Well, if you can't plug your book on your own website where can you do so? I finally got a copy of the guide which I wrote with Dirk Hilbers late last week. As usual the Crossbill team have done a great job putting the book together and the final result looks very handsome indeed. Dutch naturalist Dirk Hilbers deserves most credit as he wrote most of the introduction, the text on plants and insects so my major contribution was to write up the text on the birdlife, history, about half the routes and savage the early "Dutch-English" drafts with my usual ferocity. I even contributed a couple photos (no prizes for guessing one was of Lesser Kestrel snapped from our terrace in Alcala de los Gazules). I also contributed one of the routes, some of the text and roughed up the text in the sister volume, imaginatively called the "Crossbill Guide to Eastern Andalucia" (issuu.com/crossbillguidesfoundation/docs/cg23_eastern_andalucia_issue).
NOTE: the Crossbill Guides are NOT simple birdwatching site guides being so much moring have a much wider remit dealing with the history (particulatly as it applies to landscapes), geology, ecology and general wildlife of the region. However, they will direct you to key birding sites, special species and inform you about what to expect.
The series seems to be a little specialist for most high street bookshops to stock asa matter of course (although you may be lucky!) but they should be able to get a copy for you. To avoid confusion with other books in the series it may be useful to quote the ISBN - 978-94-91648-09-0. If you're in the UK I'd recommend ordering the book from Wildsounds (http://www.wildsounds.com/menu/main.shtml) although be warned that as I write they've sold out and are currently waiting more stock - it proved to be more popular than they assumed. You can order directly from the Crossbill Guides website (crossbillguides.nl/bookstore/western-andalucia) which is more convenient if you're in the Netherlands (although they can post them to the UK). If you're in Spain then copies should be available from www.weboryx.com/
To see a preview of the guide online go to issuu.com/crossbillguidesfoundation/docs/cg22_western_andalucia-issue or check the photo below.
Largely thanks to being a warmer 'refugia' during the ice ages, Iberia is unique in Europe for being the home of several endemic or near-endemic birds most notably Azure-winged Magpie, Iberian Green Woodpecker and Spanish Imperial Eagle (although the latter was once found more widely). If one extends the list to include nearby North Africa then the list becomes still longer: Red-necked Nightjar, Spanish Yellow Wagtail, Black Wheatear, Thekla Lark and Western Olivaceous Warbler. Thanks to developments in DNA based taxonomy another species, Iberian Chiffchaff, has now been added to that list.
Iberian Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus ibericus) belongs to a group of similar tree haunting small and largely nondescript birds that we British once called 'willow-wrens'. Whilst we've lost any colloquial name for these birds, the Spanish have retained theirs and call them all, charmingly I think, “mosquiteros” (= mosquito eaters). In many ways the most interesting of these is Mosquitero Ibérico or Iberian Chiffchaff. Given that British ornithologists regularly explored Gibraltar's hinterland from at least the 1860s onwards, despite the similarity in plumage, it seems surprising that nobody seems to have reported 'unusual' chiffchaffs in the area (esp. in the Alcornocales where they are fairly common) as the song is quite distinct. The answer seems to be that they were widely mistaken for Willow Warblers. Even the great pioneer Irby, author of the seminal 'Ornithology of the Straits of Gibraltar' (1875, enlarged edition 1895), appears to have been fooled as in his book he wrongly notes of Willow Warblers that in “the vicinity of Gibraltar they are to be found throughout the year in the Cork-wood, where they breed” and most subsequent authors appear to have followed his lead. Since Willow Warblers are, in fact, non-breeding passage migrants to the area, it seems that in the days before widely available recordings of bird song it was all too easy to mistake Iberian Chiffchaff's more musical cadences for a variant of this species rather than Chiffchaff.
The realisation that these birds were, in fact, chiffchaffs with distinctive song came surprisingly late in 1913. In that year, Captain Hubert Lynes studied them near Gibraltar (see - 'The Ibis' Vol II 1914 – http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/100092#page/370/mode/1up) and, like those before him, Lynes initially mistook the Iberian Chiffchaff's tripartite song as a local dialect, not of Chiffchaff but Willow Warbler. However, unlike others, he carefully investigated the situation. On finding a nest and collecting a specimen he realised he'd made an error and that the birds were a kind of chiffchaff. It's worth quoting Lynes' perceptive note more fully: “The only other breeding Phylloscopus (so far as we could find), was by its song, I think anyone would have agreed, a Willow-Warbler; singing males of this species shared the cork-oak glades in about equal proportion as Bonelli's. For a Willow-Warbler, true, the song was unmelodious and disjointed (“tin-potty”, if one may use such an expression), the first two notes jerked out, so that for a moment they might have been put down to an eccentric Chiffchaff, had they not invariably been followed by the four or five notes in descending scale characteristic of the Willow Warbler – in short, if it was a poor Willow-Warbler's song, it was an impossible Chiffchaff's”. He went on to relate how found a nest and eggs (which more resembled that of a Chiffchaff than a Willow Warbler) and shot the female. On examining the latter and a further six specimens he collected, he found that “with no little surprise” it possessed “all the external characters, dimensions, wing formula, emargination, etc of the typical Chiffchaff” and, although he noted the plumage was largely the same as British birds he observed that “the sulphur yellow axillaries may be a trifle brighter.” Lynes went on to note that, unlike the plumage, “the peculiarity of the song, which is constant, must have some significance” and then discussed whether the birds were resident in the area (as widely assumed) or were, in fact, migrants. It's perhaps unfortunate that Lynes seems to have collected his birds in early June when they would have been at their most worn and least likely to show their greener and yellower plumage. Had his birds shown the recognised traits of a 'good' ibericus then perhaps greater notice would have been taken of his observations. Even so, it's a little surprising that, although extensive reference was made to the Canarian race of Chiffchaff neither, he nor H F Witherby (whom he consulted) made any reference to the Iberian race of chiffchaff described over 40 years earlier. (Rear-Admiral Lynes, as he became, enjoyed a distinguished naval career retiring in 1919 after which he led several ornithological expeditions in Africa on whose birds he was an authority. Not daunted by a challenge, he wrote an important review of Cisticolas, the ultimate LBJs, for the journal “Ibis” and Lyne's Cisticola Cisticola distincta is one of over a dozen bird species and subspecies named in his honour).
As noted above, even those with access to older books specifically touching upon the birds of Spain will find that neither “Iberian Chiffchaff” nor the odd song of the form gets a mention at all. At one level the continuing omission of this form in the popular literature is not surprising since, even today, Iberian birds are regarded as doubtfully distinguishable on plumage grounds alone but at another level it's a surprise that the distinctive song and the fact that birds in much of Iberia belonged a distinct race went unmentioned for so long. That the popular ornithological literature virtually ignored these interesting birds until relatively recently is still more od a surprise as bred in such an accessible and ornithologically well-known area. Nobody seems to have followed up or to have shown overmuch interest in Captain Lynes' work (with the evident exception of Claude Ticehurst about whom see below). Although both Roger Tory Peterson and Guy Mountfort (illustrator and author respectively of the first European bird field guide) were part of the famous team that explored the Coto Donana neither their field guide nor the latter's book about the expeditions, “Portrait of a Wilderness” (1958), mention that the local chiffchaffs had a unique song. Yet a fellow member of their team (and subsequent reviser of their guide) I. J. Ferguson-Lees, later demonstrated that he clearly knew the bird's distinctive song. Not surprisingly when a bird singing like ibericus was found in London in 1972 the finder, despite being a highly regarded ornithologist, had never even heard of the distinctively different Iberian form and the bird's identity was resolved, not from any printed reference, but on playing a recording of the bird to I. J. Ferguson-Lees. Even so, the record was only accepted almost 30 years later (see - https://britishbirds.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/article_files/V93/V93_N07/V93_N07_P329_332_A005.pdf ).
