Category Archives: Nature of Southern Spain

High Noon on the Garden Wall

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

A large dark gecko on the garden wall

A large dark gecko on the garden wall

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

The Wall lizard hurrying past the gecko

The Wall lizard hurrying past the gecko

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

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

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

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

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

The captor hung on whilst the captive struggled to get free

The captor hung on whilst the captive struggled to get free

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

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

The gecko set off back down the wall

The gecko set off back down the wall

The lizards are Iberian Wall Lizard – Podarcis hispanica

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

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

TAIL DROPPING AND REGENERATION

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

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

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

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

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

Late June in a Spanish garden

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

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

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

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

June 23rd

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

Violet Carpenter Bee visiting wisteria

Violet Carpenter Bee visiting wisteria

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

Violet Carpenter bee checking into the bee hotel.

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

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

Carpenter bee squeezing in

Carpenter bee squeezing in

Almost in

Almost in, but a very tight fit

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

Other rooms already occupied and sealed up

Other rooms already occupied and sealed up

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

Small White butterfly pupa

Small White butterfly pupa (enlarged)

Looking up

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

A White Stork circled high overhead

A White Stork circled high overhead

Wisteria sinensis

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

Wisteria seedpods

Wisteria seedpods

On the vine

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

Egyptian Grasshopper overhead

Egyptian Grasshopper overhead

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

Egyptian Grasshopper-Anacridium aegyptum

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

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

Elephant Hawkmoth caterpillar

Elephant Hawk moth caterpillar

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

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

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

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

Head and mouthparts

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

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

The caterpillar had changed colour and was badly injured

The caterpillar had changed colour and was badly injured

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

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

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

In the shade

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

A large light-coloured Gecko that lives in the outhouse

A large light-coloured Gecko that lives in the outhouse

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

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

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

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

Wasps working to feed and guard the developing next generation

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

Beautifully crafted nest of a paper wasp colony

Beautifully crafted nest of a paper wasp colony

A hunting polistes wasp

A hunting polistes wasp

Taking time out to drink

Taking time out for a drink

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

A Speckled Wood butterfly in the shade under the citrus trees

A Speckled Wood butterfly in the shade under the citrus trees

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

Little frog

Little frog

 

 

Buttercups & butterflies

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

Bermuda Buttercup-Oxalis precaprae

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

Flowers: November to May

Bermuda Buttercup

Bermuda Buttercup

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

Bermuda buttercup also occurs in a double-flower form.

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

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

Oxalis pes-caprae - roots & bulbs

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

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

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

Uses

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

Association with insects

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

Moroccan Orange Tip – Anthocharis belia  (euphenoides)

Family: Pieridae; Flight period: March – June

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

Moroccan Orange-tip on Bermuda buttercup flower

Moroccan Orange-tip on Bermuda buttercup flower

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

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

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

Scientific naming note:

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

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

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);

Purple Gallinule or Swamp Hen

The bizarre but gorgeous Purple Gallinule-Porphyrio porphyrio, or Purple Swamphen as it should be more prosaically known, is rated as a scarce resident in Southern Spain. It has the reputation of being  generally difficult to see, so I count myself more than lucky to have had a colony of them very close by, residing within the confines of the Guadiaro Nature Reserve at Sotogrande.

A number of the Purple Swamp Hens feeding around the lagoon edge, viewed from the beach

A number of the resident Purple Swamp Hens feeding around the lagoon edge, viewed from the beach

There is a small but stable breeding community of 10 – 12 Purple Gallinules here and as non-migratory residents it is possible to see them at most times of the year. The best months for good views are during the winter, particularly January and February before the reeds and other vegetation grow too high and they are more likely to be seen out in the open. They become more secretive in the spring and summer when they are breeding, although you may well hear them still. 

Description and appearance

The Purple Swamp Hen is so strangely colourful and exotic-looking that it wouldn’t be out of place as a character in a Dr. Seuss story. It is highly unlikely to be confused with anything else and doesn’t really need a description as there is nothing else quite like it, but here is one anyway.

English name: Purple Swamp Hen, Purple Gallinule; Scientific name: Porphyrio porphrio; Spanish name: Calamon comun; Family: Rail railidae

A gorgeously glossy Purple Gallinule

A gorgeously glossy Purple Gallinule

Similar in size to a domestic chicken, both sexes of the bird are similar in appearance. They have striking bright blue plumage to the throat and breast that blends into a glossy darker purple-blue over the rest of the body and the wings. There is a short upturned tail which is often flicked as the bird walks flashing the bright white coverts beneath it. The very large bill is bright red and triangular in shape, almost parrot-like. The upper mandible is  bulky and curved, adding to the bird’s unique appearance. The bill extends to the top of the head as  a bright red plate, similar to that of the Coots’ white one (the species are related). The long legs are also bright red. The feet have long slender toes with fine claws, especially the rear toe, and were designed for walking across floating and emergent vegetation. The eyes are red too.

