Gibraltar Spring-A Walk to the Almeda Gardens

March 20th-Day 2 afternoon- A walk to the Alameda Gardens via Commonwealth Park and the Trafalgar Cemetery 

During the day the lower parts of Gibraltar are hectic and noisy with traffic. Most people drive everywhere, take the bus or hire a taxi, so in this small place with a large population, traffic is heavy and subsequent noise levels high. The drone of the constant streams of cars is punctuated with frequent horn-tootings and the waspish buzz of swarms of scooters dodging around them adds another dimension. Noise levels are further echoed and amplified by the proximity of the Rock itself, by the high old sea walls that bound the old town and by the ranks of the tall modern buildings that line the roads. Despite all this, as this fairly short walk shows, there are calm and peaceful oases to be found, busy roads are fringed with beautiful trees and looking upwards, the Upper Rock is cloaked with a mantle that is evergreen.

The Moorish Castle rises above modern buildings set against the background of Upper Rock greenery

I started my walk more or less at this small ‘desert-island’ of a roundabout and walked along Bishop Caruna Road to the next roundabout, then turned left onto  a stretch of the roadway that travels around the base of the Rock, Queensway Road.

COMMONWEALTH PARK

After about half a mile or so (approx. 600m), or around 12 minutes of walking, I   left the noisy pavement to take the scenic route through the green and peaceful haven of  Commonwealth Park. Opened in June 2014, this is the first public park to have been built in Gibraltar since the Alameda Gardens opened in 1816. Flanked by the old city walls the park has been thoughtfully landscape with large open grassy spaces, plenty of trees for shade and a large ornamental pool as well as planted gardens and it has matured into a lovely space that is well used and appreciated.

The Park’s visitors are not just restricted to human ones, the water is particularly attractive to birds too. House Sparrows enjoy it all year round and White Wagtails skitter around on the grass chasing flies, but a number of birds not commonly seen in Gibraltar have been spotted here too, including the occasional Egret and this past winter saw the arrival of a Cormorant who stayed around until he had eaten most of the larger fish in the pool! Recent records state that a Woodchat Shrike was seen here on April 1st. 

I didn’t take many photographs here as there were quite a few people out enjoying the sunshine and I didn’t want to intrude on their peace. I ‘borrowed’ the picture above from the official visitor website. I found the scene below quite amusing though, and couldn’t resist photographing the cheeky pigeons disregarding the sign.

Striped-neck Terrapins had scrambled out of the ornamental pool to sunbathe on a small island of rounded boulders and seemed perfectly happy to pose.

I left the Park at its far end to rejoin Queensway Road and carried on walking to the Ragged Staff Gate, turning left onto Ragged Staff Road. From here it’s a short distance to Trafalgar Road and my next destination, which was the Trafalgar Cemetery. (If you follow written or map directions here it seems complicated to find as its at the junction of several roads, but basically it is right in front of you and you can’t miss it.)

trafalgar cemetery

The Trafalgar Cemetery is a peaceful haven for both those laid to rest there and for visitors seeking out its history or a calm place to escape a while from the nearby hustle and bustle. It is immaculately maintained and the old graves are shaded by a variety of beautiful trees and shrubs.

The cemetery was consecrated in June 1798, seven years before the battle of Trafalgar. Known then as the Southport Ditch Cemetery, it may have been a part of the old St. Jago’s Cemetery, which was situated on the other side of Charles V Wall. The association with the battle of Trafalgar does not seem to have been made until many years after the event.

The cemetery was used for burials between 1798 and 1814, then fell into disuse. Earlier gravestones from St.Jago’s cemetery were set into the eastern wall in 1932, and  a few free-standing stones, some of which date back to the 1780s, have been transferred here over the years from the Alameda Gardens.

Older gravestones set into the eastern wall of the cemetery

Although the name of the cemetery commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar, only two of those who are buried here actually died of wounds suffered in the battle (Lieut. William Forster of the Royal Marine Corps of H.M.S. Mars and Lieut. Thomas Norman of H.M.S. Columbus).  Most of those who died at Trafalgar were buried at sea, and Lord Nelson’s body was transported to London for a state funeral. 

A bitter, or Seville orange tree has both fruit and blossom now

The warm air was fragranced with orange blossom, a male blackbird sang while a female foraged beneath the trees and a chiffchaff was calling his namesake tune from a tall tree.

I saw my first butterfly of this trip here, a pretty fresh Speckled Wood. A similar species to our northern European butterfly of the same name, but a rich orange replaces the cream on the wings.

THE WINDSOR SUSPENSION BRIDGE

Leaving the Cemetery I crossed the road in front of me, walked a short distance then crossed Elliots Way (the road that goes up to the Upper Rock) to the car park, within which is located the Cable Car Base Station. The main entrance to the Alameda Gardens is at its far end. Looking up at the Upper Rock from here I stopped to photograph its new feature, the Windsor Bridge, Gibraltar’s first suspension bridge, which opened to the public in June 2016. Forming part of the Thrill Seekers Trail of the Upper Rock, the bridge is located between two Batteries, constructed over a 50 metre gorge and is 71 metre long.

the alameda – gibraltar botanic gardens

A BRIEF HISTORY

The Botanic Gardens cover an area of around 6 hectares (15 acres); the site was a cemetery before the gardens were commissioned in 1816 by the then British Governor of Gibraltar General George Don. In 1815, considering that “there being no place of public recreation in this Garrison” he “was induced…to establish a walk around the Grand Parade, and form what is called in this country an Alameda, where the inhabitants might enjoy the air protected from the extreme heat of the sun”. Alameda is derived from the Spanish word “Alamo”, or White Poplar Populus alba, and old writings mention these trees growing along the Grand Parade.

House Sparrrows abound here and this one was my first bird sighting in the Gardens

To avoid the use of public expenditure the gardens were laid out with voluntary contributions, including some from the Amateur Theatre and monies raised by a series of public lotteries.

Following the 1970s the gardens had deteriorated and had fallen into a poor state. Since 1991, the restoration of the Alameda as a Botanic Garden has been in the hands of Wildlife (Gibraltar) Ltd., on contract to the Government of Gibraltar. The aim is to develop the gardens in ways that will enhance enjoyment, conservation and education, so that its future will be even richer than its past. In 1994 the gardens saw the addition of a zoo: the Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park.

The gardens are laid out with a network of interconnecting paths leading around water features and terraced beds built from the local Jurassic limestone. The planting includes Mediterranean species, including some endemic to Gibraltar. There is also an African bed and an extensive cactus garden. At path junctions and in other strategic places are placed antique guns and other artillery that commemorate Gibraltar’s military heritage.

THE ELLIOTT MEMORIAL

A number of features were gradually added to the gardens, most reflecting historical facts or personalities. Entering through the main gates you are greeted by one of the oldest and the tallest of them; a memorial of George Augustus Eliott, 1st Baron Heathfield, guarded by four 18th-century howitzers (canons).

The statue was  photographed from behind as I spotted a cheeky  juvenile Yellow-legged gull perched on top of the General’s head.

THE DELL BRIDGE

A favourite feature of mine is the bridge with its attractive pergola tunnel, presently shaded with flowering Bougainvillea, that spans the Dell and Sunken Garden. I like the patterns the pergola and railings make on the paving of the bridge. It also affords good views down onto the sunken gardens of the Dell.

