Category Archives: Cadíz Province

Breakfast with Lesser Kestrels

Jimena de la Frontera

I can’t think of  a better way to start a Sunday morning in March than to have an al fresco, or should that be an al aire libre, breakfast with friends in the Plaza of a Spanish Pueblo Blanco in the sunshine. Unless that is, you have all of the above with the added indulgence of some brilliant birdwatching without having to stir from your seat, which surely makes it almost blissful.

The Coat of Arms of Jimena features the Castle

Our breakfast venue is located in Jimena’s Plaza de la Constitutíon, the central large open public space that is typical of most Spanish towns and villages. The Plaza has been modernised and is attractively paved and furnished with trees, including Seville Oranges some of which currently have fruit and exquisitely-scented blossom, around its edges. The surrounding buildings are original, with whitewashed exteriors as befits a Pueblo Blanco and mostly used as commercial premises. The standout feature of the Plaza in more ways than one, is the tall historic Torre Campanario, or Bell Tower. More about that later, first, breakfast.

Plaza de la Constitucion and el Torre Campanario

We headed for the Bar de Tapas Pastor 2, perfect for us as it has plenty of outdoor tables – who wants to be indoors on a sunny, if cool Spring morning? And as I mentioned earlier, this is a great spot for birdwatching. Jimena lies beneath one of the main flying routes of vast numbers of migrating birds, many of which at this time of year are returning to their breeding grounds after wintering in Africa. Whilst chatting and waiting for breakfast we had already seen overhead White Storks, three Booted Eagles and a Short-toed Eagle. At this point, not far from their crossing point over the Straits of Gibraltar, and at this time on a cool day the birds are flying relatively low and seeking thermals that will lift and carry them without the need for energy-consuming wing flapping. Perfect for some close-up views with binoculars.

Breakfast arrived; huge slices of toasted fresh bread with garlic to rub on it before sprinkling with olive oil and loading it with jamón, queso and luscious flavourful sliced tomato sprinkled with herbs. All this accompanied with fresh orange juice and cups of good café con leche that looks milky and innocent but delivers an effective awakening caffeine hit. Simple but perfect. And served by the attentive proprietor who seemed to think we needed  feeding up and kept offering us more!

From our table we had an uninterrupted view to the afore-mentioned Torre Campanario – the Bell Tower, which we were watching in anticipation of seeing some of the special birds that return here each Spring to take up residence and raise their families alongside the pigeons: Lesser Kestrels.

The information in Spanish, loosely translated, tells that the Tower is all that remains of a former church. The first reference to the Church is from 1690 and found in the book of Fray Jerónimo de la Concepción, where he speaks of Cadiz and its Province. The original building was founded during the 17th century as the Church of San Sebastian, which was changed to the Church of Saint Mary in the last third of the 18th century. In 1736 records show the poor state of the building due to the deterioration of the multiple layers of clay of the slope on which the town sits. Such was the gravity and danger of collapse that the building was demolished in 1947, leaving only the bell tower which remained sound.

El Torre Campanario

Construction of the Tower followed the architectural tradition of other churches in the area, such as the Tower of the present Church of la Victoria and the towers that rose in the monastery of Los Angeles. The lower part of the Tower is completely flat, rendered and whitewashed, while the upper part of the Bell Tower is made from brick. My observation: Those bricks are tiny and must have taken a lot of work to manufacture and to lay. There are other decorative embellishments around the top of the Tower which have been worn down over time but are still visible if you look closely. I love the colours and textures of this ancient construction. 

Back to the present and we were delighted to see the Tower now had living embellishments in the shape of a pair of beautiful Lesser Kestrels.

Lesser Kestrel – Falco naumanni – Cernícalo Primilla

Lesser Kestrels are summer migrants to Iberia, returning to breed here during March/April after wintering in Africa and south-east Asia, where most will return in August/September. They are gregarious birds that nest colonially and there are often several pairs flying around and in and out of the Bell Tower here in Jimena, but today we saw just this one pair. No complaints though as the lack of numbers was more than made up for in the quality and length of the sightings we had today, giving us the perfect opportunity to get some brilliant close-up views.

Small birds of prey, the Lesser Kestrel closely resembles the larger Common Kestrel but has a proportionally shorter tail and wings.

The male was absorbed in some intense preening which gave us some lovely close-up views of his fanned-out tail feathers. In the next photograph you can see some of the grey patches in his wings and that the talons of his outstretched foot are a creamy yellow colour, a diagnostic feature of this species that you don’t often see; the talons of other falcon species are dark in colour.

The male Lesser Kestrel has a grey head and tail as does the Common Kestrel, but the Lesser doesn’t have the dark spotting on the back or the black cheek stripe of the Common. As I already mentioned the Lesser Kestrel also has grey patches in his wings which the Common Kestrel does not.

The female Lesser Kestrel is larger than the male. She may weigh up to 170g, he around 130g. She too resembles the female Common Kestrel but she and the young birds of this species are slightly paler. Their differing calls and size may (or may not) help to separate them out in the field, but their behaviour and location are often the most help.

Lesser Kestrel female showing clearly her yellow talons – in other falcon species they are dark

From their behaviour it would seem likely that the pair haven’t nested yet. It’s still quite early in the season and there may well be other members of their colony still to arrive back.

