Category Archives: Nature of Southern Spain

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…….

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.

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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);