El Cau

El Cau is one of the mountains siding our Spanish valley. I don’t really know the pronunciation but given the way this walk began, El Cow would be appropriate; it started heading upwards immediately and that’s the way it continued.

We were out once again with our Monday walking group and El Cau was our target. The initial section on an inclined stony track was not the most pleasant but once we hit the mountain path proper, consisting of classic Spanish rocks, the climbing was at least more enjoyable. I’d have been better without quite so much wine on Sunday evening but social occasions do tend to involve that. Eventually my lungs settled down but not before requesting a transplant into another more sedentary body.

J18_1942  BerniaThere were three summits on what was apparently our 600m ascent, though estimates vary. My lungs say they are in the 600m camp. The weather was sunny but hazy so distance shots were not greatly successful. The weather was very windy, too, and I had to abandon my trusty Tilley hat in favour of a more secure Buff. Just for the record, given the conditions, here’s what we ended up looking at from the final summit of El Cau: the ridge in the distance is the Bernia.

J18_1931  ExposedFor something a little different, I tried snagging a plant looking precariously positioned and dwarfed by the landscape beyond. Precarious it may have been but it seemed to be surviving the gusty winds up top.

Our descent was a bit a of a scratchy slog along a narrow track lined with what we suspect is Kermes Oak (Quercus coccifera), A decidedly prickly oak which seems often to be quite low-level. It was made worse by one patch of ground depositing a few of those infernal tick creatures on a couple of our number. Underhand little blighters but having spotted them everyone was vigilant. They didn’t lighten the mood on the way down, though.

We made it and seem to be tick free. Our lungs may have recovered but beer was definitely needed to help the throats recover.

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Posted in 2018-04 Spain

Els Arcs Nature

During our winter trip to Spain, my right leg suffered from what I believe was an attack of housemaid’s knee. Being an overuse injury, this was likely caused by an over-zealous return to walking in the mountains. A calmer approach to walking during the remainder of that trip to Spain did seem to begin easing it. I am happy to say that the relative inactivity imposed by a so-called English spring appears to have completed the repair and my knee no felt able to return to some enjoyable Spanish walks. I’ll try and take it more gently for this reprise.

_18C1779One of our favoured more gentle walks is a circuit between Castell de Castells and Tarbena. We are in to orchid season and, this walk usually producing some subjects, Francine was keen to check it out. I took my camera along, too, just in case any butterflies posed favourably in the mountain meadows or trackside scrub. This may give a sense of why we like being there.

_18C1631Upon our arrival, it looked as though a walking group might have beaten us to it; there were five or so cars already there. Happily we found room for our rental and set about searching, starting with a few spots that were known to us. There are orchids on the rocky ground right beside the parking area at the beginning of the route, like this Woodcock Orchid (Ophrys scolopax).

_18C1714_18C1728A couple of hundred metres further along the track Francine was a little surprised to find a remaining Giant Orchid (Barlia robertiana), surprised because she thought they were all finished. This one was going over but still worth recording. Standing close by was what looks like a very fresh example of a Man Orchid (Orchis anthropophora), with only the lower blooms out.

_18C1720Leaving Francine snapping the Giant and Man Orchids, I wandered off up a woodland track. A sunny glade looked interesting and, sure enough, there I found a small colony of Orchis olbiensis, something new to me and an orchid for which we haven’t yet found a common name, though it used to be lumped in as a subspecies of Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula). It now enjoys existence in its own right. Bloody taxonomists.

_18C1769Part way around our loop we took a side track down towards a font and here we ran into a plentiful collection of Yellow Ophrys (Ophrys lutea). With their sunny disposition, these really are delightful little plants.

Here was a classic example of why a camera in rucksack is bugger all good when ones favoured subject is not a plant rooted to the spot. A Southern Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides feisthamelii) posed perfectly but quite unexpectedly on a bramble stem. Naturally, it scarpered as I was opening my rucksack. Lesson learned, the camera now assumed its usual position on my monopod over my shoulder – just in case.