The level of confusion regarding ibericus in the textbooks and particularly the lack of illustrations is understandable given that even the latest “Collins Bird Guide” recognises that “many are impossible to identify in the field on plumage characters”. This confusion also extended to what the bird should be called scientifically. Although for simplicity and clarity I have called it ibericus, until recently most (but not all) books called it brehmii. Changing a bird's scientific name more than a hundred years after its apparent discovery is not unknown but it remains somewhat unusual. The compelling reasons for the change is explained when one looks a little deeper into the history of Iberian Chiffchaff. In 1871, Eugen Ferdinand von Homeyer (1809–1889) first described what was later assumed to be this form from specimens collected in Iberia in April which he named Phyllopneuste brehmii after the German scientist Alfred Brehm (1829-1884). The family name was later changed to “Phylloscopus” and, given their very close similarity, recognised as being only a subspecies of Chiffchaff. Hence it the birds became known as Phylloscopus colybita brehmii. Just how 'similar' to Common Chiffchaff these specimens were was only fully recognised in 2001 when a scientific paper (see - http://biostor.org/reference/111838) revealed that the birds he described were actually Common Chiffchaffs! As a result, the old name brehmii had to be dropped. This meant that the first accurate formal description of the different taxon found in Iberia was made much later in 1937 by C B Ticehurst in his A Systematic review of the genus Phylloscopus who had called them ibericus. Unlike Von Homeyer, Ticehurst described his birds as being greener above and more yellow below so even without reference to the specimens it is clear that his birds were what we now call ibericus.
Unfortunately, this new insight into chiffchaff speciation came a little late for the 'Atlas de las Aves Reproductoras de Espaňa' (2004) which was based on survey work carried out 1998 – 2002. Understandably, the failed to adequately distinguish between the two species which resulted in an overestimate of the Iberian's range (see map). Hence, at first, it was wrongly thought that pretty much all of the birds breeding in Spain and Portugal, apart from the central and eastern Pyrenees, were Iberian Chiffchaffs.
However, the situation now seems rather more complex with De Juana & Garcia ("The Birds of the Iberian Peninsula") showing Common Chiffchaff as a thinly spread breeding species across much of the northern Meseta south of the Cantabrians with a recently discovered outpost in the Sierra Nevada. Leaving aside the North African population, it now seems that Phylloscopus ibericus is found in four main areas; western Portugal, the Sierra Morena (where it's thinly scattered), the mountains of Cadiz/Malaga and the north-west (i.e. Cantabrian massif of north-west Spain and the western Pyrenees plus just over the border into south-west France). The latter population is sometimes regarded as a race, biscayensis, based on marginal differences but this is a matter of dispute. In addition, the Spanish atlas shows isolated breeding records of 'chiffchaffs' dotted across the peninsula; presumably those towards the north-east are more likely to be 'Common' and those to the west ibericus (although given the recent breeding record of the latter from Wales anything seems possible!). Where the two species meet a small number of “mixed singers”, often regarded as hybrids, may be found. A new Spanish atlas is currently in progress so it will be interesting to discover what it tells us about this previously overlook species.
The relatively recent interest in Iberian Chiffchaff owes much to the rise of DNA-based taxonomy. In the late 1990s, research suggested that the difference in the DNA of some races of Chiffchaff was as great as that between widely recognised 'full' species. This, together with differences in vocalisations, suggested that Iberian Chiffchaffs were in fact 'cryptic' species sufficiently different to be regarded as 'full' species too. Typically, birdwatchers take a lot more interest in birds they can legitimately tick! Exactly how these birds differ (if at all!) from Common Chiffchaff in plumage and structure I shall return to in a later post but the fact is that, as Irby et al discovered, they remain similar enough to be very easily confused. Vocalisations and phenology, rather than plumage, are often the best guide.
Having at last entered the 21st century by being given a Kindle Fire for Christmas, I realise that, in their original form, my notes were not very 'e-book' friendly since the font size and maps are rather too small for use with tablets. Accordingly, I've resized the text from size '10' to '14' which, although still fairly small, makes it far easier to read. Most maps have also been resized too to help clarity. I experimented with an even larger text size but the length of the book started to become unmanageable so I settled for a size 14 font asa compromise. Even so the number pages has risen from 138 to 222 which will increase costs if you intend to print off the information. Should this be a problem, I am happy to supply a version with the original smaller font size. I have also taken the opportunity to update a few minor details (but nothing significant). For a copy use the contacts page here to get in touch with me giving me your email address or do so directly via email@example.com.
People not infrequently ask me whether I fly, drive or, less often, take the train down to SW Spain. Another popular question is which airport is the most convenient one to use if visiting Tarifa for the raptor migration. As a result I've put together a short review of the pros and cons of the alternative ways to get down to Cadiz province and my views regarding the four airports that serve the area.
For obvious reasons flying to Spain and hiring a car on arrival is the most popular option for birders. Driving to the airport and using secure parking may seem like the best option but remember that if you're staying for longer than a week booking a taxi work out to be cheaper. Also if things go wrong and you miss your flight claiming on insurance can be easier if you've used a reputable specialist taxi firm. Such firms also often know sources of congestion and how to avoid them better than the average motorist! My preference is to get to the airport in plenty of time to enjoy a relaxed breakfast/lunch before departure. Depending on where you live going by train can be convenient too although nothing beats being picked up by your own chauffeur after a tiring late afternoon flight home!
Flights take about 2 hrs. 50 mins. but remember you have to get to the airport at least an hour in advance and that landing, taxi-ing, passport control and picking up a hire car can take 45+ minutes (and often longer at larger busier airports). My record is to be in the hire car and on the road within 25 minutes of touchdown at Jerez airport. I always book a hire car through “Do You Spain” (http://www.doyouspain.com/) who not only search out the keenest rates also act as a useful intermediary in the case of any dispute with the car hire company. Some years ago a car I'd hired from 'Firefly' broke down near La Janda and the hire company wanted me to pay the cost of a taxi to pick up a replacement at Seville (then their nearest base). As a regular customer of 'Do You Spain', they stepped in and the demand was dropped (I've heard of other such examples). They also have excellent English speaking staff.
Pros – small airport conveniently sited with good access to the Spanish motorway system
Cons – only one regular direct service from the UK (Ryanair via Stansted); limited facilities.
Aeropuerto de Jerez is one of my preferred airports into when I fly to Spain as it's only 45 minutes from my base in Alcala de los Gazules. The main drawback to flying here is that Ryanair is the only UK operator that uses the airport which can obviously be limiting. There are indirect flights via Madrid and Barcelona but this pushes up both cost and travel times. There is now a railway station serving the airport on the main Cadiz-Jerez-Seville line but services are very infrequent and, inexplicably, only by the Cadiz-Jerez shuttle. Taxis into Jerez tend to be pricey but there's also an irregular bus service. The smallness of the airport means that queues are usually shorter than at busier airports and baggage less often delayed. On the other hand it has fewer facilities (one very indifferent a restaurant, a small shop and a coffee bar landside and a small 'duty free' shop and a couple of places to eat airside). It has half a dozen or so car hire companies (e.g. Alamo, Goldcar, Enterprise, Europcar, Firefly, Goldcar, etc) some of which have booths 'airside' (as well as landside) allowing you to sort out your rental whilst you wait for your luggage. Sixt & Hertz are off-site but well served by a courtesy bus. Once you've picked up your hire car then it's only c3.5 km to the NIV/A4 which has excellent links north (via the E5) and south (via E5/A381) which means its only c90mins mainly along generally lightly used motorway class roads to Tarifa.
There's a wealth of good birding sites within 35 minutes of the airport including Mesas de Asta marsh (15 mins), Laguna de los Tollos (20 mins),Lagunas de Puerto de Santa Maria (25 mins), Laguna de Medina (25 mins) and Bonanza saltpans (35 mins) which means you can be birding not long after landing.
Pros - new airport conveniently close to migration hotspots used by Monarch (Gatwick, Luton & Manchester), Easyjet (Gatwick, Bristol & Manchester) & British Airways (Heathrow)
Cons – crossing the border can cause delays and at times long queues build up. In windy conditions flights may be diverted to Malaga. Not a good place to land for nervous fliers.
