Aftermath of a winter storm

The western end of  the Mediterranean coastline of Southern Spain, closely linked to the Atlantic Ocean by the Straits of Gibraltar, may often be battered during the winter months by storms and wind, rain and high seas can cause a lot of damage.

When I first began visiting the  Guadiaro Nature Reserve in Sotogrande in 2004, there was a boardwalk in place that began at the entrance to the beach, ran right along the edge of the reedbed and ended at a rotunda set close by the mouth of the estuary. The structure made a good viewing platform from which to look over the reedbeds as well as offering protection to the reserve area, keeping people and dogs at bay.

The boardwalk that used to be in place along the beach with Gibraltar in the background

Part of the boardwalk that used to be in place along the beach with Gibraltar in the background

Winter storms soon began to take their toll on the woodwork and repairs were made each spring until they more or less admitted defeat and/or ran out of money in 2007. I made this entry in my journal on January 30th 2007, following a particularly dramatically stormy weekend.

Keen to see the effects of the weekend’s storms and to take advantage of a sunny morning, I decided to head for the Reserve to see what was about.

The reedbeds around the lagoon have been battered and flattened by the storms; much will have been done by the wind, but I suspect that the sea may have reached over there too. At first it appeared that there were few signs of life; nothing moved on the water, although I could hear the sounds of small birds about in the reeds and shrubs around the hide. The belting calls of a Cetti’s Warbler were so close I thought that today I may have a good chance of seeing the elusive little bird, but no luck again. Then a Chiffchaff called and appeared for me to see, complete with a leg ring.

Blue tit

Blue tit with leg ring

A beautiful brightly-coloured Blue Tit arrived to feed on the reed seed-heads, again complete with leg ring.  One of my biggest bug-bears about people using this little stretch of beach is the amount of rubbish they leave behind and there’s nothing like a good storm for exposing the extent of the problem. It seems so wrong to see beautiful birds rummaging around plastic bags and bottles in what should be a natural setting; but then on the other hand, the birds are probably around the rubbish as it attracts, or gives cover to insects. Birds are quick to learn to exploit our less savoury habits and are far more concerned with survival than aesthetics.

A beautiful robin hunts around a plastic bottle

A beautiful robin hunts around a plastic bottle

Black Redstart (m)

Black Redstart (m)

A beautiful Robin appeared from low down amongst the reeds to perch on an old cut stem and a handsome male Black Redstart flew in to take up a higher viewpoint; both had their feathers well fluffed out against the chilly breeze.

A pair of Moorhen emerged from the cover of the reeds at the water’s edge to investigate the area in front of the hide. They too are in their breeding- best now, with glossy, colourful plumage and bright shiny yellow-tipped red beaks.

A moorhen looking in peak condition

A moorhen looking in peak condition

Breaking the peace, a flock of about ten or so Snipe  flew in fast and explosively, scattering themselves and rapidly settling into various spots around the edges of the water, where perfectly camouflaged, they effectively disappeared from view in seconds. From over the top of the hide, almost simultaneously with the Snipe, a Marsh Harrier swooped over the water, landing in on a low shrub a short distance away in the midst of the long reeds; maybe chasing the snipe? Surprised,  I didn’t even think to grab my binoculars. I watched and waited for quite a while to see if it would move again, but it seemed content to stay put.

Snipe heading rapidly for cover

Snipe heading rapidly for cover

Outside the hide the sun was bright and it was warm but there was a definite nip in the air; the best winter weather, although it didn’t look set to last as there was plenty of cloud around too.

Walking towards the beach, I heard Fan-tailed Warblers, saw more Chiffchaffs and a Sardinian Warbler, I heard the Cetti’s again and watched a Moorhen that was swimming about close to the nearside edge of the lagoon, it was flicking its wings and flashing its white tail-end; perhaps the Marsh Harrier was still about.

Arriving at the boardwalk it began to become apparent that the storms had once again wreaked their havoc on this ill-fated construction. The ramp to the new rotunda had separated from it, leaving a wide gap to step across to get onto it. But that was minor damage compared to what had happened further along. Much of the new length of boarding that was only put in place last year has been shattered and incredulously, whole sections have been lifted and hurled piecemeal back to the edge of the reedbed.

A displaced section of the Boardwalk

A displaced section of the Boardwalk

It’s such a shame after all the time and effort that went into rebuilding it, but you do have to question why previous experience hasn’t led to a more substantial structure being built. I wonder how long it will be before it will be repaired this time, if at all? The major problem now is that it leaves the reserve open and vulnerable once more as there is no fencing to protect it either.