J18_1902  Spanish FestoonGood decision, Franco. Although it would have been nice to snag my Southern Scarce Swallowtail, I could regard that as a nice to have, since I already have them in my collection. I would have been pig sick if I had missed what fluttered into view next. I swear my heart missed a beat. I chased the first one for some time, never really getting a clear shot. I wasn’t really satisfied. Mercifully, a little further on a second example posed more favourably. This is something I’ve always wanted, a Spanish Festoon. I did actually get one in Andalucia two years ago but that fleeting specimen had its wings closed. Now they were open.

_18C1700Once the Spanish Festoon disappeared we were free to continue. Or final patch was the mother lode of more Yellow Ophrys but with a handful of Dull Ophrys (Ophrys fusca) plants scattered about for good measure.

Francine was happy with her collection of six orchids on the day and I was certainly happy to finally snag a Spanish Festoon with its wings open. No wonder we like this walk.

Posted in 2018-04 Spain

Clot de Galvany

I’ve been keeping an eye on the weather forecast to try and time a run down to see hw wildlife is doing at the Parque Natural el Hondo, south of Alicante. Today looked good so we left around 09:00, which would put us at Hondo by about 10:30.

Things looked quiet at first with just Common Bluetails (Ischnura elegans); swarms of ‘em but “just” Common Bluetails. Then, from right beside the lake, I scared a darter up into its maiden flight. At this time of year it just had to be a Red-veined Darter (Sympetrum fonscolombii) but I followed it and snagged it just to conform what I already knew.

With Francine rapidly passing through the hot spot for mosquitos, we wandered along the excellent boardwalk with nothing further of interest.. On our return trip Francine did spot a lonely single Lesser Emperor (Anax parthenope) but it disappeared before I could see it.

J18_1876  Sympetrum fonscolombii femaleThe mudflats on the other side of the lake produced more immature Red-veined Darters but that was essentially it for our visit. The species were not surprising but I really expected to see more activity, particularly on the Emperor front.

I had been planning to investigate a new location that was apparently home to Winter Damsels (Sympecma fusca), the Lagunas de Rebassa, just inland from Alicante. However, examining the map, Francine found another spot intriguingly named the Clot de Galvany. The size of water looked favourable and it was quite close so we headed for that instead.

Finding the entrance was a challenge. A sign on the perimeter fence proclaimed pedestrian access in 50m. We missed it. After a few hundred metres we backtracked. We’d missed it because it was beside a vehicle access but hidden behind the hedge. Duh!

J18_1882 Orthetrum cancellatum maleJ18_1885 Sympetrum fonscolombiiOnce inside, the habitat looked good. Unfortunately for dragonfly hunters, the smaller water bodies are surrounded by dense wattle fences so viewing and access were impossible. This was clearly managed with birdlife and twitchers in mind: a single bird hide built into the otherwise solid fencing enabled viewing at each pond; viewing of birds, that is. The odos are clearly a side issue; only if they fly in front of the bird hide are you able to see them. A mature Red-veined Darter did pose in the right location and a couple of Black-tailed Skimmers landed on the ground outside the water body. Unsurprisingly, the usual Common Bluetails and Lesser Emperors also put in appearances. Nice place but better viewing facilities for odos, please.

On our way back towards Jalón, we did make an exploratory exit of the autovia at Alicante looking for the Lagunas de Rebassa. However, missing the correct traffic light controlled junction, we got tied in a maze of one-way streets and failed to find our way through to the site. At least we know where we went wrong, though.

Next time, perhaps.

Posted in 2018-04 Spain

Season’s First

The sun was shining in a clear blue sky; my favourite conditions. We thought we could try our usual leg-loosening walk up to the cross above and behind Senija, but we began by calling into a breakfast bar in Jalon for coffee and tostadas con tomate – toasted baguette spread with crushed tomato and drizzled with olive oil and salt. By the time we got there it would do us for brunch.

Before continuing to Senija it would be rude not to check out the local river to see if any odonata might yet have put in an appearance. At first things look quiet but clambering up to an access point to overlook a back pool, I was delighted to see a Blue Emperor (Anax imperator) cruising back and forth. He wasn’t stopping for pictures, though.

We headed off towards Senija which meant driving through Lliber. The road through Lliber was cordoned off, though, with a diversion through its narrow side streets. A run/walk was in progress but after only a short delay we emerged on the far side of the village and continued.

