Sunday 29 March 2020

Valencia diaries, final instalment: Sunday-Tuesday, days 6-8

Sunday 15 March – hills above Pego
It was a day of various stops for pottering or particular wildlife highlights, with sites for particular orchid species often prompting the locations. The first of these, in an open area having driven up through woods, was for conical orchid Orchis conica. The orchids were rather underwhelming, though the general area was so nice it hardly mattered. The supporting cast of flowers, outshining the orchid, included the silver-leafed pea argyrolobium, star-of-Bethlehem and a red-flowered houndstongue. A broomrape didn't seem to fit any in the book and Pau checked with a friend who confirmed it as Orobanche lastiquama, parasitic on rosemary, and not in the book. A trilling sound revealed at least two crested tits that fed for a while in an open tree. Beyond them, Christina picked up on two distant raptors which, as they neared us, proved to be short-toed eagles.
Cynoglossum cheirifolium

We moved onto Vall de Gallinera where orchards of cherries in blossom were a delight and prompted many photos.

Moving on, we stopped at the Mirador del Xap (pronounced 'chap'). We looked down onto manna ash and a bright blue-grey male blue rock thrush. A prostrate tiny white labiate – I called it Teuchrium alpestre at the time, but later study showed it was Sideritis romana and white rock-rose were new flowers. The seriousness of the Spanish government's state of emergency in response to coronavirus was brought home by a Guardia Civil vehicle questioning what we were doing out and about rather than being confined indoors.

Provence hairstreak (Pau Lucio).

Our next stop included our picnic lunch in the countryside somewhere in the Vall d’Ebo. Pau caught a Provence hairstreak which after release then settled on the ground and there were many flowers of Centaurea pullata. We'd paused here as there's a pond tucked out of sight, well off-road. The pond was alive with frogs and the buzz of many bees landing alongside white-flowered water crowfoot. We couldn't find the hoped-for winter damselfly, though recently-emerged red-veined darters perched helpfully still in the warm sunshine.

 Red-veined darter (Pau Lucio).

Moving on, next stop was a roadside where Pau knew there would be Italian man orchids, more typical than the single undersized specimen at Xap, and large numbers of the yellow-edged Ophrys lucentina. Grass-leaved buttercup Ranunculus gramineus was a nice find here. Then there was a brief photo-stop for a large, deep pink pea: Lathyrus pulcher (= L. tremolsianus).

At the next roadside stop unusual seed pods were on noted, twisted on Scorpiurus and a spiral on large disc medick. A pristine swallowtail fed on a bloom of pitch trefoil. A very large pink snapdragon was later identified as Antirrinum controversum (also called A. barrelieri) and a tiny yellow one as Linaria oblongifolia subsp. aragonensis – the photos on for the latter were taken here at Vall de Gallinera. Under some dense rosemary, we looked at the scarce and local Ophrys dyris[1]

Our final stop was by a hillside that looked like any other, where Pau knew we could find Orchis olbiensis, the Iberian version of early purple orchid. They were in a range of shades of pink plus one that was almost pure white.

Monday 16 March – at Hotel Casa Babel
The curfew for everyone to stay inside really kicked in today. Dawn and I fetched belongings left in the minibus in the hotel's secure car park a couple of small streets away, and even for that Gemma on reception was cautious, though the remote control for the car park at least established a good reason to be out. We heard a loudspeaker announcement in Spanish, and I could make out enough to hear that it was stressing the need to stay inside. So that's what we did all day, though I did walk to the nearby supermarket for essential supplies, namely chocolate. Some did a little birdwatching from the hotel's roof or took the air in the hotel's courtyard, until blue sky turned to clouds and it started to rain. At least we'd missed the worst day, weather-wise. Pau joined us for dinner - essential work for him, of course.

Tuesday 17 March – return
We had an early breakfast at 7:15 to allow a departure at 8:15. Traffic was light as we returned to the airport, having first topped up the minibus with fuel. The airport was relatively quiet, with many people wearing face masks despite the widespread advice that they are ineffective. Karin & Brennan safely returned to Germany. The rest of us were on the same flight as we expected to be on, though now called an easyJet ‘rescue’ flight with a new flight number and new boarding passes. We returned to Gatwick and to self-isolation and social distancing as measures to tackle coronavirus were tightened back in the UK.

[1] Dyris is the name given by Roman naturalist Pliny to the mountains of the Moroccan Atlas.

Saturday 28 March 2020

Valencia diaries: Saturday, day 5

Saturday 14 March – El Fondo Natural Park
Jillian left for home this morning, partly as El Fondo is a place she visits from home and on account of wider coronavirus developments. All cafes and restaurants were shut today and until further notice, a reaction to growing fears about the spread of Covid-19.