The bridge is named for Guiseppe Codali who was the head gardener and horticulturalist of the Gardens during the mid-19th Century. He was Italian, from Bergamo and was brought to Gibraltar specifically to work in the gardens. His Italian influence can be seen particularly in the bridge and sunken garden, The Dell, in the centre of the Alameda which was opened on the 24th September 1842 and re-inaugurated 150 years later on 24th September 1992.

THE WHALEBONE ARCH

This pair of whale jaw bones was originally placed at one end of the Dell Bridge. Their origin is long forgotten , but whalers regularly called into Gibraltar until the early 20th Century. The bones now form an arch over the gate leading into the Dell.

THE DELL OR SUNKEN GARDEN

Stripe-necked Terrapins stack up to enjoy the sunshine on the edge of a pool in the Dell.

PLANTS OF THE GARDENS

The plants of the Alameda Gardens are a combination of native species and others brought in from abroad, often from former British territories like Australia and South Africa with which Gibraltar had maritime links at the time of the British Empire. Since 1991 many new species have been planted, some growing in Gibraltar for the first time.

Fressia is a naturalised plant in Gibraltar and found growing in the wild. Here it is the Wildflower Garden

SOME PERSONAL FAVOURITE PLANTS

There are so many beautiful plants here it takes many visits to appreciate them properly, but here are some of my personal favourites.

The gardens have a stunning collection of Dragon Trees Dracaena draco, the oldest of which is over 200 years old, perhaps as much as 300, and would have been amongst trees here that pre-date the opening of the gardens. It is still young though, there are claims that they live upwards of 1000 years! An unusual member of the lily family The Dragon Tree comes from the Atlantic Islands of the Canaries, Madeira and Cape Verde. The smooth grey bark is reminiscent of an elephant’s hide and its red resin, which quickly crystalises, was used medicinally and known as Dragon’s Blood. Its panicles of showy white flowers appear irregularly in summer and produce bright orange berry-like fruit in winter.

There are Bird of Paradise plants, Strelitzia reginaein several spots throughout the gardens. The species is originally native to South Africa and is the most exotic of flowers I think and so aptly named – I fancy this group looks just like a flock of large-billed birds about to take flight. Its scientific name commemorates the British queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.

Another species of Strelitzia grows here too, it’s much larger and I think it may be S. nicolai , which is the largest in the genus, reaching as much as 10 m tall and producing stately white and blue flowers.The leaves are large and similar to a banana leaf in appearance. This beautifully newly-pruned tree shows the leaves grow in two ranks to form a fan-like crown of evergreen foliage. There is a flower bud squeezing between the leaf stems.

WILDLIFE OF THE GARDENS

A Blackbird singing from the branch of an old pine tree

The gardens are rich in wildlife. Bird species nesting here include Sardinian Warbler, Blackcap, Blackbird, Robin, Greenfinch, Serin and Wren. Winter additions include Grey and White Wagtail, Chifchaff, Black Redstart, Chaffinch, Short-toed Treecreeper and occasionally Kingfisher, while notable birds of passage periods are Hoopoe, Redstart, Woodchat Shrike and flycatchers. Kestrel (throughout the year) and Booted Eagle (in winter) regularly hunt in the grounds.

I spotted a female Blackcap nearby, a species that is a year-round resident in the Gardens.

There is a small raised pond in the courtyard between the administration buildings and greenhouses where I caught a resident Perez’s frog – Pelophylax perezi basking in the sunshine.

Other wildlife that may be spotted are reptiles including the Moorish Gecko and Iberian Wall Lizard, Amphisbaenian and the harmless Horseshoe Whip Snake. Of the bats, the Pipistrelle is the commonest (often seen during the day), while Schreiber’s Bat and the European Free-tailed Bat can also be seen.

One of the gardeners here has an incredible talent for propegating plants and takes great pains to display stock plants in a perfectly ordered way. At one end of the pond is an immaculately arranged collection of cacti.

More cacti stand in a rank along a wall opposite a collection of various Aloes.

and finally for this visit, is a iew of part of his display of the epiphyte collection: a beautiful piece of living art.

 

 

 

 

Gibraltar Spring-Early Morning on the Upper Rock

March 20th-Day 2-Bird Observatory, Jew’s Gate, Upper Rock

07.30- We reached the Bird Observatory on the Upper Rock a little before it was properly light. Through a shroud of mist, dawn was subtle, washing the buildings of Algeciras, the hills beyond Gibraltar Bay and the Moroccan coast with diffused shades of amber.

The first thing I noticed was the absence of the Pillars of Hercules Monument directly below the Obs building. Apparently there had been a problem with the concrete roof of the public loos that forms its base and the Monument has been taken down and is currently propped up against nearby railings. I’m not sure how they got it there, it must be pretty weighty. Below is a photograph of the more usual view:

07:45 -We were here for birds as my friend and wonderful host Jill, is in training as a bird-ringer and was hoping for some practice in this highly skilled art, but thus far this morning had been  disappointing for the current resident ringers. Not only was it cool and misty, but also and worse was that the cold wind was blowing in the wrong direction to bring migrating birds over the Strait in this direction, so the mist nets were very sparsely populated. If there are no birds to process and record, a day with a dawn start can seem very long up here, despite the amazing views.

Gibraltar has long been recognised as a key location for observing the migration of birds and the Bird Observatory, run by the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society (GONHS), is a highly desirable venue for bird-watchers and in the appropriate seasons, bird-ringers, from many parts of the world. Perched high on the Upper Rock the views from the front door extending across the Bay of Gibraltar, over Algeciras and across the Strait to the Moroccan coast are truly stunning. The climate is appealing too, but of course it’s the opportunity to witness birds on their migration passages, often in great numbers, that draws them here.

Inside the Field Centre, suspended on hooks above the ringing bench, a male Sardinian Warbler and a Willow Warbler were waiting in little cotton bags to be ‘processed’. Within minutes the birds were quickly and carefully weighed, measured, ringed, entered into the record book and released.

0757-Sardinian Warbler processed and ready to go. Note the manicured fingernails of a female bird ringer – it’s not a job strictly for the boys

0759-Willow Warbler with view across the Bay of Gibratar

08.00 – By way of a diversion, the moth light trap is opened up to reveal last night’s bounty. There were a good number in there of an interesting variety of species ranging from tiny micro-moths to a spectacular Tiger Moth. I left it to the experts to ooh and aah at the really tiny ‘micros’ and concentrated on the bigger, showier ones that I had a hope of recognising if I ever see them again! I knew the lovely Tiger Moth with its rich red underparts and was quite taken with the Shark Moth, so-called because of its shape in profile.

08.17 – Excitement as an incoming Marsh Harrier dashes overhead-the sighting was brief, but we thought a male as has black wingtips.

08.35 Another inspection of the mist nets brings a female Goldfinch

0919-In the sheltered ‘garden’ area at the side of the Obs there is a small pool of water inhabited by frogs. As the sun gathered strength the warmth brought them out to sunbathe and the males began to sing. Their human neighbours were not as happy to hear them as I was; apparently they’d be singing loudly for most of the night. I don’t know his species, but according to the GONHS website, frogs present here in Gibraltar are introduced and of the species Rana (Pelophylax) perezi (Perez’s Marsh Frog). Maybe someone will confirm or correct me?