We drove into Senija only to find that the road in which we needed to park was also blocked. Senija was hosting a mountain bike event. I guess it just wasn’t our day.

Following swarms of road cyclists back through Jalon we decided to try retreating to the Marjal de Pego-Oliva in the hope that somewhere more rural might prove quieter. Mercifully it did. It would, after all, have been a shame to waste all our lovely sunshine. There was another car parked but it gave it a wide berth (we have a brand new rental car) and set off on foot.

Francine soon spotted a Common Bluetail (Ischural elegans) flitting about on the far side of one stream. I snagged it as best I could, i.e. not very well.

Continuing along the river we found more Bluetails and a couple of Lesser Emperors (Anax parthenope) who were definitely not pausing to pose for pictures.

J18_1861 Egyptian GrasshopperWe took a different track thinking that we might find the so-called Font Salada, a pool supposedly warm all year round, about which we’d been told. We’d seen a sign pointing to it on a previous visit so this time we followed the sign and walked further. We saw no more odonata on this stretch but we did see an Egyptian Grasshopper ovipositing in the track.

Eventually, we came to a bridge and the dividing of the ways. Was there another sign indicating the direction of the Font Salada? No, of course not. I do hate signing that doesn’t continue to the destination; it’s so frustrating. Uncertain of which of the three directions to take, we began our return wander. We’ll have to resort to Google Earth.

J18_1862 Western Clubtail femaleThings remained relatively dull until a freshly emerged dragonfly fluttered across the path and settled in the grass opposite. I managed a single shot, albeit with some grass across one wing, before it took to the air again. I tried to track it but lost it in the vegetation. It was an immature female Western Clubtail (Gomphus pulchellus) which, I am now told, is quite a rare find in the Alicante region.

That made the day.

Posted in 2018-04 Spain

Cabin Fever

The last stage of our return journey to the UK having successfully and mostly very enjoyably escaped the worst of the British winter, turned into something of a nightmare.

At our northbound overnight stop at the Parador in Calahorra, I received text messages from Brittany Ferries telling me that the departure of our return sailing would be delayed due to adverse weather conditions. The adverse weather conditions were being caused by Storm Felix which was smacking into Portugal and Spain, before making its way onto the west coast of France. Astute readers will realize that between these two geographic locations lies the Bay of Biscay, complete with its reputation for roughness. I had experience some degree of the Bay’s potentially disturbed nature when I had once made the return trip solo, Francine having had to curtail her Spanish visit and having had to fly back for a family emergency. [See 2015 Autumn] Being a poor sailor, I was concerned but chatting with fellow passengers distracted me and got me through it unscathed, along with medication, of course. There had never been any suggestion of a weather delay on that occasion, so clearly Storm Felix promised to up the stakes.

First, a little orientation. The route between Santander and Portsmouth, on Brittany Ferries cruise-type service using more modern boats takes about 24 hours. We were booked onto the so-called Economy sailings, partly because it’s cheaper but mainly because it omits a few services that we wouldn’t use anyway. The Economy sailings are on an older, slower boat (Baie de Seine) and the journey typically takes 27-28 hours.

Our timetabled departure time was 17:15 on Sunday 12th March. The delay notification said that we would be boarding at the regular time (about 16:00) and that the ships’ doors would be closed at 17:15 but that we would not be departing “until the early hours of Monday morning”. Bother, but at least we’d have a cabin and not need another hotel.

We dawdled our way along our 3-hour route from Calahorra to Santander, calling in at Logrono to find the so-called elephant trail, a short walking route taking in numerous tapas bars, each stop, of course, requiring another drink. Well, it’s rude not to. The rolling gait of those who have over-indulged gives the trail its name. (Not us ‘cos it was Sunday and we were driving.)

We arrived in Santander at the perfect time, according to my personal travel manual, at 15:00. [Sunday] After a slightly longer wait than anticipated, possibly because the boat we still discharging the inbound cohorts, we boarded and got used to the feel of our cabin, a 3-berth outside cabin on the lowest accommodation deck, deck 6. Knowing we weren’t going anywhere fast, we set about reading and doing puzzles. There were certainly whitecaps in the harbour and flags were flapping vigorously but being moored, the boat was rock solid. We had our picnic supper and eventually retired.

