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Málaga: On the avian superhighway

With wildlife holidays booming, birding is going mainstream, and you don’t have to travel far to spot rare species. In Málaga’s northern mountains an avian migratory motorway hosts record numbers

Málaga: On the avian superhighway
Kestrel. Image: Getty

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We’re chasing raptors. Soaring somewhere above our car is a predator that’s casting a mighty big shadow on the ground. I bob my head out of the window trying to train binoculars on the mystery bird, but it keeps swooping out of sight. I fancy this avian car chase must look like a scene from a Bond movie, albeit a rather tame one. Plus I’ve got no ID on my target: falcon, kestrel, eagle… or vulture? They’re all plentiful in these parts. But before I can even utter the question, my guide, Luis, who’s barely taken his eyes off the road, answers: marsh harrier.

If you want a special ops ornithologist, Luis Alberto Rodríguez is your man. This Málaga native is lightning-quick at identifying birds at impossibly long distances, even while driving a car. And if he can’t see them, he’ll recognise their call and, once located, aid and abet the seriously slow spotter (me) by zooming his to-the-moon-and-back-powerful telescope on the bird for you — usually whipped out of the car and assembled before I’ve managed to remove the lens cap of my binoculars. And what’s more, he’s utterly graceful in the face of such ineptitude. 

Luis is a man on a mission to bring the masses to Málaga’s mountains; most recently providing the expertise for a new tour offered by local guesthouse Almohalla 51, where I’m staying. “We have so many people who visit the coast in summertime, and most of them don’t know that 30 minutes from the beach there’s all this nature, all these birds,” he tells me. 

Inland from the highways that shuttle tourists up and down the Costa del Sol is another vital artery for a rather different seasonally migrating species. Málaga’s mountainous interior is a crucial breeding stop on the avian superhighway between Africa and Northern Europe, a place where you can spot record numbers of bird species (some of which never venture as far as our shores) in a remarkably small area — one of which is the marsh harrier, twice driven to extinction in the UK over the past century. 

Birding has long been a British obsession, but this hobby beloved of middle-aged men in beige is moving into the mainstream. Earlier this year, the Association of Independent Tour Operators reported wildlife holidays had overtaken beach breaks in popularity, with millennials leading the charge, while a 2017 Mintel survey of Britain’s hobbies found that around 32% of 16-25-year-old men have been birdwatching. And with celebrity endorsement from the likes of Blur’s Damon Albarn, Elbow’s Guy Garvey and DJ-presenter Alex Zane, spotting birds may well be the new rock and roll. 

Far from being a wannabe ornithologist, I came to birding with an ulterior motive; for where there are abundant birds, more often than not you’ll find wild and wonderful terrain. In the name of tracking our feathered friends over the years, I’ve travelled to the Peruvian Amazon to join a conservation project to count rare parrots, and to the Venezuela-Colombia border, where you might see hundreds of bird species in a day but barely another tourist. 

But, of course, you don’t have to travel that far to glimpse birds. On the craggy coasts of the UK and Ireland, I’ve spotted puffins playing in the surf, and watched some of the world’s largest colonies of seabirds gather to nest and breed — all while enjoying some of our country’s most dramatic landscapes.

Route of 100 Birds

The landscape certainly puts on a diverse show in this part of southern Spain, where mountains zigzag sharply away from the Med’s built-up shores, giving way to wetlands, forest and otherworldly limestone karst formations. “We often see snow up here,” says Luis, as we drive north of the mountain pass through Antequera’s river valley — known as el corazón de Andalucía (the geographical ‘heart’ of the province). “We’re just 30 miles inland but there’s a huge temperature differential. It makes for an interesting diversity of species,” Luis explains. In Málaga’s hinterland, Luis hosts everything from all-day bird-spotting hikes to afternoons in a hide or, as we’re doing, the Route of 100 Birds. This 155-mile coastal and mountain loop virtually guarantees encounters with over 100 bird species. These range from the vast griffon vulture — with a wing span of over 9ft — to the small, but much-twitched, blue rock thrush. Luis’s favourite — for its tenacity when hunting -— is the compact Bonelli’s eagle. “They’re considered endangered in Europe but we have a higher density of Bonelli’s here than anywhere else in the Mediterranean,” he says. 

We climb out of the valley up to El Torcal de Antequera, with its spectacular landscape of limestone karsts, piled like stacks of prehistoric pancakes. Above the tapering heights of these temple-like towers, the raptors soar. “It’s just 4,260ft up but El Torcal has its own ecosystem,” Luis says. When it’s not blowing a gale, a trip here guarantees sightings of vultures, peregrine falcons and juvenile golden eagles that gravitate to this wild geological playground when their parents kick them out. “This is a bit of a teenage hangout,” Luis grins.

Beneath Torcal’s cracked limestone balconies, enormous griffon vultures circle with predatory intent. To Luis’s delight, we spot a pair of Bonelli’s swooping past the outlying cliffs, their distinctive black-and-white underbellies flashing in the sun. A blue ribbon of coast just visible on the distant horizon belies Torcal’s Wild West vibe; raptors casting black silhouettes over its dusty canyons and crags. 

Our car climbs further, snaking west through a narrowing ravine towards the Caminito del Rey, a narrow steel walkway strung along the sheer walls of the towering El Chorro canyon: a bucket list hit for hikers and landscape painters alike for its gothic-drama vistas and daredevil traverses. We stop at the canyon’s Gaitanes Gorge to watch the Bonelli’s wheeling hopefully above hikers’ heads. They inch along what’s become known as the ‘walkway of death’ on account of the not insignificant tally of tourist lives it’s claimed. 

