Category Archives: Reptiles & Amphibians of Southern Spain

Gibraltar Spring-Early Morning on the Upper Rock

March 20th-Day 2-Bird Observatory, Jew’s Gate, Upper Rock

07.30- We reached the Bird Observatory on the Upper Rock a little before it was properly light. Through a shroud of mist, dawn was subtle, washing the buildings of Algeciras, the hills beyond Gibraltar Bay and the Moroccan coast with diffused shades of amber.

The first thing I noticed was the absence of the Pillars of Hercules Monument directly below the Obs building. Apparently there had been a problem with the concrete roof of the public loos that forms its base and the Monument has been taken down and is currently propped up against nearby railings. I’m not sure how they got it there, it must be pretty weighty. Below is a photograph of the more usual view:

07:45 -We were here for birds as my friend and wonderful host Jill, is in training as a bird-ringer and was hoping for some practice in this highly skilled art, but thus far this morning had been  disappointing for the current resident ringers. Not only was it cool and misty, but also and worse was that the cold wind was blowing in the wrong direction to bring migrating birds over the Strait in this direction, so the mist nets were very sparsely populated. If there are no birds to process and record, a day with a dawn start can seem very long up here, despite the amazing views.

Gibraltar has long been recognised as a key location for observing the migration of birds and the Bird Observatory, run by the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society (GONHS), is a highly desirable venue for bird-watchers and in the appropriate seasons, bird-ringers, from many parts of the world. Perched high on the Upper Rock the views from the front door extending across the Bay of Gibraltar, over Algeciras and across the Strait to the Moroccan coast are truly stunning. The climate is appealing too, but of course it’s the opportunity to witness birds on their migration passages, often in great numbers, that draws them here.

Inside the Field Centre, suspended on hooks above the ringing bench, a male Sardinian Warbler and a Willow Warbler were waiting in little cotton bags to be ‘processed’. Within minutes the birds were quickly and carefully weighed, measured, ringed, entered into the record book and released.

0757-Sardinian Warbler processed and ready to go. Note the manicured fingernails of a female bird ringer – it’s not a job strictly for the boys

0759-Willow Warbler with view across the Bay of Gibratar

08.00 – By way of a diversion, the moth light trap is opened up to reveal last night’s bounty. There were a good number in there of an interesting variety of species ranging from tiny micro-moths to a spectacular Tiger Moth. I left it to the experts to ooh and aah at the really tiny ‘micros’ and concentrated on the bigger, showier ones that I had a hope of recognising if I ever see them again! I knew the lovely Tiger Moth with its rich red underparts and was quite taken with the Shark Moth, so-called because of its shape in profile.

08.17 – Excitement as an incoming Marsh Harrier dashes overhead-the sighting was brief, but we thought a male as has black wingtips.

08.35 Another inspection of the mist nets brings a female Goldfinch

0919-In the sheltered ‘garden’ area at the side of the Obs there is a small pool of water inhabited by frogs. As the sun gathered strength the warmth brought them out to sunbathe and the males began to sing. Their human neighbours were not as happy to hear them as I was; apparently they’d be singing loudly for most of the night. I don’t know his species, but according to the GONHS website, frogs present here in Gibraltar are introduced and of the species Rana (Pelophylax) perezi (Perez’s Marsh Frog). Maybe someone will confirm or correct me?

Other insects were also appreciating the sunshine; an interestingly coloured millipede warmed himself on a wall and little bees were gathering pollen and nectar, particularly from Rosemary and Tree germander.

There are wildflowers here too, including some elegant and highly fragrant Freesia blooms. Not a native plant, but one-time introduction originating in South Africa, it is now naturalised in a variety of locations around the Rock. It’s much tougher than it looks, here it competes for headroom with other native plants, but it is also found pushing up through cracks in paving and against walls.

Freesia refracta

Pitch Trefoil or Bitumen Pea-Psoralea bituminosa

Another plant flowering is the Pitch Trefoil or Bitumen Pea, so called because if crushed the plant releases an aroma uncannily like that of the tar they use to repair road surfaces, which happens to be one of my life-long favourite smells, so I love this plant!

09.55 – A juvenile male Blackcap has been ringed and is released

09.44 – Busy with the wildflowers I missed a sighting of a Dark-phase Booted Eagle, so no photo, but I did catch the single Black Kite as it passed overhead.