The bright white rump

The bright white rump topped with a short upright tail

Behaviour

The swamp hens have some very strange calls, none of which could be called bird-like or melodic, but what they lack in musicality they make up for in originality and decibels. If you don’t know the sounds you may well think they were eminating from an animal rather than a bird. Some days I have walked through the gate at the entrance to the reserve and immediately heard them but then not had a single sighting of them.

Purple Swamp Hen squawking whilst stalking along the edge of the lagoon

Purple Swamp Hen squawking whilst stalking along the edge of the lagoon

On other occasions I have heard an alarm call followed by a swamp hen breaking cover from the reeds then flying noisily and dramatically from one side of the lagoon to the other. The flight is clumsy, but the birds are capable of flying long distances. They are particularly noisy during the breeding season. They swim well, particularly for a bird without webbed feet and have a style similar to a duck’s, moving their heads back and forth as they travel through the water.

An alarmed bird running, flapping its wings and flashing its ruffled white rump

An alarmed bird running, flapping its wings and flashing its ruffled white rump

Feeding & Diet

The Gallinules’ diet is known to consist predominantly of plant matter including shoots, leaves, roots, stems, flowers and seeds. They have also been known to eat eggs, ducklings, small fish and invertebrates such as snails.

Swamp hens out feeding in the flooded reed bed on the edge of the lagoon

Swamp hens out feeding peaceably in the flooded reed bed on the edge of the lagoon

The birds have a suitably strange technique for feeding, which is fascinating to watch. They wade through the shallow water of the lagoon edge, stopping periodically to grasp a stem from under the surface. They select a food item, picking it up with one foot, then hold the stem or root between the toes and raise it up towards the bill. The bird then strips the tough outer casing from reed stems or roots and eats the softer material inside.

Food item is grasped with the long toes then lifted up towards the bill

Food item is grasped with the long toes then lifted up towards the bill

The foot clasping food is raised up towards the bill

The foot clasping food is raised up towards the bill

Breeding

Although I have never witnessed it, the male Purple Swamp Hen apparently has an elaborate courtship display, holding water weeds in his bill and ‘bowing to the female with loud chuckles’ (wikipaedia).

Purple Swamp hens are monogomous

Purple Swamp hens are monogomous

Members of the species here in Spain, P. porphyrio, tend to be monogomous. Pairs nest well hidden amongst matted reeds slightly above water level in clumps of rushes, where the female lays 3–6 speckled eggs, pale yellowish stone to reddish buff, blotched and spotted with reddish brown. The incubation period is 23–27 days, and is performed by both sexes.

The chicks are feathered with downy black feathers and able to leave the nest soon after hatching, but will often remain in the nest for a few days. Young chicks are fed by their parents for between 10–14 days, after which they begin to feed themselves.

A Purple Swamp Hen chick is not particularly beautiful. I photographed this one at Laguna Sidonia Medina

A Purple Swamp Hen chick is not particularly beautiful. I photographed this one at Laguna Sidonia Medina

I never saw once saw chicks here in Sotogrande, but came upon this one on a trip to Laguna Sidonia Medina one May. Up to their ankles in soft mud, there were two of them out in the open on the bank of a shallow stream and a parent was close by calling them anxiously from nearby cover.

 

Other places to see Purple Swamp Hen in Southern Spain

Purple Swamp Hen - La Janda

Purple Swamp Hen – La Janda

Other sites in Southern Spain I have recorded sightings of Purple Swamp Hen include the other smaller lagoon in Sotogrande, Laguna de las Camellias; Coto de Donana (Brazo del Este); La Janda & Laguna de Sidonia Medina

Hot summer blossoms

Thanks to the winter rains carrying on until later than usual and the cooler temperatures of the late spring, flowering in general was a little delayed this year, but has also been prolonged. The vegetation along the roadsides is turning brown now, and most wildflowers have set seed, but the exotic shrubs that characterize many hot sunny Mediterranean places are ablaze with abundant colourful blossom.

Oleander

Oleander is probably the most familiar flowering shrub, it is drought resistant and is planted widely to line roadsides and as an ornamental shrub in public and private gardens. It has also naturalised and is commonly found growing along the banks of rivers and streams. Its toxicity ensures it is not grazed by animals.

Oleander - Nerium oleander

Oleander cultivar with double flowers

Nerium oleander is an evergreen shrub or small tree in the   family Apocynaceae, and is toxic in all its parts.  It is most commonly known as oleander, from its superficial resemblance to the unrelated olive Olea, but has many other names. It is so widely cultivated that no precise region of origin has been identified, but may perhaps be southwest Asia. The ancient city of Volubilis in Morocco took its name from the old Latin name for the flower.The oleander is the official flower of the city of Hiroshima, since it was the first to bloom again after the explosion of the atomic bomb in 1945.

Oleander is one of the most poisonous of commonly grown garden plants,in fact it is one of the most poisonous plants in the world, and contains numerous toxic compounds, many of which are deadly to people, especially young children. There is a story that in Spain, in the times of French occupation by Napoleon’s troops, an invitation to share a meal was extended by the Spanish to French soldiers. In the preparation of the meat, peeled oleander cuttings were used as skewers to roast it, resulting in the death of many of the Napoleonic troops.