But Luis has his eyes on the ground. He’s spotted the distinctive mohican of a Thekla’s lark bobbing about in the scrub. Then, through his binoculars, he spies a black wheatear sitting proud atop a boulder displaying its white tail feathers; and beyond that, a prized blue rock thrush. Nearby, the little whitewashed village of El Chorro is quietly going about its business. It’s an oddly tranquil scene, given the drama above.

Chorro means ‘cascade’ or ‘jet’,” says Luis. “Three rivers used to converge here, forcing hundreds of tons of water through the gorge. It must have been terrifying, that much power.” Powerful enough for Spain’s King Alfonso XIII to initiate an ambitious hydroelectric energy project in the early 1900s, of which the Caminito del Rey once provided a service route. 

Even more incongruous amid these wild mountains is Alfonso’s extravagant network of elaborate bridges, tiered dams and ornate viaducts, built to harness the waters of Spain’s ‘lake district’. It’s as though a landscaped Victorian estate has been hung just-so here in this remote hinterland. To complete the surreal scene, on the saline shores of nearby Fuente de Piedra Lagoon we find ourselves surrounded by hundreds of pink flamingos.

“A sign that summer is soon here,” says Luis. “They’re generally non-migratory, but flamingos don’t like the cold so they’ll move around. They make it as far as the Red Sea. In a few weeks, thousands will arrive here; this reserve is one of two sites in Spain where greater flamingos breed.” There’s an abundance of ducks, too; the white-headed variety, once the poster child for conservation efforts here (the population declined to just two in the 1970s), and numerous red-crested pochard ducks, the males with fiery bills and matching demonic eyes, their dun-coloured mates following in their wake. 

The sound of silence

A short car ride south and the marshes seem a distant dream — we’re suddenly surrounded by olive groves. I wind down the window. The silence is deafening. Row upon row of tightly packed, gnarled trees undulating across the hills as far as the eye can see. And, despite this proliferation of plants, there’s not one peep from a bird. I strain my ears, train the bins, and scan the tree-carpeted terrain but neither wing nor warble can I detect.  

“You won’t hear a thing. It’s unnerving,” says Luis. “These aren’t groves in the way we think of groves, as wild and natural. This is an olive factory.” In fact, the olives here are so intensively farmed that they represent a manicured, mono-crop landscape where no weed or insect is permitted, and round-the-clock irrigation sucks the water table dry — creating erosion that causes pesticides to leach into lakes and rivers — and leaves villages thirsty; a silent oil war.

After an eerie, quiet drive, the olives are finally behind us, replaced by green fields of wheat. Birds and bugs dart around outside the car, the air suddenly returned to life. We soon spot a crested lark, common kestrel, and those majestic harriers once again cutting arcs across the sky. “Birds love all those grassy insects and micro organisms,” beams Luis. I hear a call that takes me back to being a child. “Corn buntings!” says Luis. “They were almost gone in the UK at one point, I think.” Like harriers, corn buntings are a late-nesting species whose eggs and fledglings are often destroyed during harvesting. “I work with local farmers here to protect nests, notably those of the Montagu’s harrier, which are suffering from the wheat fields being lost to olives,” says Luis. “Where wheat remains, we plot their nesting sites, which they return to each year, and farmers cut wide of these plots.”

Conservation and cultivation go hand in hand, too, at the Cortijo la Samiaja estate, just outside the hilltop village of Archidona, where I end the day amid some inspiring olive groves. I’ve snagged a tour of Samiaja to conclude my day’s birding, complete with a tasting of its award-winning olive oil. 

As dusk finally starts to fall across the valley, birdsong reaches fever pitch: nightingales and azure-winged magpies call loudly from the elm, ash and poplar trees and the stands of ancient holm oak that still carpet Archidona’s hillsides. “There are owls if we listen carefully,” says Samiaja’s María-Jesús. “You can see them at dusk too, so keep watching. There’s plenty for them to feed on.” Samiaja’s groves are all organic, from seed to soil. The harvest is over but a few olives remain on the trees. “We hand pick and leave some of them on the tree. It’s better for the tree, for the environment,” says María-Jesús. “And definitely better for the birds.”  

Essentials

Spectacular birdwatching destinations

Romania
The Danube Delta’s network of channels, lagoons and islands makes it an oasis for ornithologists, home to an abundance of ducks, herons, ibis, pelicans, warblers and white-tailed eagles. 

Peru
The highly biodiverse Manú National Park is home to approximately 1,025 bird species, including macaws, parrots, and the cock-of-the-rock, famed for the male’s elaborate courtship dance.

Ethiopia
Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains are home to many species not found anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa. They include the Abyssinian longclaw, eastern imperial eagle and endemic Salvadori’s seedeater; Avian highlights of its namesake national park include the yellow-bellied swee, collared sunbird and red-billed oxpecker.

Papua New Guinea
Home to 38 of the world’s 43 birds of paradise, the mountains, rainforest and rivers of Papua New Guinea are a must-visit for serious birders.

Bhutan
The Himalayan country is twitcher heaven; top spots include the critically endangered rufous-necked hornbill, emerald cuckoo and chestnut-breasted partridge.

More info
Almohalla 51’s three-night birding package starts from €390 (£342) for two. It includes B&B accommodation, a half-day birding tour with transfers and a birding guidebook. Available March-May (excluding Easter), and September-November. Excludes flights.

Published in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)