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.


Hot summer blossoms

Thanks to the winter rains carrying on until later than usual and the cooler temperatures of the late spring, flowering in general was a little delayed this year, but has also been prolonged. The vegetation along the roadsides is turning brown now, and most wildflowers have set seed, but the exotic shrubs that characterize many hot sunny Mediterranean places are ablaze with abundant colourful blossom.

Oleander

Oleander is probably the most familiar flowering shrub, it is drought resistant and is planted widely to line roadsides and as an ornamental shrub in public and private gardens. It has also naturalised and is commonly found growing along the banks of rivers and streams. Its toxicity ensures it is not grazed by animals.

Oleander - Nerium oleander

Oleander cultivar with double flowers

Nerium oleander is an evergreen shrub or small tree in the   family Apocynaceae, and is toxic in all its parts.  It is most commonly known as oleander, from its superficial resemblance to the unrelated olive Olea, but has many other names. It is so widely cultivated that no precise region of origin has been identified, but may perhaps be southwest Asia. The ancient city of Volubilis in Morocco took its name from the old Latin name for the flower.The oleander is the official flower of the city of Hiroshima, since it was the first to bloom again after the explosion of the atomic bomb in 1945.

Oleander is one of the most poisonous of commonly grown garden plants,in fact it is one of the most poisonous plants in the world, and contains numerous toxic compounds, many of which are deadly to people, especially young children. There is a story that in Spain, in the times of French occupation by Napoleon’s troops, an invitation to share a meal was extended by the Spanish to French soldiers. In the preparation of the meat, peeled oleander cuttings were used as skewers to roast it, resulting in the death of many of the Napoleonic troops.

Oleander Hawk-moth - Daphnis nerii

Some invertebrates are known to be unaffected by oleander toxins, and feed on the plants, one such being the caterpillars of the beautiful Oleander Hawk-moth Daphnis nerii, a large moth found in wide areas of Africa and Asia. It is a migratory species, flying to parts of eastern and southern Europe during the summer. (I have yet to see one of these beautiful insects for myself but people I know have told me they are found here, so I’m hopeful). The adults feed on nectar of a great variety of flowers. They have a preference for fragrant species like petunia,jasmine and honeysuckle. They are especially active in the twilight time, hovering over the flowers after sunset.

Bougainvillea

19/6/11-Bougainvillea - Bougainvillea glabra, growing in my garden in Sotogrande

Bougainvillea  is a genus of flowering plants native to South America from Brazil west to Peru and south to southern Argentina.The plant was classified by Europeans in Brazil in 1768, by Philibert Commerçon, a French botanist accompanying French Navy admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville during his voyage of circumnavigation and for whom the plant is named.

The yellow-white flowers

They are thorny, woody vines growing anywhere from 1-12 meters tall, scrambling over other plants with their spiky thorns.  The actual flower of the plant is small and generally white, but each cluster of three flowers is surrounded by three or six bracts with the bright colors associated with the plant, including pink, magenta, purple, red, orange, white, or yellow. Bougainvillea glabra is sometimes referred to as “paper flower” because the bracts are thin and papery.

Hibiscus

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis

Hibiscus  is a genus of flowering plants in the mallow family, Malvaceae. It is quite a large family, containing several hundred species that are native to warm-temperate, subtropical and tropical regions throughout the world. Member species are often noted for their showy flowers and are commonly known as hibiscussorrel, and flor de Jamaica. The flowers are large, conspicuous, trumpet-shaped, with five or more petals, ranging from white to pink, red, orange, purple or yellow, and from 4–18 cm broad.

Hibiscus, especially White Hibiscus and Red hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), is considered to have medicinal properties in the Indian traditional system of medicine, Ayurveda. Roots are used in various concoctions believed to cure ailments such as coughs. The flowers are boiled in oil along with other spices to make a medicated hair oil to prevent greying and hair loss. The red hibiscus flower is traditionally worn by Tahitian women. A single flower is tucked behind the ear to indicate the wearer’s availability for marriage.