Oleander Hawk-moth - Daphnis nerii

Some invertebrates are known to be unaffected by oleander toxins, and feed on the plants, one such being the caterpillars of the beautiful Oleander Hawk-moth Daphnis nerii, a large moth found in wide areas of Africa and Asia. It is a migratory species, flying to parts of eastern and southern Europe during the summer. (I have yet to see one of these beautiful insects for myself but people I know have told me they are found here, so I’m hopeful). The adults feed on nectar of a great variety of flowers. They have a preference for fragrant species like petunia,jasmine and honeysuckle. They are especially active in the twilight time, hovering over the flowers after sunset.

Bougainvillea

19/6/11-Bougainvillea - Bougainvillea glabra, growing in my garden in Sotogrande

Bougainvillea  is a genus of flowering plants native to South America from Brazil west to Peru and south to southern Argentina.The plant was classified by Europeans in Brazil in 1768, by Philibert Commerçon, a French botanist accompanying French Navy admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville during his voyage of circumnavigation and for whom the plant is named.

The yellow-white flowers

They are thorny, woody vines growing anywhere from 1-12 meters tall, scrambling over other plants with their spiky thorns.  The actual flower of the plant is small and generally white, but each cluster of three flowers is surrounded by three or six bracts with the bright colors associated with the plant, including pink, magenta, purple, red, orange, white, or yellow. Bougainvillea glabra is sometimes referred to as “paper flower” because the bracts are thin and papery.

Hibiscus

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis

Hibiscus  is a genus of flowering plants in the mallow family, Malvaceae. It is quite a large family, containing several hundred species that are native to warm-temperate, subtropical and tropical regions throughout the world. Member species are often noted for their showy flowers and are commonly known as hibiscussorrel, and flor de Jamaica. The flowers are large, conspicuous, trumpet-shaped, with five or more petals, ranging from white to pink, red, orange, purple or yellow, and from 4–18 cm broad.

Hibiscus, especially White Hibiscus and Red hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), is considered to have medicinal properties in the Indian traditional system of medicine, Ayurveda. Roots are used in various concoctions believed to cure ailments such as coughs. The flowers are boiled in oil along with other spices to make a medicated hair oil to prevent greying and hair loss. The red hibiscus flower is traditionally worn by Tahitian women. A single flower is tucked behind the ear to indicate the wearer’s availability for marriage.

I have not observed that hibiscus flowers are particularly attractive to insects, but they do get investigated by foraging Blue Tits.

A young Blue Tit investigating hibiscus flowers

To the mountains

The Sierra de la Nieves,  which literally translates from the Spanish as  ‘Mountain range of the Snows’, forms part of the Serrania de Ronda and rises dramatically above the surrounding valleys and countryside. The Natural Park covers an area of 30km by 20km, or 18,530 hectares; the peak is the tip of the ‘Torecilla’ at 1,919 metres. Historically, this was a place of refuge for highwaymen and outlaws, but today the Sierra de las Nieves is considered one of the best places in Europe for the study of nature.  The area was studied in the 19th century by Swiss botanist Edmond Boissier and in 1933 by Luis Ceballos;  in 1970 the park was declared a National Hunting Reserve and then in 1995 a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.

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The annual (gonhs) outings to the Sierra de las Nieves have been one of the highlights of the last six years for me; it is a truly wonderful part of the world and the best place I have visited in this region, for the sheer abundance of wildlife. The mountain scenery is spectacular in its own right, but this is a haven for  a rich and diverse flora, which includes many endemic species, more butterflies and other insects than you can count from  a wide variety of species, an array of  birds, many of which breed here and it is home to Ibex, deer and other mammal species as well as reptiles, making this a magical place. The natural park covers  a vast area and a few hours of one day are hardly enough to scratch the surface of what is here.There is so much to find that you can hardly take more than a few steps without discovering a beautiful plant or spotting a bird or being awed by a view, so it’s impossible to go home disappointed, except perhaps that you have to leave at all. Having said that you can camp here too.

11th June 2011

11/6/11-Giant Squill – Scilla peruviana

Arriving at the area recreativo, situated well inside the park, at about 10am it was already sunny but still coolish, perfect weather for walking. There are several options for possible routes to take, illustrated on painted sign boards, but today we knew we were heading for a trail we have taken before that would take us up a mountainside through pine woodland.

11/6/11-Honeysuckle-Lonicera etrusca

11/6/11-Wild Gladiolus- Gladiolus illyricus

The first few metres of the track pass through a fairly open grassy area, where there were so many flowers calling to be photographed it would have been easy to spend a couple of hours in that one spot, but there was so much more to see we had to move on. There are a variety of tree species here, mainly pines and oaks, with an ancient species if pine and some special oak trees that have their stronghold here. The lower parts of the woodland we were walking through is comprised mainly of large Monterey Pines – Pinus radiata, that would originally have been deliberately planted. Higher up this introduced species gives way to the indigenous Pinsapo Pine-  Abies pinus. There are some huge ancient specimens of the Pinsapo in places within the park and many more young trees have been planted and nurtured to ensure its continued survival.

