Saturday, 18 April 2015

In search or orchids and chameleons - Barbate

There are differences between Italy and Spain:
Italy has few birds but many lizards; Spain has few lizards but many birds - coincidence?

Italy has many orchids; Spain, relatively few. We saw hardly any on our trip a couple of years ago, and none on our travels this time until the last day when we parked on a sandstone cliff and searched the apparently likely places, in clearings with rosemary, sun rose and heather, and a strange plant called Dipcadi serotinum.
Foolish we were, until we moved into the shadows of the pine woods and finally found some sawfly orchids.

Nearby were occasional sombre bee orchids.
- if sawflies seek out sawfly orchids, what is the sombre bee orchid trying to attract?
 Of course - sombre bees!
Sod's law - when we returned to the car we saw plenty of sawfly orchids around the carpark - we'd been looking in the wrong habitat.

The final quarry on the holiday was chameleon (the common or Mediterranean chameleon, chameleo chameleon) , although it was early in the year - they prefer not to emerge until April. We read that they live in white broom in this south-western part of Spain, so we dutifully checked some of the many bushes between Barbate and Cape Trafalgar and found just two - grumpy looking buggers they were too.
Best found by looking for their silhouettes on branches against the light,they are indeed well camouflaged - so they don't seem to change colour. Their green-and-white patterning matched the foliage and flowers perfectly.
You know that they have seen you, but unlike lizards they are not speedy movers, so put on a panic-stricken slow-motion creep, all the while giving a baleful glare, as if disgusted at being disturbed.
And just look at those feet - superb!

The holiday was complete - we couldn't ask for more. It's a great area, full of fascination - well worth a visit.

Other incidentals:

Ubiquitous Sardinian warbler

Ditto serin

Red-striped oil beetles Berberomeloe majalis


And a monarch - crowning glory!

Monday, 30 March 2015

With a little help from the guide

You go on holiday, you've done the research, a bag of reference books and optics is hauled onto the aircraft, then thrown into the hire car, and the satnav is plugged into the cigarlighter socket.

Likely habitats are picked from the paper maps sourced from Amazon, and then you realise that the Ibiza isn't going to get you there. The road has petered out into a rocky track.

 You take solace with the birds around you - your first greenfinch of the year,
and a little owl looks down too wisely.

Serins and corn buntings rattle all around....

.... and the odd Spanish Festoon flutters by.

 But it's OK - you have a plan (in fact printed sheets with lots of plans).  You have armed yourself with the marvellous Birding Cadiz guide, provided free online by John Cantelo from Canterbury and Alcala de los Gazules depending on the time of year.

He provides detailed information on all of the best sites in the area, with careful driving instructions and notes on the best ventas to visit, as well as comments on the birds to be seen. It was an invaluable addition to the holiday, and was recommended to a number of birders of various nationalities that we met on the way. 

For example, he takes you down a track from an obscure village, to a hillside that is a "reliable site for little bustard". Sure enough, you hear a raspberry from the middle of the hillside - something you've listened out for on the whole trip, without hearing. A few minutes later you see:

Wonderful - another daft chicken-sized bird, and well worth the suggested donation to the bird charity of your choice (SEO for us).

John's 120-odd pages also led us to La Janda (black-winged kite, spanish imperial eagle, night heron, larks, cranes, glossy ibis and even five purple gallinules).

We were guided behind Bolonia to a hide facing a crag with nesting griffon and Egyptian vultures, dwarfing the local ravens.

There should be a copy of the guide in the top drawer of every hotel bedside table in the area - we soon started to call it "the bible".

Sunday, 29 March 2015

As I flew out one mid-spring morning

As we flew into Gibraltar one mid-spring morning I was reminded of our holiday on the Rock a few years ago when we stayed in the observatory for a few nights.

In my bag was a much-loved copy of Laurie Lee's book As I Walked Out One Mid-Summer Morning, telling of his walk across Spain in earlier, tougher times. He described  the Rock, "trailing a perpetual plume of cloud, looking like a stricken battleship on fire".