What a beautiful couple they made. Let’s hope they went on to raise an equally beautiful family and that they will make this spot their Summer home for many years to come.

A handsome pair

ECOLOGY & STATUS 

Lesser Kestrels breed throughout the Mediterranean region and across to Central Asia. They are found in a variety of habitats including Steppe, farmland and in towns. Globally the species is widespread and plentiful and is classed by the IUCN as of Least Concern. However, throughout Iberia, where they were once an abundant breeding bird, Lesser Kestrel numbers have declined sharply during the past 30 years. It would seem likely that this is due to the increased use of insecticides on both breeding grounds here and in their African wintering areas. The bird feeds largely on insects and a marked reduction in the availability of this prey would undoubtedly have a huge impact on them.

 

 

Asphodels

In Greek mythology, the Asphodel is one of the most famous of the plants connected with the dead and the underworld: the Asphodel Meadows is a section of the ancient Greek underworld where ordinary souls were sent to live after death. The Oxford English Dictionary gives Homer as the source for the English poetic tradition of describing the meadows of the afterlife as being covered in Asphodel. The flower has been referenced by many romantic post-Renaissance poets including Milton, Tennyson, Longfellow and even more recently, Leonard Cohen.  

Members of the lily family, Asphodels are tall elegant but robust plants with tuberous roots and leafless stems rising above tufts of leaves that are long flat and narrow and taper to a point. The flowers are starry and white There are several species that look similar to one another, but in Southern Spain and Gibraltar the two most likely to be seen are the Common Asphodel and the White Asphodel.

Common Asphodel-Asphodelus aestivus (microcarpus)

Flowering January to March

Mainly a lowland plant, the Common Asphodel can be found in a range of habitats including coastal, light woodland, roadsides, rocky slopes and garrigue.


A medium to tall plant that often reaches up to 1m high. It has tuberous roots, which provide a firm anchor and store moisture. The leaves are long flat and strap-like, keeled beneath, 12-30mm wide and grey- green in colour.

The flowers are held in a much-branched inflorescence that puts me in mind of a slightly wonky candelabra; individual flowers are star-shaped, white and has 6 petals, or tepals,  each striped with a pinky brown midvein. Fruit is a small oblong capsule, less than 1cm across.

One of my all-time favourite sights of Common Asphodel is this one taken at El Faro, Alcaidesa where the background is of gloriously scented golden gorse, blue sky and an even bluer Mediterranean Sea.

Common Asphodel at El Faro, Alcaidesa, Cadiz

Common Asphodel- Punto de Canero, Straits of Gibraltar coast (March)

Common Asphodel in woodland clearing of El Picacho, Cadiz (March)

Common Asphodel can sometimes be seen covering large areas of open uncultivated fields. It’s unpalatable to animals, which graze around and between the plants; spot the cow doing just that in the left of the photograph below.

Common Asphodel covering a large field, La Janda, Cadiz (February)

I love this glimpse I got of a Cattle Egret tiptoeing stealthily through the forest of leaves.

Cattle Egret tiptoeing through a field of Common Asphodel, La Janda, Cadiz

White Asphodel Asphodelus albus Es: Gamon

Flowering March to June.

The White Asphodel also grows in a variety of habitats, in seasonally damp places, open woodland, meadows at low altitudes and is commonest in the hills and mountains.

White Asphodel-Mediterranean Steps, Gibraltar (March)

Similar in stature to the Common Asphodel, White Asphodel also reaches heights of up to 1 metre tall and has tuberous roots. The leaves are basal, linear, slightly grey-green, channelled and taper to a point at the tip. The flowers are borne in a dense, simple spike-like raceme; individual buds have a narrow brown midvein which may be less marked on the starry white petals; bracts are usually  dark brown. Fruits are almost round capsules.

I took my first photographs of this striking plant toward the end of a memorable walk around El Cabrito mountain. It was growing on the edge of a made track, bright sunshine cast the plant’s shadow onto the adjacent rock and also made it tricky to get a clear image of the bright white flowers.

White Asphodel, El Cabrito mountain (April)

Thankfully the varied greens of  heather and pine trees in the background helped the flower spikes stand out.

We came upon it again on El Bujeo mountain, which neighbours El Cabrito but has a different aspect and character. Here it was growing in a damp grassy clearing in front of a Rhododendron shrub.

White Asphodel- El Bujeo mountain (May)

And here it is in the forefront of this amazing view from the summit, which looks down over the busy port town of Algeciras and across the Bay to Gibraltar. I took this photograph way back in 2005 since when there has been a lot of development and construction on both the Spanish mainland and on Gibraltar itself, but I’m sure the view remains stunning.

Uses for Asphodel

The leaves are used to wrap burrata, an Italian cheese. The leaves and the cheese last about the same time, three or four days, so fresh leaves are a sign of a fresh cheese, while dried out leaves indicate that the cheese is past its best.

Although left alone by animals, the starchy tubers are just about edible by people and are known to have been used as food by poorer people, in times of  hardship and need; hence such food was thought good enough for the slaves.

Medicinally the Asphodel was supposedly a remedy for poisonous snake-bites and a specific against sorcery; it was fatal to mice, but preserved pigs from disease.