Clanking sounds, throbbing of marine engines and movements awoke Francine at about 04:00 [Monday]. We gulped our first pair of Stugeron tablets each and settled back down. We made our way calmly out of harbour and into the notorious Bay of Biscay. Amazingly, we successfully returned to the land of nod and got a bit more sleep.

Sleep didn’t last long. Once awake, the ship was rolling distressingly from side to side. Each roll to starboard was severe enough to cause me to slide a few inches down my bed towards the footboard. As the ship rolled back again to port, I slipped back again to where I should be, on the pillow – down, back, down, back, and so it went on. The curtains covering our porthole, folloo the inimitable Mr. Newton’s Law of Gravity, swung out above our heads to about 25°. Being unable to swing in the opposite direction because of the cabin walls, they returned to apparent vertical, although the cabin wall, our reference point, was, of course, itself now at –25°. The movement was not regular, though it was constant. There would be periods of more modest rolling followed by an abrupt change to a more serious rolling. At one point, the hefty wooden cabin stool tumbled end over end towards our cabin door, stopping on its side just short of the door. We left it there out of harms way. The stool having been moved out of the way, our travelling electric cool box was next to totter over, or would have been had I not caught it before it hit the floor. Sudoku puzzle books were scattered across the floor. In seas this mountainous, there was never any thought of my attempting to solve any. Since I get sick just reading in a car, I was anxious not to do anything to endanger my already fragile equilibrium. Neither did Francine want to try to read her Kindle.

Conditions were much worse than on my voyage of two years earlier, so bad that this time the captain eventually ordered the shop and restaurant closed “pour les raisonnes de sécurité“ [for safety reasons]. It transpired that one woman had been thrown off her dining chair not once but twice. Quite why she thought dining might have been a good idea in such circumstances remains a mystery. We were also told to stay in our cabins and not attempt to move around the ship. Sound advice; even taking the two or three steps from our beds to our bathroom in the cabin was fraught with danger. At the risk of painting too colourful a picture, once in the bathroom it was necessary to cling to the counter top for stability whilst seated on the loo. “Tell you what, let’s not bother with a shower.” Since no food was now available to purchase, the crew delivered sandwiches and mineral water to every cabin, bless them.

It’s staggering how unsettling it is when nothing in ones world is stable. All fixed orientation points disappear, hence seasickness I suppose. I found either closed eyes or fixing ones gaze on the ceiling to be about the best approaches. Our discomfort continued unabated throughout the daylight hours of Monday and into the early evening, the time it took us to travel the length of the Bay of Biscay. The usual route out of the Bay and into the English Channel is a passage between a collection of islands off Brest at the western extreme of Brittany. The ships slow down to navigate the narrow channel between the islands with care. In these conditions, the captain clearly thought that was too dangerous and sensibly took a longer route further to the west of the rocky islands, a route which, I think, added a couple of hours to our already long journey time. By the time we finally turned east into the mercifully calmer English Channel, we had been battered, shaken and stirred for a total of 17 hours by the unrelenting sea. The only high point, other than the caps of the waves, was that we both managed to hang on to our cookies, thanks to Stugeron at 8-hour intervals.

The Channel was essentially flat. I couldn’t help but wonder at the transformation of the sea state in such a short distance but I was then very relieved to be able to spend my second night in bed without constantly sliding up and down for the remaining 13 hours before we would finally dock in Portsmouth at 09:00 on Tuesday. It’s further along the English Channel than one might imagine.

Our original estimated arrival time had been 06:30. We had spent an unpleasant 41 hours on board, 39 of which I had spent in the confines of my cabin. I was glad to be back on terra firma. A somewhat unwelcome end to an otherwise wonderful Christmas and winter escape.

The crew was looking forward to a similarly rough return journey back down the Bay of Biscay.

Posted in 2017-2018 Winter

Early Damage

J18_1846 Iphiclides feisthameliiJust to keep the nature blog up to date, after a pleasantly lazy lunch with a couple of our neighbours, we returned to find our first Southern Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides feisthamelii) of the new season flitting about the Red Valerian behind Casa Libélule. My initial excitement was slightly dampened when I saw that it was missing one of its tails, but it’s a striking creature and always nice to see. My guess is that this damage is probably the result of a bird strike.