We had an early start, eight o'clock, for a longer journey today, south on the motorway past Alicante and the skyscrapers of Benidorm. Part of El Fondo that previous Honeyguide groups had visited was not open, a coronavirus casualty, so the first stop was to another new wetland called Paratje Natural Municipal del Clot de Galvany, adjacent to a typical coastal collection of apartments and houses. Winter rains meant a rich mix of ruderal plants, including dark-centred tolpis, Fagonia cretica, joint pine and bright patches of purple vipers bugloss. The first hide overlooked a lagoon that seemed to be under restoration, though it still had three cattle egrets and half a dozen wintering black redstarts. From the second hide there were red-crested pochards and little grebes. The third and final hide had the best selection, especially at least three penduline tits feeding acrobatically on a tamarisk. An Iberian woodpecker called loudly and landed briefly. A snipe and a kingfisher were both close but quite tough to find until lined up in a telescope.

Our usual routine of finding a café was replaced by a stop at a service station, which combined re-fuelling and a loo stop. The shop there was shut, and I paid the lady who was wearing surgical gloves through an after-hours kind of partition.

Slender-billed gull at Santa Pola (Pau Lucio).

We moved on to the saltpans of Santa Pola, viewed from a layby by a square tower erected to keep watch for Arab pirates. Flamingos were immediately obvious and there was a single great white egret. A small lagoon on the other side of the road had an excellent selection of waders, including spotted redshanks, redshanks, black-tailed godwits, ruff and black-winged stilts, plus a yellow wagtail. Our second Santa Pola stop had lagoons behind a screen, with suitable viewing slots. The many avocets were somewhat outshone by elegant slender-billed gulls, upending as they sought food. Two Kentish plovers showed well on a shingle island.

We arrived at El Fondo at lunchtime, no coincidence as it has lots of picnic tables in the shade. We ate picnics and drank coffee brought by Pau. Two red-knobbed coots and marbled ducks swam on the lagoon by the picnic tables, both species part of a reintroduction/re-stocking programme.

There was plenty to see and we spent the afternoon here. There were many Iberian water frogs on the edge of a stone-lipped pond. On the first lagoon were two purple swamp-hens, feeding in the open. From the boardwalk over the lagoon was a very close red-knobbed coot: its blue-grey beak was a lovely feature seen close to. On the walkway's uprights were three shed larval skins of dragonflies, probably from the red-veined darters that occasionally showed over the water. There was also a very good view of a glossy ibis, and also of Pau’s hat that was caught by a gust of wind and floated away.

 Red-knobbed coot (Pau Lucio).

Moving on, from a small hide – too small for all of our group – were two black-necked grebes in fine plumage. A duck nesting box on stilts had a marbled duck inside it, two on top and about ten around the base.

By the final hide and lagoon there were two very close black-winged stilts, by which a wood sandpiper appeared for a time. A pair of garganeys flew in to join the many shovelers, though didn't stay long on show. We paused to watch a tiny butterfly as we headed back, an African grass blue.

Friday 27 March 2020

Valencia diaries: Friday, day 4

Friday 13 March - Pego Marsh and Gandia
A slightly earlier (8:45) start to meet members of Pau's ringing group, Pit Roig, at Pego Marsh, as they'd set up the mist net before dawn. Driving there through dry paddy fields there were several glossy ibises with the expected little egrets, plus Audouin's gulls standing on a dry field. Juan from Pit Roig had four birds in bags, and Brian, a qualified 'C' ringer, was invited to 'process' them: check rings, measure and weigh. He started with two re-traps, a chiffchaff, released by Dawn, and a Cetti's warbler. The next bird was a new one for Brian: a female bluethroat. Another grade A bird followed: moustached warbler, a generally resident species with an important population added to by wintering birds from the Camargue. There was also a moustached warbler singing, like a slow, relaxed sedge warbler. A pale phase booted eagle flew over, a marsh harrier drifted by and the zip zip zip sound of a fan-tailed warbler preceded its tiny form flying past. Farther away a flock of some 150 glossy ibises was moving around. There was a big patch of a white labiate by where we'd parked, which later study revealed to be Stachys ocymastrum.

Group member Brian rings and releases a moustached warbler.

We drove a short distance to a circuit on foot through part of the marshes and around a small hill. Sue G saw a snake dash through, but despite some searching we didn't see it again. Everyone played hunt the mosquito fish: searching by eye for a tiny fish introduced here in the 19th century. In the end we saw lots in several places. Our first red admiral, a blue-tailed damselfly, more Iberian water frogs and a red-eared terrapin were other finds. We drove to Pego town for our usual coffee stop, returning to where we'd come from for a picnic on the tables under mulberry trees.