Other insects were also appreciating the sunshine; an interestingly coloured millipede warmed himself on a wall and little bees were gathering pollen and nectar, particularly from Rosemary and Tree germander.

There are wildflowers here too, including some elegant and highly fragrant Freesia blooms. Not a native plant, but one-time introduction originating in South Africa, it is now naturalised in a variety of locations around the Rock. It’s much tougher than it looks, here it competes for headroom with other native plants, but it is also found pushing up through cracks in paving and against walls.

Freesia refracta

Pitch Trefoil or Bitumen Pea-Psoralea bituminosa

Another plant flowering is the Pitch Trefoil or Bitumen Pea, so called because if crushed the plant releases an aroma uncannily like that of the tar they use to repair road surfaces, which happens to be one of my life-long favourite smells, so I love this plant!

09.55 – A juvenile male Blackcap has been ringed and is released

09.44 – Busy with the wildflowers I missed a sighting of a Dark-phase Booted Eagle, so no photo, but I did catch the single Black Kite as it passed overhead.

The wind changed slightly, but was still not from the most desirable westerly direction. Mist still hangs over the Strait and the Bay, but the appearance of the Black Kite prompted scanning with binoculars as these most numerous of incoming raptors frequently travel together in variously sized flocks. There were more! In conditions such as today’s when visibility is limited, birds often fly close to the surface of the water and have to flap their wings to maintain momentum, expending precious energy. Arriving close to land again and once they can see where they are and want to be, they begin to circle seeking currents of rising warmer air. These ‘thermals’ will enable them to gain height without flapping and once they are up high they are able to glide towards their destination on the wind.

Jill retrieved a very feisty female Blackbird from the mist net. Already ringed, she was clearly a local resident bird and a brood patch on her breast showed she was nesting, so was quickly set free.

My last  pictures of the morning here was of a large Wall Lizard, that looked like it was in the process of shedding its skin.

and another wildflower, this one growing at the front of the building, White Mignonette, is also planted in gardens as an ornamental.

A cold but very varied and enjoyable morning, enhanced by several hot cups of tea and a hot-cross bun. Looking forward to a bit of a rest, lunch and a walk up to the Alameda Botanical Gardens this afternoon…….

Spring in Gibraltar

I am recently returned from spending a brilliant few days in Gibraltar and Spain and am looking forward to sharing some ‘real time’ posts in the coming weeks.

Day 1 – Arrival and ‘Setting the Scene’

March 19th

Landed in Gibraltar at 17.43, a little later than scheduled, but down to a ‘missing’ passenger at Gatwick, taking his luggage off caused missing our take-off slot. It was a mostly smooth and scenic flight. Snow on Pyrenees in the north-east of Spain, then much of the country veiled by misty cloud, so visibilty for aerial shots not good, but could see the unfolding panorama below well enough. Weather here was still sunny and a balmy 19°C, had been warmer earlier on. I was told I was lucky with the weather. Last week stormy weather and high winds meant most flights in and out were diverted to Malaga.

170319-1743-Landed in Gibraltar- first view of the Rock

Landing in Gibraltar International Airport is always dramatic. Although  consistently listed as one of the world’s scariest for air passengers, I can honestly say I have never found it so. Problems arise as the airfield is exposed to strong cross winds around the Rock and across the Bay of Gibraltar/Algeciras, sometimes making landings, particularly in winter, a little uncomfortable and occasionally impossible, but in that event planes are diverted to Malaga to land. The runway is also shorter than many, has the sea at either end and is crossed by the main road into and out of Gibraltar, but under the control of the RAF this is probably one of the most secure and highly scrutinised airstrips in the world too.

Gibraltar Airport photographed from the top of the Rock

British Airways landing in Gibraltar – heading up runway

Gibraltar is well-known to many as a British Overseas Territory with an ongoing political history of dispute with Spain as to its sovereignty. However, despite features that are recognisibly British, like English signage and language spoken, pubs, red phone and pillar boxes, the Morrison’s supermarket and the Police uniform, this is not a piece of England! Spanish is also widely spoken, they drive on the right and the local cuisine is similar to that of Spain, but it is definitely not Spain either. This is Gibraltar and the majority of the population are Gibraltarian born and bred and rightly proud to be so.

I’ve realised recently that although most people are aware of Gibraltar, easily recognising images of this iconic ‘Rock’, not so many know exactly where in the world it is. My own interest and past involvement with Gibraltar has been, and still is, largely connected with its natural history: the Rock supports a surprisingly rich and diverse fauna and flora, which my next few posts will mostly reflect. It is Gibraltar’s geology and its  geological location that makes it such a unique and fascinating place for those interested in natural history: but those factors have also determined and shaped its history, culture, politics and society.

There’s a great deal I didn’t really know myself, so as I  was here for a few days I thought I should find out more. Gibraltar has been in the news rather frequenty lately too, in connection with Britain’s ‘Brexit’ from Europe, so I thought it might be interesting to look at how Gibraltar came to have British sovereignty in the first place. I’ve tried to keep it brief, but although a relatively tiny place, there’s an incredible amount packed into it, so forgive me if it goes on a bit.

WHERE Gibraltar IS LOCATED 

Geographic coordinates: Latitude: 36°08′41″ N : Longitude: 5°21′09″ W
Elevation above sea level: 11 m = 36 ft

Gibraltar’s terrain consists of the 426-metre-high (1,398 ft) Jurassic limestone Rock of Gibraltar and the narrow coastal lowland surrounding it. Its territory covers 6.7 square kilometres (2.6 sq miles) and shares a 1.2-kilometre (0.75 mile) land border with Spain. It  is  located on the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula, on the northern side of the Strait of Gibraltar, in Spanish Estrecho de Gibraltar, that run from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. This narrow body of water connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and separates Gibraltar and Peninsular Spain in Europe from Morocco and Ceuta (Spain) in Africa. Europe and Africa are separated by 7.7 nautical miles (14.3 km; 8.9 miles) of ocean at the strait’s narrowest point.

Evening approach into Gibraltar from east side with La Linea and Spanish coast

Gibraltar from the air shows its position in relation to Spain. Photographed after take-off, the following photograph shows the West Side of the Rock and the southern tip that points towards North Africa.

The shoreline of Gibraltar measures 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) in length. There are two coasts or ‘sides’ of Gibraltar: the East Side, which contains the settlements of Sandy Bay and Catalan Bay; and the West Side, where the vast majority of the population lives.

The town of La Línea de la Concepción, a municipality of the province of Cádiz, lies on the Spanish side of the border. The Spanish hinterland forms the comarca of Campo de Gibraltar, which translates literally as “Countryside of Gibraltar”.

La Línea de la Concepción – the new Harbour

On the opposite, southern side of the Strait lie Morocco and Ceuta, which is a Spanish exclave (a part of a state or territory geographically separated from the main part by surrounding alien territory). Variably visible from Gibraltar, depending on the degree of mist, is the part of the African coastline defined by the Atlas Mountains. The Straits are just 14 kilometres wide at this point and a hazardous place to be due to the immensely strong currents.