The wind changed slightly, but was still not from the most desirable westerly direction. Mist still hangs over the Strait and the Bay, but the appearance of the Black Kite prompted scanning with binoculars as these most numerous of incoming raptors frequently travel together in variously sized flocks. There were more! In conditions such as today’s when visibility is limited, birds often fly close to the surface of the water and have to flap their wings to maintain momentum, expending precious energy. Arriving close to land again and once they can see where they are and want to be, they begin to circle seeking currents of rising warmer air. These ‘thermals’ will enable them to gain height without flapping and once they are up high they are able to glide towards their destination on the wind.

Jill retrieved a very feisty female Blackbird from the mist net. Already ringed, she was clearly a local resident bird and a brood patch on her breast showed she was nesting, so was quickly set free.

My last  pictures of the morning here was of a large Wall Lizard, that looked like it was in the process of shedding its skin.

and another wildflower, this one growing at the front of the building, White Mignonette, is also planted in gardens as an ornamental.

A cold but very varied and enjoyable morning, enhanced by several hot cups of tea and a hot-cross bun. Looking forward to a bit of a rest, lunch and a walk up to the Alameda Botanical Gardens this afternoon…….

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

Jimena river valley walk

26th February 2011

RED ADMIRAL - Vanessa atalanta

A very warm morning had built up to an unseasonably high temperature  by the time I arrived for lunch at my friend’s house at Jimena. Before I even knocked on the door I had the camera out and pointed at butterflies and Violet Carpenter bees that were very strongly drawn to a flowering shrub at the front of the house. There were 2 Red Admirals, several Large Whites and numerous Carpenter bees, but it was also quite windy and very difficult to focus on them swaying around.

Borage in flower along the sides of the road leading down to the river

We had lunch sitting outside in the garden, debating where to head for to walk this afternoon. We settled on a walk along the pathway that follows the río Hozgarganta upstream through the Jimena valley, a walk we have done several times that is always interesting and enjoyable. Whilst eating we kept an eye on the sky; migration has been slow to get under-way this year due to the weather, so on a warm sunny afternoon, although the wind wasn’t blowing in a particularly helpful direction, we thought a few determined birds may make it across. Luckily for us we happened to be looking up as two Egyptian Vultures flew over, low down and in no particular hurry- so a good omen for the afternoon.

View from the bridge Río Hozgarganta, looking upstream

On the other side of the bridge a large Striped-neck Terrapin was out enjoy the sun

Alder trees growing on the riverbank in fresh foliage

Looking both up and downstream from the bridge there were no signs of any wading birds, but in the alder and other small trees growing in front of the bridge, and in the tangle of  undergrowth below there were a good number of small birds; Blackcaps singing, Greenfinches, a Chiffchaff and a Sardinian Warbler were all there.

A stone outcrop sculpted and scoured clean and smooth, shows how high the river has been

Once past the houses and the domesticated area of the riverbank you can begin to better appreciate the more rugged and natural scenery created by the river, the rock formations and the wild flora. I spotted bright yellow flowers off to the side of the path and headed off  for a closer look. I quickly found myself in a wet, muddy marshy area and was about to turn back, when I noticed little frogs were popping about all around me. The flowers were Lesser Celandines, as I’d hoped.

A little Marsh Frog hoping I hadn't seen him

Leaving the frogs in peace and making my way back to the track, I caught sight of a small Lizard scuttling across a large rock.

A small, nicely patterned Lizard scuttled over a large rock

We hadn’t walked far before spotting another, larger lizard; he had clearly lost the end of his tail at some point and although it had re-grown he will never regain his colourful scales.

A bigger Wall Lizard with a shiny new bald tip to his tail

Cork Oaks and shrubbery on the valley sides

We spotted birds hovering high up  in the sky that we could make out as Kestrels and wondered if they may be Lesser Kestrels as there were two close together. There was still a fairly strong wind blowing and the birds were making good use of it, their wings were extended as though to hover, but holding them still they were able to maintain an almost motionless position for impressively long periods. As we watched one of the birds flew into a hollow in  an outcrop of rock; as it happens this particular rock is one we have often commented on, as its shape and the hollow put us in mind of an animal’s raised head, mouth wide open…? Anyway, inside the hollow is a further smaller cavity and we located the Kestrel sitting on its edge. We continued watching as two more Kestrels appeared that seemed to have gone down on the other side of the outcrop. Now we had seen more than two birds we were happy to conclude that they were indeed Lesser Kestrels and that we had discovered their nesting place.

Looking up a rocky slope towards the outcrop where Lesser Kestrels appear to be nesting

Lesser Kestrel

We continued on our walk enjoying the dramatic scenery and the warmth of the sun, until we reached a spot overlooking the river that looked like a pleasant place to sit. It was a good decision to stay still for a while, as it gave us the opportunity to fully appreciate our surroundings and to notice the details of it. We timed our break well too, we spotted raptors flying over, a Booted Eagle (light phase) and a Short-toed Eagle, the first individual of the latter species that either of us had seen so far this year. The  Kestrels were very visible, flying back and forth over the ridge of hills in front of us and close enough for us to identify properly and confirm that they were indeed Lesser Kestrels.