Libyan nomads made their huts of asphodel stalks.

 

Sources: Wildflowers of Southern  Spain – Betty Molesworth Allen; Mediterranean Wild Flowers-Marjorie Blamey; The Flowers of Gibraltar-Leslie Linares, Arthur Harper & John Cortes; Wikipaedia

Photographs: All my own work!

The Mediterranean Steps in Spring

March 22nd 2018

I can hardly believe it’s been a year since I was enjoying the Spring in Gibraltar; how time flies! Here in North Wales this afternoon the temperature is 9C, it’s windy and the humidity 76% – rain was predicted but so far has missed us. The BBC tells me it is 16C and the humidity 44% in Gibraltar, about the same as it was a year ago but it would seem not as windy as it was then. To cheer myself up while waiting for our Spring to arrive I thought I’d take a virtual trip back there recalling the spectacular walk I took on the Upper Rock on this day a year ago. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

March 22nd 2017

Early morning and we were back at the Bird Observatory at Jew’s Gate on the Upper Rock. As on previous days the wind blowing from the north was still preventing returning birds from travelling this way: a little disappointing, but I had other plans for the day and was keen to get going. I was going to take a walk along the Mediterranean Steps path. It’s a challenging trail, about 1.5km long and as it warns in the name, quite a bit of it involves climbing steps. It’s not recommended for anyone of faint heart or with vertigo, but if you are fairly fit it is more than worth the effort. The views are truly spectacular, there are some rather special birds you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of, but for me it’s mostly about the wonderful array of wildflowers that flourish here, many of which are at their best in the Spring.

11:30 Once on the path the bulk of the Rock gave complete shelter from the wind and it was warm and sunny, perfect conditions for my style of walking – leisurely ambling punctuated with frequent stops to take photographs. From the outset there were plants to stop and look at. Many were familiar to me but I hadn’t seen them for a few years and already they were bringing back happy memories. This walk was going to occupy me for some hours to come!

170322-GIBMS3-1134-Bear's Breech-Acanthus

Bear’s Breech – Acanthus mollis

Bear’s Breech, Acanthus mollis was the first plant to catch my eye. Often valued as a garden plant, in the wild it spreads like wildfire to the detriment of other more desirable native plants, and is all too common in all habitats throughout the Rock. The plant’s strikingly handsome leaves were often replicated as architectural embellishments, particularly around the capitals of Corinthian columns.

Then Butcher’s Broom with large red berries that intriguingly sit in the centre of the thick leathery leaves. The plant is so-called as the stiff stems were tied together to make a broom or brush; perhaps especially favoured by butchers for sweeping the sawdust from their shop floors.

The leaves of the plant twining around the stems of the Butcher’s Broom belong to the Pipe Vine, also known as Dutchman’s Pipe both names due to the shape of its flowers. Nearby another climbing/twining plant had reached its way to the top of a shrub. This was Rough Smilax, a harsh name for a plant I think is rather attractive with its glossy heart-shaped leaves that are red-bronze when new. It may be so-called as the stems are equipped with hooked spines to aid climbing.

A member of the lily family, Common asphodel will have been flowering for a while now and is developing fruits.

The bright lime green-yellow of Spurge provide the perfect background to the blue of this gorgeous Giant Squill.

170322-GIBMS15-1146-Giant Squill &
Warty Spurge-Euphorbia squamigera & Giant Squill-Scilla peruviana

The dramatic Giant Squill flowers are past their best now, but still look good to me. The lovely Spurge is Warty Spurge, so-called as its fruit capsules are covered in rough little bumps that clearly made someone think of warts.

To begin with the vegetation on either side of the path is quite dense perfectly suiting a Sardinian warbler that was making its way along through the shrubbery, he popped out every now and then but not for long enough to photograph.  Soon the vegetation thinned and opened up the spectacular view that demanded to be admired; I was happy to oblige. The North African coast, just 12 miles (14km) away across the Strait was obscured by mist today: when it’s clearer the mountain of Jebel Musa and the town of Ceuta which is 5km to the south of it, are easily visible. Down below is Europa Point; the Mosque is visible in the far left corner of the photograph.170322-GIBMS7-1136-African coast &

The  path is narrow and uneven with loose stones and exposed rocks, another reason to take it slowly! It is bordered with lush dense vegetation, much of which is evergreen, tough and perfectly adapted in a variety of ways to survive and thrive in the harsh conditions it is exposed to year round.170322-GIBMS31-1201-Med Steps cliff path

It’s quiet and peaceful here for much of the time, the hustle and bustle and noise of the town could be a million miles away from here. It’s not silent though: the accompanying sounds of gulls are almost constant and can get rather raucous at times. Hundreds of Yellow-legged gulls populate Gibraltar and you can’t go far without encountering one or two. As with their northern cousins, the similar-looking Herring gulls they are not well-loved by many. They mercilessly mob migrating raptors which they perceive as potential threats to their young and of course they have to be kept at bay from the airfield. Seen closely and in a wilder habitat you can’t deny they are handsome and characterful birds though, can you? At the side of the path this pair of gulls were using the wall as a look-out post. They probably have a nest-site staked out close by and there’s a lot of competition for good nesting sites here.