TERRITORIAL WATERS

The Strait lies mostly within the territorial waters of Spain and Morocco, except for at the far eastern end. The United Kingdom (through Gibraltar) claims 3 nautical miles around Gibraltar putting part of the Strait inside British territorial waters, which then means that part of the Strait therefore lies in international waters according to the British claim. However, as we are aware, the ownership of Gibraltar and its territorial waters is disputed by Spain, and similarly Morocco dispute the far eastern end (of Ceuta), which is owned by Spain. It’s complicated.

Across the Strait to Ceuta and Jebel Musa from Gibraltar

The highest point of this photograph is Jebel Musa, which is 851 metres high and located five kilometres west of Ceuta in Morocco to the south. Together with the much smaller Rock of Gibraltar at just 426 metres, these two mountains guard the entrance exit to the Atlantic Ocean from the Mediterranean Sea and form the Pillars of Hercules.

GIBRALTAR FROM OTHER ANGLES

The distinctive Rock is visible from miles away. Often shrouded in mist, its unmistakable bulk can still be readily identified from many locations along the Spanish coast and particularly from the vantage point of mountains that have views to the south, all of which help to place it in the wider landscape.

Gibraltar seen from Alcaidesa on the Spanish coast east of La Linea

Gibraltar from alongside the Strait to the west of the Rock

View to Gibraltar from the summit of El Bujeo across the town of Algeciras

A Brief History of Gibraltar

Ancient times

View of the northern face of the Moorish Castle’s Tower of Homage. Built in the 14th century.

It is a unique and fascinating place historically and culturally. In ancient history its strategic geographical position on the northern boundary of the Strait of Gibraltar saw it occupied and influenced in turn by Neanderthals, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Visigoths and most pronouncedly by the Moors. The name Rock of Gibraltar originates from the Arabic  Jebel Tariq, meaning “Tariq’s mountain” was named after Tariq ibn Ziyad.

How Gibraltar became ‘British’

In 1462 Gibraltar was finally captured by the Spanish Juan Alonso de Guzmán, 1st Duke of Medina Sidonia. There was some to-ing and fro-ing of control amongst the Spanish themselves, but it remained Spanish until 1704, when during the War of the Spanish Succession, a combined Anglo-Dutch fleet, representing the Grand Alliance, captured the town of Gibraltar on behalf of the Archduke Charles of Austria in his bid to become King of Spain. In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht ceded control of Gibraltar to Britain ” in perpetuity”, to secure Britain’s withdrawal from the war. Unsuccessful attempts by Spanish monarchs to regain Gibraltar were made with the siege of 1727 and again with the Great Siege of Gibraltar (1779 to 1783), during the American War of Independence.

Britain’s interest in Gibraltar historically has been a military one. It became a key base for the British Royal Navy, playing an important role prior to the Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) and during the Crimean War of 1854–56, due to its strategic location. Its strategic value increased when the Suez Canal opened, as it lay on the sea route between the UK and the British Empire east of Suez. In the later 19th century, there were major investments in improving the fortifications and the port. During World War II it was an important base for the Royal Navy as it controlled the entrance and exit to the Mediterranean Sea, which is only eight miles (13 km) wide here. It remains strategically important to this day with half the world’s seaborne trade passing through the Strait.

Present Day Gibraltar

The last UK-based army battalion left Gibraltar in 1991 and the Royal Gibraltar Regiment took charge of local defence under the command structure British Forces Gibraltar. Today Gibraltar is used primarily as a training area for the British Armed Forces, due to its good climate and rocky terrain, and as a stopover for aircraft and ships en route to and from deployments East of Suez or Africa. (More information on British Forces Gibraltar  )

Today Gibraltar’s economy is based largely on tourism, online gambling, financial services, and shipping. The sovereignty of Gibraltar is a major point of contention in Anglo-Spanish relations as Spain asserts a claim to the territory. Gibraltarians overwhelmingly rejected proposals for Spanish sovereignty in a 1967 referendum and again in 2002. Under the Gibraltar Constitution of 2006, Gibraltar governs its own affairs, though some powers, such as defence and foreign relations, remain the responsibility of the British government.

We can only wonder what the future has in store for this iconic Rock, but whatever may happen politically and historically as a result of our human wrangles and power struggles, let us hope that its wonderful wildlife continues to survive and thrive.

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All photographs are my own. Other references include: Wikipaedia (various) and The Rock from Bottom to Top by Nick Nutter ISBN-13: 978-1530659449

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aromatic Inula

In September, a slight increase in humidity brings forth the appearance of the yellow-flowered Aromatic, or Sticky Inula, which is similar in appearance to Ragwort. It’s not the most beautiful of plants, but it brings some welcome colour back to the otherwise bleached brown landscape ahead of the eagerly anticipated autumn rains and provides a good source of nectar for butterflies.

Aromatic Inula-Dittrichia viscosa- Sotogrande beach edge

Aromatic Inula-Dittrichia viscosa- Sotogrande beach edge

Aromatic or Sticky Inula Dittrichia viscosa

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Aromatic Inula – Dittrichia viscosa – the flowers are similar to those of ragwort

Numerous yellow flower heads and sticky leaves are characteristics of this plant.

Flowers in the late summer-autumn months in a variety of habitats, on woodland edges, along roadsides, in uncultivated fields and as in my photographs, even at the back of  beaches.

As its name suggests it has a pleasant aroma, a bit like camphor, and the plant was traditionally used as a dye of a greenish yellow shade.

The Carob Tree – el Algarrobo

Recently I bought a bar of Carob ‘chocolate’ in my local health food shop, which reminded me that this is the time of year when the fruits of the Carob trees are ripe for harvesting. The trees have long been cultivated in Spain where its long brown pods were traditionally used as animal fodder, although nowadays they probably have more value as a natural additive to many human foodstuffs.

Carob or St John’s Bread in English; Algerrobo or Algorroba in Spanish and scientifically Ceratonia siliqua, is a species of slow-growing flowering evergreen shrub or tree belonging to the pea family, Fabaceae. It is native to the Mediterranean region where it has been cultivated for some 4,000 years for its edible beans and as an ornamental shade tree in parks and gardens.

Carob tree - Gaucin, Andalucia

Carob tree – Gaucin, Andalucia

The tree grows up to 15 metres (50ft) tall and is supported by a thick trunk covered with rough bark. They are slow growing and can live to be 200 years old. They are well-suited to growing in dry, harsh climates on infertile soils and may produce fruits for 80-100 years.

Ripening seedpods

Ripening seedpods

The Carob tree is dioecious (has separate male and female trees), so only the female trees bear fruit. Flowers of the male are stamen clusters with pollen, producing a very strong odor, while the female produces small, yellow, aromatic flowers (pistals), grouped in clusters.

Pollination

Both male and female flowers produce nectar and attract large numbers of insects. There is also research supporting the idea that Carob flowers could be Bat-pollinated as the perfume is released at night and during the cool season when warm-blooded pollinators have an advantage over insects.

October-Flowers on a male Carob tree

October-Flowers are highly attractive to insects

The perfume of the male flowers is a strong and curious one that may radiate hundreds of meters from the originating tree, particularly in the cooler evening air. Few descriptions of the scent that I have come across are at all enticing. It is even included on one list of the 9 worst-smelling flowers! Others claim it has “the scent of rotting flesh”; then another compares it to sweaty socks. Maybe it is best to stay upwind of a male Carob in flower.