11/6/11-Spanish Fir or Pinsapo Pine-Abies pinsapo

Foliage of pinsapo pine

In 1837, during one of his exploratory visits to the south of the Iberian Peninsula, the Swiss Botanist Edmond Boisser discovered a new species of tree: Abies Pinsapo, popularly known as the Pinsapo pine or Spanish fir. Found only in the southern mountains of Andalucia and in the north of Morocco, botanists discovered that the pinsapo had been around since the Tertiary geological time period – predating  the Ice Age. The tree can grow up to 30m tall and live as long as 200 years. It has tiny needle-like leaves, which are extremely sharp and cylindrical in shape, and although this foliage appears lightweight, it throws out a very dense shade on the ground. 

We followed the track as it wound up the mountain slope, carefully negotiating the network of exposed tree roots criss-crossing the path. We stopped a few times to try to see birds we could hear calling or caught glimpses of flitting around in the branches above us that were largely species of Tit, Great Tit, Blue Tit,Coal Tit and Crested Tit but also Chaffinches and Chiffchaff (maybe Iberian) with limited success. Reaching a spot on the track where an opening in the trees allowed sight down  a slope we had more luck. There were a couple of large, dead trees here where we had a Serin singing, a Chiffchaff, a Great Tit with a beak full of food and best of all a beautiful male Redstart. It was apparent that the birds here were all still in the process of raising families, a good couple of weeks behind those at our lower altitude.

A little further on we stopped for a refreshment break and across the valley saw a flock of Chough take to the air; 50-60 birds were estimated and we found out later that other members of our party exploring over there had watched them flushed out by a pair of Golden Eagles.

11/6/11-Pigs living wild

Sadly we missed the Eagles in action and had to settle for a nearer sighting of a Booted Eagle (LP) and in the valley below us a family of pigs, which several people wanted to turn into wild boar, but although one of them was dark coloured, the other was very beige!

11/6/11-Pinsapo pines and sculpted rock

We climbed a little higher, rounding a bend onto a more level section of the trail where it loops around the side of the mountain. We upset a pair of Nuthatch here that were at great pains to let us know how much they resented our presence with much fierce scolding. A bird was singing too, but we did not recognise the song until we heard it again later and saw it was that of a male Redstart. Standing still for a few minutes to listen, I also had a very close view of a Crested Tit foraging in vegetation just a metre or so away. Moving on to catch up with the others I heard more scolding, this time from a Wren that had a very large larva,( or is it a slug?) in its bill, so large I’m amazed it could get any sound out at all.

11/6/11-Wren waiting to take in an enormous meal for a lucky chick

On the opposite side of the track more scolding – this time from the Nuthatches again that clearly had their nest near the top of another dead tree. Then more telling off from a very nearby Robin, whose picture I tried to wait  for as I could already see this year’s Christmas card of him perched in a Pinsapo… no luck there though.

At this point we realised that we had long been deserted by anyone who had any idea where we may be heading and tempting thought the trail ahead appeared, we decided we had to get off it and take a ‘short-cut’, (not my words!), that involved scaling a very ill-defined loose shale track, probably made by sure-footed goats, that would take us higher up our mountain and meet up with the surfaced track that would take us back down to the bottom of it.

11/6/11-Nuthatch taking food into their nest in a dead tree

The track passed around the dead tree where the nuthatches had their nest and I couldn’t resist stopping for a few minutes to watch them.

11/6/11-We were headed for the top of this slope above the old Pinsapo

Although parts of the track felt a bit loose and hazardous, it was beautiful, with flowering plants, shrubs and trees set amongst weathered and lichen-covered rocks – a perfectly artlessly designed rock garden.

2/6/06 -Some of the flora growing on this very slope 5 years ago

2/6/06-Blue Hedgehog broom -erinacea anthyllis. Evident today but almost at the end of its flowering

11/6/11-Still in full flower the lovely Common White Rockrose-Helianthemum appeninum

11/6/11- A small quiet flower with a wonderful name- Melancholy Toadflax- Linaria tristis

11/6/11-The lovely Grey-leaved Cistus-Cistus albidus, whose pretty flowers resemble crumpled paper is very attractive to insects

Approaching the top of the slope we had this wonderful view.

11/6/11- A view from the mountainside framed by pines

 

11/6/11- Part of the view from our picnic spot almost at the top of the mountain

Reaching the top of the slope we stopped to recover from our exertions to eat our lunch and to admire the fantastic views in front of us; panoramas of the mountains and valleys of the Sierra de las Nieves, the wider Serrania de Ronda and way beyond even that – mountain ranges continue to the far horizon and probably beyond.

We did find the road and met up with some of the members of our group that had left us previously to walk to the real top of the mountain as they were on their way down. This was where we discovered that our previously unrecognised singing bird had been a male Redstart; one was singing from the very top of a Pinsapo pine in front of us but growing from lower down the slope, so we had a very good view with binoculars. It was too far away to photograph well though.