Below me a squadron of  gulls appeared relaxed, but doubtless at least a few of them were on look-out for potential aerial threats or interlopers, including any passing migrant raptors; it would take very little to launch them squawking into the air.

170322-GIBMS20-1153-Yellow-legged Gulls

The Dwarf Fan Palm is the only palm native to Europe. Common throughout the Rock, their dramatic architectural fronds bring a touch of the exotic to the vegetation.

170322-GIBMS31-1203-Dwarf Fan Palm-Chaemerops humilis

Dwarf Fan Palm-Chamaerops humilis

Although much of the vegetation is tough and hardy, for a few short weeks an array of more delicate-looking wildflowers have their chance to flower and set seed before the heat of the sun because too intense and the summer drought sets in. There is Rose Garlic, seen here growing through leaves of the Giant Tangier Fennel and the dainty Greater Soft Storksbill.

Blue Pimpernel, the southern version of our Scarlet Pimpernel is one of my favourites. I caught a Bee-fly taking nectar from a little yellow flower I didn’t know, but later found it to be Succowia, which is a member of the mustard/cabbage family.

There were two pretty bindweeds; the Small blue convolvulus was a lucky spot as it’s really more tiny than small. The larger Mallow-leaved bindweed with pink flowers is more noticeable.

There are some scenes you walk into which would be my idea of the perfect Mediterranean garden. Here there is Wild Olive, Osyris, Dwarf Fan palm, Spurge, Scorpion vetch, Tree germander and more filling every available inch of space.

170322-GIBMS31-1203-Med Steps cliff path

Tree or Shrubby germander is another shrub often cultivated in gardens. It’s a lovely shrub with pretty flowers much loved by bees and much tougher than it looks.

12:10 already and I’d made hardly any progress, there had been so much to see. This stop was to savour the delicious scent of the golden broom.

170322-GIBMS39-1210-Spiny Broom
Spiny broom – Calicotome villosa

Nearby, a similar looking but smaller and softer shrub is also fragrant; Shrubby Scorpion vetch. It takes its common name from its seedpods – they are …. and resemble a Scorpion. I think its Latin name Coronilla valentina is much prettier.

My eyes were drawn upwards where a great number of Yellow-legged gulls were up in the air circling and making a tremendous racket. Every white spot in my photograph is a bird, not dust on the lens!170322-GIBMS41-1210-Dwarf fan palms on cliff-yellow-legged gulls up

A single gull looked out from a rock outcrop above me.170322-GIBMS41-1212-Gull on rock above me

A significant plant I haven’t mentioned yet is the Giant Tangier Fennel – a wonderfully architectural plant that towers over your head and leans in to frame many a view out to sea.

12:15 – I reached the section of the path where steps lead down the cliff a way- this bit needs a bit of care and attention as to where you’re putting your feet.

170322-GIBMS48-1215-Reaching cliff face

170322-GIBMS48-1215-Reaching cliff face

I’d been watching out for butterflies and finally saw some here. There was a beautiful male Cleopatra flying back and forth constantly; as is their wont, he didn’t settle at all. More obliging was one of several equally lovely Spanish Festoons. It was flitting from plant to plant, I don’t know why, I wondered if it was a female ovipositing, then at one point it seemed to be sucking up honeydew from clematis leaves.

170322-GIBMS50-1215-Spanish Festoon underside

Spanish Festoon-underside

In the foreground of the larger image is the back of the Pink Mediterranean Catchfly-Silene colorata. This pretty little plant only opens its flowers completely from evening-time to the early morning.

Many plants find a home in fissures of the limestone cliff, in this group are Sea daisies, Wall helichrysum & Giant squill.170322-GIBMS55-1221-Mixed group of plants on cliff face

On the stony ground below was Rough bugloss.

Behind it at the foot of the cliff a large Dwarf Fan palm backs Giant fennel and a patch of Alexanders.170322-GIBMS61-1230-Mixed-Palm,Thapsia, Alexanders

Another fresh Spanish Festoon

170322-GIBMS66-1239a-Spanish Festoon upperside

Spanish Festoon – Zerynthia rumina

170322-GIBMS68-1243-Sea Daisy-Pallenis spinosa

Sea Daisy-Asteriscus maritimus

170322-GIBMS69-1243-Wild Olive-Olea europaea

A Wild Olive tree – Olea europaea

170322-GIBMS70-1243-Upper Rock wildlife info board12:47 I had still only reached the bottom of the steep steps that lead up to Martin’s Cave, where a board gives more information about The Upper Rock’s Varied Wildlife. I would have liked to have seen a few more birds, especially a Barbary partridge or a Blue Rock thrush, but this is not the best time of day to see them and also I’d met or been overtaken by quite a few people which would have sent them into cover too. The flowers have more than compensated for their lack.

170322-GIBMS70-1243-Upper Rock wildlife info board-birds

12:48 Ready to tackle the steps170322-GIBMS71-1248-Steps going up

12:52 – First stop to look back at the way I’d just walked around the edge of the cliffs.

170322-GIBMS72-1252-Looking back

and then at the view slightly further round with tankers waiting out at sea

170322-GIBMS73-1252-Ships waiting

On the approach to the cave I’d spotted some busy bees and wasps. A Paper wasp (polistes sp.) on Alexanders looked as though it may have successfully hunted and was eating something.

