Trans-Iberian

Trans-Iberian

Covering everything from the major news of the week and burning social issues, to expat living and la vida local, EL PAÍS’ team of English-language bloggers offers its opinions, observations and analysis on Spain and beyond.

Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of Andalucia.com and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at korenhelbig.com.

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area perelloplus.com. @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Spain-Holiday.com. Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check: www.lookingfordrama.com.

Lammergeier_I_IMG_7021
Bearded vultures, also known as lammergeiers, could once again become a familiar sight in Andalucia.
PHOTO: J.M.Garg
 

“Of all the great birds of prey there is none which appeals more to the popular imagination than does the bearded vulture or, to give it the imposing title which it still bears in mid-Europe, the lammergeyer.”

Those are the words of Willoughby Verner, a British colonel who served in the Boer War and spent several years posted in Gibraltar. It was during his time in the British enclave that the keen naturalist had the opportunity to indulge his passion for wildlife, in the sierras of Andalucia. Verner’s subsequent adventures are documented in his book, My Life Among The Wild Birds in Spain, which was published in 1909.

Besides writing, the author enjoyed the unusual distinction of having a compass named after him after being credited with its design. He was also recognised for his role in the discovery of ancient rock art at Cueva de la Pileta, near Ronda. But it was his detailed observations of the bearded vulture’s nesting locations that could arguably become his most enduring legacy.

More than 100 years after Verner first laid eyes on them, a Spanish researcher has used the Englishman’s sketches to trace the exact location of the nest sites. The findings could provide valuable information that leads to the reintroduction of the species to one of its old territories.

The bearded vulture is one of Europe’s rarest birds of prey and, with a wingspan of up to 2.8m, it’s also among the biggest. So named for the distinctive black bristles on its chin, it is famed for its habit of breaking bones by dropping them from a great height before eating the marrow. The vultures are typically found in remote, mountainous areas and it was in such a region - the sierras of Cadiz - that Verner observed them.

Verner photo
The amateur ornithologist was so enraptured by his subject that he dedicated two chapters of his book to his encounters with the huge birds. The descriptions focus mainly on the logistics of accessing the nests. This seems to have involved spending an unhealthy amount of time dangling on the end of a rope, hundreds of feet above the ground.

The explorer even takes time to lament the lack of nerve and skill of his ‘rope man’, who was stationed at the top of the cliff.

Willoughby Verner was a keen naturalist who dedicated his free time to studying
Andalucia's wildlife.
PHOTO: Wiki Commons

While also revealing his habit of stuffing heather branches in his hat to protect against falling rocks.

But it’s his description of the nests themselves that give the most fascinating insight into the life of these enigmatic creatures. “The nest was a huge affair, built of big boughs, filling up the whole cavern, with a cup-shaped depression 24 inches across, lined with great lumps of black sheepswool, brown goat’s hair and fresh green mosses,” Verner says.

But despite the detailed descriptions of the nest itself and skilled sketches of the surrounding rock face, clues as to the general location of the site are scarce. There is a brief mention of “the gleaming waters of the Atlantic near Cape Trafalgar over 50 miles distant.” And Verner also alludes to “a small Moorish village” somewhere below the valley, but there is little else to go on.

His elusiveness may have been a deliberate ploy to conceal the exact location in an effort to stop rival egg collectors from raiding the nests. Now, Verner has finally met his match in Jose Manuel Amarillo Vargas, a natural history enthusiast who has successfully identified the anonymous valley.

After considering several possible locations, the breakthrough came when the researcher recognised a distinctive rock formation in one of Verner’s sketches. After cross-referencing the drawing against the clues given in the written description, Amarillo concluded that the valley lay above the village of Benaocaz, in Cadiz’s Sierra de Grazalema. The next step was to attempt to identify the limestone escarpment upon which the nests had been built using the sketches and grainy photographs in the book.

The results were as conclusive as Amarillo could have hoped for, even down to the two holm oak trees, the only living witnesses to Verner’s visits. The ecstatic Spaniard promptly dubbed the valley ‘El Tajo de Verner’ in place of its official name, Sierra del Caillo. “When we reached 1,150m we stopped to look up and after a few seconds of silence we all said, ‘This is the place!’”, Amarillo explained at a recent event in Seville. “We walked back down the mountain feeling happy and excited with our 'discovery'.”

El tajo de Verner photo and recent photo
One of the nest sites in 'El Tajo de Verner' photographed in 1906 and 2015.
PHOTO MONTAGE: Jose Manuel Amarillo Vargas

At the time of Verner’s exploits lammergeier - to use the species’ alternative name - were a common sight in the mountains of southern Spain. But the impact of hunting and poison had such a dramatic impact on the population that the species had been wiped out in Cadiz by the mid-20th century. In 1986, it was declared extinct in Andalucia.

However, in recent years an EU-funded reintroduction programme has seen the magnificent creatures return to parts of the region. The initiative centres around two former strongholds of the lammergeyer, the Sierra de Cazorla and the Sierra Nevada. Coordinated by the Junta de Andalucia and conservation group Fundacion Gypaetus (FG) the project began in 1996, followed by the first birds being released into the wild in 2006.

Since then 36 bearded vultures have been released as part of the programme, 22 of which are still alive, according to the FG. Only a small number of the fatalities have been from natural causes, with poisoning, poaching and collisions with electric power lines among the biggest killers. But the discovery of the nest sites in the Sierra de Grazalema is a significant step towards giving the species a new opportunity to thrive.

Besides providing evidence that the bearded vulture once lived in the area, the find gives some key indicators as to the region’s viability to support a restored population. By examining historical nest sites it is possible to gain clues as to the birds’ diet, the presence of contaminants and estimates of how long the nests were used for.

It also provides a clearer picture of what type of sites are favoured by the vulture, which in turn allows researchers to make informed decisions about the choice of new release points. They may have lived a century apart but Verner and Amarillo’s shared love of one of Spain’s most emblematic species could finally lead to the return of the bone breaker.

Tajo de Verner - sketch and recent photo
Researchers located the nest site using a detailed sketch of a limestone escarpment in Verner's book. 
PHOTO: Jose Manuel Amarillo Vargas

 

El País

EDICIONES EL PAIS, S.L. - Miguel Yuste 40 – 28037 – Madrid [España] | Aviso Legal