Category Archives: Nature

A note of thanks

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

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

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

Theresa

Tarifa

I’m not in Spain currently, but my thoughts return there often, particularly on cold grey days. To me, Southern Spain is at its absolute best in the spring and I’ve been looking back through my photo archives to remind myself of where I may be wandering if I was there now.

One of my all-time favourite places, especially at this time of year is Tarifa, which has to be one of the most spectacular places in Europe. Miles of white-golden sandy beaches are a great attraction in themselves, but  Tarifa is also known as the “wind-surf” capital of Europe due to the very high winds caused by the vortex effect created by the two land masses on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar. At weekends and during the summer months it is a hugely popular area and best avoided if you are visiting to seek out the wildlife. However, out of season, and particularly on week days it is much quieter and there is plenty of space to enjoy this beautiful and often wild and windswept place in peace.

The town of Tarifa is situated on the Atlantic shore, the Costa de la Luz, at the western end of the Strait of Gibraltar in the province of Cadiz. Being the most southerly point of Europe and a mere 16 kilometres  from the African continent makes this an area of great importance during the migration periods when an estimated half a billion birds, including thousands of storks, vultures, eagles, kites and other raptors, along with seabirds cross and pass through the strait.

The following photographs were taken in early March a few years ago, when two of my friends and I drove down to  spend  the day there. Spoilt for choice as to which part of the area to make for , on this occasion we settled on  Punta Paloma, located just a few kilometres to the west of Tarifa town.

A view towards Tarifa town from Punta Paloma

Abandoned or wrecked small boats are often found on the beaches of this part of the coast, many used by would-be migrants from North Africa

The prow of one of the abandoned boats

Wind surfer

Lines in the sand

A sculptural sandy rock

Giant sand dunes, some of the largest and most important in Europe, form the western end of the beach.  The dune ecosystem is unusual, fragile and is protected by the “habitats” directive of the network Natura 2000, but its conservation is very vulnerable. This is  due in no small part to the area’s popularity with large numbers of visitors and holidaymakers.

Lengths of wooden palings are used to help stabilise the dunes

The sand dunes of Tarifa are some of the most important in Europe

The dune habitat supports a surprising number of plant species which have evolved a number of survival strategies to counter the effects of this hostile environment, many of which produce their flowers in the early spring.

A member of the parasitic Broomrape family Cistanche - Cistanche phelypaea-grows on the dunes here

Southern Birds-foot Trefoil- Lotus creticus

One of the most beautiful plants growing on the sand dunes is Shrubby Pimpernel - Anagallis monelli. The white flower growing amongst this specimen is Sweet Alison - Lobularia maritima

The sad remains of a dead turtle

A small river, el Rio de Valle reaches the sea here and its small estuary attracts a  variety of wading birds, particularly during peak migration periods.

River meets the sea

In the spring the area around the river’s edges are covered with coarse green grass with wildflowers growing through it.

Romulea

Star of Bethlehem-Ornithogalum orthophyllum

Sticky Catchfly-Silene nicaeensis

Winged Sea Lavender-Limonium sinuatum

Birds in the hand in Gibraltar

There are many reasons to be cheerful about being able to spend time in both the UK and Spain, not least of which is the privilege of watching species of birds that migrate between northern and southern Europe or Africa in both locations at different times of the year. The location of our home in Spain, about a 20 minute drive from Gibraltar, is directly beneath one of the major migration ‘highways’, which passes over the Rock and Straits of Gibraltar to Northern Africa and beyond. As a result our avian population is boosted considerably during the main migratory periods of spring and autumn as birds take the opportunity to feed here, taking on fuel for the next stage of their incredible journeys.

Gibraltar is an important link in the chain of gaining knowledge of the movements of migrating birds and many thousands of raptors are observed and counted from vantage points as they pass overhead. Smaller birds are monitored through their initial capture in mist nests and subsequent ringing at the designated Bird Observatory, where I recently spent a fascinating morning observing the observers and their work. The main purpose of my visit was to gain an insight into the process of bird ringing so that I might write a piece for the gonhs member’s outings blog, which I have done, but it was too interesting a day not to share here too.

Gibraltar Bird Observatory 

The home of the Gibraltar Bird Observatory is a small building perched high on a ledge carved into the the Rock on its north side. It is set within the Nature Reserve at Jew’s Gate and levante mist permitting, has superb views across Gibraltar Bay to the headland of Tarifa and across the  Straits to North Africa.

A view from the bird observatory across the bay to Tarifa. The monument 'The Pillars of Hercules' represents and show the orientation of the twin mountains either side of the Straits, Gibraltar being one and Monte Hacho, at Ceuta.

The Pillars of Hercules (Latin: Columnae Herculis, Greek: Ηράκλειες Στήλες, Spanish: Columnas de Hércules) was the phrase that was applied in Antiquity to the promontories that flank the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar. The northern Pillar is the Rock of Gibraltar in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar. A corresponding North African peak not being predominant, the identity of the southern Pillar has been disputed through history, with the two most likely candidates being Monte Hacho in Ceuta and Jebel Musa in Morocco.

“The function of the Observatory is the monitoring and research into passerines and non-passerines, with particular emphasis on migration.” (gonhs website)

The first stage in the process is first to catch the birds. This is achieved by setting up a series of strategically placed lengths of fine mist netting, which the birds fly into.

A Chiffchaff temporarily held in a mist net

Clearly the birds struggle to free themselves, but the strands of netting are very fine and they are not left there for long as the vigilant ‘ringers’ make frequent rounds of the nets and quickly retrieve them.

A Chiffchaff is gently and expertly extricated from a net

Once freed from the netting the bird is carefully placed into a clean cloth bag for transportation to the nearby observatory for ‘processing’. It is important that the birds are subjected to the least amount of stress possible and they stay calmer if visual stimuli are eliminated.

