Category Archives: Nature of Southern Spain

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

Spring catch-up

17MAR11-A Serin singing

He turns his head to sing out in another direction

Birds are still singing, particularly noticeable at the moment are Serins and Greenfinches; as I walk around the roads of the locality there seem to be Serin’s trilling out from perches or performing their distinctive territorial flights every hundred metres or so.

23MAR11-Greenfinch singing

There are some very exotic-looking flowers opening up now; I've tried to find out what this tree is, but no luck so far

Blue Tits seem to be everywhere, I caught sight of one pecking around the orange tree blossom in the photograph, I wasn’t quite quick enough to get the bird in, so I’m afraid you will have to imagine how pretty it would have looked.

Another exotic flower spike noticed on my rounds

IN THE GARDEN

A pair of  Blackbirds have been very busy for the past ten days or so; I’ve seen them both foraging in the garden so they clearly have a young family to feed. I have resisted clearing away the dry leaves and twiggy bits of tree debris from the edges of the paths so the birds can seek insects there; the Blackbirds characteristically add drama to their searching, showering the paths and themselves with discarded material. They make even more mess, but I love to watch them doing it.

18MARCH -Blackbird foraging, framed by a spiny Aloe plant

23MAR11-The female is more cautious than the male and sticks closer to cover

The weather has been changeable, but with enough sunshine to bring flowers into bloom and insects to pollinate them. I planted a few dark pink osteospermum plants about four years ago that have self-seeded and I now have a large patch of them in all shades of pink from very pale through to very dark. They look very pretty and have been buzzing with all sizes and variations of bees and hoverflies. I have no idea what species most of them belong to, but I photograph them anyway.

A bee I've not noticed before, having a gingery-brown coloured 'furry' appearance

A Large White butterfly on a blue periwinkle flower

There have been a good number of butterflies about, a lot of Large Whites, Red Admirals and one I’d not seen in the garden before – a Moroccan Orange Tip which didn’t find anything to tempt it to stay for long.

A large Egyptian Grasshopper on the trunk of the pomegranate tree. Sometimes mistaken for locusts, the grasshoppers can be identified by their beautiful striped eyes

The clattering sound of Egyptian Grasshoppers on the wing is a familiar sound in and around the garden at this time of year as the big bulky but handsome insects are stirred into action by the warmth. The one in my photograph was big, but only about two-thirds the size of a fully grown adult female, so maybe an adult male or a young female with a couple of morphs still to go through.

Another familiar insect has been on the prowl lately: this is a 'paper wasp' - Polistes gallicus. They resemble the common wasps but do not seek to share our food and will only sting if they are touched or stepped upon.

 

Lovely weather for frogs – and ducks!

Another week of unsettled weather brought yet more rain and generally stormy weather that has refilled the pool enough to delight the Tree Frogs.

The presence of the water brought me some very exotic visitors on Wednesday morning: glancing through a window as I walked past I made out a large shape on the edge of the pool. My first thought was Cattle Egret, as we do see them in the garden very occasionally, and there are a lot of frogs here at the moment. I ran to grab the camera and peering carefully around the edge of the voile curtain realised there were two ducks there. Sited beneath a major Europe-Africa migration route we do get sightings and the occasional close encounter with some amazing birds, especially when bad weather brings them down, but never before ducks in the garden. I daren’t open the window for fear of alarming them, but had to get some images, whatever the quality, so I focussed through the glass. I was very surprised to see what I was fairly sure were a pair of Mandarin ducks – but where they may have come from I can’t imagine. They are usually kept on lakes and such as ornamentals; in the UK there are escapees living and breeding in the wild in various places, but till now I’ve not seen any since living in Spain.

I saw the male duck first, he was looking down into the pool – the female was in the water

The female appeared, popping out from the water. Much less colourful than her mate but still beautifully made

A slightly better view of the male as he moved away from the pool- what a beautiful bird

I took the photograph below at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust reserve at Llanelli, South-West Wales several years ago and have included it to properly show the gorgeous colours, patterns and textures of the Mandarin duck’s plumage – so much detail on a single creature.

Mandarin duck at Llanelli WWT- a much better view

BACK TO THE TREE FROGS….

The nightly choir gatherings have been reinstated and our original ten or so seem to have invited along all their friends and relatives too – the noise levels have hit an all-time high. A concern of ours had been that the neighbours may start complaining about the racket, but a walk down the road one evening reassured us that they too have their own collections of discordant serenaders.

As a background the massed croaking is just a very loud noise, but if you take a moment, stop thinking about it as simply noise and listen properly, you can pick up differences in the pitch and ‘notes’ of the croaking individuals; one or two are distinctive enough to recognise quite easily.

On Saturday night, when it sounded as though there must be at least fifty frogs croaking, we went out in the dark with a torch to see if we could see any. As soon as they see light, they go quiet, but peering down into the pool with a small and not very bright torch beam, we found quite a few, some demonstrating what all the noise has been about and in the process of mating.