Dominated by the 'Rock' and with a runway projecting into the sea, the airport is often listed, unfairly in my view, amongst the world's most frightening. Since my wife is a nervous flier, I've not flown into Gibraltar many times although I have picked up/dropped off people there more often. The newly built airport buildings are a huge improvement on the cramped predecessor. The big drawback is the possibility that high winds (not unusual) will cause a diversion to Malaga. When this happens passengers are bussed back to Gibraltar (or, if departing, to Malaga) which often causes delays of two hours or more (c90 mins journey time plus other delays). Fewer hire car companies are based at Gibraltar (Europecar, Goldcar & Keddy) than other destinations so it may be harder to get a bargain. Even when Spanish authorities aren't being 'difficult', there may be long queues for cars leaving and entering Gibraltar (esp. at peak times). In the past at least some hire companies were based just over the border in La Linea and, since people on foot are subjected to delays much less often, walking across the border (c10 mins) to pick up your car could actually be quicker. Once you've picked up your hire car then after negotiating the single carriageway suburban roads of La Linea for c10 mins takes you to a dual carriageway (CA 34) and a few minutes later onto the coastal motorway (A7). Buses run from La Linea to Malaga, Algeciras and Cadiz which are all linked to the Spanish rail network. If you're unable to drive then you can access Tarifa via Algeciras bus station
Gibraltar itself is a well known raptor watching site although many of the small birds taken for granted on the Spanish side are very scarce indeed (e.g. Crested/Thekla Lark and wetland species). If you intend to do most of your birding in Gibraltar then it's not worth hiring a car since it can be very congested and buses/taxis/cable car will get you to most places. Apart from the Rock itself, the nearest birding sites include Palmones estuary (25 mins), Punta Secreta (35 mins), Castellar de la Frontera (35 mins), Marchinella (30 mins), Los Alcornocales (20-30 mins) and La Janda (1 hr). Tarifa is about 45 minutes from La Linea.
Pros – a medium sized with better facilites than Jerez airport conveniently sited with good access to the Spanish motorway system
Cons – more distant from main birding sites along the straits; over 2 hrs to Tarifa (2 20)
Despite considerably further from my base in Alcala de los Gazules than Aeropuerto de Jerez (90 mins vs 45), on balance, Aeropuerto San Pablo (Seville) is my preferred airport to fly into. It is served by EasyJet & Ryanair via Stansted & Gatwick. The airport itself is large enough to have decent facilities but not too large to be very crowded and busy. It is well positioned on the A4 Cordoba road so is convenient if you plan to look for Spanish Lynx in Andujar. Unfortunately, to reach the E5 which takes you south to Cadiz province you need to skirt Seville on a ring road that can be very busy and, at peak times, congested. Hopefully, once the SE 40 (to the east of the airport off the A4) connects to the N IV near Dos Hermanos the route south will be far less congested and a couple of minutes quicker. (This link has been long delayed but the earthworks for the last 7 km are now in situ). Tolls on the motorway are c8€ (one way). A regular bus service runs from the airport to the railway and bus stations in Seville which have links to most of the larger cities.
The primary reason I like flying into Seville is that, if your flight arrives fairly early in the day, it makes a detour via Osuna feasible (1 hr) on your route south. This is the best site in the area for Great Bustard and Black-bellied Sandgrouse (absent further south) and one of the best for Roller and Little Bustard. There are no good birding sites near the airport but thanks to the motorway connection if heading south a minor detours off route takes you to Laguna de Mejorada (30 mins) for Rufous Bushchat and Laguna de Tollos (70 mins) whilst a longer detour off your route takes you to the famous wetland site Brazo del Este (45 mins)
Pros – a large modern airport with excellent facilities served by all the major UK airlines with direct flights from more than a dozen UK airports and elsewhere in Europe
Cons – at peak periods there can be long queues at passport control, for hire cars, etc. Most birding sites a longish drive (c1hr 50 to Tarifa).
Being served by so many carriers (e.g. EasyJet Monarch, Ryanair, British Airways, etc) from so many regional airports (Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Doncaster, Edinburgh Gatwick, Leeds, Liverpool, Luton, Manchester Newcastle, Southampton & Stansted), Malaga is the most convenient choice for many travellers despite being almost two hours from Tarifa and other prime sites. Another downside is that queues at passport control and for hire cars (esp. in peak periods) can be long and bargain flights seem harder to come by off-season when smaller airports are struggling for trade. All the major hire car companies (and several minor ones) operate out of Malaga but be warned that some of the lesser well known ones have inconvenient restrictions on car use (e.g. returning the car to them if you do in excess of acertain milage for a replacement vehicle). Being close to the toll road (AP7) means you can soon be on your way towards Tarifa and the Straits. This road is much less congested (apart from around the airport and a couple other sections) and faster than the notoriously busy (and dangerous) coastal road the A7/N 340 so the tolls (10€ one way) are money well spent. Malaga has excellent bus and rail connections to the rest of Spain.
Although most main birding sites are rather distant (with Fuente de Piedra a 50 mins drive away being one of the nearest), Malaga airport has a little gem, the Guadalhorce reserve, on its doorstep as it's less than ten minutes by car. However, the high incidence of thefts from cars makes this a risky place to visit with a car full of holiday luggage. Parking away from the immediate vicinity of the reserve near centres of activity (e.g. the school, restaurants, etc.) may help. En route (after c1hr 20 mins) you pass close to the Sierra de Utrera (Manliva) so a short detour here can be worthwhile for species difficult to see around Tarifa (e.g. Bonelli's Eagle & Black Wheatear).
Taking the train to southern Spain may be more environmentally friendly but is not a good option if time is limited as you'll need at least one stopover en route (two if you want a leisurely journey). Up front costs are also higher even before you add the expense of food and overnight stays. However if, like me, you enjoy travelling by train (always more enjoyable than flying) then it's worth doing the journey at least once. For details see the excellent Man in Seat 61 website - http://www.seat61.com/Spain.htm#London-to-Malaga-and-Seville It's a great, and very relaxed, way to get a feel for the Spanish countryside. You'll see fewer birds than when you drive but a lot more than if you fly! Although when we did the journey via Valencia and Granada I had my first ever Black-bellied Sandgrouse from the train near Osuna.
If doing the whole journey by train is a bit too much, then flying into Madrid and then taking the train south can be an attractive option. The Metro between Madrid airport and Madrid Atocha railway station takes about 35 minutes (one change). An excellent, modern fast train whisks you to Seville in 2½ hours (with Jerez another 1 hr 20 mins and Cadiz a further 20 minutes again). Fares can be surprisingly reasonable so if you get a cheap flight to Madrid it needn't be too expensive overall. I've done it once carefully scheduling for an early arrival in Madrid, a leisurely lunch at Atocha station and arrival in Seville in the late afternoon. Unfortunately, this was in summer 2009 when ETA bombings in Majorca caused huge security delays so we arrived more than two hours late but, thanks to a lunatic drive in a taxi, we got across Madrid in a record 20 minutes catching the train with minutes to spare. Hence I spent most of the journey south recovering from lugging two heavy cases through the airport!
By Car (via Channel ports or Santander/Bilbao)
I've never attempted to drive to Spain from the UK but then I'm not overfond of driving (and particularly not with the steering wheel on the 'wrong' side of the car!). Note too that, unless you intend to stay in Spain for an extended period, then flying and hiring a car is probably the cheaper option. It's about 23 hours driving time (all but two hours on motorways) from Calais to Tarifa which should cost c124€ in tolls and 220-300€ in fuel (2016 figures). The AA recommend you drive no more than 8 hours a day and take a break every three hours but remember driving on the 'wrong side' of the road can often be more tiring. Hence although some drivers do the drive in two days (with a single overnight stop), it's safer and more sensible (even with several drivers) to take at least three days with two or more overnight stops. Unless you intend to stay in Spain for an extended period then flying and hiring a car is probably cheaper.