I have not observed that hibiscus flowers are particularly attractive to insects, but they do get investigated by foraging Blue Tits.

A young Blue Tit investigating hibiscus flowers

Fascinating stuff about Ants & Vultures

Ants

This morning I was searching around the internet for information about ants as I am interested in identifying the species of those that I have seen lately both in Pinar del Rey and in Jimena last week as their behaviour was quite different, the former colony were taking seeds into their nest, the latter insects.

On our recent outing to Sierra de las Nieves I had already asked one of the gonhs team, an entomologist, what he thought the former lot were up to and he explained that these would be Harvester Ants gathering grass seeds for their food stores. The workers doing the actual harvesting take back grass seeds whole, i.e still enclosed in a protective sheath.Once back at the nest the grain is extracted from the husk and taken in either to be stored or to be fed to the Queen or developing larvae. The unwanted parts are then discarded. He didn’t know why the beetles may have been there, but speculated they may have been finding food amongst the detritus. I have put the picture in again as a reminder (click on it to enlarge).

An intriguing scene involving ants, their harvest of grass seeds and beetles

I am assuming then that these are Harvester Ants of the species Messor barbarus. I learnt more interesting stuff about these ‘granivorous’ ants, including the important role they play in seed dispersal.

The other insectivorous group (Jimena) were harder to pinpoint down, but I think they may be Argentine Ants, a species that has apparently spread all over the world. I checked the Iberia Nature website for anything they may have on ants in Spain and although I didn’t find what I was looking for I came upon this article, it is so amazing I have to share it:-

Unicoloniality and supercolonies

Most commonly, ants from different nests exhibit aggression toward each other. However, some ants exhibit the phenomenon called unicoloniality, where worker ants freely mix between different nests. A group of nests where ants do not exhibit mutual aggression is known as a supercolony — this form of organization is known as supercoloniality, and ants from different supercolonies of the same species do exhibit mutual aggression. Populations in supercolonies do not necessarily span a contiguous area.

Until 2000, the largest known ant supercolony was on the Ishikari coast of Hokkaidō, Japan. The colony was estimated to contain 306 million worker ants and one million queen ants living in 45,000 nests interconnected by underground passages over an area of 2.7 km2 (670 acres). In 2000, an enormous supercolony of Argentine ants was found in Southern Europe (report published in 2002). Of 33 ant populations nested along the 6,004-kilometre (3,731 mi) stretch along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts in Southern Europe, 30 belonged to one supercolony with estimated millions of nests and billions of workers, interspersed with three populations of another supercolony.The researchers claim that this case of unicoloniality cannot be explained by loss of their genetic diversity due to the genetic bottleneck of the imported ants. In 2009, it was demonstrated that the largest Japanese, Californian and European Argentine ant supercolonies were in fact part of a single global “megacolony”.

Another supercolony, measuring approximately 100 km (62 mi) wide, was found beneath Melbourne, Australia in 2004.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8127000/8127519.stm

Vultures

In the previous post I mentioned seeing a whole flock of  Griffon Vultures that appeared to be circling over what I assumed to be food. Whilst on the Iberia Nature website, reading ‘Nick’s blog’ I came across this bit about Vultures and their problems finding food, complete with the fantastic photo:

Accompanying following article- original source unknown

18th Oct 2010 – A new Spanish study has highlighted the role played by vultures in reducing energy consumption in Spain, saving the annual energy use of an estimated 9,000 homes and preventing 193,000 tons of CO2 from being released in the atmosphere. Spanish livestock farmers produces 380,000 tons of carrion, whose incineration involves a high energy cost. An adult vulture consumes some three kilos of meat a week, with all vultures in Spain consuming some 10,000 tonnes a year. Unfortunately the strict EU rules, as a result of mad cow’s disease, force many farmers to incinerate dead animals in official centres at a high cost to both them and in terms of CO2 production. I’d be interested in knowing how much CO2 the vultures would save if and when the EU rules are eventually relaxed.