A bright green female and a smaller, darker male

The light from the torch and camera flash did disturb them, but although they moved a little , this pair stayed together.

Very close to the mating pair there was another female

Very close by the couple was another female; perhaps he is one of the alpha males.

On the other side of the pool was another pair, both light bright green

There has undoubtedly been an increase in the local population of these delightful little frogs over the last couple of years, perhaps as a result of the heavy winter rainfalls. If this lot are as successful this year, I’d rather no think about the noise levels next spring.


Glorious spring flora

7th March 2011

Following last Saturday’s high the week’s temperatures rapidly descended back to winter lows and we had rainy days, climaxing over the weekend with torrential downpours and thunderstorms. I have only ventured out for short walks during pleasanter parts of days, so for now I thought I’d do an update on some of the most commonly found plants that are presently flowering throughout the region.

Beautiful flowering shrubs and plants, many of which are widely cultivated and grown, or attempted to be grown in gardens throughout Europe, flourish here in some seemingly inhospitable places. Most thrive in a variety of different habitats, on dry sandy and often stony soils, in salty air by the sea and on rocky slopes. The plants compensate for the lack of available moisture with leaves that help to conserve it, these may be thick and felted, tough and leathery or needle-like. Many also protect themselves from being eaten by grazing animals with sharp spines or by producing chemicals that make them unpalatable. They flower early in the season to allow time to set seed before the summer drought begins.

Shrubs

SPINY BROOM – Calicotome villosa

An uplifting sight of bright yellow broom against a blue sky and sea

Shrubs are covered in a profusion of blossom

Flowering: February to April (May)

Habitat: Open spaces, especially dry hillsides with Genista and Gorse bushes and often in coastal places close to the sea.

A very spiny shrub that is often confused with gorse. The flowers are a rich yellow colour, very scented and are so profuse that when they are fully out they hide the leaves. The flowers almost always come out at the same time and a mass of the shrubs growing together is a spectacular sight. The formidable spines are 3-4cm long,  straight and tough, at the tips of the short leafy twigs and remain on dead wood.

*The spiny branches are so complexly interwoven that a stand of the shrubs is almost impenetrable and in the past, goatherds would cut bushes to use as fencing to corral their goats.

FRENCH LAVENDERLavandula stoechas

French Lavender – Lavandula stoechas

The colourful 'petals' at the top of each flower-head are actually bracts, the flowers are tiny and purple.

Flowering: Nearly all year round, but flowering is most profuse from late February to April/May.
Habitat: I used to struggle to grow this lovely plant in Wales, but here it grows in a wide variety of habitats. It is very common in sandy and acid soils; also in limestone areas, in light woods or in open places amongst open larger shrubs.
French Lavender is  a small woody perennial shrublet : all parts of the plant are slightly aromatic. The leaves are pale to mid grey-green, softly hairy and pointed. The flowers appear in elongated heads that are topped with purple to lilac or pink bracts varying in shape and length from about 1-2.5cm long. The flowers are tiny and usually purple in colour.
*During the intense heat of summer the normally pleasant scent of the plant tends to alter, taking on an almost ‘goaty’ scent. It is a very old medicinal plant and its essential oil was used here as an  antiseptic forwashing wounds.

A plant growing in light woodland amongst limestone rocks

TREE GERMANDER: Teucrium fruticans

TREE GERMANDER- Teucrium fruticans

Most common colour of this species are very plae lilac and almost white

Flowering: January to June

Habitat: A very common plant in a wide variety of habitats, woods, heaths, thickets, open spaces with other shrubs from the coast to mountains, on any soil type.
Tree Germander is a woody shrub that may reach a height of 2m, but usually much less. The leaves have  short stalks and are arranged in opposite pairs; the upper surfaces of fresher leaves is slightly downy, the undersides white felted.  The flowers are usually out two at a time on a twig end; colour is variable from pure white though pale lilac, pinkish or pale blue-lilac, very rarely dark blue. The plant is frequently cultivated, especially the deep sapphire-blue flowered form which originated in North Africa.
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Climbers

DUTCHMAN’S PIPEAristolochia baetica
 

DUTCHMAN'S PIPE -Aristolochia baetica

FLOWERING: Over a long period from autumn to early spring.

The plant takes its common name from the shape of its flowers

HABITAT: In almost any soil and a wide range of habitats, often in semi-shade on woodland edges, but also in more open places where it has support.

Dutchman’s Pipe is a robust, tall hairless creeping plant that will clamber high into trees, through shrubs or along the ground. The leaves are dull, blue-green and attractively heart-shaped.The flowers are about 7cm long, curved and a dull red-purple to brownish-red in colour: the plant takes its name from their  curious shape that are designed to entice in insects  to pollinate them, holding them captive until the job is done.

*The roots of the plant have been used in Spain since at least the 16th century for reducing fever.