A popular alternative is to take the car ferry to northern Spain. Brittany Ferries operate between Portsmouth (Santander & Bilbao) and Plymouth (Santander only) and take 20-24 hours. This cuts the driving time by about half (c12 hrs with c11 hrs on motorways) and the costs (2016) to about 28€ in tolls and 100-150€ in fuel (although the journey from Santander is marginally shorter and less expensive in tolls). You also have the chance of seawatching or whale watching en route. I know a few drivers who've done the drive across Spain in one go but given the comments above (and bearing in mind that few get a decent rest on a ferry) it's far safer (and more pleasant) to break the journey and stay overnight at least once. The ferry isn't cheap and the fare structure varies by season and size of car (see http://www.brittany-ferries.co.uk/). However, once you factor in the cost of a Channel crossing, savings in fuel and tolls and the need for fewer overnight stops then the price is competitive.
Although my approach has always been "do-it-yourself", there's no doubt that, for those unsure of their abilities, short on time or just wanting it all on a plate, using a local guide is a very good option. Not only do they offer expert help but they also have their 'finger on the pulse' and are up to speed on what's happening in a way that my notes can never hope to rival. I am sometimes asked whether I take people out for the day to which my usual answer is a) if I'm around then people are always welcome to tag along with me but b) if they want a professional guide then there are a number available that can do a much better job than an episodic visitor like me! But which guides? This is not an easy question to answer since I'm acutely aware that there are a number operating in the area that I've not met (or have done so only fairly briefly) or that I know very little about. So the list below only includes those with whom I've either spent a substantial time with (usually at least a day in the field) or that come very highly recommended by friends who have used their services. I wiII will add more recommended companies if or when I've managed to spend time with them or have had good independent feedback from friends. Several well known birding tour companies based outside Andalucia or Spain regularly run tours to the area (often employing the guides noted below) but are too many to list on full here.
At this point I should note that, unfortunately, Stephen Daly (Andalucian Guides) no longer lives in the area so is unavailable for daytrips although he still leads longer trips to the area for various tour companies. Despite this, his blog "Never Mind the Finnsticks" (http://andalucianguides.blogspot.co.uk/) continues to be very interesting reading and often has items about Spain and its birds. If your budget doesn't stretch to employing one of the guides listed (although not doing so may turn out to be a false economy!) then check whether the Andalucia Bird Society (andaluciabirdsociety.org/) is running a field trip when you're in the area. Several of the guides listed are actively involved in the society.
Inglorious Bustards (www.ingloriousbustards.com) are the newcomers on the block having recently been established by Simon Tonkin & Niki Williamson. Simon & Niki have a wealth of experience having worked for the RSPB for a number of years but what makes them stand out is that they are resident guides at Huerte Grande (see under accommodation). Huerte Grande is not only a wonderful site but the management have been keen supporters of birdwatching in the area (having organised & hosted several bird fairs). Thanks to this association Simon & Nikki can set up complete packages or just day trips based on this fantastic eco-lodge. Simon and Niki are also great supporters of the Salarte project (see www.salarte.org/ & my previous blog entry) and skilled photographers. Like other guides here, they also run trips to Morocco. Do check out their amusingly named & illustrated website.
Spanish Nature (see www.spanishnature.com). was co-founded by my good friend Peter Jones who is based near Ronda in Malaga Province. Peter is the expert's expert having been involved in a great many environmental projects and has had several works published over the years. He is also a founder of the Andalucia Bird Society. However, he wears his learning lightly thanks to his enthusiasm and passion for birds. None of this, though, is what comes first to mind since spending time with Peter is always huge fun thanks to his great sense of humour. He is also one of nicest, kindest people I know whose only flaw is to support West Ham (which may well acount for his sense of humour!). Peter can also arrange access to an excellent bird photography hide at Algaba de Ronda. He is well supported by a team of guides and is an associate member of Andalucia Wildlife Guides (www.andaluciawildlifeguides.com/) Spanish Nature organises breaks in Serrania de Ronda, Osuna, Strait of Gibraltar, Doñana and elsewhere in Andalucia plus Morocco.
'Birding the Strait' - (birdingthestrait.com) comes highly recommended by Stephen Daly and little wonder since the team includes two of the foremost birders in the area, both of whom are world class birders and fluent English speakers. Javi Elorriaga is has established a reputation for being THE man to ask about two much sought after species in the region; cirtensis Long-legged Buzzard and Ruppell's Vulture since he has written definitive papers on both. Javi has also contributed articles for the ABS magazine and helped with organising their field trips. Yeray is similarly talented although as a partner in Whitehawk Birding (http://whitehawkbirding.com) he also leads trips to South American and elsewhere. Both are talented photographers. As the name suggests Birding the Strait specialise in tours in the straits (both Spain and Morocco) and can organise seawatching from the otherwise closed Isla de las Palomas at the southernmost tip of Iberia. See also Tarifa Bird Tours http://tarifabirdingtours.com/ & https://www.facebook.com/javi.elorriaga). Despite their stellar talents, they're both great company and patient tutors.
Andalusian Birding Holidays (http://andalusianbirdingholidays.com/en/) - I count it a very lucky day when I bumped into LuisMi Garrido Padillo on the shores of Embalse de Barbate near Alcala de los Gazules where he was working on the successful project to re-introduce Osprey to the area. Since then he has become a good personal friend so I'm biased but he's one of the most affable and amusing companions with whom you could wish to spend a day in the field. A native of the province, LuisMi speaks good English and his company specialises in walking local senderos, (seneros) birdwatching and, particularly, bird photography (specially provided hides are available). He is also an expert on Chameleons. (NB - as I write this blog LuisMi's link does not seem to be working so send me a message if you want to contact him)
Aviantours - (http://www.aviantours.net/) Andrew Fortuna who runs Aviantours is based in Gibraltar and offers birdwatching tours, nature walks in Gibraltar, Spain & Morocco. His particular specialism is bird photography (inc.digiscoping) and his photography work-shops come highly recommended. We've regularly corresponded for some years but kept missing one another in the field. Hence I was delighted to finally catch up with him at the UK Bird Fair in 2016 where he helped to man the Gibraltar stand.
Birdaytrip Tours – see www.birdaytrip.es Luis Alberto Rodriguez is a keen supporter of the Andalucia Bird Society for whom he often leads walks in his 'patch' (which includes well known sites like the. Guadalhorce & Montes de Malaga). I've been delighted to meet him of several ABS jaunts and am pleased to count him as a friend. Luis Alberto is based in Malaga area so makes an ideal guide if you're visiting the Costa del Sol. However, his trips are not limited to that area and he regularly visits the Osuna area and the straits. Luis Alberto speaks good English, knows the area well and has gained an enviably high reputation as a guide to the area amongst ex-pat birdwatchers and visitors alike.
As a matter of policy, I make my notes free to all as my principal motivation has been to publicise just what a fantastic area Cadiz province is for birding. It's so good I'd simply feel guilty if I kept the 'secret' to myself! Previously, I have suggested that those who feel inclined make a donation to a charity of their choice. Although I remain happy for people to donate to charities of their choice, my preferred option is the Salarte project see www.salarte.org. You can read further about this excellent initiative at https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/156f0a76ed9c2856?projector=1. It's a small charity but one which 'punches above its weight' and needs all the funds it can get. So if you do use my notes or quarry any useful information from my meanderings here, please consider supporting this unique project whose aims combine both my love of birds, social history and the people of Cadiz province.
To gain some idea about this initiative please look at the slides below (the second of which gives details of the project's bank account to which donations may be made). Further details can be found via the links above.
It sometimes seems like female/juvenile Lesser Kestrels and Common Kestrels were "created"* with no other purpose than test our identification skills but at least adult males are, on a decent view, not too difficult to distinguish from one another. What fewer people seem to be aware of is the tricky identification pitfall presented by first summer males.
* Actually that may not be too far from the truth as some scientists believe that Lesser Kestrel, which isn't as close a relation of Common Kestrel as its appearance suggests, has evolved to mimic Common Kestrel and even more so Rock Kestrel, an African species found where Lessers winter, which are both larger and more aggressive thus affording the smaller species' some measure of protection!