The afternoon was at the resort/port of Gandía. We parked by the cafe on the quay, where three stopped for a hot drink, soon catching up with the rest of the group who had walked to the end of the harbour wall. Sandwich terns flew over, but numbers were low compared with Honeyguide's previous visit.  Scanning the sea and sky revealed several gannets and cormorants, then a surprise as a great skua flew past. It looked like a quiet day generally and I had thoughts of leaving early, but then a trawler appeared in the distance, followed by a cloud of seabirds. Those birds included several gannets and many Audouin's gulls, all getting steadily closer. As the trawler come into harbour the group of gulls broke up, with a couple of lesser black-backed gulls and a Mediterranean gull settling on the sea.

There was much conversation back at the minibus and at the hotel later about the developing coronavirus situation, with news of a further spread at home and in Spain.

Gulls follow a fishing boat into Gandía harbour.

Thursday 26 March 2020

Valencia diaries: Thursday, day 3

Thursday 12 March – Mediterranean garden and Calpe
We had a relaxed departure as our first destination wasn't open until 10 o'clock. The L'Albarda garden, not far from Dénia, is a rich man's project: an Italianate garden that failed when originally planted but now developed with Mediterranean species adapted to survive in the local climate. Our guide, Àngel, showed us around and tolerated the wildlife digressions with patience. These started as soon as we arrived with singing firecrest, blackcap and chiffchaff and displaying serins. The clipped hedges of myrtle, trained wisteria and bougainvillea and the other features were elegant, though there was more formal garden I'd prefer to see. However Àngel's assertion of the wildlife-friendly, pesticide-free management was fair. Highlights included a geranium argus around a pot of pelargoniums, Cleopatra butterflies and Iberian water frog, though these were topped by the horseshoe whip-snake that slithered through a shrubbery, evaded Angel's attempt to catch it and disappeared behind a shutter on the main building. A dark booted eagle flew over, showing well its 'landing lights' on the leading edges of its wings.

Another area was natural-looking with native species, even though it was actually constructed with local rocks, with flowers such as narrow-leaved cistus, large Mediterranean spurge and houndstongue, over which flew our first swallowtail butterfly of the holiday. On a pond near the entrance we looked at the egg-laying scars of willow emerald damselfly on oleander. To find these on oleander is unfamiliar from a UK perspective, though it is a previously documented 'host' according to Adrian Parr from the British Dragonfly Society. We had coffee and cake, and here some in the group saw a red squirrel.

We drove to the coastal resort of Calpe, parked below the Natural Park and between we took our packed lunches to the picnic area up the hill. Yellow-legged gulls were numerous and tame. Flowers by the ascent included giant fennel, white mignonette, a big patch of paronychia, Fagonia cretica and the very local pink Silene secundiflora, with bold stripes on its calyx. As we picnicked there was a tame Sardinian warbler in the bushes by the shelter.
Asteriscus maritimus
Nearby was a giant orchid, past its best; much showier were big yellow patches of Asteriscus (or Pallenis) maritimus as we looked around an open area by viewpoints over the sea. On the rocks below were shags, of the Mediterranean race of course, a generally scarce sub-species but not so here today as there were 13 of them.

We descended and drove the short distance to yet another pocket nature reserve, some open scrub well used by people and, from the rootings, by wild boars. At last there were some galactites – Mediterranean field thistle – in flower and Pau located some mirror orchids. Wild gladiolus was obvious and there was a nice-looking giant orchid by the boardwalk. A report of pignut (an English umbellifer) was a puzzle: it was a name half-remembered correctly as they were Barbary nuts, a pretty blue iris. The boardwalk took us to a platform overlooking a lagoon, once upon a time saltpans for the Romans but now a landscape feature in front of the high rise hotels beyond. Flamingos were present in good numbers, plus a few shelducks and a common sandpiper.

Sue G found an intense red flower on the return walk and later solved the puzzle: scarlet flax from Algeria, though known to occur as a casual in Mediterranean Europe.

View of Calpe, with yellow-legged gull

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Valencia diaries: Wednesday, day 2

Wednesday 11 March - butterfly reserve and micro-reserves for flora
We had a generous breakfast at the hotel at 8am and Pau joined us at nine o'clock to load up picnics, including natty little Casa Babel backpacks, and help to release the minibus from the hotel's parking compound a short distance away.  

We drove to the new butterfly reserve that Pau has been instrumental in setting up, a partnership between butterfly conservation NGO Zerynthia and Gandía Council. The person from the council who was supposed to meet us didn't turn up, but it didn't matter very much. Pau’s vehicle was allowed in and the rest of us walked up the road alongside botanically rich hillsides. Those hillsides had been hit by serious fires in August 2018, and the charred remains of pines and of damaged buildings were evidence of that, though natural regeneration was in full swing. Bright blue beautiful flax and aphyllantes (sometimes called blue grass-lily) mixed with white sage-leaved cistus, splashes of colour from mallow-leaved bindweed, the unusual yellow pea Anthyllis cytisoides, bushes of Phlomis purpurea and two species of Dorycnium. A wood white butterfly and black redstarts added variety.

