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Butterflies and Moths of the Spanish Pyrenees

Butterflies and moths took star billing on my latest tour for Naturetrek to my old stamping grounds of the Spanish Pyrenees, and both groups lived up to hopes and expectations. Around 110 species of butterfly were recorded by the group over the week, a good number especially given the somewhat late summer after a cold winter, and also given the very intense hail storm which had moved through the high mountain areas just before our visit, giving landscape, plants and insects alike a battering. Spectacular species like Swallowtail and Spanish Swallowtail vied for our attention with a sometimes confusing array of fritillaries, brown and blues, and in places (including even the floriferous garden of our accommodation at Casa Sarasa in Berdun) the numbers of the commoner species such as Marbled White, Great Banded Grayling and Cleopatra were simply overwhelming.

 

Moths were represented by day-fliers such as Burnets, of which we encountered at least ten species, Foresters, Clearwings and of course Hummingbird Hawk-moths, together with the much larger number of night-fliers which visited our moth traps.

Moth trapping requires a licence in Spain, but Casa Sarasa has one (and a trap), and this covered the two additional traps brought over by tour participants. The final tally of moths will take some while to compile, but the ‘big game’ highlights included Privet, Lime, Oak, Spurge, Spanish Pine, Elephant, Small Elephant and Striped Hawks; several Goat Moths, Leopard Moth, a selection of Catocala Red and Yellow Underwings, and numerous Passengers.  Add to that moths unknown or very rare to us in the UK, including ‘counterpart species’ to ours, such as Spanish Character and Spanish Least Carpet, which have evolved into unique local species isolated from the rest of Europe by the formidable barrier of the Pyrenees.

But the tour delivered in so many other ways as well. Other insects – beetles (longhorns, jewels, rhinoceros, stags, chafers and magnificent oil beetles to highlight just a few groups); flies (including horseflies with eyes shining like green beacons, and parasitic tachinids scuttling around on many a Hogweed umbel); bees and wasps; bugs in a variety of forms including the unusual predatory Flattened Assassin-bug; dragonflies, cicadas and ant-lions… the list is almost endless, but will be as complete as possible for the tour report in due course.

  

Spiders too were reaping the rewards of this insect bonanza, many was the time we spotted an insect incongruously still on a flower, only to see on closer examination it had been captured and killed by a crab-spider, themselves in a range of colours from white to yellow and pink, lending camouflage to the killer-in-waiting.

Lower down, the flowers were well past their best, but in the high-level meadows and pastures, 1500m or more up, the displays where simply outstanding. Along with the scenery, geology, food, weather and company!

 

What were the highlights from such a cornucopia of delights? Well, birds have not yet been mentioned and indeed were probably overlooked (maybe even underlooked?) as we concentrated on the creatures around our feet. But occasionally lifting eyes skyward did almost always produce Griffon Vultures, and often Short-toed Eagles and Red and Black Kites. But on our first full day, one flypast assumed a very different shape, the cruciform, giant-falcon outline of a Lammergeier, the vulture with the biggest wingspan, reaching as much as 3m. It drifted over us, effortlessly, with never even a twitch of the wings, and was in my recent experience at least a rather unusual sighting down at Berdun.

Lammergeier is one natural icon of the Pyrenees. Another is the Spanish Moon Moth, which was a highlight of my May trip there. Too late for them in July, or at least the adults: but the huge, colourful, finger-sized caterpillar we located presumably searching for somewhere to pupate was just as good.

High on most peoples’ wish list for this trip is one of the largest European butterflies, a double-strength swallowtail, the Two-tailed Pasha. We usually visit the areas with its food-plant Strawberry-tree, and almost invariably fail to find it. Or if we do find it, usually ‘only’ the admittedly spectacular caterpillar. But on the way back to the airport, a final highlight was awaiting us in the Pre-Pyrenees, an adult Pasha, sitting proud on a pile of dog-poo….

That just leaves my own personal highlight of highlights. For forty years I have scoured the beechwoods of Europe for a plant so mysterious and unpredictable its presence is usually spoken about in hushed tones and generalities. And failed always to find it. One lunch-break, while others visited the café, I strolled through a dense dark beechwood, when a serendipitous shaft of sunlight lit up the woodland floor about five metres from me. And with it the characteristic, colourless, enigmatic (it’s no looker, so it needs to be bigged up!) form of a Ghost Orchid. Botanists’ Holy Grail!

Next challenge of course was refinding it for the anticipatory throng…just a hundred metres from where they were taking coffee, but densely-grown beech trees do all tend to look the same. However, I managed, and I think even the hardened lepidopterists felt privileged to have seen such an unexpected delight. And even found for themselves a second even more diminutive specimen close to the original.