Male Carob tree in flower

Male Carob tree in flower

The distinctive pods, or more accurately legumes, take more or less a full year to develop, starting off green and then becoming hard and brown, usually becoming ripe in September or October each year. The flowers and ripe pods are then together on the tree simultaneously.

September-Carob tree with ripe seedpods, flowers and a chiffchaff-R oman Baths, Manilva

September- female Carob tree with ripe seedpods, flowers and a chiffchaff-Roman Baths, Manilva

Harvesting the pods without damaging the new flowers and next year’s crop must be tricky. In Spain and Portugal this is traditionally done using long canes to dislodge the pods, knocking them into laid-out nets on the ground if it is clear enough, otherwise gathering up is entirely by hand. An extremely labour-intensive operation, particularly as a fully-laden tree may yield a ton weight of pods.

060829-Carob beans-Portugal

060829-Carob beans-Portugal

USES OF CAROB

TRADITIONAL USES

Traditionally Carob pods were used mainly as animal fodder, in Iberia this would have been mainly for donkies. Today, Carob pod meal is still used as an energy-rich feed for livestock, particularly for ruminants.

MEASURE FOR GEMSTONES

The carat weight measure used for gemstones originated from the weight of the carob seed, which was thought to be consistent. Sadly, modern research has now proved it to be no more consistent than any other seed. The word carat stems from the Arabic word qīrāṭ which was a very small unit of weight based upon the weight of the carob seed in that 5 carob seeds equals one gram and thus a 1 carat weight is 200 milligrams.

MODERN DAY USES IN THE FOOD INDUSTRY

Spain is the world’s highest producer of Carob, which is now in high demand by the food industry and ad Carob pods are usually processed in their country of origin, this makes it an important contributor to the country’s economy.

After harvesting, the pods are both dry and wet cleaned and kibbled (coarsely ground) to separate the seeds from the pulp. After seed extraction, the pods are roasted, milled and sieved and then stored in controlled conditions to prevent them becoming hard and lumpy. The resulting powder, known as locust bean gum (ceratonia or carob bean gum) is then used as a gelling agent, stabilizer or emulsifier in ice-cream, dessert fruit filling and salads.

Carob powder is used in baking and food manufacture, sometimes as an alternative to cocoa powder. Carob bars, an alternative to chocolate bars, are often available in health-food stores. Non-dairy carob bars use vegetable fat, soya flour and soya lecithin as an emulsifier. It is naturally sweet so no added sugar varieties are available.

MEDICINAL USES

An oil called algaroba is extracted from the carob seeds to be used for medicinal purposes.

Sea Daffodils

The height of the holiday season. Populations of the mountain and coastal towns and villages increase manyfold now, both with the influx of foreign tourists and of Spanish families opening up their holiday homes, seeking escape from the intense heat of inland towns and cities. August days are hot, often very hot with thermometers soaring to 40° or more inland. On the coast the temperatures may be lower, but there is often a misty haze over the sea and the days can be heavy and humid. Nights are drawing in and late nights and early mornings can feel quite chilly if there’s a sea breeze blowing.

The landscape is dry and dusty, grass is scorched and bleached of all colour. Most of the smaller rivers run dry, their rocky beds exposed. But in many places trees and shrubbery hold their colour, being largely evergreen and evolved to withstand the heat and drought. Forest and grassland fires are a serious risk and in some years raging fires inflict serious amounts of damage to the cork oak woodlands and in some cases houses are consumed and homes are lost.

Wildflowers are few, but if you are heading to beaches, particularly those backed by coastal dunes or vegetation, you may be surprised to discover daffodils in bloom! Not your common-or-garden yellow ones, but lovely scented exotic-looking white ones. These are the blooms of the Sea Daffodil or Sea Lily Prancaium maritimum.

Sea Daffodils flowering-Tarifa

Sea Daffodils flowering-Tarifa

Not really a daffodil at all , but rather a member of the family Amaryllidaceae, these glorious flowers bloom from August until October and are a distinctive species of the Medterranean coastline.

Sea Daffodils, Tarifa

Sea Daffodils, Tarifa

It is amazing that such a lovely plant not only survives, but thrives growing in salt-laden sand, regularly blasted by sandy, salty winds. The flowers open fully in the late afternoon and remain open through the night and into the following morning as they are pollinated by a night-flying hawkmoth.

Sea daffodil blooms are

Sea daffodil blooms are fragrant 

You may well have noticed the green, strap-like leaves of the plant in previous months – they stay green until late in the summer, just until the flowers are ready to open, when they turn brown and wither.

Sea daffodil leaves - April-Cape Trafalgar

Sea daffodil leaves – April-Cape Trafalgar

The fruits are large and at first shiny black, like small pieces of polished jet, but they have no weight to them and are readily picked up by the wind and carried away to spread the species.

The fruits are shiny black

October-The fruits are shiny black-Sotogrande

The lightwight seeds fall to the ground where many  are picked up and scattered by the wind

The lightwight seeds fall to the ground from where many are picked up and scattered by the wind

 

Dazzling Dragonflies

In 2011 I posted about some beautiful dragonflies that laid claim to the water in our out-of-commission swimming pool. I attempted to identify them but it turned out that my visitors were actually exotic recent newcomers from Africa and not the common-or-garden relative species I labelled them as. I would have remained in ignorance had it not been for guidance from some knowledgeable and generous people who took the time and trouble to (most tactfully), correct me, for which I thank them. I decided to ‘reblog’ the post but this time giving the correct identifications and to remove the misleading old one. I’ve timed the posting so anyone planning to visit the area imminently, either seeking, or happening upon any of the species is armed with better information.

_____________________________________________________

Late August and early September see the emergence of a variety of species of dragonfly and in 2010 we had regular visits to our garden from some glorious and somewhat exotic ones. Their presence was compensation for our swimming pool being unusable for its proper purpose. The pump wasn’t working, so despite the intense sun it had remained partially filled with water as we were unable to drain it out and the garden sprinklers regularly topped it up each evening. The dragonflies adopted it as their territory, patrolling its surface and keeping watch for intruders whilst basking on the pool edge. There were three species that were very conspicuous, two that were red and one blue, all adult males.

ORANGE-WINGED DROPWING- Trithemis Kirbyi

family Libellulidae other common name is Kirby’s dropwing

Orange-winged dropwing in obelisk pose

Orange-winged Dropwing in obelisk posture

The first one to arrive was a bright scarlet red Orange-winged Dropwing (Trithemis Kirbyi) that spent quite long periods on the very edge of the pool, lifting his body vertically to into what is known as the obelisk posture.

The bright sunlight cast perfect reflections of the extensive orange patches on both the fore and hind wings of the insect.

The obelisk posture is one that some dragonflies and damselflies assume to prevent overheating on hot sunny days. The abdomen is raised until its tip points at the sun, minimizing the surface area exposed to solar radiation. When the sun is close to directly overhead, the vertical alignment of the insect’s body suggests an obelisk. 

The Orange-Winged Dropwing is an African species  which over the last few years has begun to establish itself in Southern Spain. Adult length is 3.2-3.6 cm; wingspan 5.8 cm. The males are virtually all red, apart from black pterostigma, the blue-grey lower half of the eye, and the very large orange wing patches. The female has a similar wing patch, but its size is more variable than in males and the base colour is yellow, as it is in immature males.

