Get up, get out and look up!
It’s a bit of a hike from the Cortes de la Frontera-Benaoján road to the Colmenar train station. It is a quiet March day and I am supposed to be researching a couple of paths today, measuring the time, distance and elevation, being scientific and efficient. Preferably I should not miss the train back to Benaoján either. I’ve got my boots, the GPS and the GWS (Giant Walker’s Super-snack).
I start off resolutely, at a good pace, committed to a day of hard but pleasant work. And there will be no birdwatching today. Unfortunately, I have my binoculars, just in case I need to spy a path ahead of me.
So far so good. I dutifully ignore the whistling blue and orange Nuthatches begging me to lift the binoculars and follow their provocative head-down trunk races on the cork oaks all around me. Feeling proud of myself, I manage to shut out the laugh of a Green woodpecker and I don’t follow it to try to look for the bird. Staring stubbornly ahead, stiff-necked, I am not looking at a white bird of prey when it whooshes over the path. There is work to be done and I am not, I repeat, not looking up!
My brain is still semi-consciously processing the low-flying white bird fact when it suddenly creeks to a halt. White! It’s March! Egyptian vultures!
By now I am absolutely convinced I’ve just missed an Egyptian vulture fly-by. There is a hill on the side of the forest track facing an open area where the raptor flew over my head. I am imagining the lovely white bird with its black-edged wings and a serious-looking yellow leathery face, sitting on the ground or in a tree waiting for me.
This bird knows how to open an egg by throwing a rock at it. The goddess Isis sometimes sports an Egyptian Vulture perched on her head. Egyptian Vulture looks like no other bird around here and it is considered an endangered species, in serious decline, especially in Andalucía. And I am going to miss it? Ditching the backpack (my Super-snack!) I run up the hill with my lungs about to explode and…. nada. No white or other-coloured birds.
There is a very inviting wooden bench though: one could sit there just to make sure the vulture is not hiding anywhere. It would be a shame to turn on your heel and miss it now, wouldn’t it? The day is perfect with just a few clouds adding depth to the flat blue sky. What an excellent sky for spotting raptors.
No birdwatching! That was the deal for today. I shall just lie down on the bench for a moment and steady my nerves… do a bit of cloud appreciation… follow the funny shape flying in large lazy circles against the clouds…. black, white middle, a flying tuxedo with skinny legs.
I sit up, grab the bins and focus on the beautiful Black Stork, flying ahead of its flock. Then, in-coming: one, two, seven, twenty… thirty five… Gliding lower and lower, they let me admire the ruby-red bills and legs, white bellies and armpits, contrasting black wings and necks. They look like visitors from another world.
According to SEO (www.seo.org, Sociedad Española de Ornitología, the Spanish equivalent of the RSPB) Spain’s breeding population of Black Stork is around 400 in total. They mostly inhabit the region of Extremadura. The birds I am looking at may be on their way to reach Central Europe or I just may be looking at one-tenth of “our” Black Stork population.
They circle and soar, unaware that there is someone below gaping at them, fallen hopelessly in love in all of five seconds. Then, finally, the birds make a graceful exit, stage left (or north-west). I hope they raise many plump babies in the cliffs and dehesas of Extremadura.
After this, there is no going back to doing any work and it looks like Nuthatches and Woodpeckers win: I am not going anywhere. It crosses my mind what the Red Queen said to Alice: “…it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” Or leave your binoculars at home.
The walk has not been researched and I have no idea what the elevation or waypoint for that hill was. But I know that if you happen to be hiking in southern Andalucía between now and the end of April, it’s worth slowing down and looking up from time to time. You never know what you are going to get. And you will be distracted in many wonderful, time-consuming ways.
Some Black Stork facts
Most of the Spanish Black Storks winter in sub-Saharan Africa, but there are some resident birds which do not migrate and they stay for the winter, for example in the Doñana National Park or some parts of Extremadura.
The species is included in the Spanish Red Book of Birds as Vulnerable. The biggest problem for this beautiful stork nowadays is its shrinking territory. Single Black Storks are seen only sporadically in the UK and are considered a rarity.
Much less confiding than its white relative, this bird is possibly easiest to watch in flight on migration. Sometimes hundreds of them can be seen crossing the Straits of Gibraltar and beaches of Tarifa (approximately February-April and August-October).
Black Stork is only one of the many spectacular migratory birds which cross the Serranía de Ronda region in spring and autumn. While this wealth of birds still exists, let’s watch the skies and not miss one of the greatest spectacles on Earth.