 

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: July – Lower Lodge

Phew!  What a scorcher!  Thank you to the participants of today’s Botany and Bug walk at Lower Lodge, and hope that you enjoyed seeing what is surviving this almost unprecedented dry spell: our last walk six weeks ago followed the last rain recorded in these parts, with no more than a hint of it in the next two weeks’ forecast….

Amazingly a lot is hanging on, and in fact doing rather well considering.  The uncut swathes are full of plants and alive with insects.  A vast contrast to the desert-like parched areas of mown grass.  A lesson to us all in what we can do to help the continued survival of our natural world: natural habitats have natural resistance against environmental stresses.

Insects were out in number and love was certainly in the air!  We rather voyeuristically watched the ‘goings on’ of  various pairs – the stunning Black-and- Yellow Longhorn-beetle; Common Red Soldier (aka Hogweed Bonking) Beetle; and the totally differently positioned Forest ( or Red-legged) Shield-bug.  Following on from this theme, a rather beautiful cache of ladybird eggs was seen glinting in the sun.

Other creatures of interest included several species of butterfly; two sorts of skipper; a long-horned moth;  plus both 5- and 6-spotted Burnet Moths. The egg cases of these beautiful day-fliers are curious affairs, and we were lucky enough to see one clinging to a grass stem.    Caterpillar fans were delighted to see the yellow-and-black Cinnabar Moth larvae out in force, chomping their way through poisonous Ragwort.  In addition a selection of ladybirds, spiders, bees and grasshoppers  made for a varied couple of hours.

We were aware of the presence of microscopically small creatures too – in the form of galls (abnormal growths caused by something living in or on the host plant and causing its cells to enlarge and provide shelter and food for the gall-causer). Oaks are particularly interesting where galls are concerned – in fact in the UK various kinds of Oak support over 50 different kinds of them, on leaves, buds, stems, acorns and sometimes on the trunk. We saw a few of these today – the artichoke;  ram’s-horn; marble; knopper and spangle-galls.  Others were no doubt there had we had longer to search.  And it wasn’t just the Oak, Willows too supported a variety of gall-causing insects and mites.

On the plant front, a favourite was Wild Carrot – an umbellifer loved by many kinds of insect.  The variety we encountered has a tiny red flower in the middle of each umbel which acts as an attractant to other insects to ‘Come on Down and check out my pollen’.  The Jack-Go-to-Bed-At-Noon flower had indeed gone to bed very early, and most were now in rather beautiful seed-head form. Bird’s Foot Trefoil and Scabious provided some colour and we were all interested to listen  to the popping seed heads of the Tufted Vetch.  These were exploding in the heat and dryness, popping their seeds into the air to propagate for next year. Who said plants are silent?

 

Midsummer in the Western Rhodopes: All Kinds of Everything…

For those of us from parts of the world where wildlife is squeezed into ever-smaller patches of the landscape, the Bulgarian Rhodope Mountains are a breath of fresh air, both literally and figuratively, an inspiration for what we should be seeking to recover in our depauperate corners.

Our base was the remote mountain village of Yagodina – a very apt name which means ‘Wild Strawberry’ in Bulgarian: their ripening flavour-bombs sustained us on many a walk, through rocky gorges, flowery meadows, dense woodlands and exposed mountain tops. ‘Mountain weather’ kept us on our toes, but was largely good until the cataclysmic floods which hit the region on the day we left, leading to landslips and road closures.

We were literally eating the landscape, most of the food we consumed being locally produced, relaxing away from the bustle of western European life, among the outstanding wildlife riches that their agricultural and forestry systems support. A true Honeyguide experience: a window into a world where people are part of the environment, not imposed upon it.

The photos show just a small section of the biodiversity, making no apologies for a particular focus on the invertebrates. At these times when evidence is growing about major declines in insect life in Europe, places like the Rhodopes help us remember what the rest should (and hopefully still can) be like.

No names, no commentary. Just diverse wildlife in all its glory. For names and more pictures, a full tour report will be out in due course.

Nature and Culture in Cologne

Why Cologne? Well, the first reason for our trip there was a concert of Russian music at the superb modern concert hall, but it was too good an opportunity to miss to make it a short break by train, and explore an unknown city. First stop of course was the monumentally magnificent cathedral: surely the apogee of gothicry?! Terrifying but inspiring in equal measure, and some lovely modern glass touches.

But as always we also sought out the green spaces, the refuges from the bustle and air quality of the city. One such was the Botanical Garden, five hectares of tranquillity, a short distance from the city centre. Interesting plantings – some formal, some less so, although never over-tidy – and some exciting plants, both native and ornamental kept us occupied for half a day. It could have been much longer!