A lot of pebbles have been dredged up from the seabed and piled up in places to cover a lot of the previously sandy beach. Large numbers of cockle shells have also been thrown up and mainly scattered randomly along the sea edge, but in a few places there are piles of them. Some were evidently alive when wrenched from their rocky homes and now the poor dead animals await being eaten by gulls or flies. It’s quite a gory sight to see them like that, but its surprising how differently we view them when they’re cooked and on a plate!

Cockle shell open, exposing the animal inside

Cockle shell open, exposing the animal inside

Cymbium shells

Cymbium shells

Unusually, there were quite a number of Cymbium shells of varying sizes, with one of them also still containing the animal. I have only ever found two of these lovely shells before, one sun-bleached one on the sand on the water-works side of the beach and the other here a short while ago, but broken. Research I have done puts these as native to the seas around the coast of Portugal, but I suppose that’s not so far away and they could easily be carried through the Straits to arrive here. It is interesting that they were all thrown up in the same spot though, I wonder if they are, or maybe were, living in one of the reefs close to the shore?

Cymbium, body exposed

Cymbium, body exposed

There were dozens of oranges scattered along the length of the beach as there often are after stormy weather. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine they arrive here after being carried downriver out into the sea and are then washed back in again. 

The beach is always strewn with oranges after a storm

The beach is always strewn with oranges after a storm

More Chiffchaffs flitted back and forth between the shrubs at the back of the beach, where there was also a Sardinian Warbler, a Robin and several Goldfinches. Cutting across towards the estuary there were Cormorants flying hurriedly to and from the sea and the usual host of Yellow-legged Gulls. There were more on the water together with a smaller number of Black-headed Gulls. A  Grey Plover, a Turnstone and a small flock of Sanderling were resting behind some debris.

At the Estuary, a Grey Plover, Turnstone and a small flock of Sanderling resting behind debris on the water's edge

At the Estuary, a Grey Plover, Turnstone and a small flock of Sanderling resting behind debris on the water’s edge

The water level of the estuary has risen  considerably and the sand around it was still very soft and waterlogged so walking further around was not going to be easy, so I turned round and took a brisk walk back the way we had come.

A Grey Wagtail flew in over the reedbed to land by the water and near to the rotunda a pair of Stonechats came out to perch atop a low shrub, the male flying up and diving down; their characteristic display to a female.

Male Stonechat perched on debris on the beach

Male Stonechat perched on debris on the beach

Getting back to the spot where the shells were washed up I stopped again to see if I could find anything else, I sat down on the sand at the back of the beach and lost in thought I didn’t immediately notice that there were three Turnstones very close by pecking around in the sand and taking no notice of me either. All that spoilt the moment was the plastic supermarket carrier bag immediately behind them.

Turstones- a very close-up view

Turstones- a very close-up view

Back on the path going out there seemed to be Chiffchaffs everywhere; flying around the stands of tall reeds that grow on the land in front of the buildings on the opposite side to the lagoon, perched on the wire fence and in or on almost every available shrub. It would seem that they are on the move, maybe they stopped here en route from Africa to wait for the storms to pass.

My Bird List for the morning was quite amazing, amounting to 22 species:

Cormorant; Common Moorhen; Marsh Harrier; Purple Swamp Hen (Gallinule); Grey Plover; Sanderling; Turnstone; Common Snipe; Black-headed Gull; Yellow-legged Gull; White Wagtail; Grey Wagtail; Blue Tit; Goldfinch; Robin; Stonechat; Black Redstart; Common Blackbird; Cetti’s Warbler (heard); Fan-tailed Warbler; Sardinian Warbler; Common Chiffchaff (numerous);

Purple Gallinule or Swamp Hen

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

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

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

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

Description and appearance

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

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

A gorgeously glossy Purple Gallinule

A gorgeously glossy Purple Gallinule

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

The bright white rump

The bright white rump topped with a short upright tail

Behaviour

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeding & Diet

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

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

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

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

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

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

The foot clasping food is raised up towards the bill

The foot clasping food is raised up towards the bill

Breeding

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

Purple Swamp hens are monogomous

Purple Swamp hens are monogomous

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

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

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

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

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

 

Other places to see Purple Swamp Hen in Southern Spain

Purple Swamp Hen - La Janda

Purple Swamp Hen – La Janda

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

The Spotted Flycatcher

July and August are not the best months to see birds in Southern Spain, but one that can still be seen in a diverse number of locations, fairly frequently and right through to mid-late September  is the Spotted Flycatcher. Although not colourful, they are very attractive and characterful and very entertaining to watch as they dart from their perch to chase acrobatically after flying insects.

Spotted Fly Catcher – Muscicapa striata

Spanish: Papamoscas gris

‘Spotted’ Flycatcher is a bit of a misnomer, as the adult bird’s head and greyish-brown throat and breast is streaked with brown rather than spotted, as suggested by the ‘striata‘ of its scientific name. Having said that, the young birds could be described as spotted, so perhaps that’s where it stems from.