After watching adult males for a while it becomes distinctly less difficult to pick them out thanks to their plain bluish-grey hoods, lack of dark moustache, whitish underwings and particularly their grey upper wing panel. Sometimes, though, these features can prove to be 'false friends' since they lull you into a false sense of security and mean you could be missing first summer males. These birds not only fail to show most of the clear cut identification features of an adult male but, worse, can mimic to some degree the features associated with a male Common Kestrel.
Fortunately, though, most young males (of both species) have a distinctive tail which should alert you to the fact that you're dealing with a potentially difficult identification. Whilst all juveniles start off with a barred brown and black tail (like a female) by the time the young males return in the spring, the central feathers are grey and black tipped (like an adult's) and the outer feathers a very worn and bleached brown and black. This feature should warn you that you're looking at a tricky first summer birds (although later in the season they may have a fully adult tail). The problem is that such birds entirely lack an adult male's tell-tale grey band on the upperwing so that if you're relying on this feature you can be misled. If you then check the bird's identity by looking for the male's plain bluish-grey “clean shaven' head then you can still be thrown. Males at this age not only may have their powder blue-grey heads sullied with brown giving them more the colour of Common at a distance. Not only that but they can also show a Common's dark moustache and paler cheeks! This is compounded by their tending to have more dark makings on the chest and underwing than adult males. Put all of these together and it's easy to see why, at a glance, you might identify one as a Common Kestrel.
So how can you tell them apart?
Happily, when perched, first summer has the Lesser's typical dumpier, more round headed shape with wings that approach the tip of the tail (see Fig 1). At times this can look obvious but at other times it's not so easy to detect particularly if you're unfamiliar with the species. Then there's also the distinct wing formulae with Lesser having a far longer outermost primary (P10) although that's best seen in photos of flying birds (see Fig 2)
Leaving aside structure, then the best indicator is that the birds have at least moulted their back (i.e. mantle) which are plain and unmarked. Also although streaked below the markings are still fewer than on a Common Kestrels and more round in shape whist the ground colour tends to be warmer. Similarly the underwing, although more marked than most adult males, are still noticeably paler and whitish (particularly the 'hand').Other features to look for on perched birds are the famous white claws and Lesser's more dumpy appearance and wings that reach further towards the tail tip. In photo of flying birds, of course, the distinctive difference in wing formulae can be seen.
So if we may be missing the odd first summer male, how else are we missing them? Well, many people still fail to appreciate that some Lesser Kestrels don't migrate but remain in Spain during the winter months. If you're not looking for something, they're easier to miss! As a general rule most Lesser Kestrels leave southern Spain in August - September (with a peak at the end of the latter month) with a few lingering into October. Although in spring most appear to arrive in the second half of March, in Alcala de Los Gazules I've had evening flocks 60-70 or more by mid-February and friends report influxes as early as January. Although the picture is muddied by late departures and early arrivals, some birds don't seem to leave at all. Exactly how many remain remains a matter of debate.
The Spanish winter bird atlas shows concentrations of wintering birds along the Guadalquivir particularly in its lower reaches, east of Seville and around Cordoba plus several other areas. Both my own experience and that reported in the atlas suggests that birds are generally seen when they return every night to a traditional colony site or when they leave every morning. The atlas also quotes a study (Negro, Riva & Bustamante: Patterns of winter distribution and abundance of Lesser Kestrels in Spain. Journal of Raptor Research, 1991: 25: 30-35) that discovered that wintering birds were found in 66% of the colonies checked and that the authors concluded that in Andalucia 19% of the species is sedentary, a surprisingly high figure. Interestingly, although the atlas doesn't show Alcala de los Gazules as a wintering site in my limited experience a few birds do actually remain around the village in winter albeit no more than a than a dozen or so. Most of the birds I've seen have been adult males but in rather smaller numbers than reported by Negro et al., being between 5-10% of the numbers I see in the breeding season. However, from this I suspect that wintering birds are a little more widespread than the atlas shows. Even if the estimate that 19% stay is a little high, my much lower 'guestimate' of 5 - 10% suggests that well over 1,000 birds might be there to be found!
So if you're in Andalucia in winter remember that Lesser Kestrels return earlier than you might think and don't give up on seeing Lesser Kestrel even in mid-winter. So double check those kestrels you see out hunting in November-January and try to visit a lowland village with a thriving summer population just before dusk.
This is a much shortened and amended version of a short article on Lesser Kestrels due to be published in the magazine of the Andalucian Bird Society's quarterly magazine in autumn 2016 (see - www.andaluciabirdsociety.org/)
What's in a name? Well, quite a lot actually! Manuel Palomero, who kindly alerted me the plans for these nine lagunas by sharing an article (see below) on Facebook, reminds me that the tag 'Lagunas de Lantejuela' is something of a misnomer. Despite the 'official name' being 'Complejo Endorreico de Lantejuela' and the one that appears in various documents and on maps, only one of the lagunas (Gobierno) is actually within the municipality of Lantejuela! Whilst it's true that all of the lagunas are strung out to the east of that village, none of the remaining eight lagunas are within that municipality; six are part of Osuna, one in Ecija and one in El Rubio. Logically, they could equally well (or even better) be called the 'Lagunas de Osuna' and some refer to the area as part of the 'Osuna Triangle'. However, since this is how they are widely known I'll refer to them by their usual title whilst flagging up this administrative complication (a more 'neutral' name for the area would be welcome!). It obviously makes sense to treat the area as one unit, so this split responsibility must complicate things and that's even before you consider competing local interests (military, transport, farming, hydrology, etc). So it's a delicate waters for a foreigner, and one with lousy Spanish at that, to dip his toe and, to mix metaphors, I apologise in advance for treading on anyone else's!
'According to a recently published article* a hundred tourists visit the Lagunas de Lantejuela a month which may seem a lot until you realise that it's only just over three a day. Moves to improve the facilities have been in progress for some time although the evidence on the ground, beyond a few notice boards, is somewhat thin. According to Juan Lora, the Mayor of Lantejuela, the Ministry of Environment is working on a draft plan involving a 'six-year action plan' involving research, conservation and tourism which is to be presented on 7th September. It is certainly very encouraging that this niche market has been recognised and that the authorities are looking at how birdwatchers and others can be encouraged to visit this much neglected area. All those involved in this project deserve commendation and praise. *See http://www.andaluciacentro.com/sevilla/osuna/lantejuela/6355/la-junta-trabaja-contra-reloj-para-tener-el-proyecto-de-la-reserva-de-lantejuela-el-7-de-septiembre)
One proposal is the expand the observatory (presumably at Laguna del Gobierno) and constructing more hides at the edge of lagoons (although it's not clear which ones). There are also plans to improve access (on foot and by cycle) to the restored Laguna de Ruiz Sánchez. This huge shallow lagoon is one of the largest in Andalucia (vying with Laguna de Tollos in Cadiz province for the second place after Laguna de Fuente de Piedra). It has the potential, if fully realised, to be one of the top birding destinations in the area.