The view upriver from our stopping place

The rocky scene immediately behind us

There were more sightings of a Short-toed Eagle; we thought at first that we were seeing the same bird that was circling around, but then decided that was unlikely and it was more likely to have been three individual birds on passage.

Short-toed Eagle - The views we had today were of birds flying too high for me to photograph effectively, so this is 'one I made earlier'

Some plants are flowering now, most abundant was French Lavender growing amongst rocks and bushes of bright yellow broom.

FRENCH LAVENDER-Lavendula stoechas, growing amongst rocks

As we moved off to begin our walk back I spotted a green Tiger Beetle scurrying over a rock. It stopped so I focused the camera on it and realised it was actually two beetles, a mating pair, showing the considerable difference in their sizes, the female being the largest.

Mating Tiger Beetles

 

A male Serin singing with gusto

Perhaps my favourite sighting of the day was of this male Serin, singing his socks off from the top of a shrub just a short distance away from us. He was in bright sunlight and very colourful.

Griffon Vulture-Gyps fulvus

You do have to be quite unlucky not to have sightings of Griffon Vultures in this area, but we had especially good views of these magnificent birds today when five of them flew in a straggly line along a low ridge to the side of us. We have no way of knowing whether they were part of the local flock or just passing through, but either way they were, as always a dramatic sight.

 

A bumper crop of Avocados hanging high above us

Arriving back at where the town meets the river, the wild flora begins to blend into the cultivated and there are fruit trees growing that may once have been in a garden or orchard, but are now untended. This Avocado tree has grown so tall, we only realised what it was because there were fallen fruits beneath it. Looking up we saw a heavily-fruited branch high above us, overhanging the path. They looked perfect, what a shame they’ll probably be wasted.

 

Oranges and lemons growing on the same tree

What appears to be two trees here, an orange and a lemon, is in fact one tree. Apparently it was common practise to graft one of each onto a single rootstock so both could be grown more compactly in a small patio garden. This particular one seems to have got a little out of hand but has produced abundant quantities of fruit.

Apple of Sodom plant with Jimena castle in the background

On the subject of fruit, this one is definitely one never to be eaten; it is the Apple of Sodom – Solanum sodomeum, a member of the Nightshade family and a fairly common plant on disturbed earth and waste spaces. The fruit looks attractive, but like all parts of the plant are very poisonous.

Back at the house, a lovely, very large Moorish Gecko sunbathed on the stem of a palm frond. Looks more like a baby alligator.

We got back to the house at about 6pm, admired the big gecko on the palm tree then took another cup of tea out into the garden. It was still very warm, the outside thermometer reading 19°C, 2° more than inside – Spanish houses are built to stay cool, even in the winter. Collared Doves, currently nesting in a tall cypress tree were very noisy and active, and there were a good few Barn Swallows flying around. Then the Cattle Egrets, having spent the day hunting in the nearby fields, began to pass overhead on their way to their night-time roost. There must have been at least a hundred of them, in parties of varying numbers and they were very close overhead. They looked so pretty, white birds tinted faintly pink by the lowering sun, against a still-blue   sky. Last treat of the day was a Buzzard, flying so low it almost skimmed the roof.

Birds are singing, frogs are croaking

At the beginning of the week it seemed as though the total local Tree Frog population had converged upon our pool. Endearing as they are in the daytime when spotted out sunbathing, stuck to the sides of the pool like bath toys,  as soon as the sun has set and they begin their croak-off contests, necessitating turning up the volume on your TV, you can go off them a bit. It wouldn’t be so bad if they got tired after an hour or two and quietened down, but the tiny creatures have enormous stamina and I’ve heard them still at it at 2am. The morning following a particularly noisy night session I discovered the reason for the increased volume; I counted no less than ten of them in a variety of sizes and shades of green in various spots around the pool.

Four of the ten tree frogs in the pool today. This image shows them at more or less their actual very tiny sizes. Males are smaller than females.

A grass-green individual

I probably would have put up with the din so I could indulge in a bit more frog-watching, but my long-suffering other half had reached his tolerance limit and decided at least some of them had to move on, or back to where they’d come from. So the pool was drained to leave about half a metre or so depth at the ‘deep end’. We found some interesting stuff in there, including tadpoles of various sizes and some large dragonfly larvae. I was worried then that the tadpoles would get eaten, so we put a bit more water in to give them more chance to escape. It’s a situation that reminded me of a quote I remember which simply says ‘Nature quietly finds her way back into places we think of as ours…’ which is sort of what has happened here, although in this case maybe not so quietly.