12:58 A good view of the Europa Point Lighthouse, also known as the Trinity Lighthouse down below

170322-GIBMS77-1258-The Lighthouse

I found Tree Mallow here, the Common Mallow I’d photographed a bit earlier below the steps.

13:02 I had stopped in front of the cave for a lunch break and just to sit and admire the view and watch what was going on around me. I didn’t sit still for long as I saw or heard things that caught my attention. A little wasp, a potter or a mason, was busy collecting earth which it would make into building material for a container in which to lay eggs.

I heard Wrens singing from a couple of spots nearby but try as I might I couldn’t see one.

170322-GIBMS91-1347-Wild Olives

Olive, Osyris, Bear’s Breech & Bermuda buttercup with Esparto grass in the foreground

  13:36 An Osyris shrub with orange fruits.

170322-GIBMS92-1347-Osyris with berries

Osyris quadriparita

There’s a lot of Bermuda Buttercup up here. Also known as Cape Sorrel, it is another invasive ‘alien’ that spreads rapidly, particularly where ground has been disturbed, but it doesn’t seem to do any damage to native plants and it’s a great source of nectar for insects through several months early in the year.

13:40 Looking down onto the glittering Mediterranean Sea

170322-GIBMS93-1347-Sea with sparkles

A Squirting Cucumber plant was growing from the corner of a step and a Prickly pear had taken hold at the side of the path, growing through more Bear’s Breech.

13:50 From here on the walking gets more strenuous on the way to the top. The steps continue and lead to the Goat’s hair Twin Caves. It’s hard to imagine that these caves would once have been at sea level.

170322-GIBMS93-1353-Path up to caves

Along this stretch were Slender Sow thistle and a stem of  Branched Broomrape, which is parasitic on the Oxalis it is growing amongst.

13:56 At the top of this flight of steps the path passes through a short World War 2 tunnel.

170322-GIBMS97-1356-Tunnel entrance

Growing from the rock on the Tunnel’s side was a pretty group of Sea daisies and Sweet Alison. Sweet Alison is a common plant here in Gibraltar and on mainland Southern Spain, but every time I see it it reminds me of British summer bedding displays – garden borders edged with alternate white Alison & blue Lobelia.

170322-GIBMS98-1356-Sand Daisies and Sweet Alison
Sea daisies & Sweet Alison – Lobularia maritima

Light at the end of the tunnel.170322-GIBMS100-1358-Tunnel exit

170322-GIBMS102-1358-Morrocan Orange Tip fem on mustard plant- ovipositing possBy the side of this stretch of path was another butterfly, a female Moroccan Orange Tip. The females are similar in appearance to our northern Orange Tips, but the males 14are bright yellow instead of white.

On a plant of the mustard/cabbage family, the butterfly was ovipositing (laying an egg) – these are the food plants of the species larvae.

14:01 I was happy to see a Wall Lizard venture out on a rock to warm itself in the sunshine.  (Andalusian Wall Lizard Podarcis vaucheri )

More Giant squill with a stem of Wall barley grass.

170322-GIBMS112-1410-Giant Squill & Wall Barley

14:10 – A bit higher up and a stunning view across to the Costa del Sol.

170322-GIBMS113-1410-View from Upper Rock along coast of Spain

Another superb view looking north along the east face of the Rock down onto Sandy Bay and along to Spain and the coast of the Costa del Sol. Directly above the Bay were the now disused Water Catchments. The slope on which they sat is the Great Gibraltar Sand Dune, an ancient consolidated sand dune. Rainwater flowed down the slope into an open channel which fed into the reservoir system inside The Rock. In 2001, the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society began to oversee the dismantling of the catchment construction. By 2006 the slope was fully restored to its natural state and is now being recolonised by vegetation native to this unique habitat.

170322-GIBMS115-1410-East Side-Talus Slope,Catalan Bay, Sandy Bay

Further round to the north of Sandy Bay is Catalan Bay.

170322-GIBMS115-1412-East Side-Sandy Bay

14:15 There’s a little building up here, built by the military for use as a gun emplacement or observatory. It certainly has a wonderful view.

170322-GIBMS115-1415-View through window

There were a few scattered patches of one of Gibraltar’s special plants up here; the Gibraltar Candytuft. Not the best  examples, but at least I found some.

Another lizard scuttled across the concrete

170322-GIBMS115-1417-Lizard runs for cover

Podarcis vaucheri-Andalusian Wall Lizard

A Yellow-legged gull tilts its head to look skywards

170322-GIBMS115-1418-Gull looking up

14:22 Another fairly gentle upward section of path.

170322-GIBMS115-1422-Path

14:24 Looking down onto the vegetation and the little building I just left.

170322-GIBMS115-1424-Looking down onto concrete building

A patch of pretty Intermediate Periwinkle

14:27 Another straight stretch passing by a large Shrubby Scorpion vetch that smelt lovely.170322-GIBMS115-1427-Path & Scorpion Vetch

Then on the cliff edge this huge Prickly Pear cactus

170322-GIBMS115-1429-Prickly pear

14:34 A long steep set of steps to climb, but getting closer to the top.

170322-GIBMS115-1434-More steps

I love this view of a gull that was sitting on a rock above looking over its edge.