11/6/11-Golden gorse was flowering prolifically

This part of the mountain is completely different to the side we had just left; to one side of the winding track there were high rocky cliffs while on the other side the land fell away and was well vegetated with Pinsapos pines, shrubs including gorse, cistus and lavender. This is the habitat preferred by the Black Redstarts, Rock Buntings and Wheatears that often choose clefts in the rocks to nest in.

We had several sights of Black Redstart males singing from the tops of the rocks on the ridge and a lovely view of a pair of Rock Bunting that sat on a rock while being summoned by their offspring perched in a small Pinsapo pine above them. One of the pair flew up the slope to a rock very close to us and posed quite nicely, I think it was the female as her colouring, although similar to that of a male was  slightly more subdued

11/6/11-Rock Bunting – Emberiza cia

There was a lucky, very brief glimpse of a male Northern Wheatear here too.

11/6/11-Northern Wheatear (m)-Oenanthe oenanthe

The afternoon had become much warmer and as we reached the bottom of the slope where there are areas of grass and wildflowers we began to see butterflies. At first just a few, all flying around rapidly, we quickly noted Marsh Fritillary, Spanish Gatekeeper, Marbled White, Common Blue, Clouded Yellow, Cleopatra and Meadow Brown, none of which settled for long enough to photograph. Further on there were more, a Wall Brown basking on the road, numbers of Marsh Fritillaries, a Black-veined White, a Small Skipper and a lovely Scarce Swallowtail that glided gracefully around flowering shrubbery but didn’t stop.

11/6/11-Black-veined White on Scabious

11/6/11- Marsh Fritillary

I would have loved to be able to stay chasing butterflies for longer, but it was time to go home and rest up the anticipated aching muscles.

Final bird, butterfly and moth sightings for the day from our group as a whole:

Birds:

Golden Eagle(2), Short-toed Eagle, Booted Eagle (lt ph), Griffon Vultures, Chough (50-60), Jay, Blackbird,Cirl Bunting, Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Bonelli’s Warbler,Chiffchaff, Nuthatch (pair), Stonechat, Wheatear, Black-eared Wheatear. Wren, Black Redstart, Redstart, Goldfinch, Serin, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Crested tit, Rock Bunting, Woodlark, Red- legged Partridge, Woodpigeon, White Wagtail, Grey Wagtail (pair), 2 x Whitethroat feeding young, Lesser Whitethroat, Sub-alpine Warbler, Melodious Warbler and driving home we added Kestrel and 2 Rock Thrush, probably Blue but we couldn’t stop on the bendy main road!

Butterflies:

Black-veined White  Aporia crataegi ;Queen of Spain Fritillary Issoria lathonia;Common Blue Polyommatus icarus; Lorquins Blue Cupido lorquinii;
Marsh Fritillary Euphydras aurinia; Meadow Brown Maniola jurtina;
Escher’s Blue Agrodiaetus escheri;Painted Lady Cynthia cardui; Small White Pieris rapae; Bath White Pontia daplidice; Scarce Swallowtail Iphiclides podalirius;Spanish Festoon Zerynthia rumina; Spanish Gatekeeper Pryonis bathseba;Wall Brown Lasiommata megera; Iberian Marbled White Melanargia lachesis;Brown Argus Aricia cramera; Large Grizzled Skipper Muschampia proto;Lulworth Skipper Thymelicus acteon; Small Skipper Thymelicus sylvestris;Mallow Skipper Carcharodus alceae; Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas;Cardinal Fritillary:- Argynnis pandora; Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria; Grayling Hipparchia semele; Clouded Yellow Colias crocea; Cleopatra Gonepteryx cleopatra

and Moths:-

Forester sp.  Adcita sp.:-  A lovely metallic green winged day-flying moth
Royal Burnet Zygaena sarpedon;Synaphe moldavica:–  Everywhere in the grassy meadows; the most common moth around.
Hummingbird Hawkmoth Macroglossum stellatarumChrysocrambus dentuellus:–  Several of these well marked moths  seen on the stalks of grasses

More butterfly pictures can be seen in Pages – Fauna -Butterfly id

Sotogrande spring catch-up

3rd -13th May

I was beginning to think Spring would be over before I managed to get to catch up on what’s been happening here in Spain since I got back from the UK, but here’s just one person’s very tiny glimpse of the most eventful season in the Spanish natural calendar.

The weather has been variable and at times dramatic; the day I arrived home being an example of the latter. Flying with Easy Jet from London Gatwick, our take-off was delayed by about an hour and a half as the plane had a flat tyre that had to be replaced while we all sat in it. As it turned out that was fortunate in respect of our landing in Gibraltar as due to very strong winds, flights arriving earlier had been diverted to Malaga and ours was the only one to land that day.

On the journey home it didn’t take long to start noticing the changes to the landscape. Still green and lush thanks to the late rains and cooler than usual weather, the masses of golden yellow Spiny Broom that covered the hillsides I left at the end of April had gone, replaced, although to a much lesser extent, by the later flowering Spanish Broom. Along the roadsides the broom  is augmented by frothy pink Tamarisk and darker pink Oleander.