Back at the workbench in the observatory the bags containing the birds are hung onto hooks that are numbered to correspond with the number of the net they were taken from. Most of the birds remain still and quiet whilst awaiting their turn to be weighed and measured, although there are always the odd one or two who express their annoyance by wriggling around or chirping.

A Robin having its wing length measured

Bird ringing is carried out under the auspices of the BTO, British Trust for Ornithology, and Gibraltar uses British rings. Processing involves the careful and accurate  identification, measurement and general assessment of each bird in turn. The data taken is collated for serious scientific records and research into birds’ migration and movements and great care at each stage to ensure that those criteria are met.

A beautiful Chiffchaff fully processed is held in the appropriate 'ringer's grip' to allow me to take its picture, then released.

Once the required data is logged, the bird is free to go. Most are eager to make good their escape, but a few will sit quietly on the ringer’s hand for a moment or two before leaving.

A female Blackcap sits quietly before taking off

This was a wonderful opportunity to see some beautiful birds at very close quarters. They always appear much smaller when seen this way that when they are flying free and the subtleties in the plumage are evident.

A perfect male Blackcap

A Song Thrush eager to leave

During the course of this morning the two current resident ringers, with some assistance from two trainees processed 113 birds. The species ringed included Black Redstart, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Robin, Serin and Song Thrush. It was fascinating to enter into their world for a few hours and witness their work first-hand and a real privilege to have such close views of some beautiful birds.

A bumpy landing, but good to be back

I have been back in Spain for a week or so now following my three month retreat to the UK for some cooler weather. That worked, as anyone else there for the summer will confirm the lack of summery weather, particularly during the month of August. I had a wonderful time aquainting myself with some of the wildlife of North Wales, which anyone interested can see on my other blog ‘everyday nature’. I will be attempting to continue both blogs, concentrating on aspects of life and wildlife that relate only to this part of southern Spain here and then anything that crosses over in the other one. (For example many species of woodland birds are found in both northern & southern Europe, with many migrating or passing through the two areas.) It is quite fascinating to witness the similarities and differences in behaviour of the same species of bird in the different areas too.

The seasonal progress into autumn was apparent as soon as our plane came in to land at Gibraltar. Departing from, and landing here is always an adventure as the Rock is very exposed and at the mercy of the elements from both the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic.Consequently, flights in and out are frequently diverted to Malaga. Today our pilot announced that he would be approaching the runway from the north-east, which involved circuiting the Rock, but the reason why only became apparent as we were on the way in. The short approach was very bumpy, with the wind buffeting the plane from side to side. It’s not fear for your safety that makes you cross your fingers for a safe landing though, it’s the dread of diverting to Malaga and a two-hour journey back by bus. All was well though and he landed us perfectly.

Aerial view of the Rock of Gibraltar, Mediterranean side, and Algeciras beyond the bay

Banking around the tip of the Rock

Approaching the landing strip

Paper Wasps

During the late summer the number of wasps around our garden increases dramatically. Although  similarly coloured and striped black and yellow, they are not the same species as the wasps that fly into houses and around outside tables seeking to share our food, (although we do get them too, in small numbers). These are members of the generally less intrusive  Polistes genus, the most common type of Paper Wasp. They are the builders of the papery open- celled nests seen suspended upside down beneath the tile overhang of roofs, or out in the open campo, attached to a plant (Prickly Pear cactus pads seem to be popular sites).

Polistes is the most common genus among social Wasps and has a worldwide distribution. In Europe and North America their colonies outnumber those of all other social Wasps combined; although they are present in central Europe, they are not found in the UK and are rare in northern Europe.Two species that resemble each other closely, P. dominulus and P. gallicus  are the most widely spread in Europe and are especially relevant in Mediterranean areas.

Description: Polistes sp. or Paper Wasps, are 3/4 to 1 inch long, slender, narrow-waisted wasps with smoky black wings that are folded lengthwise when at rest. They may be quite easily identified by their characteristic flight as their long legs dangle below their bodies.

Polistes wasp taking nectar from lavender


I have read various accounts of Polistes wasps that state them to be aggressive, but personally have not found that to be the case; the only two incidents involving them stinging have both occurred when they have been inadvertently stepped upon by people with bare feet. Being one of the people stung I can say it really hurt for a while! All Polistes species are predatory, so of course are equipped with a sting with which to paralyse  prey and if threatened they can be provoked into defending their nests.

Polistes wasps forage around plants for insect prey

Life cycle

Paper wasps are semi-social insects and have a relatively simple life cycle, which is well suited to a warm climate such as in the Mediterranean. Fertilized queens, which appear similar to workers, overwinter in protected habitats such as cracks and crevices in structures or under tree bark, or in the case of those around our house, under the roof tiles. In the spring they select a nesting site and begin to build a nest. Eggs are laid singly in cells and hatch into legless grub-like larvae that develop through several stages (instars) before pupating. The cells remain open until the developing larvae pupate.

The first  to emerge will become daughter workers in the growing colony and tend to be sterile and smaller and assist in further building and defending the nest and feeding developing young.A mature paper wasp nest may have 20 to 30 adults. Later broods are fertile, providing for several queens; sexual larvae are produced starting in August, and in September adults (including the only recently produced males) leave the nest and mate outside. Mated females then seek a safe place to hibernate. The remainder of the colony does not survive the winter.

In late summer, queens stop laying eggs and the colony soon begins to decline. In the autumn, mated female offspring of the queen seek overwintering sites.

A polistes wasp stripping the bark from a dry twig of a cypress tree; this will become material for nest construction

Food source(s):  Adult Paper wasps take nectar from flowers, but prey on insects such as caterpillars, flies and beetle larvae which they feed to larvae. They actively forage during the day and all colony members rest on the nest at night.