This is a precis of a report on another blog (La Cronica Verde): (link also on my front page)

http://blogs.20minutos.es/cronicaverde/2010/09/27/los-buitres-ahorran-tanta-energia-como-9-000-familias/

Further discussion from Birdlife International on how they believe the EU rules could be changed:

http://www.fida.es/…/BirdLife%20Amendments%20to%20Commission%20proposal%20on%20.

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?

To the mountains

The Sierra de la Nieves,  which literally translates from the Spanish as  ‘Mountain range of the Snows’, forms part of the Serrania de Ronda and rises dramatically above the surrounding valleys and countryside. The Natural Park covers an area of 30km by 20km, or 18,530 hectares; the peak is the tip of the ‘Torecilla’ at 1,919 metres. Historically, this was a place of refuge for highwaymen and outlaws, but today the Sierra de las Nieves is considered one of the best places in Europe for the study of nature.  The area was studied in the 19th century by Swiss botanist Edmond Boissier and in 1933 by Luis Ceballos;  in 1970 the park was declared a National Hunting Reserve and then in 1995 a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.

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The annual (gonhs) outings to the Sierra de las Nieves have been one of the highlights of the last six years for me; it is a truly wonderful part of the world and the best place I have visited in this region, for the sheer abundance of wildlife. The mountain scenery is spectacular in its own right, but this is a haven for  a rich and diverse flora, which includes many endemic species, more butterflies and other insects than you can count from  a wide variety of species, an array of  birds, many of which breed here and it is home to Ibex, deer and other mammal species as well as reptiles, making this a magical place. The natural park covers  a vast area and a few hours of one day are hardly enough to scratch the surface of what is here.There is so much to find that you can hardly take more than a few steps without discovering a beautiful plant or spotting a bird or being awed by a view, so it’s impossible to go home disappointed, except perhaps that you have to leave at all. Having said that you can camp here too.

11th June 2011

11/6/11-Giant Squill – Scilla peruviana

Arriving at the area recreativo, situated well inside the park, at about 10am it was already sunny but still coolish, perfect weather for walking. There are several options for possible routes to take, illustrated on painted sign boards, but today we knew we were heading for a trail we have taken before that would take us up a mountainside through pine woodland.

11/6/11-Honeysuckle-Lonicera etrusca

11/6/11-Wild Gladiolus- Gladiolus illyricus

The first few metres of the track pass through a fairly open grassy area, where there were so many flowers calling to be photographed it would have been easy to spend a couple of hours in that one spot, but there was so much more to see we had to move on. There are a variety of tree species here, mainly pines and oaks, with an ancient species if pine and some special oak trees that have their stronghold here. The lower parts of the woodland we were walking through is comprised mainly of large Monterey Pines – Pinus radiata, that would originally have been deliberately planted. Higher up this introduced species gives way to the indigenous Pinsapo Pine-  Abies pinus. There are some huge ancient specimens of the Pinsapo in places within the park and many more young trees have been planted and nurtured to ensure its continued survival.

11/6/11-Spanish Fir or Pinsapo Pine-Abies pinsapo

Foliage of pinsapo pine

In 1837, during one of his exploratory visits to the south of the Iberian Peninsula, the Swiss Botanist Edmond Boisser discovered a new species of tree: Abies Pinsapo, popularly known as the Pinsapo pine or Spanish fir. Found only in the southern mountains of Andalucia and in the north of Morocco, botanists discovered that the pinsapo had been around since the Tertiary geological time period – predating  the Ice Age. The tree can grow up to 30m tall and live as long as 200 years. It has tiny needle-like leaves, which are extremely sharp and cylindrical in shape, and although this foliage appears lightweight, it throws out a very dense shade on the ground. 