As already noted this emphasis on 'eco-tourism' is to be welcomed but, whilst this is undoubtedly good news, previous experience inclines me to caution. Despite the best intentions, all too often, the reality has been unmanned and underused facilities which have often been designed with a bureaucrat's understanding of the needs of birding tourists. Now I rather doubt anyone with the slightest influence in this matter will ever look at this blog but in case they do so here are a few suggestions and comments (although as I've not been there for over 18 months some issues may now have been tackled).
a) Laguna del Gobierno is particularly important as, being fed by a water plant, it's one of the few lakes in the area that never dries up. Hence it's already a great site and one with paths and hides but it is seemingly always locked up like Fort Knox without any suggestions or information about how a visiting eco-tourist can actually visit the place. At the moment visitors are obliged to peer round the permanently locked hide through the roadside bushes and across the reeds to see the birds. If they're lucky and there's access to the flat roof of a large building (the 'observatory'?) just inside the outer gates. This gives a good, if distant, view across the reserve but this can be more frustrating than helpful since it allows the would-be visitor to more fully understand what it is they're missing!. It seems that the focus here is more on educating local children which, of course is great, but there's little point in promoting birdwatching/eco-tourism if you keep reserves locked up, fail to advertise when they're open or allow entry only for pre-booked groups.
b) Ornithological Route – it wasn't clear to me if this is supposed to be walked or driven but when I drove it I found it poorly signposted and sections in poor repair. A pity as it's a nice route.
c) Laguna de Ballestera – the track leading to the back of the reserve is terrific and much appreciated. Just what is needed. Good to find the signposting off the nearby road has been improved although when I visited the few ancient signs telling visitors it was a "military zone" were a little worrying! A hide here like the one at Campillos (see below) would be wonderful. Signs from here to Laguna de Pedro Lopez could be better as after a few hundred metres you reach a T-junction with no indication which way to go. Still this is a great start and something that can be developed with advantage.
d) Laguna de la Turquillas – please provide somewhere safe off road to park! A path or boardwalk and a raised hide would be good too. Some sources seem to suggest there's a path from here to Lagunas de Calderon – if so it needs way marking.
e) Lagunas de Calderon – it's very frustrating to see a large car park, benches and even a path here all securely locked up behind a large white gate. It's very worrying when, having parked inside the gates on seeing them open, you discover as you leave that the gate has a daunting sign reading 'Zona Militar -Prohibido el Passo'! There's no information board either which could indicate whether the track and car park are ever open to the public or where you can make enquires. This is a shame as with relatively little, inexpensive work this could site could be transformed. Once again it's a site that begs for the "Campillos treatment". Currently it's impossible to safely park off the main road so it would be wonderful if a permanently open viewpoint could be established affording views across both lakes.
f) Laguna de Ruiz Sánchez – huge credit is due to those involved for restoring this laguna. Whenever I've passed by that way it's been alive with birds. It's very good to hear that a 17 km greenway is planned here. Visiting birdwatchers would also appreciate a few signs and somewhere to park and, of course, some of those hides!
g) Hides are great but they are expensive and you can build more screens for the same price – birders are hardy types and can cope with a little rain, besides if you provide car parks they can shelter in their cars! Also if man power is a problem and they have to be locked, then they're not much use. Birdwatchers don't stick to office hours! In contrast, screens are always open to visitors. A tremendous example of a well screened hide which is open to the can be found at Laguna Dulce Campillos, Malaga.
It'll be interesting to see how this site develops as it's certainly got great potential. It's never going to be another Fuente de Piedra but being located near one of the best areas for steppe birds in Seville Province (Osuna) it has a lot going for it. Certainly, those arriving via Seville or Jerez airport to see the raptor migration across the Straits might be tempted to divert to this attractive site (particularly in spring) if it was better known. Since English is in many ways the 'lingua franca' of birdwatching some signs, pamphlets or information on the web in that language would be very helpful indeed. As I wrote this I was acutely aware of my lack of knowledge about the local situation and I do not mean to disparage the great efforts of those working locally but I hope that the view of an extranjero birdwatcher who loves and wishes to promote birding in Spain may prove usefully provocative!
Britain's Birds by Hume, Still, Swash Harrop & Tipling Publisher - WILDGuides ISBN 978-0-691-15889-1 £19.95 (widely discounted) c600 species 3,200 photos 560 pages
As this is a blog about the birds of Cadiz province it may reasonably be asked whether a review of a book about Britain's birds is a suitable subject. Rather surprisingly this book only omits about twenty-five species found in Spain but not in the UK (e.g sandgrouse, various raptors, Azure-winged Magpie, etc). Even those “Spanish/Mediterranean” birds recorded in Britain only as rarities (e.g. Little Bustard, Spanish Sparrow, etc) get surprisingly full treatment (for an example of this see the final photo at the end of this review). Hence for many groups (particularly perhaps seabirds, waders, ducks, skuas and gulls) this book remains a very valuable ID guide when in Iberia even if it has no information on occurrence or distribution in Spain. Well, that's the excuse over and done with, the real reason is that I love writing about good generously illustrated bird books!
Over the last few decades, an unwritten rule seems to have developed that the more 'serious' the field or identification guide, the greater the area it attempts to cover and the more likely it is to be illustrated by good quality artwork rather than photographs. So the announcement of a new photo-guide exclusively on British birds hardly raised expectations given the plethora of similar guides, generally of an indifferent quality, that have been published over the years. Yet both the name of the publisher, WildGuides, and the team involved hinted that something more revolutionary might be on the way. Yet I doubt that many will have anticipated just how revolutionary and cutting edge a book was about to be published. It should be noted that the resulting book is no field guide but rather a somewhat bulky small handbook (21.5 cm tall x 16cm wide x 3.5cms thick). Irritatingly, had it been just 2 cm narrower it would have just slipped into a 'standard' pocket of a Barbour-type jacket (although the top may have peeked out and, at just under 1200g, it would have strained the stitching). Accordingly, it's a book for a small rucksack or to be left in the glove-box.
The thing that most struck me about the book when I flicked through it, apart from the bulk, is how superbly thought through and carefully designed it has been. The front book flap has a useful aide memoire for the maps and codes used in the text and the rear flap a good short index. Flicking past the commendably short introduction takes you to a six-page “photo-index” to the various types of birds that will be a boon to the less expert. Another huge advantage is that the increasingly less than functional taxonomic order has been abandoned for an intuitive order that is not only easier to negotiate but also makes a comparison with similar species more straight forward. Before any purists have an attack of the vapours, it should be noted that the bird list in the back (neatly also serving as a guide to protected status) is in taxonomic order. This is a sensible compromise that all field guides should follow.
Once past those necessary but less exciting explanatory pages you arrive at the meat of the book; the species accounts. Birds are marshalled into thirty groups (e.g. Wildfowl, Seabirds, Waders, Aerial Feeders) each one of which has an instructive introduction. These vary from one to four pages (apart from the bustards which are reduced to a short paragraph) and outline vital factors such as ageing, moult and so on. All of the commoner 'core' species have at least a single full page illustrating and describing all the expected plumages and variations. Some highly variable species (e.g. Iceland Gull & Snow Bunting) or a group of similar birds (e.g. Redpoll) have two or three pages. Where flight identification is important (e.g. ducks & raptors) there are excellent comparative plates. Remarkably, the skuas are covered in no less than nine pages and an astonishing c60 images (c10 more images than in the Collins Bird Guide although the latter has a far more detailed text) - see below. All of these are masterly done. Less common species (e.g Barred Warbler) are generally allotted half a page or sometimes less (e.g. rare 'chats' and warblers are three or four to a page and American landbirds squeezed into six to a page).
One of the things that mark this guide out as something special is the comprehensive nature of the species depicted and the exhaustive number of races and plumage variations illustrated. I know of no other book that depicts all of the UK's races of Wren. Remarkably, it covers all UK and Irish species recorded up until March 2016. All plumages one is likely to see in the UK are covered (although adult male Pallid Harrier and juvenile Corn Bunting are missing). As indicated above this means species are depicted by an impressive number of images (few have less than four and many a dozen or so with gulls, terns, and raptors being particularly generously treated). A quick calculation suggested an average of c8.5 photos per species which is impressive particularly as a direct comparison with the artiost-illustrated Collins Bird Guide (Svensson et al, not to be confused with Collins BTO Guide to British Birds) showed a lower average (c7.5). Amongst photographic guides only Crossley's guides (see crossleybooks.com/) have a similarly generous number of photos. Another big plus is that the images are larger than you might expect (the main ones being more than twice the size of those found in most field guides). The overall quality of the photographs is high which is, perhaps, only what one should expect these days. What is most impressive, although it may not be so obvious, is the great technical achievement of seamlessly incorporating multiple images into a convincing single plate. Equally impressive is how similar species are shown in similar poses despite multiple images. Photos also seem to have been selected so that on every plate the light source is consistent, helping the sense of unity and conformity giving the impression that somehow all the images were taken at the same time! Sourcing and matching these must have been hugely time-consuming. Until the advent and increasing popularity of digital photography, it's doubtful that a book like this could have been produced. All this technical wizardry has produced one of the very few photographic guides that can bear comparison with one using good artwork (see sample plates below).
