janda

Day 4. 3rd April
Birding the Barbate, La Janda and Tarifa area then depart for the Serrania de Ronda.

Day 5. 4th April
Birding the Laguna Fuente de Piedra

Day 6. 5th April
Birding the UNESCO Biosphere Park of Grazalema and surrounding area.

Day 7. 6th April
Birding Sierra de las Nieves another UNESCO Biosphere Park.

Day 8. 7th April
Departure day.

For further information, prices and any queries please contact us 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Ban Driven Grouse Shooting

10th of December marks the end of another grouse shooting season.
Yet again, throughout 2017, there were numerous wildlife crime incidences on and near England’s grouse moors, including the systematic and illegal persecution of our protected Buzzards, Peregrines, Goshawks, Red Kites, Marsh Harriers, Short-eared Owls, Ravens and Hen Harriers.
The Mountain Hare is still slaughtered in large numbers on grouse moors; gas guns are still used near nesting birds; and there was another mass shooting of nesting Lesser Black-Backed Gulls on a Lancashire grouse moor (Abbeystead Estate). Grouse shooting for 'sport' depends on intensive habitat management, such as heather burning, which increases flood risk and greenhouse gas emissions, and the widespread and unregulated use of toxic chemicals to ‘control pests’ on Red Grouse. 
Stink pits, snares and various traps litter grouse moors - gamekeepers set these traps to kill our upland predators, just so there are more Red Grouse to shoot. Many ‘by-catch’ victims have been found in traps on grouse moors, including Mountain Hares, Badgers, Deer, Cats, Water Vole, Red Squirrel, Pine Martins, Dippers Ring Ousel and Red Grouse.
Much of the game shooting industry are still in complete denial about the scale of raptor persecution and other wildlife crimes on grouse moors, and argue that licensing would be an unnecessary and unwelcome ‘threat’. Enough is enough. We think grouse shooting is economically, ecologically and socially unnecessary, and that a driven grouse shooting ban is the only way forward for upland reforms. 
A NEW petition to ban driven grouse shooting has been launched. 
You can sign it here: SIGN PETITION.

You can also join the thunderclap initiative by joining in here:

Friday, November 24, 2017

Winter birding Serrania de Ronda

Winter birding is around the corner; temperatures at night are dropping, the days noticeably shorter and the promise of long overdue rains for the next week. None of this concerns the resident mountain birds or those winter interlopers as they harvest hardy insects and fruiting trees. Another season beckons and another exciting time to be in my mountains and 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.

Griffon Vulture adult
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!

Even although we are near the end of November, I am still managing the odd day’s work and I 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 many pass-on to northern Africa, many also stay to winter in this area. The large majority of those choosing to stay are of the race Turdus torquatus 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 Siskin and Hawfinch, certainly more than I have previously witnessed. A family of Golden Eagle has frequented the area high on this route behind Montejaque, known as Sierra de Libar, 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.

Blue Rock Thrush juvenile female
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.

Hawfinch female
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 can 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 also 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 ink coloured skies, 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.

Rock Bunting male