The Spiny Broom & gorse have been replaced by Spanish Broom

It always takes a few days to get back into the rhythm of things, but I had a good start as Jon told me he had discovered a bird’s nest located hardly a metre away from our upstairs bathroom window, but higher up, so about 6 – 7metres or so above the ground. He had been attempting to cut back some of the more intrusive branches that were almost coming in through the window, but stopped when he realised the nest was there. He thought the bird may have been sitting on it for a week or so.

Chaffinch nest from the bathroom window, through the window grille

The nest is a beautiful construction with lichen on the outside of it. Photo taken from the bathroom window.

It’s a perfectly beautiful nest, fitted into the junction of some fairly sturdy branches of the overhanging Cork Oak tree and screened by twigs, tree leaves and by honeysuckle that has twined all the way up there and will be shaded from direct sunlight. The nest is deep and all you can see of its maker is a tail and sometimes a bit of a head, so I couldn’t immediately work out whose nest it was. I only realised it belonged to a Chaffinch pair when I saw the female fly back to it.

Before I left the cork oaks had begun shedding their old dry leaves, a very messy process at the best of times, but when the process is aided by heavy rainfall and strong winds it’s even messier and our drive is covered with a thick layer of them. The trees have flowered too, so the wind has covered every outdoor surface with a thick layer of their yellow-green pollen dust and the flower tassels are also falling. I love those trees, but don’t look forward to these few weeks of their annual spring-clean.

A Cork Oak tree covered in a mass of flowers

In the garden the privet is in full flower and attracting all sorts of insects, including butterflies. There have been Red Admirals and Painted Ladies, but most surprising was a Clouded Yellow that stayed feeding for quite a few minutes, then left to return several times over a couple of hours. They’re usually in a big hurry, rarely still for long, so it was a  bit of a treat to have its company for so long.

A surprising visit from a Clouded Yellow butterfly

There have been more moths around too, some of which I’ve come across outside in the daytime.

A LargeYellow Underwing on a curtain. I couldn't see its antennae, so don't know if it was concealing them - surely it couldn't have lost them both?

This rather faded Crimson Speckled moth settled on the lawn

It’s good to see House Martins darting around the skies again; I noticed they are in the process of rebuilding nests under the eaves of a house where there have clearly been nests before. People sadly do knock them down, but it’s also possible that the amount of torrential rain we had through the winter and in recent weeks may have been responsible for the damage.

8MAY-House Martins are in the process of rebuilding nests in a spot where it looks as though old ones have been removed

Since much earlier in the year I’ve seen Kestrels in the locality, often two together over-flying the area, then a single one that regularly perches in the dead eucalyptus tree I can see across the main road in Sotogrande ‘alto’. I’ve even seen them in the garden several times, usually flying away after I’ve disturbed them from a perch high up in a palm tree. So, I know they’re around and have assumed they are nesting somewhere close by, but I had a most surprising sighting early one recent afternoon: a Booted Eagle suddenly appeared flying low across the garden towards me, swerving quickly as it almost collided with the corner of the roof, closely and noisily chased by a much smaller Kestrel! It was another of those ‘did that really happen moments?’, but as my son was standing talking to me at the time, he confirmed it! Then lo and behold just a couple of days later the scene was repeated, but this time the pursued was a Black Kite and I although I was out with my camera was far too slow to record the speeding action, but I did manage a quick shot of the feisty little pursuer as it flew back, mission accomplished. I guess the birds chased away must have been on passage and strayed into the Kestrel’s territory.

Seeing the photograph afterwards I had another surprise; I think it may be a Lesser Kestrel and am hoping someone might comment on that. It does appear to have the longer projecting central tail feathers.

This Kestrel is afraid is no-one

Apart from that bit of excitement, the general bird population seems to be busy going about the business of raising families. Blackbirds have a nest in the bay shrub, the female hardly ventures out, so she may be sitting on eggs and I’ve seen the male very close by, singing from the top of the nearby hedge and foraging for food on the lawn and around the flower beds.

The wildflowers are this spring are rampant and, just glorious, there is no other word to describe them. It is difficult to convey the extent of them as photographs can’t come close to truly portraying the sights, but here are a few of a field that stretches from the back of Pueblo Nuevo de Guadiaro, behind the football pitch and up to the A-7 Cadíz – Malaga road.

This display mainly comprises purple bugloss, white ox-eye daisies and lime green euphorbia

There's not much grass between the flowers for the horses

A mass of wildflowers at the field edge including Purple Viper's Bugloss, Rabbit's Bread & Euphorbia

I will be following up with a more detailed post of the plants and adding some to my wildflower id page, but I’ve got more catching up to do first.

