Category Archives: Nature Photography

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

Spring’s promise of new life fulfilled

A small very dark coloured gecko can often be found on our black-painted front gates where he is much better camouflaged than he appears to be in the photograph. Waiting until the very last moment to move as you approach the gate it suddenly dashes off rapidly: it makes me jump every time, even though I half-expect it to be there.

27/5/11-Moorish Gecko keeping guard at the gate

28/5/11-A pristine Red-veined Darter- Sympestrum fonscolombei -posed beautifully on the car aerial

Despite their size and bulk Violet Carpenter Bees manage to land on the small flower heads of the cut-leaved lavender, the stem bending under its weight. Their attentions do not benefit the flower, they can take nectar without picking up any pollen.

A Violet Carpenter Bee taking nectar from a lavender flower

The last three wet winters we have had here have done wonders for increasing the variety of wildflower species that have colonised the ‘waste’, or vacant plots of land in our locality. At the moment they are at their best and attracting a fair amount of insects, which is good news for the birds still feeding unfledged or recently-fledged young and even better for the Spotted Flycatchers that are only just beginning their breeding cycle.

8/5/11 -Sotogrande, Wild Carrot flower

Wild carrot began flowering a while ago and although continuing to flower, earlier blooms have begun to go to seed now, I love the way it bunches its florets up into a tight, lacy goblet shape.

29/5/11-Sotogrande, Wild Carrot going to seed

Crown Daisies  most frequently have golden yellow flowers, but there is a  variety that produces white flowers with a yellow centre.

29/5/11-Sotogrande, Crown daisy - Crysanthemum coronarium var. discolor

One of the prettiest of the wildflowers growing locally is a mallow (malva). This is the plant that can often be seen in large patches along the roadsides.

Dwarf Mallow-Malva neglecta

There are quite a few malva, or mallow species found here, and they can be difficult to name, some also hybridise.

29/5/11-Sotogrande, a chafer (oxythyrea funesta) in the flower of Common mallow-Malva sylvestris

Two Clouded Yellow butterflies passed overhead,  a  blur of golden yellow engrossed in fierce aerial combat. Suddenly breaking apart they went their separate ways, one flew up and away while the other retreated to recover on a leaf amongst the long grass.

29/5/11-TGSOTOLCL-Clouded Yellow

A butterfly I was not quite so pleased to see was a tiny Geranium Bronze. A true native of South Africa, it’s thought their first introduction to Iberia was through Majorca,via imports of their LHPs, which as the name suggests is geraniums. They have spread quickly, colonising many parts of Southern Spain where the popularity of brightly coloured pelargoniums and suitable climate provides them with ample opportunity to thrive. This is the first individual of the species I have seen so far this year, so I’ll be guarding my geraniums now, they’ve been looking so good this year too.

29/5/11-Sotogrande - Geranium Bronze

I had set out on this little wildflower expedition to try to find a particular little butterfly and just as I had decided to turn round and head home I spotted it – just one  Small Skipper on a scabious flower, a plant which is beloved by a good many species of butterfly and an important LHP to several species too.

29/5/11-Sotogrande, Small Skipper-Thymelicus sylvestris on scabious

Feeling very pleased with my sighting I was walking home and heard a very strange sound coming from low down in some shrubbery beneath a cork oak tree on the boundary of two vacant plots. I began to head for the boundary fence to have a look to see if I could see what was making the sound, a sort of loud warbling, piping sound with frog-like tones, then froze as a Nightingale flew onto the fence right in front of me. It turned and headed into the vegetation in the direction of the strange noises which stopped momentarily, so I assume they were the summoning calls of one of its young. I carried on walking a little way and the Nightingale flew in front

29/5/11-Sotogrande, a young Nightingale trying to land on a grass stem (photo taken through wire fence)

of me again, this time from the other side of the vegetation into the neighbouring empty plot, heading for the cork oaks next door to our house. Spotting movement low down on a branch where the bird had flown out from I looked to see that a young one had followed it and was wobbling trying to balance itself. It flew out, attempted to land on a grass stem, then flew back into cover, piping plaintively.

I carried on home and stayed there for a few minutes to let things settle down, then set off again hoping to get more views of the Nightingales. Waiting by the gate where I had the earlier sighting I was lucky enough to see an adult that flew from very close by across the road to a cork oak, then another bird came in to the tree in front of me. Not a Nightingale, but a perfect view of a Spotted Flycatcher.

29/5/11-Sotogrande, Spotted Flycatcher in cork oak

Back at home once more I could hear the almost constant and very loud piping of a young nightingale and had a couple of views of it as it perched briefly on top of the wall then perched in a small tree.

There were other recently fledged birds around too. Yesterday I heard young-bird- summoning calls emanating from the cork oaks and traced them to two Short-toed Treecreepers. It was late afternoon and too shady to try to photograph them, but hearing similar sounds this afternoon I went to investigate. I located the source of the sounds, quite high above me in a tree, but they were not those of Treecreepers, these were two lovely young Serins.