One of the most common African dragonflies, its natural habitats are various; subtropical or tropical moist lowland forests, dry savanna, moist savanna, subtropical or tropical dry shrubland, subtropical or tropical moist shrubland and rivers.

4/9/10-  The Orange-winged dropwing has a vivid orange patch at the base of the forewings as well as having the orange patch at the base of the hindwings

4/9/10- The Orange-winged Dropwing has a vivid orange patch at the base of the forewings as well as having the orange patch at the base of the hindwings

Wandering around the garden I was attracted to the dragonfly in the following photograph when I spotted something glittering in the sunlight: it was perched on a lavender flower and stayed there for some time. It was clearly a ‘fresh’ specimen an immature male, I think, although females are similar to this.

8/9/10-  Orange-winged dropwing-trithemis-kirbyi -immature male or

8/9/10- Orange-winged Dropwing- immature male

The Orange-winged Dropwing had the ‘territory’ to himself for a week or so, but then two individuals of different species arrived on the scene and also became very regular visitors. One of these was also red coloured, but a darker red with purplish shading whose common English name is Violet Dropwing (Trithemis annulata). The  other a powdery-blue Epaulet Skimmer (Orthetrum Chrysostigma).

The behavioural dynamic between the three males was interesting. The Orange-winged Dropwing was always the first to appear, then later the Violet Dropwing and the Epaulet Skimmer would arrive in the garden at virtually the same time and settle themselves in positions on the edge of the pool, sometimes virtually next to one another. There was no sign of any aggression or territorial disputing between them at all. However, the Violet Dropwing did chase the slightly smaller Orange Dropwing whenever it flew out over the water or generally got too close.

VIOLET DROPWING – Trithemis annulata

family: Libellulidae other common names are violet-marked darter, purple-blushed darter or plum-coloured dropwing

The adult male Violet Dropwing has a blue pruinescence overlying a scarlet body that creates a purplish-violet colour that is unlike that of any other dragonfly in Europe.

100907-Violet dropwing-Trithemis annulata-Sotogrande-Spain

Violet Dropwing (Trithemis annulata) has distinctive red veins & an orange patch at base of hindwings

Adult length is 3.2-3.6 cm wingspan: 60 mm (2.4 in). The mature male has a dark red head and a yellow labium with brown central spot. The eyes are red with white spots on the rear edge, and the frons is dark metallic purplish-red.

Violet Dropwing perched on car ariel

Violet Dropwing perched on car ariel

The wings have distinctive red veins, the pterostigma is orange-brown and there is a large orange-brown splash at the base of the hind wings. The abdomen is fairly broad and is pinkish-violet, with purple markings on the top of each segment and blackish markings on the terminal three segments. Females are a similar size to males but the thorax is brownish and the abdomen is yellow with dark brown markings. The wings of females lack the red veins of males but have similar orange-brown patches.

violet-dropwing-trithemis-annulata

Violet-dropwing-trithemis-annulata

EPAULET SKIMMER  Orthetrum Chrysostigma

family Libellulidae

Longer established in Iberia than the Dropwings, the Epaulet Skimmer is one of a number of dragonfly species where the mature male is predominantly blue and the female/immature male is predominantly a tan/brown colour.  The wings have a reddish-brown costa and brown pterostigma.

4/9/10-Epaulet skimmer -Orthetrum-chrysostigma

4/9/10-Epaulet skimmer -Orthetrum-chrysostigma

The Epaulet Skimmer is widespread throughout the Sahara region in Africa; it’s larvae are able to survive in moist sand, suggesting that it is an insect very well adapted to surviving in an arid landscape. 

100904TGSP-Epaulet skimmer-Orthetrum chrysostigma

4/9/10-Epaulet skimmer- Orthetrum chrysostigma

The Epaulet skimmer is unique amongst the Skimmers occurring on the Iberian peninsula in having a single white stripe or “epaulet” outlined in black on each side of the thorax, which is just about visible in the enlarged photograph below.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

The Epaulet Skimmer has a diagnostic white stripe on the side of the thorax

length: 39 to 46mm flight period in Iberia: late March to mid December habitat: marshes, streams, & pools in open terrain, plus man made water bodies distribution: Southern Portugal & Spain, North Africa & the Near East. Not uncommon in southern Portugal and Spain, currently absent from the north of the Iberian peninsula, but perhaps expanding it’s range in that direction.

A week or so after the arrival of the three adult males described above I began also to notice cast-off dragonfly larval ‘skins’ stuck to the inner walls of the swimming pool. Each morning there would be a few more, but several days passed before I was out early enough to witness a dragonfly still preparing for its first flight. I believe it was an Epaulet skimmer as it had the distinctive white stripe on its thorax.

100908TGSP-Sotogrande-Emerging dragonfly on wall of pool

8/9/10- An emerging dragonfly on wall of pool is probably an Epaulet skimmer

I am relieved that all the new dragonflies emerged and set off into the world before the swimming pool was emptied and cleaned and rather wished it could have been left as a pond.

Update on species 2015:

The presence in Southern Spain of all three species described above is now sufficiently established for them to be included on many species lists for the area and their ranges are extending year on year.

 

 

 

 

 

High Noon on the Garden Wall

One hot sunny July morning a little before noon a large, dark-coloured gecko climbed the garden wall then settled in a sun-dappled spot on the top amongst the honeysuckle; the perfect spot for a siesta. He was surprisingly well-camouflaged here, despite being dark brown and on a white wall. His skin was a similar texture to the surface of the wall blocks and in the dappled shade surrounded by honeysuckle stems and leaves he was well sited to snap up any unsuspecting nectar-seeking insects.

A large dark gecko on the garden wall

A large dark gecko on the garden wall

The gecko’s peace was short-lived however, as minutes later a smallish skinny Wall lizard appeared, climbing up the wall and seeming not to have noticed him stretched out on its top.  The gecko spotted his approach and edged forward slightly. I anticipated trouble, but the lizard spotted the movement and skittered sharpishly over the wall out of reach. The gecko settled himself back down.

The Wall lizard hurrying past the gecko

The Wall lizard hurrying past the gecko

The lizard had had a lucky escape, but fate wasn’t finished with him yet, he would soon discover that bigger trouble awaited him on the other side of the wall…

He seemed to have crossed over the top of the wall then travelled along it until he was behind the gecko, as a couple of minutes later I spotted movement amongst the leaves and aimed the camera there, anticipating seeing his little head emerge. The leaves began shaking violently and I  briefly glimpsed the lizard, who appeared to be struggling to reach the top of the wall. Suddenly, he shot out from cover with another lizard, a larger version of himself, in hot pursuit. He almost made it back over the wall, but his pursuer grabbed his tail, pulling him back.

The larger lizard had the other's tail clamped tightly in his mouth

The larger lizard had the other’s tail clamped tightly in his mouth

A fierce struggle ensued, the captive lizard twisting and writhing desperately trying to escape, whilst his captor hung on determinedly.

The captor hung on whilst the captive struggled to get free

The captor hung on whilst the captive struggled to get free

Somehow the little lizard managed to break free and raced away with his tail intact.

The gecko seeming rather disgruntled to have been disturbed by the lizards’ kafuffle and set off back down the wall to seek a more peaceful spot.