13/7/07-Polistes wasps beginning to build a new nest

Polistes wasp with prey

On several occasions I have witnessed Paper Wasp’s nests being attacked by ants whilst still apparently viable. Last September I found a dislodged nest on the floor of the terrace covered in ants, which I ‘borrowed’ from them for a few minutes to photograph.

The dislodged nest

The nest from the back showing the single stem it was attached by

I don’t know for sure that there is a connection, but simultaneously with the demise of the nest a group of Paper Wasps located themselves inside a tubular pocket of fabric covering one of the horizontal supports of the hood of our swing seat. Individuals flew in and out on a fairly regular basis and there were always one or two guarding the entrance that met and checked out each returning wasp.

Polistes wasp being ‘greeted’ by a guardian at the entrance to their gathering place

There were quite a number of wasps in there, but it was not possible to see inside to see what they were doing

The Ragwort controversy rages

I thought I’d start the week’s posts with a look at the controversial Ragwort plant. It’s in full bloom now and its golden flowers are very noticeable in a wide variety of habitats, on roadsides and railway embankments, on waste ground and clifftops, but it also occurs in fields and pastures, which is where its troubles begin.

Botany

Common Ragwort – Senecio jacobaea;Family: Compositae

Other names: Ragweed, Tansy Ragwort, Staggerweed, Stinking Willie, Stinking Nanny, Dog Standard, Cankerwort, Stammerwort.

The New Atlas of the Flora of Britain and Ireland (2002) shows Ragwort as native and states that ‘the distribution of S. jacobaea is unchanged from the map in the 1962 Atlas’.

Common Ragwort is generally known as a biennial plant that overwinters as seeds or as leaf rosettes, but in certain conditions it may survive as a perennial.

Ragwort leaf with Red Soldier beetle

The leaves may be light-dark green and are attractively deeply cut and lobed. The plant grows from 30-100cm in height, with woody stems coloured red at their base. The upper part if the stem is branched, bearing golden yellow flower heads in large, dense terminal clusters that are almost always rayed and daisy-like.

Ragwort flowers and nectaring bumblebee

The issues with ragwort arise from the fact that the plant contains poisons that may be lethal to domesticated grazing animals if sufficient quantities are ingested over a period of time. For this reason ragwort is one of a very few plants listed in the Weeds Act (1959). Opinions concerning the dangers to livestock presented by the presence of the plant have long differed and continue to do so; there is sustained pressure from some quarters that wish to see the plant eradicated, but more recently there is also a strong counter-argument from conservationists for its retention, as its importance has been recognised as a food plant for a number of insect species.

There is a great deal of information and argument concerning the plant to be found on a variety of websites on the internet. The first of the following pieces was written 94 years ago, giving some indication of how long this controversy has raged. I found it interesting and it explains how the plant may be inadvertently fed to animals as a component of hay, and the very unpleasant effects that may have on them.

From the report of the Board of Agriculture’s Chief  Veterinary Officer (1917):

“It is not generally recognized that the common British Ragwort is poisonous to cattle. This probably arises from the fact that poisoning under natural conditions is a slow process, that is to say, an animal does not receive, and could not eat enough of the weed at one meal to cause acute poisoning. On the other hand, the poison is cumulative in its action; with continuous doses the amount of poison which becomes available is sufficient in time to cause very serious symptoms which often end in death….. The following represent broadly the circumstances of the cases which have recently come to the notice of the Board. Pastures containing a considerable proportion of the weed were cropped in the hope that the comparatively early cropping might help to get rid of it. The crop was made into hay, and owing to the prolonged spell of cold weather and the scarcity of other feeding stuffs, this was fed later and in considerable amount to animals at pasture.
…. Some of the animals fed on the Ragwort died in a few days after the first appearance of definite symptoms. In others the symptoms continued for a month or more and deaths occurred at later dates. It would appear also that although animals which had received a toxic amount of Ragwort over a certain period may seem healthy at the time when feeding on the material is discontinued, they nevertheless develop active symptoms of poisoning and die at a later period. Thus in the cases investigated some of the animals did not show definite symptoms until twelve days or more after the feeding with Ragwort had been discontinued. In the early stages the animals have the appearance of being hide-bound. Later, they walk with a staggering gait, some appearing to be partially blind or heedless of where they go. Later they may become very excitable, and will charge at anyone who approaches them.  … There is no cure, and prevention resolves itself into removing the Ragwort from the forage, or eradicating it from the pastures.”

Much more up to date, the following points are extracts from a very detailed and compelling report on the importance of the plant to conservation from Buglife – the Invertebrate Conservation Trust. 

1. At least 30 species of insects and other invertebrates are totally dependent on Ragwort as their food.

2. Many other species of insects which eat Ragwort, or require the nectar and pollen from the flowers, can also use alternative plants. However, Ragwort is often significant in supporting viable populations, especially in districts where such alternative plants may be absent or too scarce.

It must be emphasised that Ragwort is a major nectar source for many insects, especially:-