We followed the track as it wound up the mountain slope, carefully negotiating the network of exposed tree roots criss-crossing the path. We stopped a few times to try to see birds we could hear calling or caught glimpses of flitting around in the branches above us that were largely species of Tit, Great Tit, Blue Tit,Coal Tit and Crested Tit but also Chaffinches and Chiffchaff (maybe Iberian) with limited success. Reaching a spot on the track where an opening in the trees allowed sight down  a slope we had more luck. There were a couple of large, dead trees here where we had a Serin singing, a Chiffchaff, a Great Tit with a beak full of food and best of all a beautiful male Redstart. It was apparent that the birds here were all still in the process of raising families, a good couple of weeks behind those at our lower altitude.

A little further on we stopped for a refreshment break and across the valley saw a flock of Chough take to the air; 50-60 birds were estimated and we found out later that other members of our party exploring over there had watched them flushed out by a pair of Golden Eagles.

11/6/11-Pigs living wild

Sadly we missed the Eagles in action and had to settle for a nearer sighting of a Booted Eagle (LP) and in the valley below us a family of pigs, which several people wanted to turn into wild boar, but although one of them was dark coloured, the other was very beige!

11/6/11-Pinsapo pines and sculpted rock

We climbed a little higher, rounding a bend onto a more level section of the trail where it loops around the side of the mountain. We upset a pair of Nuthatch here that were at great pains to let us know how much they resented our presence with much fierce scolding. A bird was singing too, but we did not recognise the song until we heard it again later and saw it was that of a male Redstart. Standing still for a few minutes to listen, I also had a very close view of a Crested Tit foraging in vegetation just a metre or so away. Moving on to catch up with the others I heard more scolding, this time from a Wren that had a very large larva,( or is it a slug?) in its bill, so large I’m amazed it could get any sound out at all.

11/6/11-Wren waiting to take in an enormous meal for a lucky chick

On the opposite side of the track more scolding – this time from the Nuthatches again that clearly had their nest near the top of another dead tree. Then more telling off from a very nearby Robin, whose picture I tried to wait  for as I could already see this year’s Christmas card of him perched in a Pinsapo… no luck there though.

At this point we realised that we had long been deserted by anyone who had any idea where we may be heading and tempting thought the trail ahead appeared, we decided we had to get off it and take a ‘short-cut’, (not my words!), that involved scaling a very ill-defined loose shale track, probably made by sure-footed goats, that would take us higher up our mountain and meet up with the surfaced track that would take us back down to the bottom of it.

11/6/11-Nuthatch taking food into their nest in a dead tree

The track passed around the dead tree where the nuthatches had their nest and I couldn’t resist stopping for a few minutes to watch them.

11/6/11-We were headed for the top of this slope above the old Pinsapo

Although parts of the track felt a bit loose and hazardous, it was beautiful, with flowering plants, shrubs and trees set amongst weathered and lichen-covered rocks – a perfectly artlessly designed rock garden.

2/6/06 -Some of the flora growing on this very slope 5 years ago

2/6/06-Blue Hedgehog broom -erinacea anthyllis. Evident today but almost at the end of its flowering

11/6/11-Still in full flower the lovely Common White Rockrose-Helianthemum appeninum

11/6/11- A small quiet flower with a wonderful name- Melancholy Toadflax- Linaria tristis

11/6/11-The lovely Grey-leaved Cistus-Cistus albidus, whose pretty flowers resemble crumpled paper is very attractive to insects

Approaching the top of the slope we had this wonderful view.

11/6/11- A view from the mountainside framed by pines

 

11/6/11- Part of the view from our picnic spot almost at the top of the mountain

Reaching the top of the slope we stopped to recover from our exertions to eat our lunch and to admire the fantastic views in front of us; panoramas of the mountains and valleys of the Sierra de las Nieves, the wider Serrania de Ronda and way beyond even that – mountain ranges continue to the far horizon and probably beyond.

We did find the road and met up with some of the members of our group that had left us previously to walk to the real top of the mountain as they were on their way down. This was where we discovered that our previously unrecognised singing bird had been a male Redstart; one was singing from the very top of a Pinsapo pine in front of us but growing from lower down the slope, so we had a very good view with binoculars. It was too far away to photograph well though.

