By Pete Wolstencroft
The most obvious and indeed best-known wildlife spectacle is the twice-yearly migration featuring hundreds of thousands of birds; chiefly raptors and white storks that cross between Africa and Europe at the precise point where the distance between the two continents is the shortest.
I have seen the skies full of: black and red kites, three or four of the smaller species of eagle and the aforementioned white storks – with the occasional black one thrown in for good measure – and have been so awestruck, as to be dizzy with the wonder of it all. One day, workmen were doing some repairs to the roof of the Cathedral, and this avian diorama was playing out a few feet above the heads of the various masons. I am pretty certain that not a single one of them was aware of the virtual documentary being enacted overhead.
Down at ground level the wildlife was no less fecund. And there were quite a few surprises too. I once saw a bright green lizard run upright on its hind legs – like the basilisk lizards of South America – and disappear behind a shipping container.
Not one of them was aware of the virtual documentary overhead.
Gibraltar, like any other port, will always have its share of exotic visitors. My Gibraltarian colleagues were very wary of the geckos that could be found trying to hide under tree bark. The widespread belief was that if they spat at you, blindness would surely be the result.
Sometimes it was difficult to separate the myths from the real thing. Legend had it that the woods behind San Roque were inhabited by blind, furry snakes… that could fly! The top of The Rock was home to butterflies the size of dustbin lids and in the harbour, there were small golden fish that, when threatened by a predator, would form together into an immense golden sphere in an attempt to frighten the predator with their sheer size. That last one is absolutely true; I saw it myself one day as we idly waited for a ship to tie up on the North Mole.
Where the colder waters of the Atlantic meet the warmer waters of the Mediterranean, the swirling currents are ideal breeding grounds for plankton and where there are plankton, there are predators. The waters around Gibraltar and especially those out towards Tarifa are great places to do a spot of whale watching.
If they spat at you, blindness would surely be the result.
Both common and bottle nosed dolphins are relatively numerous in the area. If you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of some of their cetacean cousins: sperm, humpback and long fin pilot whales can also be seen, but you might need a bit more patience or even luck to add these wonderful beasts to your check list.
The famous rock apes, which are of course Barbary macaque monkeys, are as symbolic of Gibraltar as the ravens are of the Tower of London. Another local legend has it that no dead adult monkey has ever been found. According to the stories, when the adults feel the approach of the man with the scythe, they flee via subterranean tunnels back to their native Morocco.
The area that surrounds the Rock – the Campo de Gibraltar – is awash with wildlife, much of it brought over by the Moors at the time of their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. The snake eating mongoose and the furtive, elusive genet were probably kept as pets, albeit pets that paid for their lodging with their predatory skills.
The nearby Los Alcornocales natural park is one of the most bio-diverse places in the whole of Europe. From the spectacular groves of cork oak trees which give the park its name (alcornoque being cork oak in Spanish), to the animals that find both refuge and a larder among these ancient trees, this privileged place is well worth a visit.
The BBC must have recognised that, because many years ago they filmed a documentary there about the feud between the short-toed eagle and its eternal prey – the Montpellier snake. Known as la culebra bastarda in Spanish, this two-metre monster is the largest poisonous snake in Europe. The eagle, however, is quick to strike and equipped with razor sharp talons.
I once had the great good fortune to see a short-toed eagle, hovering overhead, with just the last few scaly inches of a snake’s tail protruding from its beak. A short distance away, the instantly recognisable silhouette of Gibraltar shimmered in the heat haze, and I wondered just how many people realised what a wildlife paradise it was.