  • Solitary bees (at least 30 species: 38 cited in one list).*
  • Solitary wasps (at least 18 species; not the sort to harm people).
  • Hoverflies (many species).
  • Conopid flies (parasitic on solitary bees and bumblebees).
  • Butterflies (Small Copper, particularly where other flowers may be scarce)
  • Moths at night (including at least 40 noctuid moths).3. Ragwort is among the select few plants listed in the Weeds Act (1959). The listing was primarily concerned with control where agricultural production may be affected by its presence, especially its toxicity to grazing stock.
  • 4. Since 2003, the Ragwort Control Bill has been going through parliament. A Defra code of practice has been produced that will be backed by enforcement of Ragwort control where toxicity is perceived as sufficient risk. In particular, this covers land grazed by horses and hay fields supplying their fodder (these days largely a recreational rather than agricultural issue).
  • 5. Both insect faunas and horses (and other farm animals) can co-exist provided control measures are targeted where really needed. In many situations Ragwort is doing no harm.
  • 6. If the richness of the fauna is to have a future, the current over-reaction, indeed hysteria in some quarters, needs to be defused. Public and other bodies are seemingly being pressured beyond limits of tangible problems, and the horse fraternity and general public are encouraged to eliminate Ragwort, which in practice often means any plant that looks vaguely similar.It’s amazing:- The future of so many species is now dependent on an understanding of sustainability: how to make use of the countryside and town whilst maintaining biodiversity.Ragwort Control1. In some circumstances Ragwort does need control but more widely the issue can be hyped-up to result in over-reaction. The purpose here is to look at the facts, especially in relation to the high profile concern over toxicity to horses.2. The toxins (pyrrolizidine alkaloids) in Ragwort can cause liver poisoning. It is a cumulative poison, eventually leading to the rather rapid onset of symptoms which precede rapid death. The plant has the alternative name Stagger Weed, referring to one of the more obvious symptoms. The lethal volume of Ragwort is said to be 7% of body weight for horses. Cattle are prone, sheep apparently less so (although it is difficult to find solid evidence of any fatal effects on other livestock). Young plants are less toxic than well grown ones.

    Biocontrol
    The main insects that can devastate populations of Ragwort are the Cinnabar moth and the flea beetle Longitarsus jacobaeae. Some of the fly larvae and moth caterpillars have the capacity to cause loss in seed production. The remaining fauna collectively impact upon the health and vigor of Ragwort, though the significance will depend on local circumstances. On the whole, districts where Ragwort is always present should have the most complete insect faunas, thus best balanced to continuously effect control. It is usually where poor land management allows excessive colonisation by Ragwort seed that the man-made problems arise.

22/7/11-Cinnabar Moth larvae on ragwort leaves-Little Orme, Rhos-on-Sea

Traditional uses of Ragwort in herbal medicine

Ragwort was formerly much employed medicinally for various purposes. The leaves are used in the country for emollient poultices and yield a good green dye, not, however, permanent. The flowers boiled in water give a fair yellow dye to wool previously impregnated with alum. The whole plant is bitter and aromatic, of an acrid sharpness, but the juice is cooling and astringent, and of use as a wash in burns, inflammations of the eye, and also in sores and cancerous ulcers – hence one of its old names, Cankerwort. It is used with success in relieving rheumatism, sciatica and gout, a poultice of the green leaves being applied to painful joints and reducing the inflammation and swelling. It makes a good gargle for ulcerated throat and mouth, and is said to take away the pain caused by the sting of bees. A decoction of the root has been reputed good for inward bruises and wounds. In some parts of the country Ragwort is accredited with the power of preventing infection.

Culpepper says it is ‘under the command of Dame Venus, and cleanses, digests, and discusses. In Sussex we call it Ragweed.’

The poet John Clare also had a positive opinion of the plant, as revealed in this poem of 1831:

Ragwort thou humble flower with tattered leaves

I love to see thee come & litter gold…

Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields

The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn

So bright & glaring that the very light

Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn

& seems but very shadows in thy sight.

Rowan tree

I’ve been back in the UK since the beginning of the month and have quite a lot to add to the blog that I now have the time to begin. In the course of visiting some members of my scattered family I have travelled from North Wales to Bristol via Leicester and back again and had a mix of weather – a typical British summer really and for me, much easier to cope with than the intense heat that Spain is experiencing now.

Since arriving, my first impressions have been of how beautiful and abundant the summer flowers are this year, both in gardens and in the wild and was surprised by how early some trees and plants are producing ripe fruit, particularly Rowan trees in both Leicester and Bristol that were laden with berries and, also in Bristol, lots of ripe blackberries. I’ve already got quite a lot to share, but I thought I’d get going with a bit about the Rowan Tree.

Rowan– Sorbus aucuparia L.edulis

Gaelic name: Caorthann

Family : Rosaceae

The Rowan tree has been one of my favourite trees since I was very young, having all the qualities I could wish for from a tree; in a garden it looks good all year round, it doesn’t get too big, keeps a good shape, has attractive green ash-type leaves that take on lovely autumn colours and creamy blossoms, but it comes into its own in the late summer -early autumn when it is laden with bright orange-red berries that birds love. It also has some fascinating mythology attached to it, and had at least one song written about it, what more could you possibly want?

10/6/10 -A wild Rowan tree photographed in the Gwaun Valley, Pembrokeshire last June, its flowers just beginning to go over

The name “rowan” is derived from the Old Norse name for the tree, raun. Today the Rowan may also commonly be known as Mountain Ash, although it is not related to the ash family, but through the ages it has been known by a myriad of other names. The following is a list from wikipedia:  Delight of the eye (Luisliu), Mountain ash, Quickbane, Quickbeam, Quicken (tree), Quickenbeam, Ran tree, Roan tree, Roden-quicken, Roden-quicken-royan, Round wood, Round tree, Royne tree, Rune tree, Sorb apple, Thor’s helper, Whispering tree, Whitty, Wicken-tree, Wiggin, Wiggy, Wiky, Witch wood, Witchbane, Witchen, Witchen Wittern tree. Many of these can be easily linked to the mythology and folklore surrounding the tree. In Gaelic, it is caorann, or Rudha-an (red one, pronounced similarly to English “rowan”)

13/7/11-Bristol-Rowan tree laden with berries

Botany

Rowans are mostly small deciduous trees 10–20 m tall, though a few are shrubs. The leaves are arranged alternately, and are pinnate, with (7-)11-35 leaflets; a terminal leaflet is always present. The flowers are borne in dense corymbs; each flower is creamy white, and 5–10 mm across with five petals. The fruit is a small pome 4–8 mm diameter, bright orange or red in most species.(Due to their small size the fruits are often referred to as berries, but a berry is a simple fruit produced from a single ovary, whereas a pome is an accessory fruit.)