Our plan was to tour around the Costa de la Luz, and as usual we didn't get very far - not to Cadiz,  and certainly not to Donana or Seville. There's always too much to see on the doorstep. Including Africa which looks incredibly close.

 Migration here depends greatly on the wind-direction, as the birds crossing the Straits are gently blown towards Gibraltar by westerlies or towards the Costa de la Luz in easterlies. The Levanter was blowing on the day of our arrival, and we were pleased to watch black kites and short-toed eagles flying in low over the pines and sand dunes.
 The birds have to run the gauntlet of wind farms along this notoriously windy coast, and whether these pose a serious risk to them can only be answered by scientific recording - unfortunately the owners of wind farms and surrounding land have a vested interest in this, so information is scarce but estimates of kills are high.

One project involved researchers warning turbine operators of arriving migrants, and the blades were turned off, which is intriguing but not a long-term solution and of no help at night of course.

We stayed at the excellent Montecote, across the valley from Vejer and were centrally placed for a wide variety of habitats, all filled with birds.... hills, farmland, marshes, pine woods, rice paddies, lagoons and beaches - even in the towns you kept your eyes to the skies, watching overflying swallows and martins, vultures, eagles and storks.

Vejer has its own colony of lesser kestrels, and a group of about 30 bald ibises that have been reintroduced to the area but which have independently chosen their own nesting place -
   - on a cliff by a busy road, 
... conveniently placed for birders....
...and for litter-picking / nesting-material-gathering in a car park.

Is that really a used nappy?  You're the rarest breeding bird in Europe - have some self-respect!

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Winter thrushes

'Tis a joy to find birds unexpectedly - in this case in a field next to the main road near Ash, where about 1,000 fieldfares and a sprinkling of redwings, pulling worms from the sodden ground. And in the background in another field.... lapwings and gulls aplenty. Must be good pickings.

The fieldfares were very smart with well-streaked chests, and it's not long till it's time to return to the north to breed.

Not to be eclipsed(!) the flanks of the few redwings shone,

....and their chests were proudly streaky too.

Talking of chests.....

The previous week we had a pleasant sunny stroll around Pluckley and Little Chart, to see where HE Bates wrote his books (and we're not necessarily talking about Pop Larkin here - check out his marvellous prose in Through the Woods).
It's a pleasant area and surrounded by orchards, where unpicked apples had fallen unwanted from the trees, to be scavenged by ....
.... yes, fieldfares and redwings. The noise was tremendous as they wheeled in flocks when disturbed.

Too much like hard work for some.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Costa nature

Just for the record, here's a few pics of wildlife encountered in a warm October trip to the Costa Brava, not going far but just chilling.  


I was pleased to nail a Bath white, after much leaping around after the flighty things.
Swallowtails wafted along the well-marked trials - supreme butterflies that had a good year in southern England this year.
Below is a swallowtail caterpillar crossing the road. It gets upset if disturbed, rearing up and displaying two aggressive prongs (or in scientific terminology, they "evert their osmeterii") and pong.

This, by contrast, is a tree grayling - quiet and camouflaged.

Think this is Iberian lizard. Far fewer lizards here than in Italy, where they are everywhere.

Clouded yellows were common flying over fields of crops.

Also remarkably common were long-tailed blues that frequented low grassland and verges, as well as over fields, not noticeably using pea plants.

The star of the week was, however, the two-tailed pasha that was seen flying around the Jardi Botanic de Cap Roig, clearly attracted to the fruits of palm trees and strawberry trees but maddeningly impossible to photograph.

Above is a narcissus that flowers in autumn, and is common, unlike the unidentified poached egg plant below, found in the marsh under the flightpath of Barcelona airport.

And finally, a death's head hawk moth, sadly deceased, that was found in the street of Calella de Palafruguel.