A Serin singing his heart out

My little dog is happy that the pleasanter weather has put more regular walks back on the agenda, although he gets a little bit frustrated with the frequent stops we make as I spot photo opportunities or something interesting to watch. This week there have been so many birds about that our normal 20 minutes ’round the block’ have been taking at least twice as long. I have seen more Robins than usual and think  perhaps some are migrants; there are Blue Tits everywhere and Serins singing their tinkling songs from tree perches almost within sight of one another. They become more visible than usual at this time as they make display flights, shooting up from their perches then spreading their wings wide and fluttering and falling back down while still singing. Although seeming to be fully occupied by the effort they put into singing, they are still quite wary and easily disturbed, hence my best photo to date being a back view; it does show the yellow rump though. There are still nothing like the full number of House Martins and Barn Swallows back yet, but it’s been good to see a few in our patch of sky again. No sign of any Swifts yet.

A Collared Dove keeping a wary eye on me and the dog

There are dozens of Collared Doves around and I often come across single ones, or at the moment pairs, walking about on the roads. I know they’re common, but I like them, they look soft and gentle, which of course I know they’re not particularly.

A large flock of Siskins pecking around on the road

One morning l spotted a little flock of twenty or so small birds pecking around on the road beneath a tree. The bright dappled sunlight made it difficult to see them well and I thought at first they may be Serins, but their reluctance to move until I was quite close brought to mind Siskins, which is what they turned out to be. They didn’t move far, the majority just going up into the tree above, but then a man got into the car that was parked just behind them and they all disappeared. I’ve looked for them several times since, but have only managed one or two; I would imagine they have moved on by now.

A Robin in a rubber tree- about to fly off

It still feels quite odd to see Robins here in Spain, especially this far south, and their strong association with our British Christmas traditions makes it even more odd to see them perched on ‘exotic’ plants such as cacti and as in this picture, a rubber tree. Their behaviour is quite different here too, they are much more wary of people and although they are present in our gardens, they are reserved and keep close to cover.

A White Wagtail strutted about on the road, oblivious to being watched with interest by a nearby cat

I’ve been trying to spot a Chaffinch singing with not much luck so far, but I got some lovely views of a beautiful male as he came down from his tree to feed on the nuts of a crushed pine cone on the road beneath.

Chaffinches are quick to take advantage of car-crushed cones and acorns etc

The male Chaffinch is a beautiful bird

He even looks handsome from the back

Birds spotted singing, displaying or otherwise expressing themselves this week:

Blue Tits and Great Tits, Blackbirds – I watched a female gathering leaves on Tuesday morning, Spotless Starlings, Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Greenfinches all singing, Serins singing and displaying, Wrens in several different locations, Robin, Blackcaps, House Sparrows, Collared Doves, Short-toed Treecreeper who doesn’t have much of a song but keeps up his soft whistle for longer lengths of time.

First Lizards and more Tree Frogs

8th February 2011

I saw a few lizards on Sunday up at Castellar, but only as they scuttled for cover as we passed close by them. Since then I’ve kept a lookout around the garden, particularly in the warm sunny spots against the walls. I spotted my first one as I was looking out of the upstairs bedroom window, a small elongated dark shape, travelling fast horizontally along the light coloured wall. I saw it stop in a sunny spot where wall meets pillar and ran downstairs to grab the camera, hoping it was there for a good warm-through; luckily it was and stayed still to have its picture taken.

Common Wall Lizard - Podarcis muralis

The next day I happened upon another one, much paler in colour, as it was emerging cautiously from the cover of the upturned flower pot that is my ‘bird-bath’ base.

9/2/11-A paler coloured lizard emerged cautiously from under a flower pot

Tree Frog update

Tree frog pressed tightly into a corner

Yesterday I heard the Tree frogs croaking loudly and went out to investigate. There were two of them out sunbathing, one squeezed into a corner of the pool and the other, the one I believe was making the noise, was in the filter recess- a good spot as his voice would be well amplified in there and he has another escape option as he can dive into the filter pipe.

The two frogs were quite different in colour, one a dark olive green/brown and the other a clearer dark green. I can’t decide if this is the original one I saw last week after a few days out in the sun, or a ‘new’ one.

The other frog located in the filter recess with his back to the pool

The males are definitely becoming more vocal; I hear them at random times during the day and most evenings, starting around sunset, which is about 7pm. There are often two or more croaking at, or to one another, and sounds as though one or more may be approaching the pool from outside it.