170322-GIBMS115-1443- Yellow-legged gull sitting

14:43 And yet more steep steps.170322-GIBMS115-1444-More steep steps

A junction of cliff face, rocks and man-made walls.

170322-GIBMS115-1445-Man-made meets natural cliff

14:48 The final flight of steps!

170322-GIBMS115-1448-Last set of steps

At the top a Red Admiral butterfly sunbathes on a warmed rock.

170322-GIBMS115-1449-Red admiral

14:50 The view from the top is spectacular!

170322-GIBMS115-1450-What a view

From the top of the Rock looking down onto Catalan Bay and out to the Costa del Sol

The estimated time for this walk is 2 hours. My amble took me 3 hours and 20 minutes, but as you can see I made a lot of stops. The steps weren’t that painful!

Credits & links

My friend Jill

My well-used copy of The Flowers of Gibraltar compiled by Leslie Linares, Arthur Harper and John Cortes ISBN: 84-7207-088-3

For comprehensive information about the flora you’ll find it here: http://floraofgibraltar.myspecies.info/

For more information about any of the wildlife of Gibraltar you’ll find it here on the Gibraltar Ornithological & Natural History Society (GONHS) website: https://www.gonhs.org/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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…….

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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

Aftermath of a winter storm

The western end of  the Mediterranean coastline of Southern Spain, closely linked to the Atlantic Ocean by the Straits of Gibraltar, may often be battered during the winter months by storms and wind, rain and high seas can cause a lot of damage.

When I first began visiting the  Guadiaro Nature Reserve in Sotogrande in 2004, there was a boardwalk in place that began at the entrance to the beach, ran right along the edge of the reedbed and ended at a rotunda set close by the mouth of the estuary. The structure made a good viewing platform from which to look over the reedbeds as well as offering protection to the reserve area, keeping people and dogs at bay.

The boardwalk that used to be in place along the beach with Gibraltar in the background

Part of the boardwalk that used to be in place along the beach with Gibraltar in the background

Winter storms soon began to take their toll on the woodwork and repairs were made each spring until they more or less admitted defeat and/or ran out of money in 2007. I made this entry in my journal on January 30th 2007, following a particularly dramatically stormy weekend.

Keen to see the effects of the weekend’s storms and to take advantage of a sunny morning, I decided to head for the Reserve to see what was about.

The reedbeds around the lagoon have been battered and flattened by the storms; much will have been done by the wind, but I suspect that the sea may have reached over there too. At first it appeared that there were few signs of life; nothing moved on the water, although I could hear the sounds of small birds about in the reeds and shrubs around the hide. The belting calls of a Cetti’s Warbler were so close I thought that today I may have a good chance of seeing the elusive little bird, but no luck again. Then a Chiffchaff called and appeared for me to see, complete with a leg ring.

Blue tit

Blue tit with leg ring

A beautiful brightly-coloured Blue Tit arrived to feed on the reed seed-heads, again complete with leg ring.  One of my biggest bug-bears about people using this little stretch of beach is the amount of rubbish they leave behind and there’s nothing like a good storm for exposing the extent of the problem. It seems so wrong to see beautiful birds rummaging around plastic bags and bottles in what should be a natural setting; but then on the other hand, the birds are probably around the rubbish as it attracts, or gives cover to insects. Birds are quick to learn to exploit our less savoury habits and are far more concerned with survival than aesthetics.

A beautiful robin hunts around a plastic bottle

A beautiful robin hunts around a plastic bottle

Black Redstart (m)

Black Redstart (m)

A beautiful Robin appeared from low down amongst the reeds to perch on an old cut stem and a handsome male Black Redstart flew in to take up a higher viewpoint; both had their feathers well fluffed out against the chilly breeze.

A pair of Moorhen emerged from the cover of the reeds at the water’s edge to investigate the area in front of the hide. They too are in their breeding- best now, with glossy, colourful plumage and bright shiny yellow-tipped red beaks.

A moorhen looking in peak condition

A moorhen looking in peak condition

Breaking the peace, a flock of about ten or so Snipe  flew in fast and explosively, scattering themselves and rapidly settling into various spots around the edges of the water, where perfectly camouflaged, they effectively disappeared from view in seconds. From over the top of the hide, almost simultaneously with the Snipe, a Marsh Harrier swooped over the water, landing in on a low shrub a short distance away in the midst of the long reeds; maybe chasing the snipe? Surprised,  I didn’t even think to grab my binoculars. I watched and waited for quite a while to see if it would move again, but it seemed content to stay put.

Snipe heading rapidly for cover

Snipe heading rapidly for cover

Outside the hide the sun was bright and it was warm but there was a definite nip in the air; the best winter weather, although it didn’t look set to last as there was plenty of cloud around too.

Walking towards the beach, I heard Fan-tailed Warblers, saw more Chiffchaffs and a Sardinian Warbler, I heard the Cetti’s again and watched a Moorhen that was swimming about close to the nearside edge of the lagoon, it was flicking its wings and flashing its white tail-end; perhaps the Marsh Harrier was still about.