Spotted Flycatchers are summer migrants to Southern Spain, and are then very common throughout the region, often staking a claim to territories that include gardens and other ‘humanised’ areas. They arrive from their wintering grounds in Africa to breed here, sometime around the end of April to the beginning of May, as insect numbers are rising.

This one arrived in the garden on May 1st

This one arrived in the garden on May 1st

We were very lucky to have had Spotted Flycatchers return to our garden every year and I used to look forward very much to their arrival and the opportunities to watch them at very close quarters. I have no way of knowing whether any of the returned birds were the same ones that had been to this particular place in previous years; I have been informed by people that are far more knowledgeable than me on the subject that it is not very likely and that this is simply a ‘territory’, open to claim by whichever bird gets there first and can hang onto it.

I still like to think that at least for some of the years it may have been perhaps at least one of a pair that had been before, or perhaps one of the young ones that had been raised there. I also discovered from the BTO website that the maximum recorded age for a Spotted Flycatcher is 7 years 10 months 7 days (Recorded in 1963), so surely they don’t go about hunting for a new home every year!

I’ve never witnessed a territorial dispute between Spotted Flycatchers and have no idea if they arrive alone or with a mate. I also admit that I have never heard one sing, which was a bit puzzling as I spent so many hours watching their behaviour over several years. I was quite relieved to read the following on the Wildlife Sound Recording website http://www.wildlife-sound.org/journal/archive/1983wsv4n5_pr_flycatchers.html  “Sound is not a conspicuous feature as spotted flycatchers arrive in their nesting territories. It is true that the male will sing a high-pitched warble from time to time but this occurrence is far from being common and it is no disgrace for an ornithologist to admit that he has never heard the true song.”

I first saw this one on 6/5/07

I first saw this one on 6/5/07

Some newly returned birds made more of their arrival than others. On a couple of occasions I have become aware of them as the first thing they did was to take a bath. Others arrived quietly and were just suddenly ‘there’. The occasional one arrived with some drama. The day the bird in the photograph above arrived back I was out in the garden having just taken some photographs of a lovely Red Admiral butterfly that was posing obligingly on some blossom. I thought I had glimpsed the bird a little earlier on perched in our tall yucca tree, but was taken completely by surprise when it suddenly swooped past me, snatched the butterfly from where it was basking and swooped back to the tree with it. At least I had a photograph of the butterfly to mark its short life.

The Red Admiral before it was snatched away by the Spotted Flycatcher

The Red Admiral before it was snatched away by the Spotted Flycatcher

Within our garden there were several favoured perching spots, some of which were in open spots that were clearly visible from the house so I could watch them closely and without disturbing them; one was on the hand rail of the swimming pool, another on the top of the outdoor shower. They definitely show a preference for perches that are not too far above the ground and in other locations I often saw them on boundary fences or on top of posts.

Watching for prey from the handrail of the swimming pool

Watching for prey from the top of the swimming pool

While they wait for prey to fly into range, the bird sits upright, head slightly sunk into its shoulders. When it spots potential prey it darts out after it, then depending on the outcome it may loop around to return to the same perch or swoop to another.

29/5/09-On top of the shower pipe in typical slightly hunched hunting pose

29/5/09-On top of the shower pipe in typical slightly hunched hunting pose

A range of insects in addition to flies will be pursued as potential food including butterflies, bees, wasps and hoverflies.

Breeding

The birds begin breeding in May, soon after their return. In June 2006, I was thrilled to see ‘our’ pair of flycatchers together with a family of three young ones. They were all gathered on a branch of one of the cork oaks that overlooked the garden at the back of the house and the parents both worked hard at keep their offspring supplied with food. 

One of the adults perched  on the corner of the roof beneath the cork oaks watching for flies

16/6/06 One of the adults perched on the corner of the roof beneath the cork oaks watching for flies

The following day I was even more delighted to see that two of the young birds were perched together in the small fig tree that grew against the wall on the boundary with the Cork Oak plot and no more than a metre from a bedroom window.

060616TGSPN-Spotted Flycatcher young-Sotogrande, Spain

Two of three young Spotted Flycatchers in a fig tree

The young or juvenile spotted flycatchers are a more grey-brown than the adults and are prominently speckled; they remain dependent on their parents feeding them for about three weeks after leaving the nest. It must take quite a bit of practice before they become adept at catching their own.

A closer look at one of the young birds

A closer look at one of the young birds

The birds will be around until at least September, as long as there is food available, before heading back to their winter feeding grounds. They may well be joined by others on their return migration south from Northern Europe too, that stop to refuel before also heading off.

 

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.