The gecko set off back down the wall

The gecko set off back down the wall

The lizards are Iberian Wall Lizard – Podarcis hispanica

Male Iberian wall lizards are somewhat territorial and in fights  combatants will grab for the root of the other’s tail. The lizards can shed the most part of their tail and if it is possible they will do so to escape as they are able to grow another. However, if the aggressor manages to grab his victims tail nearer its root, escape is more difficult. Larger lizards may also prey on smaller ones.

The gecko in this drama is a Moorish GeckoTarentola mauritanica. You can see from its tail that it has lost it before as it has lost the original ‘bumpy’ scale covering of the original. The colours of individuals changes in intensity according to the light. When they are active by day their colour is darker than during the night.

TAIL DROPPING AND REGENERATION

The Moorish gecko and Iberian wall lizard will drop their tail if threatened or if their tail is grabbed. This tail dropping type of defense is called autotomy  and they are designed to do this, with special connective tissue in the tail that creates a “weak spot” where the tail breaks off readily. The blood vessels to the tail will constrict, so very little blood loss occurs.

The dropped tail will continue to move -wriggling and twitching on the ground which acts to distract the predator, allowing the gecko or lizard to get away while the predator is left holding just a tail.

Although geckos and lizards are able to regenerate their tails, the new version is not an exact replica of the original. Research has shown the new tail  “has a single, long tube of cartilage rather than vertebrae, as in the original. Also, long muscles span the length of the regenerated tail compared to shorter muscle fibers found in the original. ”

“These differences suggest that the regenerated tail is less flexible, as neither the cartilage tube nor the long muscle fibers would be capable of the fine movements of the original tail, with its interlocking vertebrae and short muscle fibers,” Fisher said. “The regrown tail is not simply a copy of the original, but instead is a replacement that restores some function.”

“Another interesting finding is the presence of pores in the regenerated cartilage tube. While the backbone of the original lizard tail is made of many bones with regular gaps, allowing blood vessels and nerves to pass through, in the regenerated tail, only blood vessels pass through the cartilage tube pores. This observation suggests that nerves from the original tail stump grow into the regenerated tail.”

Late June in a Spanish garden

This blog post, with more to follow were made possible by the generous hospitality and chauffeuring of my good friend and her family during my recent short trip to Spain and Gibraltar. The family have a lovely weekend house out in the campo near Jimena de la Frontera and their garden combines with those of the neighbours’ to provide a bountiful summer  oasis  for a fascinating and varied array of wildlife, in an otherwise rapidly desiccating landscape.

I have done a few blog posts based on this garden and its surroundings over the years and I was looking forward to seeing some familiar sights and interested to see if anything had changed since I’ve been gone. I am happy to report that a few short hours spent here brought back some very happy memories and was reassured that life was continuing here very much as when I had left it.

View from the house of the surrounding landscape, rapidly drying out

View from the house of the surrounding landscape, rapidly drying out

June 23rd

Yesterday afternoon I  had sat and watched several Violet Carpenter Bees make frequent forays to nectar on the beautiful purple trusses of a wisteria which together with a grape vine, completely covers a sizeable pergola and shades the eating area of the patio at the back of the house. Not at all bad for a plant that began life here a few years ago as a rather unpromising twiggy offshoot, passed on from another gardening friend.

Violet Carpenter Bee visiting wisteria

Violet Carpenter Bee visiting wisteria

This morning I sat outside with a cup of tea relishing the warm air and the peace of the surroundings, where for a while the only sounds were of a greenfinch calling and the cooing of Collared Doves. I was aware that the  carpenter bees were already hard at work amongst the wisteria, but suddenly one of them left the wisteria and much to my surprise flew in front of me, landing on the ‘bee hotel’ located quite high up on the garden wall.  I ran back inside to grab my camera, hoping the bee would still be there when I got back. She was and had just begun to investigate the hollow length of bamboo cane tucked into the top left-hand corner of the structure.

Violet Carpenter bee checking into the bee hotel.

Perhaps it may not seem surprising that a bee should check in thus, after all, it’s what the structure was designed for and it’s clear on close inspection that other ‘rooms’ have already been occupied and sealed up. The surprise was more that Violet Carpenter bees are large, robust insects and the hollow bamboo canes are quite small in diameter and I would never have imagined one of their bulk able to fit in.

I stood on a garden chair to get a better look at the bee’s activity and realised she had moved down to the tube below and was venturing inside it. With the benefit of the camera zoom, this one looks as though it may have been at least partially excavated and widened to fit: the wall appears thinner than those of neighbouring tubes and there is fresh ‘sawdust’ around the entrance. More specks on the bees’s body could mean she is still working on it.

Carpenter bee squeezing in

Carpenter bee squeezing in

Almost in

Almost in, but a very tight fit

I felt a little fearful for the bee. I know they are ‘carpenter’ bees and chomping through wood to nest is what they do, but what if she got stuck in the tiny space and couldn’t get out? Does that happen I wonder? And how does the egg-laying work? Presumably she needs either to be able to turn herself around in there or come out backwards and reverse in to lay eggs? Sadly I only have one day here, so further observation is not possible this time. I am hoping for updates though. I’d love to know what has occupied and sealed up some of the other ‘rooms’ too; surely something smaller than a Violet Carpenter bee?

Other rooms already occupied and sealed up

Other rooms already occupied and sealed up

Just below the bee hotel, attached to the wall is a pupa of a Small White butterfly.

Small White butterfly pupa

Small White butterfly pupa (enlarged)

Looking up

Early on I watched a flock of Griffon Vultures circling in the distance, gradually disappearing from sight as they wheeled around searching for thermal currents to carry them up and away. I has a better view of a White Stork that circled above the garden, but it was still quite high up.

A White Stork circled high overhead

A White Stork circled high overhead

Wisteria sinensis

The wisteria is past its best now and some of the flowers have already transformed into seed pods. The flowers remaining are being worked hard;  a host of insects, including aphids are feasting whilst the going is good. Soon heat and drought will bake the countryside and flowers will be scarce.

Wisteria seedpods

Wisteria seedpods

On the vine

Underneath the vine leaves  a well-camouflaged Egyptian Grasshopper was munching his way through leaves from underneath, hanging on upside down.

Egyptian Grasshopper overhead

Egyptian Grasshopper overhead

Later on it either fell or dropped down onto the patio beneath; maybe he ate too much of the leaf and lost his grip. What a handsome insect.

Egyptian Grasshopper-Anacridium aegyptum

Egyptian Grasshoppers are sometimes mistaken for locusts, but the diagnostics for the former are the vertically striped eyes and the  pronuptum, the shield type shape behind the head, (as seen in the image above) is distinctly ridged, like plates of armour. (More about Egyptian Grasshoppers here)

The vine leaves were under attack from another angle too. Lower down was a large fat Elephant Hawk moth caterpillar gripping on with its short little legs wrapped entirely around a twiggy stem.

Elephant Hawkmoth caterpillar

Elephant Hawk moth caterpillar

Like most hawk moth caterpillars, they have a backward curving spine or “horn” on the final abdominal segment. The head end of the caterpillar appears to have the shape of a trunk-like snout. It is this elephant look, rather than its large size, that gives the moth its name.

