Aromatic Inula

In September, a slight increase in humidity brings forth the appearance of the yellow-flowered Aromatic, or Sticky Inula, which is similar in appearance to Ragwort. It’s not the most beautiful of plants, but it brings some welcome colour back to the otherwise bleached brown landscape ahead of the eagerly anticipated autumn rains and provides a good source of nectar for butterflies.

Aromatic Inula-Dittrichia viscosa- Sotogrande beach edge

Aromatic Inula-Dittrichia viscosa- Sotogrande beach edge

Aromatic or Sticky Inula Dittrichia viscosa


Aromatic Inula – Dittrichia viscosa – the flowers are similar to those of ragwort

Numerous yellow flower heads and sticky leaves are characteristics of this plant.

Flowers in the late summer-autumn months in a variety of habitats, on woodland edges, along roadsides, in uncultivated fields and as in my photographs, even at the back of  beaches.

As its name suggests it has a pleasant aroma, a bit like camphor, and the plant was traditionally used as a dye of a greenish yellow shade.

The Carob Tree – el Algarrobo

Recently I bought a bar of Carob ‘chocolate’ in my local health food shop, which reminded me that this is the time of year when the fruits of the Carob trees are ripe for harvesting. The trees have long been cultivated in Spain where its long brown pods were traditionally used as animal fodder, although nowadays they probably have more value as a natural additive to many human foodstuffs.

Carob or St John’s Bread in English; Algerrobo or Algorroba in Spanish and scientifically Ceratonia siliqua, is a species of slow-growing flowering evergreen shrub or tree belonging to the pea family, Fabaceae. It is native to the Mediterranean region where it has been cultivated for some 4,000 years for its edible beans and as an ornamental shade tree in parks and gardens.

Carob tree - Gaucin, Andalucia

Carob tree – Gaucin, Andalucia

The tree grows up to 15 metres (50ft) tall and is supported by a thick trunk covered with rough bark. They are slow growing and can live to be 200 years old. They are well-suited to growing in dry, harsh climates on infertile soils and may produce fruits for 80-100 years.

Ripening seedpods

Ripening seedpods

The Carob tree is dioecious (has separate male and female trees), so only the female trees bear fruit. Flowers of the male are stamen clusters with pollen, producing a very strong odor, while the female produces small, yellow, aromatic flowers (pistals), grouped in clusters.


Both male and female flowers produce nectar and attract large numbers of insects. There is also research supporting the idea that Carob flowers could be Bat-pollinated as the perfume is released at night and during the cool season when warm-blooded pollinators have an advantage over insects.

October-Flowers on a male Carob tree

October-Flowers are highly attractive to insects

The perfume of the male flowers is a strong and curious one that may radiate hundreds of meters from the originating tree, particularly in the cooler evening air. Few descriptions of the scent that I have come across are at all enticing. It is even included on one list of the 9 worst-smelling flowers! Others claim it has “the scent of rotting flesh”; then another compares it to sweaty socks. Maybe it is best to stay upwind of a male Carob in flower.

Male Carob tree in flower

Male Carob tree in flower

The distinctive pods, or more accurately legumes, take more or less a full year to develop, starting off green and then becoming hard and brown, usually becoming ripe in September or October each year. The flowers and ripe pods are then together on the tree simultaneously.

September-Carob tree with ripe seedpods, flowers and a chiffchaff-R oman Baths, Manilva

September- female Carob tree with ripe seedpods, flowers and a chiffchaff-Roman Baths, Manilva

Harvesting the pods without damaging the new flowers and next year’s crop must be tricky. In Spain and Portugal this is traditionally done using long canes to dislodge the pods, knocking them into laid-out nets on the ground if it is clear enough, otherwise gathering up is entirely by hand. An extremely labour-intensive operation, particularly as a fully-laden tree may yield a ton weight of pods.

060829-Carob beans-Portugal

060829-Carob beans-Portugal



Traditionally Carob pods were used mainly as animal fodder, in Iberia this would have been mainly for donkies. Today, Carob pod meal is still used as an energy-rich feed for livestock, particularly for ruminants.


The carat weight measure used for gemstones originated from the weight of the carob seed, which was thought to be consistent. Sadly, modern research has now proved it to be no more consistent than any other seed. The word carat stems from the Arabic word qīrāṭ which was a very small unit of weight based upon the weight of the carob seed in that 5 carob seeds equals one gram and thus a 1 carat weight is 200 milligrams.


Spain is the world’s highest producer of Carob, which is now in high demand by the food industry and ad Carob pods are usually processed in their country of origin, this makes it an important contributor to the country’s economy.

After harvesting, the pods are both dry and wet cleaned and kibbled (coarsely ground) to separate the seeds from the pulp. After seed extraction, the pods are roasted, milled and sieved and then stored in controlled conditions to prevent them becoming hard and lumpy. The resulting powder, known as locust bean gum (ceratonia or carob bean gum) is then used as a gelling agent, stabilizer or emulsifier in ice-cream, dessert fruit filling and salads.

Carob powder is used in baking and food manufacture, sometimes as an alternative to cocoa powder. Carob bars, an alternative to chocolate bars, are often available in health-food stores. Non-dairy carob bars use vegetable fat, soya flour and soya lecithin as an emulsifier. It is naturally sweet so no added sugar varieties are available.


