A mixture of sloth, light westerlies and persistent good weather – with raptors going over high and to the east - meant that my usual autumnal visit to Cadiz Province was less productive for birds, particularly raptors, than usual. However, I did manage to have a look at several sites I'd not previously visited, had ignored or merited, I thought, a second look. I'm currently in the process (again!) of updating my notes to add some of the details I mention here.
The first up is Peňa Arpada, a rocky crag (= pena) which sits at the furthest exreme of Alcala parish. It's an impressive landmark, but, unless you take the little travelled route between Paterna and Alcala de los Gazules, it's easily be missed. I'd driven this way many times, but never stopped for a good look which is odd as the open rolling hills here look attractive for bustards or Stone-curlews. Perhaps not checking was a smart move since, on checking the Spanish atlas once at home, I discovered neither had been found in the area. Then again, neither are Crested Lark and Tawny Pipit both of which I've seen here in the breeding season. However, Short-toed Eagles certainly breed in the area and, in autumn, the open fields seem particularly attractive to the species with 6 or 7 birds regularly loitering on nearby pylons. At this time I've also seen juv. Bonelli's Eagle (which presumably winter in the area). Griffon Vultures sometimes rest here too – flocks of 500+ which I saw in September are by no means unusual. I also saw 3-4 Montagu's Harrier passing through although I only had a single bird (!) over the house itself this autumn. One unexpected bonus was a juvenile Golden Eagle only a few km to the north of this site from which, as it ws heading this way, it was probably also visiible. The crag's worth more than a quick look in the evenings too since I had an Eagle Owl here in September too, but bring a 'scope as the crag is fairly distant from the road. A friend subsequently told me that one, possibly two, pairs breed here. An old drovers' track passes a little closer and after a brisk walk gives a good view over towards the historic site of Lascuta. Peňa Arpada can also be reached by a rough track that takes you from the service road to a small venta at a cross-roads nearby - another area I've not fully explored, but which may hold interesting birds.
Largely because it's just over the border in Malaga province, until this spring I'd ignored the whalebacked limestone Sierra de la Utrera just north of Manilva. However, once Rob Rackcliffe (thanks!) had told me that the area had Black Wheatear a visit became a priority! Thanks to the wonders of the internet in general and Google Earth in particular, I was soon able not only to work out how to get there, but also that there was a sendero that followed a narrow gorge that cut through it - El Canuto de la Utrera. The 2.4 km walk takes about an hour, but unfortunately, we visited on a rather hot weekend in August when the gorge was being used by a party of very noisy climbers so birds were few (although we had a Blue Rockthrush). Climbing is banned here between 15th December to 30th June and it's also much quieter in the week. As we'd come without Liz's walking boots and poles, we only got about 500m along the route. The curious limestone formations here are reminiscent of the famous El Torcal (north of Malaga) although on a much smaller scale so it's no surprise to find it's also called Torcalito de Manilva. The gorge can also be approached from the Casares road although the entrance to the gorge doesn't seem quite so dramatic from this direction, besides arriving from Manilva means you can also explore another 250m along the track to see the ancient Roman sulphur Baños de La Hedionda and a nearby Roman aqueduct. Sadly, not a lot remains of this ancient site where Julius Caesar, then governor of the province of Hispania, was alledgedly cured of a skin infection and what does remain is neglected or crassly 'restored'. Definitely worth further exploration!
I've written about the road from Jimena up to the TV repeater station recently, but I can't resist adding a few more photos of the area taken this September. It really ought to harbour the odd Alpine Accentor or Ring Ousel in winter!
Although I'd had a look at Punta de Roche this spring, I thought an autumnal visit might be interesting. At the end of August I had a thousand odd swifts (mainly Pallid and Common, but with a levening of Alpines) just to the north, but subsequent visits produced little aside from distant Gannets and still further distant Cory's (about 10 in thirty minutes). It's not ideal as the harbour wall is inaccessible and the headland is a little high for seawatching, but there are steps leading to a viewpoint (with a little shelter) further down the cliffs and a couple of points where you can get down to the beach. The juniper scrub along the clifftop (apparently the most extensive in the province) surely holds migrants in the right conditions. There's also what seems like a promising sendero that follows the stream into the nearby woodlands. It's worth perserveering as the trektellen website (http://www.trektellen.org) shows good movements of shearwaters in autumn are possible. Of particular interest uis the regular passage of Spoonbill (e.g. 178 on 4/10/2014) here.
Another area I managed to explore for the first time is the 'cemetery road' at Tahivilla. It was fairly quiet when I visited, but the habitat immediately beside the track – one of the few accessible areas south of the road free from the wind generators – looks excellent for larks and harriers. The fields here used to be an excellent Little Bustard site and, as the odd bird seems to hang on in nearby areas engulfed by windfarms, may yet be worth checking for this elusive species.
Cazalla and Algorrabo are the two most important raptor watchpoints along the Straits. Unfortunately, access to the purpose built, but yet to be opened centre, just above a bend on the N 340 at Cazalla near Tarifa has been restricted in the past. In recent years, though, this hasn't been a problem it's now regained it's status as a great place to catch up with both birds and birders. At times its as much a birders' social centre and it is an ornithological watchpoint! However, its status looks to be threatened again but, happily, not by closure and the enforcement of petty regulations. No, it looks like being eclipsed by the new centre soon to be opened on the coast nearby at Punta Camorro. When I visited in mid-September it was nearing completion so let's hope it too doesn't become a unfinished 'white elephant'.
One of the reasons often given for closing access to Cazalla is that the police consider the access 'too dangerous'. It's rather odd then, that access to Algorrabo (near Algeciras) remains open since, in my view, it's a far more dangerous turning. It's a very tight righthand turning between crash barriers off an equally busy stretch of the N 340 and onto a narrow, difficult to spot, unmarked and badly maintained track. A couple of times I've had to drive past either because, despite slowing and signalling, I've been so closely tail-gated that it was too dangerous to turn or because, with somebody coming out, there was not enough room to turn in. The last part of the track up to the official viewpoint is so badly rutted that I usually pull off after a wire 'gate' (c200m) and walk the final 250m. A number of people find the turning so 'iffy' that they hestitate to visit Algorrabo or entirely refuse to do so which means you don't enjoy the benefit of multiple pairs of eyes scanning the skies for birds.
If you don't mind not having the support of all those other observers you still have other options to explore. If arriving from Tarifa then the obvious choice is to pull off onto the road signposted to Centro de Menores La Marchenilla (near obvious red-and-white 'radio' masts) which has much the same view as Algorrabo. However, it's a far safer turning, but, although it's only a short walk to Algorrabo, I would caution against it as crossing the road here is too dangerous for pedestrians. It would actually make a far safer watchpoint all round, but shifting here doesn't seem possible. A somewhat more adventurous approach would be to pull off a about 1.5 km closer to Algeciras and follow a narrow road through a small industrial estate, bear left and upwards along Calle Pastor Alleman and into a small area of housing. There's a decent viewpoint opposite Villa Margarita (by an obvious junction onto Calle Doberman) which actually overlooks Algorrabo. Continue a little further upwards and go left along Calle Mastin and you'll find, at the end of the road, a gate onto a small sendero (footpath) which threads its way through the scrub. After c500m this path reaches the Senda Prisoneros - a track along the hillside that affords stupendous views of the Straits and would be an excellent viewpoint for raptors.
About me ...
Hi I'm John Cantelo. I've been birding seriously since the 1960s when I met up with some like minded folks (all of us are still birding!) at Taunton's School in Southampton. 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.