Honeyguide group at the butterfly reserve
At the reserve's sign Pau described the project and its flagship species, two-tailed pasha, and he immediately found a caterpillar of the pasha on a regenerating wild strawberry tree, the larval food plant. For such a distinctive looking larva - bright green with horns - it was surprisingly well-hidden on a leaf of a similar colour, but we still found two more. Long-tailed blue and Lang's short-tailed blue were two additional butterflies.
Two-tailed pasha on a strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo).
It's in the shade: the splash of white is sunshine on an adjacent leaf.

We had a brief stop at a closed natural history interpretation centre, but it was a poor year for orchids here. Pau introduced us to the local special thyme Thymus piperella, with a strong scent and spicy taste. We walked a short distance in welcome shade as far as an old lime kiln in the pine wood before driving onto Barx for our coffee & loo stop. We had our packed lunches at the picnic tables by the snow well nearby, where for many some shade was welcome. We enjoyed some geckos – three at least – hiding in gaps in the metalwork over the snow well.
Ophrys lucentina

We drove on to another botanical micro-reserve called Pla de Mora set up for one of Europe’s scarcest plants, the pink Silene diclinis. We found these easily enough: it took more effort to put a name to blue dyer’s alkanet growing here. A Cleopatra butterfly flew round as did a Moroccan orange-tip – now called Provence orange-tip. A green hairstreak showed very well. Attempts to watch a short-toed treecreeper soon stopped when an adult Bonelli's eagle came overhead.

A little further on we stopped for a group of some 20 sawfly orchids, already fading with recent heat, and in among these were three examples of the very local Ophrys lucentina[1]. The final stop on this afternoon's circuit was to look at a Thekla lark on a wire over an attractive area of open scrub. Distant telescope views were improved on as it sang overhead. Several serins and stonechats added to the late afternoon scene.

We caught up with two days of wildlife checklists before a delicious dinner: Casa Babel’s food impressed us all week.

[1] Ophrys lucentina (this is the name given in the orchid ‘bible’ by Delforge, which notes that the name is from Alicante, ancient Lucentum of the Romans) is also known as Ophrys dianica. It’s one of a group of Ophrys orchids midway in appearance between sombre bee orchids Ophrys fusca and yellow bee orchid Ophrys lutea.

Tuesday 24 March 2020

Valencia diaries: Tuesday, day 1

Tuesday 10 March - arrival in Valencia.
It was a routine flight from Gatwick, arriving in Valencia at the same time as Karin and Brennan arrived from Germany. Meeting as the airport were local leader Pau and Jillian, who had travelled from her part of Spain and was picked up by Pau a little earlier. Most of us found our way out of the car park in our Europcar minibus then followed Pau's vehicle, with the remainder of the group, south-east towards Valencia's marshes. The paddy fields were poor for birds: draining ahead of rice being planted had started early. Nonetheless, Brian estimated we passed about 300 little egrets, mostly standing around in dry fields.

We parked at the Albufera's visitor centre and climbed the stairs to the elevated viewing area. Lakes with islands held black-winged stilts and shelducks. Turning through 90 degrees, out on the open water were red-crested pochards and Mediterranean gulls mingling with black-headed gulls.

Black-winged stilt tucked in behind a shelduck.
We descended and followed the route that a school group had taken to a large hide, past helpfully labelled trees, such as Aleppo pines, and shrubby vegetation that included phillyrea, sometimes known as false olive though here with the English name of mock privet. We found a chiffchaff and heard several Sardinian warblers. From the hide we were close to the stilts: there was also a little ringed plover and Jill found a ruff. A pale phase booted eagle flew around a few times.

Lunch, a Valencian treat.
Lunch at Restaurant Mateu was a very large Fideuà (a Valencian dish similar to paella but with pasta rather than rice) and a paella, plus salad and puddings.

There was a brief stop to look at water pipits on a muddy field followed by an unsuccessful attempt to see a usually reliable day time roost of night herons. Wren and blackcap in song and a couple of house martins flying over were the best we could do.

Time was moving on, so we set off on the hour's journey to Villalonga. This was the first Honeyguide group at Hotel Casa Babel, so it was good have time to settle in and begin to work out the lie of the land. Pau joined us for a sumptuous dinner: shared starters, quite a choice for main course then a selection of desserts. It was soon time to catch on sleep after early starts.

Valencia: bird ringing sheds light on wetland warbler survival

For many Honeyguiders, one of the highlights of our March Valencia trip is to attend a bird ringing session at Pego Marshes Natural Park. Ou...