The descriptive text is very condensed, sometimes a little too telegrammatic, although it is helped by the judicious use of bold text, occasional use of coloured fonts and, where needed, annotations next to the photographic images. At times I felt that this brevity fell a little short and was less successful in painting a word picture' of the species than the descriptions in the Collins Bird Guide. However, any short comings were often handsomely made up for by additional comparative plates (e.g. Yellow-legged & Caspian Gull). This refreshingly flexible approach is also reflected by the frequent presentation of 'key features' on tricky identification groups in tabular form. Treatment of vocalisations can be a little sketchy at times (although more than adequate for the most part). However, Rob Hume deserves huge credit for going back to basics and describing all vocalisations afresh rather than depending on well worn and familiar renditions. Notes on habitat are even more limited. Rather surprisingly there isn't a diagram showing bird topography strategically placed inside the back cover or in the introduction. Instead, there are a number of 'feather maps' within the introductions to the various groups of birds. In some ways this makes a lot of sense but I think a generic version placed where it could easily be found would have been useful as it would have come readily to hand.
That I have repeatedly compared this book to the all-conquering Collins Bird Guide is significant and that it comes through the comparison not only relatively unscathed but with it's status as a high-quality guide enhanced is remarkable. In this context, it's a huge disappointment to find such a technically brilliant book that has been so carefully designed and thought through has stumbled so badly when it comes to its maps. My local knowledge of Kent's birdlife alerted me to this problem and comparing the distribution maps to those in the recent BTO “Bird Atlas” or their recent Collins BTO Guide to British Birds (an otherwise inferior book) confirms it: too many maps have errors. The comparison with the BTO Guide is an interesting one. Both are new photographic guides which make similar claims to show all plumages and primarily aspire to be ID guides. The BTO guide, though, is in two volumes (common and rarer birds) which are individually eminently pocketable although I doubt anyone will take both into the field. The BTO book has over 30 pages of introduction, Britain's Birds, less than ten. The ID descriptions in the first are in 'proper' sentences without any highlighting of key features and are supplemented by rather fewer annotations on the plates. In contrast, the text in Britain's Birds reads more like a telegram but, thanks to careful use of highlighting, gets the point over much more effectively and is much better supported by annotations and, where needed, the use of tabulated information. Thanks to Britain's Birds greater size and bulk, it also has roughly twice as many images and of a larger size. Despite being one of the better photoguides, the BTO guide is very conventional and has not been so well designed, small size apart, with functionality in mind (note that birds are in taxonomic order). However, it is much superior in one important respect; the maps. Despite being significantly smaller than those in Britain's Birds, the maps in the BTO guide are more accurate and also more effective in showing not only the breeding/winter distribution but also relative frequency in those seasons (the photo here doesn't do it justice). In contrast, the maps in Britain's Birds are more generalised and, more importantly, too often simply wrong (check Marsh Harrier and Corn Bunting for example). In addition the BTO guide has a neat 'calendar wheel' showing seasonal abundance which the rival guide could usefully have employed (and arguably could include song/breeding periods with a little ingenuity). However, like most small maps those in neither guide cope well with showing small or isolated populations.
Despite the growing landslide of popular guides on birds, all claiming to be 'the last word', it's very unusual to find one that largely matches, let alone often exceeds, the promise of its publicity. Lars Jonsson's Birds of Europe was one such, the Collins Guide was another and Peter Hayman's unfairly neglected Birdwatcher's Pocket Guide to Britain and Europe a third but until now I would have struggled to think of a fourth candidate to rank alongside them. It may be a little ironic that a book clearly designed to be used in the field is arguably too large to be practical but the overall quality is so outstanding this hardly seems to matter. Despite minor caveats (asee also below), this book effortlessly slips into the same category. It raises the art of the photoguide to a new level. It is no mere regurgitation of familiar information or approaches but a fresh revolutionary look at how to present information on the identification of birds. Few books manage the difficult trick of being equally useful to the beginner (cf the photo index) and the more expert (cf treatment of scoters and subspecies) but this is certainly one. The biggest annoyance, though, is to be denied this level of utility and depth of information when travelling abroad. A sister guide shorn of the most extreme rarities to make room for 'European only' species would be a welcome addition to any bookshelf. Even so, no British birder should be without it and sensible birders across the Channel, including those in Spain, will want a copy too.
STOP PRESS - talking to the publisher at the UK Bird Fair it seems that, as hoped, a European version is 'in the pipeline' although no details are available. Unfortunately, it also seems that there are more factual mistakes in the book than just the maps. Sharper eyes than mine have noticed, for example, that Audouin's Gull juvenile (p139) is probably juv Yellow-legged Gull, that the head of a Juv. Little Ringed Plover (p182) is actually a Ringed Plover, the first winter "Common" Sandpiper is a Spotted, the first winter Richard's Pipit (p360) is a Tawny Pipit and the juvenile Serin (p485) is a juvenile Citril Finch. Some on social media claim about 50-60 wrongly captioned birds (mainly the wrong plumage/sex rather than the wrong species). There's even been talk that the publisher should recall the book but I think this a rather precious over-reaction which fails to recognise the book's many strengths. Yes, it's disappointing that any errors have slipped through but with 3,000+ photos this has to be seen in proportion and the book remains both highly functional and very useful. As the publisher has been made aware of these problems, new editions (inc. the promised European version) should be even better.
It's been rightly observed that whereas birders look up, herpetologists look down which probably explains why I've seen so few reptiles and amphibians in Cadiz Province. Such ignorance may be understandable in a birdwatcher but it's still inexcusable and even more so in someone who, as an editor of the Crossbill nature guides, ought to know better. Hence when my friend Richard Hills, whose son Lawrie is an expert herpetologist, wanted to visit our house in Alcala de los Gazules with his son I jumped at the chance to learn more about the reptiles of the area. This proved a wise decision as Lawrie's feedback has given me a much better grasp of the topic – something that will prove useful as I edit the forthcoming new two volume Crossbill Guide to Andalucia. This note isn't meant to be an exhaustive review (and not all potential species are mentioned) but I hope it will give visitors a firmer idea of what it's possible to see in the area over a week or two.
It was no surprise nor a matter of envy that Lawrie found Common Toad (Bufo bufo) in the Molinos valley. However, I'm less sanguine about the fact that he also found the rather handsome Southern Marbled Newt (Triturus pygmaeus) in Alcala itself! (36.520532-5.652304). En route through Spain he also found the highly aquatic Iberian Sharp-ribbed Newt (Pleurodeles waltl) which is also found in the province. This declining species has a row of turbercles (see photo) along its flanks through which poisoned ribs can project as a defence against predators. Fortunately the poison is harmless to humans. Of the frog tribe I've seen what I took to be Iberian Parsley Frog (Pelodytes iberius) but Stripeless Tree Frog (Hyla meridonalis) eludes me although I've managed to hear them several times. A number of other amphibians occur but I've not recorded any of them.
Lawrie's first discovery on his visit – a juvenile Horseshoe-whip snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis) - was also the most embarrassing for me since he spotted it, a species I've not seen, basking on a stone wall only fifty yards from our house!
Rubbing salt into the wound he not only used an old hat of mine I'd left in the house to catch it but went on to discover three more at a regular haunt of mine, La Janda (36.248878-5.835323; 36.24897 -5.83526 and 36.24921 -5.83508).
To be honest I'm not entirely sure I could identify a False Smooth Snake (Macroprotodon brevis) even if I was able to find one – an unlikely eventuality since despite living near the New Forest for the first two decades of my life I've only once seen its relative, the Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca) which has its in the UK stronghold there! Looking down as he evidently does, Lawrie managed to find three two at Bolonia and one at Barbate Dam ((36.101443, -5.791708;36.074246, -5.752185 and 36.368442, -5.741063).