A hunt for early Orchids

Friday 1st April

My friends  generously rescued me from an otherwise lonely weekend and invited me to stay with them at their home near Jimena, which along with the hospitality also presented the opportunity to catch up with some of what is happening in that part of the countryside. As I’ve said before, I love the drive from Sotogrande down to the Jimena road always, but at this time of year it can be particularly special. I  was not disappointed, driving over last evening with the car windows down I heard plentiful snatches of songs of newly-arrived Nightingale and then reaching the bottom stretch of the road, the air was filled with the uplifting and heady perfume of orange blossom; a heavenly combination.

Later on we took a short walk down to the river where another Nightingale was singing from a tree at the top of the high bank that is surrounded by scrubby shrubbery and a tangled mass of brambles, another heavenly combination, but for the bird this time. There were Cetti’s Warblers calling from both sides of the river too, but as usual offered us only very brief glimpses of themselves as they dashed between covers.

Saturday 2nd April

We set off this morning with a bit of a list of things we hoped to see during the course of the day. We were heading up to Gaucín, our primary purpose being to seek Orchids, but then I also had a yen to find out if the Bee-eaters had returned yet to the nest-site I knew to be just beyond Jimena Estacion and additionally to maybe a  sighting of a Woodchat Shrike. A little greedy maybe, but I was anticipating leaving the country for a few weeks and hoping to see as much as possible before then; by the time I return the freshness of spring will have already passed into early summer.

The 'white town' of Gaucin nestles into the mountainside watched over by its castle

Our orchid hunt was to be along the same track we explored last April where we discovered a varied selection of the flowers.  That was on the 17th of the month, a couple of weeks later than now, so thought we may be too early, but we were delighted to discover an even better, fresher display today.

Spiny Broom, Grey-leaved Cistus, Periwinkle

Walking along this track on a sunny spring day is like walking through a beautiful wild garden, shrubs and flowers compete for the best patches of ground amongst the rocky terrain of the mountainside, interweaving to create artfully full and colourful displays that only pure nature could imagine. A photograph can only hope to highlight a tiny detail of the wholly glorious sight, no amount of words or pictures  can do it justice, you really have to get out there and experience it if you can.

Grey-leaved Cistus

The petals of the pretty flowers of the cistus resemble crumpled paper and last only a few brief hours. This one is being devoured by a chafer, its hairs stained with bright yellow pollen.

Blue Alkanet

A Yellow Anemone, Anemone palmatum hosts a murder scene- a tiny spider preying upon a hoverfly

A view of the mountains in the direction of another white town, neighbouring Casares

The Orchids

Some of the orchids are soberly coloured and surprisingly difficult to spot, until you’ve found the first ones.Once we began to pick them out today we were surprised by their numbers, there were a lot more individual plants than we had seen last year and some impressively large colonies too. There were very good numbers of Mirror Orchids, an attractive and distinctive species that is easy to identify.

Mirror Orchid

A large colony of Mirror Orchids together with other Ophrys species, growing in dry gravelly soil at the side of the track

Also plentiful, the Yellow Ophrys is again distinctive and unlikely to be confused with anything else.

Yellow Ophrys

Sombre Bee Orchid-Ophrys fusca

The Sombre Orchid (or Dull Ophrys) also grows abundantly here. First impressions are of a slender plant, often taller than the Mirror or Yellow Orchids. They have a dark-coloured lip and a two- lobed blue speculum. There are also other species growing alongside them that have a similar appearance, but that have subtle differences. One such is Ophrys iricolor

Ophrys iricolor is similar to Ophrys fusca

The two species are  very similar in their general appearance, but when you look closely you can see there are differences, most noticeably Ophrys iricolor has a more squared speculum with different patterning.

The species also cross-pollinate and produce sub-species, so there are even more variations to be found, but naming them is another thing!

Quite unique, the fascinating Man Orchid is easy to identify:

The Man Orchid is unlikely to be confused with any other species

There were fewer specimens of the pretty and more showy Sawfly orchid to be found, but we did find a few, including this lovely large fresh specimen sited on a rocky slope and with other species behind it.

Sawfly Orchid

There was so much to enjoy on this walk, the warm sunshine, the glorious sight and wonderful scent of masses  of golden flowered broom, the orchids and other early spring flowers and then an unexpected bird treat. Sitting quietly for a few minutes while I was photographing flowers, Jill heard two birds calling to one another as they worked their way towards us through the branches of a pine tree. When one popped out of cover she saw they were Crested Tits; I arrived to get a quick glimpse and a very quick photograph just before the second one flew out and away.

A little Crested Tit amongst the cones of a pine tree

Griffon Vultures circling overhead are very much a feature of this mountainous area and we had several sightings of them today. We also saw a few other migrant raptors including Black Kites, Short-toed and Booted Eagles. We were pleased to hear our first Cuckoo and when we first arrived a Nightingale, but   Sardinian Warblers were our most seen and heard birds throughout our time here today.

(For further details of Orchids, including scientific names etc, please see page listed under Flora)

The Nightgales are back and much more

Monday, 28th March

A sad sight greeted me this morning – a mole had somehow managed to fall into the swimming pool and whether as a result of the fall or from the sheer shock to its system, had died.  Moles are quite troublesome to many a gardener here, just as in the UK, and can wreak havoc to a lawn overnight. I would rather not have their company in my own garden, but they do like it here, perhaps because they know I won’t deliberately hurt them.