11/6/11-Golden gorse was flowering prolifically

This part of the mountain is completely different to the side we had just left; to one side of the winding track there were high rocky cliffs while on the other side the land fell away and was well vegetated with Pinsapos pines, shrubs including gorse, cistus and lavender. This is the habitat preferred by the Black Redstarts, Rock Buntings and Wheatears that often choose clefts in the rocks to nest in.

We had several sights of Black Redstart males singing from the tops of the rocks on the ridge and a lovely view of a pair of Rock Bunting that sat on a rock while being summoned by their offspring perched in a small Pinsapo pine above them. One of the pair flew up the slope to a rock very close to us and posed quite nicely, I think it was the female as her colouring, although similar to that of a male was  slightly more subdued

11/6/11-Rock Bunting – Emberiza cia

There was a lucky, very brief glimpse of a male Northern Wheatear here too.

11/6/11-Northern Wheatear (m)-Oenanthe oenanthe

The afternoon had become much warmer and as we reached the bottom of the slope where there are areas of grass and wildflowers we began to see butterflies. At first just a few, all flying around rapidly, we quickly noted Marsh Fritillary, Spanish Gatekeeper, Marbled White, Common Blue, Clouded Yellow, Cleopatra and Meadow Brown, none of which settled for long enough to photograph. Further on there were more, a Wall Brown basking on the road, numbers of Marsh Fritillaries, a Black-veined White, a Small Skipper and a lovely Scarce Swallowtail that glided gracefully around flowering shrubbery but didn’t stop.

11/6/11-Black-veined White on Scabious

11/6/11- Marsh Fritillary

I would have loved to be able to stay chasing butterflies for longer, but it was time to go home and rest up the anticipated aching muscles.

Final bird, butterfly and moth sightings for the day from our group as a whole:

Birds:

Golden Eagle(2), Short-toed Eagle, Booted Eagle (lt ph), Griffon Vultures, Chough (50-60), Jay, Blackbird,Cirl Bunting, Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Bonelli’s Warbler,Chiffchaff, Nuthatch (pair), Stonechat, Wheatear, Black-eared Wheatear. Wren, Black Redstart, Redstart, Goldfinch, Serin, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Crested tit, Rock Bunting, Woodlark, Red- legged Partridge, Woodpigeon, White Wagtail, Grey Wagtail (pair), 2 x Whitethroat feeding young, Lesser Whitethroat, Sub-alpine Warbler, Melodious Warbler and driving home we added Kestrel and 2 Rock Thrush, probably Blue but we couldn’t stop on the bendy main road!

Butterflies:

Black-veined White  Aporia crataegi ;Queen of Spain Fritillary Issoria lathonia;Common Blue Polyommatus icarus; Lorquins Blue Cupido lorquinii;
Marsh Fritillary Euphydras aurinia; Meadow Brown Maniola jurtina;
Escher’s Blue Agrodiaetus escheri;Painted Lady Cynthia cardui; Small White Pieris rapae; Bath White Pontia daplidice; Scarce Swallowtail Iphiclides podalirius;Spanish Festoon Zerynthia rumina; Spanish Gatekeeper Pryonis bathseba;Wall Brown Lasiommata megera; Iberian Marbled White Melanargia lachesis;Brown Argus Aricia cramera; Large Grizzled Skipper Muschampia proto;Lulworth Skipper Thymelicus acteon; Small Skipper Thymelicus sylvestris;Mallow Skipper Carcharodus alceae; Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas;Cardinal Fritillary:- Argynnis pandora; Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria; Grayling Hipparchia semele; Clouded Yellow Colias crocea; Cleopatra Gonepteryx cleopatra

and Moths:-

Forester sp.  Adcita sp.:-  A lovely metallic green winged day-flying moth
Royal Burnet Zygaena sarpedon;Synaphe moldavica:–  Everywhere in the grassy meadows; the most common moth around.
Hummingbird Hawkmoth Macroglossum stellatarumChrysocrambus dentuellus:–  Several of these well marked moths  seen on the stalks of grasses

More butterfly pictures can be seen in Pages – Fauna -Butterfly id

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