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Bulbs & corms

STAR OF BETHLEHEMOrnithogalum orthophyllum (collinum)

STAR OF BETHLEHEM

FLOWERING: Feb/March to April/May

HABITAT: A variety of locations including light woodland, grassy roadsides, rocky ground and sandy coastal places.

A beautiful bulbous perennial with quite large star-shaped white flowers, 30-40mm across. Commonly cultivated.

ONE-LEAVED SQUILL, SCILLAScilla monophyllus

FLOWERING: Feb/March to April/ May

HABITAT: Light woodland, sandy and stony places.

A pretty, delicate-looking small bulbous perennial that produces a single long basal leaf that often bends over from the middle so the tip reaches the ground. The flowers are bright blue and star shaped, 7-9mm across and are held in compact spikes of 1-12 florets.

ROMULEA-Romulea bulbicodium

FLOWERING: January to March, April in the hills

HABITAT: Not fussy- sandy, stony or heavy rocky soils, open places or in light woods, coastal; very common.

Small, slender plants growing from corms, resembles a small crocus but does not have the deep green leaves with the central white line. Flowers open in the sun and range in colour from almost-white or pale lilac-pink to deep lilac.

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Pretty but pestilential

BERMUDA BUTTERCUPOxalis pes-caprae

Bermuda Buttercup - Pretty but highly invasive

FLOWERING: December to early May, later in hills.

HABITAT: Nearly everywhere, mainly open places, but can quickly become a pest in gardens too; covering fields and roadsides in vast patches and quick to take hold on disturbed ground. In our area it grows in any soil from the coast to limestone crevices at least to 500m.

This enormously successful plant, (not related to buttercups), is a native of South Africa that has naturalised in most Mediterranean countries, in Portugal, Florida & Bermuda and is ever-increasing its range. It does look pretty when it cloaks fields with its soft primrose-yellow coloured flowers, but it is a serious pest, covering many acres of agricultural land. The plants contain oxalic acid are not eaten by domestic animals. It is seriously difficult to eliminate as it has bulbs deeply buried in the ground, and new methods of controlling it are being sought.

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Herbaceous plants

COMMON ASPHODEL- Asphodelus aestivus

Common Asphodel against a background of Spiny Broom & the sea

Ashphodel with fruits & a visiting Violet Carpenter Bee

FLOWERING: January to March, April

HABITAT: Very common and widespread on rocky slopes, waste ground, woodland clearings, open coastal areas.

A tuberous perennial that often forms extensive colonies as it is unpalatable to grazing animals. (See post -GONHS  trip to La Janda) This is a very robust plant with tall stems that can attain 1.5m or more in height.  The flowers are white, 20-30mm across and the tepals have a pink-brown mid-vein. they are born in a much branched inflorescence that resembles a candelabra.

* The roots bear spindle-shaped tubers that are rich in starch, they are just edible and have been used as food in the past; they were also used to make glue.

ANDALUZ STORKSBILL – Erodium primulaceum

Andaluz Storksbill - one of the prettiest of the early flowers

FLOWERING: December to May

HABITAT: Sands, gravel and grassy fields; amongst scrub and in light woods; common across lowlands to hills.

A delightful, small annual plant that may grow to 30cm but is frequently smaller. The leaves are deeply cut and fern-like; the flowers are supported by long thin stalks with 2 to as many as 6 heads to each. Individual flowers are about  2-2.5cm across, with two petals larger than the other three, each having a dark pink mark near its base. The colour of the flowers ranges from pale to mid-pink, occasionally white. In early spring it can be more conspicuous when it forms large patches of pink in fields and on roadsides.

FIELD MARIGOLD – Calendula arvensis

FIELD MARIGOLD -flowers appear in a variety of sizes depending on location

FLOWERING: Almost all year round, but mainlyJanuary to May/June

HABITAT: Sandy, stony soils, often favouring disturbed and cultivated ground. Widespread across the region.

An annual plant with tiny flowers, 1-2cm across that range in colour from bright yellow to orange.

FEDIA – Fedia cornucopiae

Fedia is very attractive to butterflies and bees

FLOWERING: December right through to April/May

HABITAT: Grassy roadsides, damp pastures and disturbed ground.

A small, low-growing and spreading annual, very common and widespread plant and having a very long flowering period. The leaves are oval, quite a dark green and hairless. Flowers are borne on  stems that branch into two at their end, with two leaf-like bracts at the joint; each stem then bears a densely clustered flower-head. Flowers are about 1.5cm long pink to dark red in colour.

BORAGE-Borago officianalis

Borage is a good honey plant and is grown as a culinary herb in gardens

The flowers are gentian blue

FLOWERING: February to May.

HABITAT: Country roadsides, seasonally damp fields in sandy or rubbly soil; often cultivated; mainly located in lowlands.

An annual plant that grows to about 70cm tall, it is much-branched with hollow stems. All parts of the part except the petals are covered with short, sharp and pale-coloured hairs. The leaves have a puckered surface and are variable in size. The deep blue flowers  are held face-down on short bent stalks and are almost scentless, which is a pity as they are quite beautiful.