Arriving at the boardwalk it began to become apparent that the storms had once again wreaked their havoc on this ill-fated construction. The ramp to the new rotunda had separated from it, leaving a wide gap to step across to get onto it. But that was minor damage compared to what had happened further along. Much of the new length of boarding that was only put in place last year has been shattered and incredulously, whole sections have been lifted and hurled piecemeal back to the edge of the reedbed.

A displaced section of the Boardwalk

A displaced section of the Boardwalk

It’s such a shame after all the time and effort that went into rebuilding it, but you do have to question why previous experience hasn’t led to a more substantial structure being built. I wonder how long it will be before it will be repaired this time, if at all? The major problem now is that it leaves the reserve open and vulnerable once more as there is no fencing to protect it either.

A lot of pebbles have been dredged up from the seabed and piled up in places to cover a lot of the previously sandy beach. Large numbers of cockle shells have also been thrown up and mainly scattered randomly along the sea edge, but in a few places there are piles of them. Some were evidently alive when wrenched from their rocky homes and now the poor dead animals await being eaten by gulls or flies. It’s quite a gory sight to see them like that, but its surprising how differently we view them when they’re cooked and on a plate!

Cockle shell open, exposing the animal inside

Cockle shell open, exposing the animal inside

Cymbium shells

Cymbium shells

Unusually, there were quite a number of Cymbium shells of varying sizes, with one of them also still containing the animal. I have only ever found two of these lovely shells before, one sun-bleached one on the sand on the water-works side of the beach and the other here a short while ago, but broken. Research I have done puts these as native to the seas around the coast of Portugal, but I suppose that’s not so far away and they could easily be carried through the Straits to arrive here. It is interesting that they were all thrown up in the same spot though, I wonder if they are, or maybe were, living in one of the reefs close to the shore?

Cymbium, body exposed

Cymbium, body exposed

There were dozens of oranges scattered along the length of the beach as there often are after stormy weather. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine they arrive here after being carried downriver out into the sea and are then washed back in again. 

The beach is always strewn with oranges after a storm

The beach is always strewn with oranges after a storm

More Chiffchaffs flitted back and forth between the shrubs at the back of the beach, where there was also a Sardinian Warbler, a Robin and several Goldfinches. Cutting across towards the estuary there were Cormorants flying hurriedly to and from the sea and the usual host of Yellow-legged Gulls. There were more on the water together with a smaller number of Black-headed Gulls. A  Grey Plover, a Turnstone and a small flock of Sanderling were resting behind some debris.

At the Estuary, a Grey Plover, Turnstone and a small flock of Sanderling resting behind debris on the water's edge

At the Estuary, a Grey Plover, Turnstone and a small flock of Sanderling resting behind debris on the water’s edge

The water level of the estuary has risen  considerably and the sand around it was still very soft and waterlogged so walking further around was not going to be easy, so I turned round and took a brisk walk back the way we had come.

A Grey Wagtail flew in over the reedbed to land by the water and near to the rotunda a pair of Stonechats came out to perch atop a low shrub, the male flying up and diving down; their characteristic display to a female.

Male Stonechat perched on debris on the beach

Male Stonechat perched on debris on the beach

Getting back to the spot where the shells were washed up I stopped again to see if I could find anything else, I sat down on the sand at the back of the beach and lost in thought I didn’t immediately notice that there were three Turnstones very close by pecking around in the sand and taking no notice of me either. All that spoilt the moment was the plastic supermarket carrier bag immediately behind them.

Turstones- a very close-up view

Turstones- a very close-up view

Back on the path going out there seemed to be Chiffchaffs everywhere; flying around the stands of tall reeds that grow on the land in front of the buildings on the opposite side to the lagoon, perched on the wire fence and in or on almost every available shrub. It would seem that they are on the move, maybe they stopped here en route from Africa to wait for the storms to pass.

My Bird List for the morning was quite amazing, amounting to 22 species:

Cormorant; Common Moorhen; Marsh Harrier; Purple Swamp Hen (Gallinule); Grey Plover; Sanderling; Turnstone; Common Snipe; Black-headed Gull; Yellow-legged Gull; White Wagtail; Grey Wagtail; Blue Tit; Goldfinch; Robin; Stonechat; Black Redstart; Common Blackbird; Cetti’s Warbler (heard); Fan-tailed Warbler; Sardinian Warbler; Common Chiffchaff (numerous);

The Spotted Flycatcher

July and August are not the best months to see birds in Southern Spain, but one that can still be seen in a diverse number of locations, fairly frequently and right through to mid-late September  is the Spotted Flycatcher. Although not colourful, they are very attractive and characterful and very entertaining to watch as they dart from their perch to chase acrobatically after flying insects.

Spotted Fly Catcher – Muscicapa striata

Spanish: Papamoscas gris

‘Spotted’ Flycatcher is a bit of a misnomer, as the adult bird’s head and greyish-brown throat and breast is streaked with brown rather than spotted, as suggested by the ‘striata‘ of its scientific name. Having said that, the young birds could be described as spotted, so perhaps that’s where it stems from.

Spotted Flycatchers are summer migrants to Southern Spain, and are then very common throughout the region, often staking a claim to territories that include gardens and other ‘humanised’ areas. They arrive from their wintering grounds in Africa to breed here, sometime around the end of April to the beginning of May, as insect numbers are rising.