It seems to be an exceptional year for berries

Food for birds & insects

10/7/11-Leicester-Male Bullfinch feasting on rowan berries

The fruit are soft and juicy, which makes them a very good food for birds, particularly waxwings and thrushes, which then distribute the seeds in their droppings. Whilst in Leicester I was delighted to spot a pair of Bullfinch visit a neighbouring tree to enjoy the bountiful crop of fruits there, returning several times during each of the days I was there. (The quality of the photographs is not great, sorry, but I was taking them through a bedroom window!)

The female bullfinch with a berry in her beak

Blackbirds were also feeding avidly and very frequently, but the only other bird I saw taking an interest was a young Chaffinch.

Rowan is also used as a food plant by the larvae of  some Lepidoptera species.

Food & medicinal uses 

Traditionally the berries from the Rowan were processed for jams, pies, and bittersweet wines. It was also made into a tea to treat urinary tract problems, haemorhoids and diarrhea. The fresh juice of the berries is a mild laxative, and helps to soothe inflammed mucous membranes as a gargle. Containing high concentrations of Vitamin C, the berries were also ingested to cure scurvy – a Vitamin C deficiency disease. Even today, one of the sugars in the fruit is sometimes given intravenously to reduce pressure in an eyeball with glaucoma.

Caution : Do not eat raw berries!

Caution, however, must be taken when using the berries. They are reported to contain a cancer-causing compound, parasorbic acid. The poisonous elements are neutralized by cooking the berries though.

Mythology, magic & folklore

The European rowan (S. aucuparia) has a long tradition in European mythology and folklore. It was thought to be a magical tree and protection against malevolent beings. In Celtic mythology the rowan is called the Traveller’s Tree because it prevents those on a journey from getting lost.

Rowan was used in all protection spells particularly from fire, or lightning. In Ireland it was hung in the house to prevent fire charming, hung around the necks of hounds to increase their speed, and used to keep the dead from rising. It also had the power to protect people and animals from evil spirits.  The IrishDruids held it in particular esteem, for its physical healing as well as its magical properties.

The density of the rowan wood made it very usable for walking sticks and magician’s staves. Druid staffs have traditionally been made out of rowan wood, and its branches were often used in dowsing rods and magic wands. Rowan was carried on sea-going vessels to avoid storms, kept in houses to guard against lightning, and even planted on graves to keep the deceased from haunting. It was also used to protect one from witches.

A Poem about the Rowan Tree:

Beneath the green and berry red
They flutter about
Making a melody with each wing strum
Magical lil’ creatures

Beauties of the forest
Fairies they are called by some
Protecting and guarding against the darkness
Bringing well being to babe’s milk

Sweet Rowan tree
Grace my land and grow
Ward off evil spirits
And remind me of my heritage of long ago

Dance with me in moonlight May
And I shall honor you
With my nurturing hands
And the remembrance of the one who holds my smile

Patricia Gale

And here’s the song, with music so you can sing along…..

Scottish Folk Song: Rowan Tree

Rowan Tree Song

Oh rowan tree, oh rowan tree, thoul’t aye be dear to me,
Entwin’d thou art wi’ mony ties, o’ hame and infancy.
Thy leaves were aye the first o’ spring, thy flowr’s the simmer’s pride
There was nae sic a bonnie tree, in all the country side.
Oh rowan tree.

How fair wert thou in simmer time, wi’ all thy clusters white.
Now rich and gay thy autumn dress, wi’ berries red and bright
On thy fair stem were mony names which now nae mair I see.
But there engraven on my heart, forgot they ne’er can be.
Oh rowan tree.

We sat aneath thy spreading shade, the bairnies round thee ran
They pu’d thy bonnie berries red and necklaces they strang.
My mither, oh, I see her still, she smil’d our sports to see,
Wi’ little Jeannie on her lap, wi’ Jamie at her knee.
Oh rowan tree.

Oh, there arose my father’s pray’r in holy evening’s calm,
How sweet was then my mither’s voice in the martyr’s psalm
Now a’ are gane! we met nae mair aneathe the rowan tree,
But hallowed thoughts around thee twine o’ hame and infancy,
Oh rowan tree.


Flaming June

June 12th

Summer arrived overnight and the thermostat shot up a few notches this week giving us some scorching days and hot nights that don’t usually arrive till July. Today the local beaches were ablaze with colour, and car parks overflowed, as local families headed for the cooler seaside, a regular event throughout the summer on Sundays, but this was the first one to occur on this scale this year. Each family, that includes grandparents and every other relative through to infants, sets up a colourful camp of parasols and gazebos, collapsible chairs, tables and towels in one unbroken line where possible, extending from one end of the beach to the other, just a couple of metres back from the sea edge. They arrive early, equipped with portable barbeques, plenty of food and drink and many will still be there till very late in the evening.

There is none of the self-conscious display of reserve we’re used to on British beaches, where we set up our camps as far away from each other as possible in an untidy hotch-potch, surround ourselves with windbreaks for privacy as well as protection  and erect a unique (well we hope unique) makeshift flag so our kids can find their way back to us when they’re done paddling! Goodness knows how wandering children find their way back to their camp here, although I have heard it rumoured that each family has their ‘own’ spot on their local beach, and any unsuspecting tourist that may inadvertently set up in it will either be closely surrounded or otherwise encouraged to vacate it.

Monday June 13th

13/6/11-Tiny praying mantis

We discovered several tiny Praying mantids on a sage plant this morning. Perfect miniatures of the adults, they were maybe 2.5 – 3cm long and very aware of being noticed. They will have very recently emerged from their communal ‘ootheca’ or egg case, along with their siblings that could number up to 300 or more. Naturally they are very vulnerable to predation while at this stage and it will take the whole summer for them to grow into adults.

Generally most of the local birds appear to be done with nesting and on to the hard part – keeping up with their teenagers!