Mole - Talpa europaea

It was a warm sunny day and sweeping up leaves I realised the wind had changed direction. Perhaps as a result of that I saw several returning Black Kites in the early afternoon, some quite low and passing by the back of the house, others further away at the front. Late in the afternoon I heard one of my favourite sounds of summer – the distinctive cheerful trills and calls of  Bee-eaters. I was really happy to hear them and even happier to see them as they passed by, flying low and parallel to the main road, so they may have been returning to the local nesting site at San Enrique. The flock was closely followed by a single Swift, the first one I’ve seen locally this year.

Looking out of the kitchen window later on when it was almost dark, I noticed two birds at the bird bath, two Robins out together bathed and drank.

Tuesday, 29th March – Nightingales!

I stepped outside for a few minutes at around lunchtime this afternoon and heard the sound I eagerly anticipate each spring – the first song of a Nightingale! I was so happy to hear it I just stood and listened for ages, quickly realising that there were in fact two birds singing, one from very close by and the other a distance away. I’m particularly pleased as I will be in the UK for a few weeks from next week and would have been very unhappy to have missed their arrival.

A lovely sunny day brought out a good number of insects, including bees, various species of butterfly and several Egyptian Grasshoppers.

An Egyptian Grasshopper was flying restlessly from place to place around the garden, landing briefly on a rock.The striped effect on its back is a glimpse of folded wings as the elytra are not quite closed

This was quite a dark-coloured individual, but had the diagnostic striped eyes, so definitely not a locust. It also had a wrinkled face.

A little later on, hoping to hear more Nightingale music, I stood out on the terrace with a cup of tea and the camera and something moving very fast caught the corner of my eye. It was a male Wall Lizard rapidly pursuing a female, eventually catching her by grabbing the end of her tail in his mouth.

A male Wall Lizard pursued a very fast female, grabbing the end of her tail

She continued to move away, but he held fast, progressively getting a firmer grip higher up the tail.

The pursuing lizard puts a foot on to the end of the pursued's tail to get a grip higher up, but she kept going

She clung tight to the bottom of a pillar, he clung tight to her tail

Round the pillar for lap two - he's still hanging on, gradually getting a better grip

Disappearing around the pillar

Around the other side, he's still hanging on as she makes a break for the edge of the path

She made it over the edge, but he was not letting go

The struggle continued until the pair momentarily disappeared from view; seconds later they reappeared, the female had broken free and made a dash back for the cover of the air-conditioning unit with the male in hot pursuit. I waited for a while, but they did not venture out, so they clearly wished to continue in private.

A Red Admiral butterfly basking on a sunlit leaf

Later in the evening more birds came to bathe, a female Chaffinch was first to arrive, followed by two Blue Tits, then two Chiffchaffs. The Chaffinch was not happy to share though and chased the smaller birds away several times.

Wednesday 30th March

A walk around the neighbourhood is especially enjoyable at this time of year when the air is still fresh and it’s pleasantly very warm but not hot. Blackbirds were out hunting worms for hungry young, Collared Doves were very visible, flying noisily from trees and back again, so I think they are probably beginning another mating cycle. A little bunch of mixed male and female Serins were pecking around on grass beside the road, flying up to a tree as a car passed them. Most noticeable birds singing this week have been Goldfinches. A resident species, there are usually a few about, but there have been a lot here the past few days, so the numbers have been boosted by those returning to breed and on passage back from Africa.

A Goldfinch singing from the top of a pine tree

Thursday 31st March

Warm enough to sit outside early this morning, I had the added joy of a Nightingale singing from the cork oak trees just a few metres away from me. A Robin and a Chiffchaff were out foraging on the lawn and at around 11am there were both Greenfinches and Goldfinches in the garden.

An early morning butterfly - a Speckled Wood, warming up on a leaf

An acrobatic Blue Tit

I’ve had some lovely close views of Blue Tits the past few mornings as they come to the kitchen window, to look for spiders I think.

Friday, April 1st

My makeshift birdbath has been in high demand this week and this morning as I strolled around the garden I was surprised when a Blue Tit arrived to bathe right in front of me. It stayed put when I took its picture too, so must have really needed to freshen up.

Blue tits have been regular bathers recently

The Blue Tit was once again displaced by a female Chaffinch, who just sat on the rim of the bath territorially, neither drinking nor bathing.

The female Chaffinch stood keeping other birds away

Not far away, sitting on the edge of the path surveying the garden was a  Psammodromus Lizard, another lizard passed by that I thought for a minute may have been another similar one; I saw a mating pair very close to this spot last year and thought I might be doubly lucky. It was a Wall Lizard though, and after checking each other out he moved along a bit further and also stopped to overlook the same path of garden.

A well-coloured Psammodromus Lizard

A Wall Lizard, also well coloured, showing regrowth of the very tip of his tail