This one arrived in the garden on May 1st

This one arrived in the garden on May 1st

We were very lucky to have had Spotted Flycatchers return to our garden every year and I used to look forward very much to their arrival and the opportunities to watch them at very close quarters. I have no way of knowing whether any of the returned birds were the same ones that had been to this particular place in previous years; I have been informed by people that are far more knowledgeable than me on the subject that it is not very likely and that this is simply a ‘territory’, open to claim by whichever bird gets there first and can hang onto it.

I still like to think that at least for some of the years it may have been perhaps at least one of a pair that had been before, or perhaps one of the young ones that had been raised there. I also discovered from the BTO website that the maximum recorded age for a Spotted Flycatcher is 7 years 10 months 7 days (Recorded in 1963), so surely they don’t go about hunting for a new home every year!

I’ve never witnessed a territorial dispute between Spotted Flycatchers and have no idea if they arrive alone or with a mate. I also admit that I have never heard one sing, which was a bit puzzling as I spent so many hours watching their behaviour over several years. I was quite relieved to read the following on the Wildlife Sound Recording website http://www.wildlife-sound.org/journal/archive/1983wsv4n5_pr_flycatchers.html  “Sound is not a conspicuous feature as spotted flycatchers arrive in their nesting territories. It is true that the male will sing a high-pitched warble from time to time but this occurrence is far from being common and it is no disgrace for an ornithologist to admit that he has never heard the true song.”

I first saw this one on 6/5/07

I first saw this one on 6/5/07

Some newly returned birds made more of their arrival than others. On a couple of occasions I have become aware of them as the first thing they did was to take a bath. Others arrived quietly and were just suddenly ‘there’. The occasional one arrived with some drama. The day the bird in the photograph above arrived back I was out in the garden having just taken some photographs of a lovely Red Admiral butterfly that was posing obligingly on some blossom. I thought I had glimpsed the bird a little earlier on perched in our tall yucca tree, but was taken completely by surprise when it suddenly swooped past me, snatched the butterfly from where it was basking and swooped back to the tree with it. At least I had a photograph of the butterfly to mark its short life.

The Red Admiral before it was snatched away by the Spotted Flycatcher

The Red Admiral before it was snatched away by the Spotted Flycatcher

Within our garden there were several favoured perching spots, some of which were in open spots that were clearly visible from the house so I could watch them closely and without disturbing them; one was on the hand rail of the swimming pool, another on the top of the outdoor shower. They definitely show a preference for perches that are not too far above the ground and in other locations I often saw them on boundary fences or on top of posts.

Watching for prey from the handrail of the swimming pool

Watching for prey from the top of the swimming pool

While they wait for prey to fly into range, the bird sits upright, head slightly sunk into its shoulders. When it spots potential prey it darts out after it, then depending on the outcome it may loop around to return to the same perch or swoop to another.

29/5/09-On top of the shower pipe in typical slightly hunched hunting pose

29/5/09-On top of the shower pipe in typical slightly hunched hunting pose

A range of insects in addition to flies will be pursued as potential food including butterflies, bees, wasps and hoverflies.

Breeding

The birds begin breeding in May, soon after their return. In June 2006, I was thrilled to see ‘our’ pair of flycatchers together with a family of three young ones. They were all gathered on a branch of one of the cork oaks that overlooked the garden at the back of the house and the parents both worked hard at keep their offspring supplied with food. 

One of the adults perched  on the corner of the roof beneath the cork oaks watching for flies

16/6/06 One of the adults perched on the corner of the roof beneath the cork oaks watching for flies

The following day I was even more delighted to see that two of the young birds were perched together in the small fig tree that grew against the wall on the boundary with the Cork Oak plot and no more than a metre from a bedroom window.

060616TGSPN-Spotted Flycatcher young-Sotogrande, Spain

Two of three young Spotted Flycatchers in a fig tree

The young or juvenile spotted flycatchers are a more grey-brown than the adults and are prominently speckled; they remain dependent on their parents feeding them for about three weeks after leaving the nest. It must take quite a bit of practice before they become adept at catching their own.

A closer look at one of the young birds

A closer look at one of the young birds

The birds will be around until at least September, as long as there is food available, before heading back to their winter feeding grounds. They may well be joined by others on their return migration south from Northern Europe too, that stop to refuel before also heading off.

 

A note of thanks

As you may have noticed, I haven’t posted much here over the past few months. Despite that a good many people still manage to find their way to the blog, in fact more on an average day than get to my more current ‘Everyday Nature’  UK blog! I also still get comments and questions relating to posts and pages on the blog too, so it appears it is still serving a purpose, which is really good to know.

I lived in Southern Spain for just over ten years and during that time learned a lot about the nature of the area, visited some amazing places, encountered a lot of amazing wildlife and took a few thousand photographs. I would love to share more of those experiences and perhaps inspire a few people to visit some places a little more off the beaten track of the regular tourist trails, or just to help out a little in the identification of some of the fauna and flora commonly encountered within the area.

I have decided to keep the blog posts going, at least until I run out of ideas and although they won’t be current, I will keep them seasonal and hopefully relevant. Thank you to everyone that has dropped in to look at the blog and a very special thanks to those that have continued to follow it and to those that have begun to follow recently.

Theresa