13/6/11-A young Blue Tit foraging in a cork oak tree

Wednesday June 15th

I see and hear families of Blue Tits, Great Tits, Goldfinches and Greenfinches most mornings as they are foraging in the trees in the cooler hours of the mornings, and I caught a glimpse of a male Chaffinch being very attentive to one of his very demanding youngsters.

15/6/11-A male Chaffinch feeding one of his offspring

I photographed them in our sprawling cypress tree, the one I think of in terms of ‘the big ugly’ as it is a bit of a pain, constantly dropping dead needles and is really not beautiful. But, it is such a haven for the birds and provides perches for the insect hunting Flycatchers as well as welcome shade. There’s food for some birds too at the moment, I’ve seen Great Tits and Greenfinches eating the seeds from its little cones, although only a few are open as yet.

15/6/11-A Great Tit flying towards me, looking like a tiny owl

15/6/11-A goldfinch enjoying a moment in the sunshine,perched on the cyprus tree

There have been several visits from Kestrels this week, and although I haven’t spotted one until it has flown up from its perch, usually high up in one of the palm trees, the smaller birds have always given it away. Blackbirds in particular sound a very loud alarm and the Spotted Flycatchers keep up a constant ‘tcking’, but most others are noticeable by their complete silence and lack of activity.

15/6/11- 11.55pm (Madrid time) - eclipse of the moon as we saw it

Our view of tonight’s eclipse of the moon was not as dramatic as we hoped, but we did almost forget about it. The photograph doesn’t do it justice as it did look truly beautiful; it was bright and luminous, as though it was lit from the inside and its features were very clear.

Saturday June 18th

I’ll be returning to the UK shortly and will be gone for most of the summer, so I drove over to Jimena this afternoon to spend a couple of hours with my friend.   As always the drive over there was scenic and I saw a surprising number of birds. The roadside are still full of wildflowers; there were masses of frothy white blossoms of wild carrot and related species and more fennel than I have ever seen, in fact there were some large fields absolutely covered with a tapestry of creamy white and lime green. In several places there were splashes of colour too, where clumps of the intensely pink common centaury were growing.

Summer is the best time to see raptors and on my short journey I saw a good few. I first stopped to watch a Kestrel hovering over a field close to the road, a lovely sight as it dived down then swooped up again, intently scanning the ground beneath it. Along the main road I couldn’t fail to see a large flock of Griffon Vultures that were circling low over the brow of a hill beyond one expanse of flowery field, they must have been intent on feeding, but I daren’t stop to have a proper look. I counted at least 30 birds and there were probably more behind the hill or on the ground. The collective noun for a flock of vultures is a ‘venue of Vultures’ , unless they are circling, in  which case it is a ‘kettle of vultures’. (wikipedia)

At the road bridge over the railway line there were three Lesser Kestrels flying around, but I was able to pull in for a quick look at them. I had a great view of a Short-toed Eagle as it flapped away low over a field too.

At my friend’s house it was scorching hot, the thermometer inside reading 26°C, and outside in the walled garden it was even hotter. We sat in the shade of the sun room, with a glass of delicious home-made lemonade, freshly made from fruit from her own tree. (Since it began to get very hot the tree has dropped all its remaining ripe fruit, probably as a way of conserving moisture for the new crop that is already beginning to swell.) There was entertainment too, a pale coloured gecko, possibly one of the biggest, plumpest ones I have ever seen, waddled over the wall and squeezed itself behind the wooden frame of a trellis.

18/6/11- A gorgeous gecko concealing itself behind the trellis

The area is being plagued by small black flies at the moment, troublesome to people, but they are being assisted in their disposal by Swallows and in particular House Martins that were swooping around, chattering constantly as they flew here, there and everywhere close together in family groups. The close views of their aerial acrobatics was delightful, particularly as parents were feeding young ones on the wing, the two hovering closely together for a split second to make the pass. They were momentarily stunned into silence, scattering into cover as we had a surprise, very close-up visit from a  Booted Eagle (light-phase), clearly drawn by all the activity and noise. Wow. It didn’t catch anything though.

The stars of the afternoon though were the Red-rumped Swallows. There have been one or two pairs returning to the immediate area for the last few years, and although they have shown interest in this garden and have roosted in the small covered area, have not nested – until now.

!8/6/11-The nest of the Red-rumped Swallow is a distinctive, upside-down igloo shape

The Red-rumped Swallow builds a very distinctive nest, made of mud as those of other hirundines, but with the addition of a long tunnel through which the birds access the main chamber. This one is in the shade provided by a concrete and cement block utility area attached to the house next door, but we had very good views of it over the top of the garden wall.

18/6/11-A swallow entering the nest, giving a glimpse of its red rump

The pair clearly have nestlings and the rate of their feeding was impressive, with one or other of them returning every 2 minutes or so at one point. Red-rumped Swallows are known to have regular ‘hunting’ routes and here they fly very closely to the house, sometimes skimming the swimming pool, then up and over the roof circling around to reappear from the garden on the other side to the one they are nesting in.

Returning from a wander around the garden, our attention was diverted to the ground by the sight of a mass of ants labouring to haul a butterfly chrysalis across the terrace. Back at the nest entrance they spent some time attempting to force the bulky prey in through the narrow crack in the cement between bricks, turning it this way and that to no avail.

18/6/11-Ants attempting to force a chrysalis into the entrance to their nest

18/6/11-Still trying to get the pupa in, another party arrived with a smaller bee

Naturally, being ants, notoriously resourceful and enterprising, they persisted in their attempts to get the pupa in. We thought they may have to resort to cutting it into smaller pieces, but then considered the possibility that it may well still be a bit of a gooey mess inside and may not store well if opened up.Meanwhile, another hunting party was returning with their ‘bag’ – a wasp or large hoverfly, still quite large but that appeared small enough to fit in with less problems. The others must have thought so too, so moved their chrysalis out of the way to let the wasp haulers through.