J18_1835 Iphiclides feisthameliiEarly specimens have a better chance of being in good nick. Sadly not this one. It looks better in profile, though.

Posted in 2017-2018 Winter

Starting Our Last Week

The first day of our last week dawned with an attractively blue sky so we had no qualms joining Helen for one of her Monday walks up into the mountains.

I say no qualms but I have been suffering from a gripe in my right knee ever since we visited Peñíscola, which I suspect was a result of my having attacked mountain walking with a little too much gusto/enthusiasm earlier on in our trip – too much, too fast, perhaps. However, with a little more moderation, some of which was enforced, it has settled a bit and I’m avoiding the painkiller/anti-inflammatory combo. It seems better going uphill but aches a little on the way back down.

Today’s trek was up and down Alt del Ample, one of the mountains on the southern side of Jalón. We met behind the fuel station and headed a short distance up the road to the Sierra de Bernia, a road with which we’re very familiar, for our start point. We began by walking more or less level for some distance before eventually getting onto the incline which proved to be a steady, pretty constant gradient to the top. Enjoyable.

Jalon-Valley-and-MontgoHere’s the view from the top back down into the Jalón valley. The mountain in the distance on the left is the Montgo, towering over Jávea/Xàbia and Dénia. We were surprised that conditions were clear enough for our eyes to see two of the Balearic Islands on the horizon, not that they were visible to my phone camera. 😉

It was an 8km route and a very pleasant way to start our last week of this trip. We’ll miss our Monday morning walking buddies when back at home. And the weather, of course.

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Posted in 2017-2018 Winter

Pristine Swallowtails

Having been taunted by fresh Swallowtail butterflies when we walked up to the cross above Murla recently, today being sunny, we attacked the hill and cross behind Senija, which is a more gentle climb that I can manage with a camera slung over my shoulder on a monopod. This hill is usual a good place stalk butterflies and particularly the two resident species of Swallowtail. I was hopeful.

We had a friend with us and it would also serve as a leg-loosener if we managed to attack a more serious walk with our Monday walking group tomorrow. The three of us set off.

Part way up Francine spotted a couple of emerging, underdeveloped orchids. They gave us a good excuse, if one were needed, to dally and catch a breath. She clicked away for the record. A little further up another one was spotted.

J18_1812 Long-tailed BlueGaining the rocky summit running along to the cross itself, things looked disappointingly quiet on the butterfly front. There were, though, the usual Wall Browns (Lasiommata megera) and I did manage to snag the topside of a Blue, which I’d need my reference book to decide upon. Though the markings look rather paler than usual, I’m pretty confident that this is a Long-tailed Blue (Lampides boeticus). What I should have done was try to get the underside as well which would have put it beyond doubt. [The underside is what one usually gets.]

A coupe of Swallowtails (Papilio machaon) did then zoom by. They flitted and occasionally settled but always at some distance from where I was standing. frustrating little chaps. Then they seemed to disappear. Then they reappeared but again, only briefly and most uncooperatively. They disappeared again. I wandered and found one flitting about a different patch of ground, where it seemed to settle reasonably predictably. I worked myself into the correct position for the light and waited, finally snagging a couple of shots.

J18_1823 Papilio machaonIt’s very early in their flight season and I’m sure they will soon become more plentiful. The nice thing about catching specimens early is that they are likely to be pristine, as yet unworn, with a full complement of two tails that have not yet been damaged. This is one such specimen. [BTW, this picture looks as if it’s been colour-popped but it hasn’t, the bush really was that nondescript grey colour.]

It was worth carrying the camera.

Posted in 2017-2018 Winter

Las Salinas, Finally

I can’t believe that we’ve been here for almost two months but hadn’t yet made one of our normal forays around Las Salinas in Calpe – until today, that is.

Today was looking like the warmest and sunniest day of the coming week, with temperatures hitting 18 or 19°C. With all the dragonflies now having died out (I think) but with butterflies on the wing, maybe there’d be something flitting about.

The short answer is that there wasn’t. Well, I did spot a single white butterfly but that was all. I suspect the lack of success was largely due to a noticeable lack of flowers for butterflies to be feeding on.