The underside of the Hawkmoth caterpillar showing how it grips on with its legs

The underside of the  caterpillar showing how it grips on with its legs

When the caterpillar is startled, it draws its trunk into its foremost body segment. In this pose it then resembles a snake with a large head and four large eye-like patches. The caterpillars are preyed upon by birds, but they may be put off  by those taking up a “snake” pose, although it is not known whether the birds actually regard the caterpillar as a snake, or are more taken aback by the sudden change of a familiar prey item into an unusual and boldly-patterned shape.

Head and mouthparts

Head and mouthparts- it is the ‘elephant-like’ appearance of this end of the caterpillar that gives it is name

We left the caterpillar chomping through a vine leaf, although with some trepidation. We feared that should it venture down the ground to pupate, which seemed a possibility as it was already sizeable and low down in the vine,  that it would become prey for some of the ants that seem to be everywhere. We looked for him the next day and were sad to see our fears had manifested. The poor caterpillar was indeed on the ground and had ants swarming all over it. At first  we thought it was already dead, but ‘rescued’ it anyway.

The caterpillar had changed colour and was badly injured

The caterpillar had changed colour and was badly injured

After a while it did move slightly, so we were hopeful that it may survive and disappointed we had left it to its own devices for the night. Sadly, it was badly wounded, most probably pumped full of formic acid by its attackers and it died, never to change into a beautiful moth like the one below:

Elephant hawk-moth - Deilephila elpenor (picture from wikipaedia)

Elephant hawk-moth – Deilephila elpenor (picture from wikipaedia)

In the shade

There are resident geckos here, some very large ones that are probably a few years old; geckos can live up to 8-9 years. They spend much of the day hiding away in the shade but emerge occasionally.

A large light-coloured Gecko that lives in the outhouse

A large light-coloured Gecko that lives in the outhouse

Another large gecko, but a much darker one, trying to hide from me

Another large gecko, but a much darker one, trying to hide from me

There are a couple of paper wasp nests suspended from the shaded ceilings of the outdoor covered areas. These are not the common wasps that are attracted to outdoor tables in search of easy food. Known as the European Paper Wasp these are social wasps of the ‘polistes‘ species, probably polistes dominulus. 

Wasps working to feed and guard their baby sisters and future co-workers

Wasps working to feed and guard the developing next generation

The nests are made of chewed-up wood and saliva and are beautifully made. The wasps hunt and eat a variety of insects.

Beautifully crafted nest of a paper wasp colony

Beautifully crafted nest of a paper wasp colony

A hunting polistes wasp

A hunting polistes wasp

Taking time out to drink

Taking time out for a drink

There were a few butterflies about, a number of Small Whites and high on the wisteria, some small blue ones, probably Long-tailed Blues. In the shade under the citrus trees was a Speckled Wood, looking a bit tattered, resting in a tiny patch of sunlight.

A Speckled Wood butterfly in the shade under the citrus trees

A Speckled Wood butterfly in the shade under the citrus trees

And a little frog who came out of the little pond to sit on a rock and sunbathe.

Little frog

Little frog

 

 

Buttercups & butterflies

If you’ve ever wondered about the pretty yellow flowers that flower prolifically and often carpet large areas of roadsides and fields at this time of year, it’s very likely to be this one:

Bermuda Buttercup-Oxalis precaprae

Common name: Bermuda Buttercup – Oxalis pre-capri ; Other common names include:  African wood-sorrel, Bermuda sorrel, Buttercup oxalis, Cape sorrel, English weed, Goat’s-foot, Sourgrass, Soursob and Soursop; (Afrikaans: Suring); Family: Sorrel; Oxalidaceae; Native to: South Africa

Flowers: November to May

Bermuda Buttercup

Bermuda Buttercup

Not related to buttercups at all and actually a sorrel, the flowers are large, yellow and funnel-shaped; the petals are 20-25mm long and borne in broad umbels. Leaves are long stalked, at ground level.

Bermuda buttercup also occurs in a double-flower form.

Bermuda buttercup also occurs in a double-flower form & flowers may be more of a coppery-yellow colour

The Bermuda Buttercup looks pretty, but it is a widespread weed of cultivated and waste land, roadsides, olive groves, vineyards, plantations & orchards that spreads rapidly and has a reputation for being difficult to eradicate once it has established itself and spread over an area of land. Native to South Africa, it is generally believed that the species was introduced to Malta around 1806 and within fifty years had become widespread in the Mediterranean region.

Oxalis pes-caprae - roots & bulbs

Oxalis pes-caprae – roots & bulbs (photo wikipaedia)

The plant produces copious quantities of underground ‘true bulbs’ in botanical terms  through which it largely propogates. This is one reason why it is so difficult to eradicate, as pulling up the stems leaves the bulbs behind. Soil in which the plant has grown is generally filled with small bulbs. It is particularly resistant to modern herbicides.

The plant contains exceptionally high levels of oxalic acid, which is palatable and in modest quantities is reasonably harmless to humans and livestock. However, in spite of its comparatively benign nature, where it has become dominant in pastures, as sometimes happens outside South Africa, Oxalis pes-caprae can cause dramatic stock losses. For example, when hungry stock, such as sheep are let out to graze in a lush growth of Oxalis pes-caprae, they may gorge on the plant, with fatal results, as has been found in South Australia at least. (Bull, L.; Australian Veterinary Journal, 1929, Vol. 5 p. 60).

Uses

Oxalis pes-caprae is often called by the common name sourgrass or soursob due to its pleasant sour flavor. This sourness is caused by the exceptionally high content of oxalic acid. In South Africa it is a traditional ingredient in dishes such as waterblommetjiebredie (water flower stew) and the underground runners, which tend to be fleshy, have been eaten raw or boiled and served with milk. The plant has been used in various ways as a source of oxalic acid, as food, and in folk medicine. The raw bulbs have been used to deal with tapeworm and possibly other worms.  The golden petals can be used to produce a yellow dye.

Association with insects

Being in flower early in the year, the Bermuda buttercup, for all its faults does provide useful nectar to the earlier flying insects such as Violet Carpenter bees and the pretty Moroccan Orange-tip butterfly.

Moroccan Orange Tip – Anthocharis belia  (euphenoides)

Family: Pieridae; Flight period: March – June

A fairly widespread species in Spain in the Spring, the Moroccan Orange tip is similar to the Orange tip, Anthocharis cardamines, found in Northern Europe but with a yellow ground colour. They are tricky butterflies to photograph as they fly quite fast and don’t settle often, but they do seem to be attracted to the flowers of Bermuda buttercup where it occurs in their ranges.

Moroccan Orange-tip on Bermuda buttercup flower

Moroccan Orange-tip on Bermuda buttercup flower

Females do not have the distinctive orange wing tips, theirs are more of a golden yellow and not quite as broad. They lay their eggs singly onto their Larval Host Plants (LHPs): Buckler Mustard (Biscutella laevigata), B. auriculum & B. ambiguavarious brassica plants.

Moroccan Orange Tip (f)-nectaring on Bermuda buttercup flower

Moroccan Orange Tip (f)-nectaring on Bermuda buttercup flower

Scientific naming note:

The range of this species has recently “lost” its European distribution. The European taxon euphenoides has been designated a new species in its own right. There are two subspecies of belia in N Africa – belia which covers most of the distribution and androgyne which flies in SW Morocco and the Anti Atlas mountains. The north African subspecies are more poorly marked on the underside hindwing, ssp. androgyne almost lacking underside markings.

http://www.eurobutterflies.com/species_pages/belia.htm