18/6/11-Those carrying the chrysalis moved aside to let the wasp party through

A hugely entertaining afternoon with some very special moments and all while enjoying a chat and hardly leaving our comfortable seats. Who needs TV?

Sunday afternoon in a pine forest

Pinar del Rey – The King’s Pine Forest, lies to the north of the town of San Roque. It was planted in 1800 by the Spanish Navy to provide timber for building ships; the planting consisting of a combination of Stone Pines and Cork Oaks. In 1804, following the defeat of  the combined navies of Spain and France at the Battle of Trafalgar, the Spanish no longer needed the timber and the plantation was gifted to the people of San Roque by King Ferdinand VII as compensation for losing Gibraltar 100 years earlier.

A path through the pine trees

The area has long been used by the local people as a recreational area and now there are picnic areas and barbecues set up in cleared areas beneath the trees, some of them quite extensive. The shady woods are a lovely outdoor ‘breathing space’ for families living in the local towns and villages, and are probably the most popular nature spot for miles around. Many families spend a day out in the country here, and it is especially busy on a Sunday, the traditional ‘family’ day.

On Sunday outings I normally steer clear of any area I know to be a popular family venue. Today, feeling in need of some fresh air and gentle exercise, and persuading Jon that he did too, I went along with his suggestion to drive out to Pinar del Rey, albeit with some trepidation on my part. It’s not too far from where we live and once through the small town of San Roque you are out in the countryside. It is still green, and colourful now with the tougher flowers of summer, purple thistles, patches of yellow Spanish Oyster plant and the lime green-yellow flowerheads of Fennel. Turning into the entrance to the site it was immediately apparent that although it was by now late afternoon, there were a lot of people here: families sitting chatting around the wooden tables, lingering over their picnics, children playing amongst the trees and people just strolling along the shady pathways. It is great to see folks out and about and making the most of this wonderful public space, but, very selfishly I know, we were hoping for something a little more peaceful where there may be a chance of seeing some of the wilder residents of the area. There is just one paved road for cars that eventually reaches an abrupt end and the only way forward is on foot. That is where we stopped today, in a spot where there were no other cars or people in immediate sight and close to the beginning of one of the marked footpaths, the ‘Sendero de las Aguilas‘.

Stone Pines backlit by the sun with Cork Oaks behind

This is a lovely path, pleasantly shady and the air fragrant with the fresh resinous scent of Stone Pines. A Blackcap was singing, moving from tree to tree as we approached but picking up the song each time he changed perch. I heard a Greenfinch calling and caught sight of a Blackbird, otherwise all was quiet. The track is almost on the edge of the part of the forest dominated by Stone Pines, its edge is marked by a water course bounded by other tree species and shrubs such as Oleander; and beyond it is more woodland comprised mainly of Cork Oaks.

There were several patches of some very pretty and delicate flowers growing alongside the path that I had not seen before, coloured in various shades from pale mauve to purple and magenta.

The little purple flowers are held on very thin stalks

I discovered later that the plant is  a Campanula (Campanula specularioides). Apparently it got its latin name because of its similarity to the flowers of Venus’ Looking-glass, (sp. Legousia), which used to be called Specularia. (Betty Molesworth Allen).

A patch of campanula with bigger flowers showing several variations inn shade

While I was busy with the flowers, Jon discovered a very intriguing scene that was being acted out on another part of the forest floor; where ants were milling around a large hole and running back and forth over a pile of freshly excavated soil.Some of them were actually carrying grass seed heads and there were a great number of similar seedheads piled around the edges of the soil pile, clearly harvested by the ants, that were either being carried into or out of the hole.Perhaps the oddest thing was the presence of four beetles, a couple of which were being harassed by ants, while others seemed to be burrowing into the piled up seedheads.

An intriguing scene involving harvesting ants and round-bodied beetles

Meanwhile, up in the trees a Crested Tit foraged around the pine cones. These lovely little birds are one of the most elusive species for me in terms of getting photographs and today was no exception. It was too shady there to get a decent picture anyway as I discovered when I attempted to capture an image of a pair of Blackcap in another treetop. A Jay was a little more obliging, sitting halfway up a better-lit trunk.

Jay - Garrulus glandarius

We heard a Robin singing and spotted him perched on a low branch next to the path, flying off as we approached.

A very large old Stone Pine with a double trunk

Many of the pine trees are huge specimens that are reputed to be those originally planted in the early 1800s, they are impressive and beautiful and present countless opportunities for photographs; the light and shade on the trunks, the textures of the bark, the sunlight filtering through the canopy and so much more. Part of the track runs parallel to the river bank and the damper conditions here support a different flora, amongst which is the dramatic Acanthus. It is not a common plant in this area, except on calcareous outcrops, but it is often cultivated, so I am unsure if it would have occurred naturally here.

Acanthus leaf with greenbottle fly. The leaves of this plant were patterns for the design on capitals of many Corinthian pillars of the ancient world.

Acanthus mollis - flower. The common name of Bear's Breeches comes from the shape of the flowers.

The shape of the top of the tree gives it the common name of Umbrella Pine

We took a different route home as I was keen to see the progress of the Stork families, so at the entrance/exit to the park, rather than turning left towards San Roque town, we turned right to go to San Roque Estacion. This is a very quiet road, particularly since the new stretch of dual carriageway was constructed, and is not in very good repair, but it is much more scenic and tuneful too – we must have heard at least half a dozen snatches of Nightingale song as we passed by. We saw a Nightingale too, very unusually perched on a power cable near the junction of this road and the new one. We saw Storks on their nests from here too where the road crosses the railway line, but had much better views once on the road driving towards Jimena. Most of the nests had at least two or three grown-up young, and many were crowded with the whole family jammed in at once.