One of Lawrie's most wanted targets was Montpellier Snake (Malpolon monspessulanus) which at least I'd already seen although given my rudimentary snake identification skills my record might well be doubtful! Lawrie not only managed to find one in Extremadura on his way south but also one from the same site as my claim, Algaida woods, with another at Barbate dam (plus a dead specimen on La Janda). Then again looking at his photos I suspect the snake I found and was told was this species was probably a large adult Ladder Snake
Having established that I know less than I should about snakes, at least I do know that Ladder Snake (Rhinechis scalaris) gets its name from its markings.
Naturally Lawrie not only found them with ease at Embalse de Barbate, Barbate dam & La Janda (36.411624-5.740734 and36.41162, -5.74073) but also got a terrific photo of a juvenile showing the distinctive markings that give the species its name.
Such is the depth of my herpetological ignorance that I'm not sure I fully realised that Spanish Grass-snake (Natrix natrix astreptophora) was a different subspecies until I read Lawrie's notes. He found one at that unsuspected reptile hotspot of La Janda. It seems that here, Bolonia and Embalse de Barbate should be the focus in future for this herpetological novice. On previous visits I've seen Viperine Snake (Natrix maura) several times in the Alcornocales and Lawrie got a number of photos of the species. Like the Grass Snake it too is very aquatic in its habits.
Lawrie didn't manage to see all the snakes of the area although he did pretty well but I can't resist adding a photo of one missed - Lataste's Viper (Vipera latasti). I've seen a single young juvenile in the Molinos valley. It was a very small and somewhat sluggish which may be explained by the white spot on the head which seemed to be a wound or perhaps some sort of fungal growth.
Geckos are probably the easiest reptiles to see in Spain since they tend to find you rather than vice versa. Moorish Gecko (Tarentola mauriticana) is the commonest and has the habit of waiting inside street lamps outside our house for the insects to come to them. In contrast I've never found Turkish Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus) very easy to locate. Although not so widespread another reptile that is usually hard to miss in the right locations is Spanish Terrapin (Mauremys leprosa). Like Lawrie I've had them at the small pools at Algaida/Bonanza and Rota Botanical Garden, but also at various other sites although I can't be sure some weren't European Pond Terrapin (Emys orbicularis). I'm also pretty sure I've seen the introduced Red-eared Terrapin (Trachemys scripta) somewhere but wherever it was I didn't make a note of it although the Spanish reptile & amphibian atlas shows that they're present in several areas in the province.
Jardin Botanico Celestino Mutis in Rota is, of course, the site in the area for Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon) where the chief gardener, Andrea, has probably helped hundreds of visitors to see 'her' Chameleons. Unfortunately, I'm told she has or is about to retire - she will be greatly missed by visiting naturalists. Let's hope that her replacement also values these curious animals; I suspect they'll have little option as Andrea will make sure they will!
They're also found in the pines that cloak the dunes at Rota and at Algaida, Barbate and elsewhere but are never easy to find. One tip, I'm told, is to view from a low level so that you see the silhouette rather than be confused by their cryptic camouflage.
Of the lizards the one you're most likely to see even if you're not really looking is Occelated Lizard (Timon lepidus) as they're bright green very large and not infrequently scuttle across the road on hot sunny days. I've seen them in many areas in the province although they seem to have a liking for unimproved a and often fairly rugged areas. Lawrie had them at two sites where I've found them relatively common - two at Bolonia and three at Barbate dam. However, unlike Lawrie, I've never managed to get a decent shot of one. They're usually a much brighter green than the individual shown here whose dullness is probably because it is about to shed its skin.
As Lawrie confirmed, Spiny-footed Lizard (Acanthodactylus erythrurus) has a particular liking for light sandy soils and, like him, I've always found them particularly common in the Algaida area although I've seen them at a number of coastal sites. I find them strikingly handsome little beasts and not too difficult to photograph.
Iberian Wall Lizard (Podarcis hispanica) is another frequently seen reptile although Lawrie's visit made me appreciate just how much they prefer rocky areas and walls and just how common they are in the area. Unlike him I've never managed to get a decent photo!
Psammodromus lizards are one of relatively few animals where the common and scientific names are the same. The name comes from Greek άμμο δρομέας meaning 'sand racer' which is also their alternative (and more pronounceable name). As suggested by the name they prefer sandy soils and run like the clappers which is why I've never got a decent photo of any of them. I suppose too that the plural should be Psammodromi! Lawrie found Large Psammodromus (Psammodromus algirus) to be common in the Molinos valley and Algaida woods which is somewhat embarrassing as I don't think I've identified more than a couple of them even though the valley is on my doorstep. I've also seen a few Spanish Psammodromus (Psammodromus hispanicus) in the province (which Lawrie found en route through Spain). Like birds, lizard taxonomy is in a state of flux and the Spanish Psammodromus has recently (2012) been split into three – two subspecies and a new full species. As a result the animals in Cadiz are now recognised by some as the Western Psammodromus (Psammodromus occidentalis).
Skinks are extraordinary reptiles stranded, in form at least, somewhere between lizards and snakes. Slow Worms (Anguis fragilis), which in Iberia are restricted to the north, are famously limbless lizards and skinks are lizards that haven't quite progressed so far. They still have limbs but they're pretty useless, feeble appendages. Bedriaga's Skink (Chalcides bedriagai) is an Iberian endemic and I've seen a single freshly dead example in the Alcornocales along the sendero Valdeiniferno - (found by Dirk Hilbers). Lawrie found the more widespread Western Three-toed Skink (Chalcides striatus) at Bolonia.
I've left the greatest embarrassment to last. Even more curious than the skinks is the extraordinary limbless and sightless Iberian Worm Lizard (Blanus cinereus). As its name implies this peculiar lizard bears a remarkable resemblance to a large over sized worm. I'd been told that this subterranean species was extremely difficult to find. So it was with great astonishment that I learnt that Lawrie had not only found six of them but also that four of them had been found around Alcala de los Gazules and the other two at Bonanza pools and Barbate (36.350219 -5.750026)
My rather lacklustre attempts to see and identify reptiles and amphibians in the area haven't been helped by the absence of a decent field guide to the group. At home I use a copy of “Reptiles and Amphibians in Colour” by Hans Hvass but, being over forty years old and with rather limited illustrations, it's far from ideal. In a burst of enthusiasm in 2009 I got a copy of a new photoguide to the group “New Holland Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Europe" by Axel Kwet. It's a handy little book but I'm no fan of photoguides and coverage isn't comprehensive. I've been meaning to get the obvious choice, “Collins Field Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Britain and Europe” (Arnold & Ovenden) for decades but as the list price has always been a bit steep (currently £29.95) I'd always hoped to get one second-hand. However, not having been comprehensively revised for well over a decade it's now dated and its taxonomy very much out of date. Fortunately, the cavalry is on its way in the form of a new Bloomsbury (Helm) book a “Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Britain and Europe” by Jeroen Speybroeck et al and illustrated by Ilian Velikov which should be published in July (c£20). It promises an up-to-date taxonomy, including all the recent splits and discoveries, and appears to be beautifully illustrated. Hopefully, this book will help me to hone my identification skills. One other resource needs to be mentioned – the online version of Atlas y Libro Rojo de Anfibios y Reptiles de Espaňa - is a wonderful resource – see http://www.magrama.gob.es/es/biodiversidad/temas/inventarios-nacionales/inventario-especies-terrestres/inventario-nacional-de-biodiversidad/ieet_anfib_reptl_LR_indice.aspx
Many thanks once again to Lawrie Hills both for those of his photos that adorn this blog post and his expert input in improving my understanding of the local herpeto-fauna of Cadiz province. Thanks too to Lawrie's parents Richard & Cathy Hills for giving our little house in Alcala the good airing it so needed!
About me ...
Hi I'm John Cantelo. I've been birding seriously since the 1960s when I met up with some like minded folks at Secondary School. I have lived in Kent , where I taught History and Sociology, since the late 1970s. In that time I've served on the committees of both my local RSPB group and the county ornithological society (KOS). I have also worked as a part-time field teacher for the RSPB at Dungeness. Having retired now spend as much time as in Alcala de los Gazules in SW Spain. When I'm not birding I edit books for the Crossbill Guides series.