Labelling was comprehensive, and largely accurate (a bête-noire of every botanist), and the maintenance is clearly based on good ecological and environmental principles: Rabbits grazing the lawns, and holes in the Hostas speak volumes! As did the Red Squirrels, noisy Marsh Frogs, dragonflies and a whole host of other insects….

Best of all, it was free, and clearly well-used and well-loved, by locals and visitors alike. Just as it should be. Just as anything which supports civilised thinking and behaviour in an uncertain world should be. Well done Cologne!

And then was the municipal Melaten cemetery, a little further out, more than 40 hectares and 55,000 graves, set amongst old mixed woodland. Again, the site is tended, but not in a precious manner: it is as much nature reserve and country park as last resting place. Buzzards were breeding in the treetops, while the diversity of insects – a mix of familiar and unknown to us – again kept us occupied for several hours….

Every city has places like these. Every city-dweller needs places like these, the source of physical and mental well-being as well as refuge for the wildlife itself from the rigours of modern countryside management and overdevelopment. Thank you Cologne for providing such places free of charge, which taken together with the music, architecture, food and beer we sampled, made it a perfect city break.

 

 

King George V Playing Field : the new wildflower meadows #wildwivenhoe

After several years of persuasion, cajoling and  guilt-tripping, Wivenhoe finally has its new hay meadows. I may return to this in future posts, how and why it took so long, and why the need for serious positive action from Wivenhoe Town Council became so imperative: the reasons are not altogether positive. But for now, let us celebrate what looks like becoming a great success…

This afternoon, we took a wander along to the KGV wildflower meadows, and were delighted to see how it is coming along after the first couple of months of no mowing. The patchwork of grasses is developing well, with perhaps 10 or 12 species in flower, each with a different variation of the green theme.

The Buttercups and Dandelions, so noticeable a month ago, have now largely gone over. But their role in nectar and pollen supply for insects (and in the colour palette for us) has been taken over by other species, including some good patches of Bird’s-foot-trefoil and Lesser Stitchwort, neither of which we had noticed in the close-mown sward previously. Equally exciting, albeit not yet in flower, was a clump of Lady’s Bedstraw, always a sign of high-quality grassland, and not at all common around Wivenhoe.

In just ten minutes, we recorded both Small Heath and Common Blue butterflies; Silver Y and various grass moths; and a variety of other insects, including Thick-thighed Beetle. All in all, a very promising start….

#WildWivenhoe Botany & Bug Walks: June – 41 Acres

’41 Acres’, ‘The bit behind the Allotments’, ‘the southern end of Wivenhoe Heath’, whatever you like to call it, was certainly an interesting venue for our June’s Botany and Bug walk. Thank you to everyone who joined us, especially the hay-fever sufferers who found it challenging but nevertheless enjoyable…

The main reason for hay-fever stress was pollen from the many and varied grasses which inhabit this area – land formerly gravel pits but which is now filled in and in recent times been allowed to do its own thing. On an early summer morning, slightly damp and very humid it was certainly lush and fertile, but slightly worryingly, unless this land is managed, it is in danger of becoming too overgrown and losing its wildlife interest.

So, what did we see? The aforementioned grasses, with their wonderful English names – the peppery-tasting False Oat-grass, Cock’s-foot and Yorkshire Fog – were all looking splendid.

 

Pretty pea-flowers of various types were easily spotted, including tares, vetches, medicks and the beautiful Grass Vetchling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A botanical highlight had to be the Southern Marsh-orchids, maybe thirty of their purple spikes visible among the dense undergrowth. This is one of the species that will eventually be pushed out if nothing is done to control its neighbours, as has probably already happened to some of the other orchids found here until three years ago.

 

 

 

 

Insects were out in force. The brightly-coloured Cardinal beetle was easy to see, but other more camouflaged beasties were equally interesting: the rather peculiar European Cinchbug family clinging to a grass leaf, the bagworm moth encased in its suit of dead grass stems, and the unidentifiable but undeniably cute saw-fly caterpillar.

A couple of species of ladybird were noticed – a tiny vegetarian 24-spot, one of the smaller types, and in contrast the much larger Harlequin, a voracious eater of aphids, but unfortunately also other ladybirds. Watch out Mr 24 spot!

Thick-thighed Beetles were looking polished and sparkling in the sunshine, but the piece de resistance had to be the fabulous Fox Moth, spotted  by Glyn.

Our next walk will be on Sunday 15th July – a different date to that advertised, (we wouldn’t want to compete with The Tendring Show), at Lower Lodge.  Meeting place will be the Outdoor Gym, easily accessible from Dixon Way, or the railway crossing from the trail, or the Rosabelle woodland car park. If you would like to book a place, please contact Jude (jmgibson1959@btinternet.com 07503240387).  Looking forward to seeing some of you there.