It was only around 35 miles but back in the day in the Ford Anglia or the Vauxhall Viva, complete with picnic hamper and rug as well as a wind-break, it felt like it took an age to reach the hills. I distinctly remember the tangible excitement I would feel as we drove north passing through three sleepy villages and turning left at the ‘scout huts’ down the narrow road that would lead us into the Cheviot Hills. It felt like coming home.
If I’m honest I don’t have too many ‘bird memories’ from these trips though I know we encountered a few species such as Dipper and Sand Martin whilst clambering about the scree slopes and stony river but it was on these weekend afternoon trips with picnics from which I trace my interest in birds and remember those first few times I felt myself lifted and energised by the wildness and beauty of those hills and the gentle river.
Some 35 years later I’m a birder and I observe birds every single day, often my birding happens almost unconsciously, at home, from the car, on the school run. I travel to see birds, many of the places that the birds I want to see choose to stop off at during migration are a far cry from those heather-clad hills of my early birding history. I can go weeks birding landfill rubbish tips, looking for gulls or wandering through former industrial sites, often dotted with the things that everyday folk left behind, that make up many of my regular birding haunts. There is beauty in these places but sometimes I have to look hard to find it.
I am heading towards the end of a two week family break in Andalusia, Spain as I write this and last week we jumped in the hire car and headed to a Spanish Town called Ronda for a day trip. I didn’t expect to do much serious birding but knew there were a couple of species I might reasonably expect to see whilst we wandered the town with ice cream in hand.
Ronda sits astride the El Tajo gorge with huge vistas across the Spanish countryside; the cliffs of the gorge filled with luxuriant growth are enhanced by the various human endeavours in the form of bridges that not only span the air providing links from one part of town to the next but add to the sheer natural majesty of the place.
It may be a bustling tourist town with a great deal to see and do culturally but it is simply a beautiful place to do some birding, with some incredible birds to enjoy. The gorge is surrounded by man-made terraces accessed from the narrow cobbled streets of the old town from which you can watch the avian goings-on.
Just a few minutes hanging over one of these terraces, gaze lost, in the rich, lush greenness of El Tajo’s vegetation whilst a Chough tumbled out of the air barely a metre from my reach; three kinds of Swifts (Alpine Swift, Pallid Swift & Common Swift) tearing through the narrow airspace before plunging screaming in delirium to the valley below served as a precious reminder. Throw in a few House Martins and the spotted white under-tails of some Crag Martins and you have a show worth watching.
Chough (or Red-billed Chough if you prefer)
Birding is great, but birding in beautiful places is even greater and sometimes stepping back from the bird and seeing it as a small part of the whole is a far richer, spirit lifting experience than just watching the bird.