29/5/11-Sotogrande, Serins, both a very young male and a female

It is wonderful to be witness to the next generation of these beautiful young birds of very different species venturing out into the world, and I’m sure if I pay due attention the next few days will bring forth even more. One thing I have noticed they all have in common is the small size of their families. The Chaffinches that fledged a couple of weeks ago had just two chicks, the Nightingales may have two, but I suspect just the one this year,there were two young Short-toed Treecreepers and just the two Serins. I can only speculate that family sizes are tailored to the amount of locally- available food; it makes sense to be able to feed two offspring well than more insufficiently.

Hoverflies and wasps

May 21st-31st

Sunny mornings and the privet in full flower attracted some interesting insects to the garden this week. I am a big fan of bees, wasps and hoverflies: most are very attractive insects and even the bigger ones pose little or no threat to people. Many species are important pollinators, wasps clean up a lot of debris and hoverfly larvae consume aphids, so they are very useful visitors to our gardens too.

The first hoverfly  to attract my attention this morning would have been impossible to overlook, a large colourful insect, the Belted hoverfly – Volucella zonaria was completely absorbed in its quest for nectar.

Belted hoverfly - volucella zonaria

Volucella zonaria is a large, impressive hoverfly with a wingspan of up to 45mm. Overall effect of the insect is slightly reminiscent of to that of a hornet, although it behaves like a typical hoverfly, frequently sunbathing then darting off. It is thought the larvae probably live in wasp’s nests.

Hoverfly - Volucella zonaria, a large colourful and impressive insect

There were greater numbers of other slightly smaller, but still quite large hoverflies, recognising two different Eristalsis species.

Drone-fly - Eristalsis tenax

Eristalsis tenax is also known as the Drone Fly referring to its mimicry of a male honey bee. It is a common and familiar species with a wingspan of 24-28mm. A rather hairy insect, highly variable in its appearance, but basically deep brown with 2 quite narrow, whitish rings, and greater or lesser amounts of orange on the edges of the abdomen. It occurs in a wide variety of habitats, almost anywhere there are flowers.

31/5/11-Drone fly - Eristalsis tenax

29/5/11-Sotogrande, Honey bee -Apis mellifera- has 4 wings

Eristalsis pertinax is rather similar to the Drone Fly, but slightly more slender and with a strongly tapering abdomen that has one pair of broad yellow-orange markings. The front legs are wholly orange. 

30/5/11-Sotogrande, Eristalsis pertinax

30/5/11-Eristalsis pertinax

There were a few smaller hoverflies around too, some were familiar, but there were others I have so far been unable to identify.

Syrphus ribesii is a common and fairly typical hoverfly with a wingspan of 20-24mm. It is found in most flowery habitats such as rough grassland, hedgerows and gardens.

31/5/11-Sotogrande, Common Hoverfly-Syrphus ribesii

Metasyrphus corollae is even smaller, with a wingspan of just 16-18mm. This is a very widespread and common insect found in similar habitats to the above.

Hoverfly-Metasyrphus corollae

27MAY11-A very tiny hoverfly (or wasp) I have not yet identified

I was watching Ilex Hairstreak butterflies nectaring on the thyme flowers and was distracted from them by a large dark-winged insect that was also interested in the nectar. More used to seeing them on the ground, it took a minute to realise it was a Sand Wasp. It kept retreating to the stone in the photograph, then running back to the flowers, scrambling through them rapidly, while constantly flicking its wings. It was joined by another, showing no aggression towards it. I thought they were perhaps hunting for caterpillars for their nests, but I didn’t see them find any.

Sand Wasp - Ammophila sabulosa

Sand Wasp – Ammophila sabulosa:  a very distinctive large species, with a body length of 20-24 mm. The females catch caterpillars, dragging them back to pre-dug nests. They stock each nest with a single large caterpillar and lay an egg on it before covering it over. 

A Sand Wasp enjoying nectar from a thyme flower

Over the next few days I began to see Sand Wasps all around the garden, the one below was on the ground scurrying around some flowerpots when I disturbed it and it flew across to a rosemary shrub, staying very still as though trying to hide. I saw them scouring the lantana and the thyme often, always in a big hurry and with wings almost constantly flickering impatiently. I watched one disappear under a fallen palm frond from which it did not re-emerge so I assumed it had dug itself into the ground there. I have yet to see one with a captive caterpillar.

31/5/11-A Sand wasp trying to hide in the rosemary shrub

The following wasp is another I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to identify without absolute success yet. I think it may well be wasp of the family Eumenidae, which includes potter and digger species.

30MAY11-Sotogrande- query wasp of Eumenidae family

* I am not overly-familiar with a lot of the insects from these species myself and am trying to identify them as I come across them, but I am not going to claim that I’m right in my conclusions, so as always, I am pleased to be corrected.

Sunshine and butterflies

May 22nd-28th

A wonderful few days for butterflies, including two that are new to this blog. Most were familiar ones and most were not numerous, but several different species were represented none-the-less. Friday (27th) was an exceptional day, hot and sunny with very little breeze and I saw more butterflies in one day than I think I’ve ever seen here in this garden.