There is a lot of development going on in Calpe and there were worrying signs that some of this development was encroaching on what has previously been waste ground. Waste ground, covered in “weeds”, makes great habitat both for invertebrates and for birds, which gain shelter and food from the plants. A few sizeable tracts of the ground had been cleared of vegetation, making it look as though building of some sort might be commencing in the near future. [Gloom.]

J18_1801 Young FlamingoOn a brighter note, it looked as though the Greater Flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) resident in Las Salinas had had a reasonable breading season last year because several small groups of youngsters were to be seen wading around near the edges. Well, I think they’re quite cute, albeit in a large, grey sort of way, and I’m sure their mothers love ‘em.

J18_1798 Adullt FlamingoYou can’t beat the gaudy pink of an adult bird, though, so just for the record, here is one with its head briefly out of the water, taking a break from sifting.

J18_1806 Pair of SerinsThe birds are showing signs that they think spring is on the way by singing. Blackbirds are being decidedly vociferous around Casa Libélule. Some birds are clearing pairing up, too. We frequently see Serins (Serinus serinus) both here and in France, the males advertising themselves with their frenetically fast song. They are difficult to catch on pixels, though, but a pair did pose nicely for me beside Las Salinas. catching not just the male but also the female on pixels assuaged my frustration a little.

I didn’t see any Stilts. Maybe the season is wrong; I’ll have to check.

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Kill or Cure?

Somehow, whilst touring New Zealand in November last year, I managed to strain one side of my jaw. I suspect that a gaping yawn might have been the cause. Since a knackered jaw hinge made eating, an activity of which I am rather too fond, a painful exercise, I initially resorted to daily doses of Ibuprofen. Their advertised anti-inflammatory effect didn’t seem to be making things as comfortable as I’d have liked, so I added the pain killing action of Paracetamol. The combination did make things a little better.

Off to Spain and still on my drugs combination, though twice a day rather than the permitted four times a day, I rediscovered walking in the mountains, an enjoyable activity for winter time when my insect friends are not around to provide my entertainment. In the space of two weeks I thoroughly enjoyed six walks of varying grades with a couple of different walking groups. I even invested in some new Spanish walking boots.

Though at the time I suffered absolutely no ill effects whatsoever, it seems my right knee may have suffered something of a delayed reaction. Whilst visiting friends in Peñíscola, where we walked but not up and down mountains, my knee began by grumbling and ended up approaching painful, the knee cap seeming to click into place rather alarmingly on occasion. It seems a little puffy compared to its neighbour, so I now suspect an outbreak of Housemaids Knee. P’raps I’d done too much, too fast?

Bless the Spanish. On a visit to Valencia, we toured farmacias purchasing supplies of Paracetamol tablets – my imported supplies were running low – but not those wimpy 500mg jobs, oh no, these were 1g tablets and about the size of horse pills. At least I had only one to swallow, albeit twice the size.

Murla Cross #2Ignoring the available walks completely was getting tedious so today I took my drugs and went for a kill or cure approach, accompanying our Monday walking group on a walk from Parcent to Murla, where we ascended the mountain behind to see the cross. Part of the climb turned out to be just that, a hands-required scramble. My knee did seem to warm up a bit as the drugs worked their way around my alcohol blood stream. Oddly, perhaps, my knee seemed better going uphill than downhill, and we made it to the top. [This is Pete, our companion, rendered by Samsung’s usually crappy phone cameras, master of all he surveys.]

Hill-topping SwallowtailHere, whilst catching my breath, I was pleased to be briefly entertained by three new season Swallowtail butterflies which had made the same uphill journey with much less effort than that required by we humans. Wildlife really does put us to shame, even our crème de la crème Olympians. This so-called hill-topping behaviour is a mating strategy amongst some insects, so they’ve clearly got energy left after the journey. [I hadn’t lugged my camera up the mountain so here’s a picture from last year on an easier mountain aided by a more cooperative knee.]

We have now discovered that those delightful Spanish farmacias sell Ibuprofen is larger doses, too. As well as single tablets of 400mg, you can get 600mg jobs, which is like a UK dose and a half. For now, I’ll stick to the 400mg dose and see how much adverse reaction I suffer.

Kill or cure? At least with double-dose single pills, I won’t rattle quite as much.

Posted in 2017-2018 Winter