This is always a busy road, but we risked a very quick stop so I could take this photograph:

Parent White Storks with their grown-up young. The adult hiding her face at the back and looking a bit tatty is most probably the mother!

Summer begins

June 5th

The weather for the first days of this month has been rather unsettled; most mornings, although warm, have been overcast with levanter cloud and sudden strong breezes have sprung up from nowhere. But bursts of very hot sunshine and warm evenings that stay light until about 10pm, all confirm that summer has begun. The ambience of the garden and surroundings has changed noticeably now that many parent birds have fledged young to keep track of and feed. For a few days following seeing the young Nightingale I heard it frequently and loudly summoning its parents with a loud, insistent piping call. One morning I heard it piping frantically and went out to look just as a Kestrel swooped low through the garden, probably looking for the source of the calling. I’ve had a few glimpses of adult birds dashing across the garden, but haven’t  seen the young one at all.

Wren family 

On Friday morning I heard baby bird calls very close by and discovered the source to be a tiny fluffy fledgling Wren that was perched on one of the dracaena plants on the covered terrace. It was incredibly cute, with its yellow gape and wispy downy tufts of feather still attached to its head. It was not alone either, there were two more tiny siblings close by, all ‘tsup,tsup, tsupping‘ animatedly and I could hear a parent urgently trying to muster them and persuade them to join them over the wall in the cover of the cork oaks.  Finally  they all took off at once, buzzing the short way across the lawn and up and over the way, tiny wings whirring, hardly bigger than large butterflies.

3/6/11-Fledgling Wren, downy 'ear' tufts still visible on its head

That wasn’t the last I saw of the little family; later in the evening I heard them just across the garden wall, in the same place they had headed to in the morning. One popped onto the top of the wall and sat enjoying the late evening sunshine.

3/6/11-8.00pm - A Wren fledgling enjoying the late evening sunshine

A little later again, while watching TV, through the window I caught sight of a bird fluttering around the light fitting on the terrace. Intrigued, I watched it pop in and out a few times. It was a Wren that then flew to the end of the terrace, began calling then flying back and forth and in and out of the light fitting. (Wrens have nested in that fitting twice in recent years and as I believe it may still be used as a roost by its maker, I have not cleared out the old nesting material). In response to the adult’s calling the babies came and with much fluttering and popping in and out, finally all seemed to settle in there. What a touching little scene that was and a wonderful display of bird parenting; I’m not sure if they were joined in there by an adult, but I’m sure they would have stayed close by. Much to my surprise and delight the family returned to roost on Saturday night too, again there was much fluttering around and popping in and out before they settled, but by 10pm they were tucked up safely for the night. Sunday brought a different scenario though. At least one Wren did arrive and popped in and out of the roost, but I don’t think any stayed in. Then from somewhere, a male House Sparrow appeared and although too big to get into the light fitting, he appeared to ‘guard’ it, blocking the entrance. He left after afew minutes, but by now it was almost dark. I didn’t see the Wrens come back, so either he had frightened them away or they were already inside and the House Sparrow had just been looking to see what was happening in there.

3/61/11-Ilex Hairsteak with large chunks of wings missing

I’m delighted that the pair of Spotted Flycatchers are in and around the garden frequently throughout the days, out hunting until it’s almost dark. (Their pairing was confirmed when I witnessed an attempted mating on a garden lounger!)  On several consecutive mornings I have watched them from the terrace as they hunt from perches low down on various plants and posts, and even garden furniture. A favourite place seems to be on the aeonium plant, which happens to be next to the patch of flowering thyme which the Ilex Hairstreak butterflies and various other insects visit for nectar. Not surprisingly there are a few butterflies struggling around with chunks of their wings missing.

3/6/11-Lang's Short-tailed Blue on marjoram

The privet flowers are all but over now, so the insects I had such wonderful views off recently will have had to seek pastures new. Fortunately the wildflowers at the front of the neighbouring cork oak plot, and those of the vacant plots opposite are all blooming profusely now. They won’t be there for much longer as the owner of the plots will be along anytime soon with his little tractor and cutting machine to mow them all down. I think he may have to do it as dried grass etc. could become a potential fire hazard in the summer. The thought of that spurred me to go and have a good look at what is growing there and see what other insects I might find too.

3/6/11-Wildflowers on the edge of the cork oak plot may look straggly, but there are a good variety of species there providing nectar for a range of insect species

The wildflowers growing at the front of the cork oak plot are a bit straggly as they are shaded by the trees for much of the day, but having a closer look I was surprised by the number of species I found there.

3/6/11-Rabbit's bread - Andryala integrifolia , with tiny hoverfly -Sphaerophoria scripta

3/6/11-Hoverfly-Syrphus ribesii

3/6/11-A pretty lemon-yellow flower of Tolpis -Tolpis barbata - a member of the daisy family

3/6/11-A mallow flower holding a tiny young Oak Bush Cricket

The wildflower species that appears to be one of those most important to an array of insect species, with plants in flower in various places from late spring through to September, is Scabious. It tends to be an untidy plant and the flowers are smallish but pretty, and everything from minute flower beetles, butterflies and hoverflies to the huge Mammoth Wasps and Violet Carpenter Bees seem to find it irresistible.

3/6/11-Scabious is very attractive to a wide variety of insect species

3/6/11-Sotogrande -Mammoth Wasp(m) - Scolia

3/6/11- A not-sure-what-this is, but it resembles the 'eristalsis' species

3/6/11-Banded Hoverfly-Volucella zonaria

I was sitting out on the terrace this afternoon and – aagh! – I saw a Geranium Bronze butterfly fluttering around my geranium plants, then land on a leaf. Oh dear, what to do? I hate to think about killing anything, but then I don’t want lacy-leaved, or no-leaved geraniums either.

5/6/11-Geranium Bronze butterfly, probably laying eggs on my geranium leaves