It’s only right that I start my list with a Speckled Wood, our most consistently-present butterfly, which has been particularly numerous this week. I’ve seen them all over the garden, in dappled shade, in full sun, fighting amongst themselves and chasing off other intruding species. They’ve also been taking nectar from the privet, and one I saw, from thyme flowers. There is always one in the part of the garden on either side of the entrance gates that regularly patrols the shrubbery and hedge, defends its patch vigorously and takes siestas on ivy leaves, so I chose to photograph him.

22/5/11-Speckled Wood- Pararge aegeria - resting but alert on an ivy leaf

On Monday I caught  sight of what I thought was a Large White dipping down to flowers at the bottom of a lantana shrub. It was a lovely female Cleopatra that was so perfect it must have been newly emerged and that stayed feeding for at least half an hour.

23/5/11-Cleopatra - Gonepteryx cleopatra on lantana

There are a mass of flowers on my thyme plant now that have been attracting a few little hairstreak butterflies. These are Ilex Hairstreaks that I have seen in the garden in ones and twos in previous years, when they have been attracted to the yellow button flowers of the santolina (cotton lavender).

27/5/11-Ilex Hairstreak - Satyrium ilicis

27/5/11-In the sunlight the butterflies have a bronze sheen to their wings

I have not had a very good look at their uppersides as the second they land they snap their wings shut. I have seen individuals moving their hindwings back and forth, passing one over the surface of the other,  giving glimpses of only the edges of the upperside surfaces of the wings. I’ve seen this behaviour in other species too and have wondered why they do it. I’m sure it will be something to do with mating; maybe the change in air current it makes wafts pheromones into the air, or makes some kind of high frequency sound audible only to another butterfly. Maybe it lowers their body temperature a little, circulating air around their furry bodies.

Whilst photographing the hairstreaks a little blue butterfly passed close by and landed on one of the little yellow flowers that populate an area of my lawn. A male Common Blue.

27/5/11-Common Blue - Polyommatus icarus

I came across another blue that had dropped in to sample the marjoram flowers, this one a little butterfly that originates from Africa but that is a common migrant here and may have become resident, a Lang’s Short-tailed Blue.

27/5/11 - Lang's Short-tailed Blue - Leptotes pirithous on marjoram

A butterfly I was surprised to see was a Meadow Brown. It was flying very low to the ground in the shady strip of garden between the boundary wall and the house, pausing to rest first on a violet leaf which it was probing with its proboscis and then on a dry leaf on the ground.

27/5/11 -Meadow Brown- Maniola jurtina on a dry leaf on the ground

Other species I saw but did not/could not photograph were Small and Large Whites, almost constantly on the wing and too fast for me, clearly energized by the sunshine. Holly Blue(s) that I have had several sightings of as it fluttered along the tops of the hedges then up to the tops of the trees. A Clouded Yellow that popped in over the wall, raced along the hedge then popped back over the wall.

Chaffinch nesting update

May 16th

The female Chaffinch usually lays 4 or 5 eggs and incubates them for 11 – 13 days. The nestlings have a covering of long grey down, the mouth is cerise pink and the gape white. The young are ready to leave the nest in 12 – 15 days.

I can’t see into the Chaffinch nest from my vantage of the bathroom window, so I am not sure when the chicks hatched, but I have been able to hear them for a few days. Taking a peek out of the window today I watched as the  female brought in food and caught sight of little heads with straggly down, tiny wings with feathers being stretched and big white gapes bobbing up that just reach the rim of the nest, so they must already be about a week or so old.

The nestlings are moving around in the nest

I appreciate that you can’t see much of what’s going on in the photograph, but the bath is located immediately below this window, so the only way to get a view at all is to get into the bath, crouch down in it and crane your neck upwards, trying to aim through the bars of the window grille.

Both   parents are diligently feeding their chicks and I managed to get some good views of them with food, although they could see me and I felt guilty making them wait. The female was scolding impatiently and raised her head feathers, expressing her disapproval and I’m sure maternal panic. I was fascinated she could make sounds with a beak full of caterpillars, but moved away quickly before she got too distressed.

The female, beak full of caterpillars and head feathers bristlingThe female spotted me and waited, scolding impatiently, to bring in food

May 17th

I waited a day before spying on the birds again. They were both still working hard  to fulfil the needs of their little family, which I think is quite a small one. I have made out two little heads, but as I said, my view of them is very restricted.

I had a wonderful view of the male bird who was perched very close to the window, beak crammed full of what I think may be flies, together with pieces of green leaf. He was waiting for the female to deliver her cargo before moving in with his.

A very close view of the male as he waited for the female to leave

May 21st

The nestlings have grown rapidly and although I can still only see two, they just about fill the nest. They still have a few straggles of wispy grey feathers clinging to their heads, but apart from that their plumage appears to be completely grown. They are very sweet and seem oblivious to being watched, although they probably wouldn’t know what to make of me anyway.

The young chaffinches are very well grown, filling the nest

May 22nd – The nest is empty!

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.