An oil called algaroba is extracted from the carob seeds to be used for medicinal purposes.

Sea Daffodils

The height of the holiday season. Populations of the mountain and coastal towns and villages increase manyfold now, both with the influx of foreign tourists and of Spanish families opening up their holiday homes, seeking escape from the intense heat of inland towns and cities. August days are hot, often very hot with thermometers soaring to 40° or more inland. On the coast the temperatures may be lower, but there is often a misty haze over the sea and the days can be heavy and humid. Nights are drawing in and late nights and early mornings can feel quite chilly if there’s a sea breeze blowing.

The landscape is dry and dusty, grass is scorched and bleached of all colour. Most of the smaller rivers run dry, their rocky beds exposed. But in many places trees and shrubbery hold their colour, being largely evergreen and evolved to withstand the heat and drought. Forest and grassland fires are a serious risk and in some years raging fires inflict serious amounts of damage to the cork oak woodlands and in some cases houses are consumed and homes are lost.

Wildflowers are few, but if you are heading to beaches, particularly those backed by coastal dunes or vegetation, you may be surprised to discover daffodils in bloom! Not your common-or-garden yellow ones, but lovely scented exotic-looking white ones. These are the blooms of the Sea Daffodil or Sea Lily Prancaium maritimum.

Sea Daffodils flowering-Tarifa

Sea Daffodils flowering-Tarifa

Not really a daffodil at all , but rather a member of the family Amaryllidaceae, these glorious flowers bloom from August until October and are a distinctive species of the Medterranean coastline.

Sea Daffodils, Tarifa

Sea Daffodils, Tarifa

It is amazing that such a lovely plant not only survives, but thrives growing in salt-laden sand, regularly blasted by sandy, salty winds. The flowers open fully in the late afternoon and remain open through the night and into the following morning as they are pollinated by a night-flying hawkmoth.

Sea daffodil blooms are

Sea daffodil blooms are fragrant 

You may well have noticed the green, strap-like leaves of the plant in previous months – they stay green until late in the summer, just until the flowers are ready to open, when they turn brown and wither.

Sea daffodil leaves - April-Cape Trafalgar

Sea daffodil leaves – April-Cape Trafalgar

The fruits are large and at first shiny black, like small pieces of polished jet, but they have no weight to them and are readily picked up by the wind and carried away to spread the species.

The fruits are shiny black

October-The fruits are shiny black-Sotogrande

The lightwight seeds fall to the ground where many  are picked up and scattered by the wind

The lightwight seeds fall to the ground from where many are picked up and scattered by the wind


Dazzling Dragonflies

In 2011 I posted about some beautiful dragonflies that laid claim to the water in our out-of-commission swimming pool. I attempted to identify them but it turned out that my visitors were actually exotic recent newcomers from Africa and not the common-or-garden relative species I labelled them as. I would have remained in ignorance had it not been for guidance from some knowledgeable and generous people who took the time and trouble to (most tactfully), correct me, for which I thank them. I decided to ‘reblog’ the post but this time giving the correct identifications and to remove the misleading old one. I’ve timed the posting so anyone planning to visit the area imminently, either seeking, or happening upon any of the species is armed with better information.


Late August and early September see the emergence of a variety of species of dragonfly and in 2010 we had regular visits to our garden from some glorious and somewhat exotic ones. Their presence was compensation for our swimming pool being unusable for its proper purpose. The pump wasn’t working, so despite the intense sun it had remained partially filled with water as we were unable to drain it out and the garden sprinklers regularly topped it up each evening. The dragonflies adopted it as their territory, patrolling its surface and keeping watch for intruders whilst basking on the pool edge. There were three species that were very conspicuous, two that were red and one blue, all adult males.


family Libellulidae other common name is Kirby’s dropwing

Orange-winged dropwing in obelisk pose

Orange-winged Dropwing in obelisk posture

The first one to arrive was a bright scarlet red Orange-winged Dropwing (Trithemis Kirbyi) that spent quite long periods on the very edge of the pool, lifting his body vertically to into what is known as the obelisk posture.

The bright sunlight cast perfect reflections of the extensive orange patches on both the fore and hind wings of the insect.

The obelisk posture is one that some dragonflies and damselflies assume to prevent overheating on hot sunny days. The abdomen is raised until its tip points at the sun, minimizing the surface area exposed to solar radiation. When the sun is close to directly overhead, the vertical alignment of the insect’s body suggests an obelisk. 

The Orange-Winged Dropwing is an African species  which over the last few years has begun to establish itself in Southern Spain. Adult length is 3.2-3.6 cm; wingspan 5.8 cm. The males are virtually all red, apart from black pterostigma, the blue-grey lower half of the eye, and the very large orange wing patches. The female has a similar wing patch, but its size is more variable than in males and the base colour is yellow, as it is in immature males.

One of the most common African dragonflies, its natural habitats are various; subtropical or tropical moist lowland forests, dry savanna, moist savanna, subtropical or tropical dry shrubland, subtropical or tropical moist shrubland and rivers.

4/9/10-  The Orange-winged dropwing has a vivid orange patch at the base of the forewings as well as having the orange patch at the base of the hindwings

4/9/10- The Orange-winged Dropwing has a vivid orange patch at the base of the forewings as well as having the orange patch at the base of the hindwings

Wandering around the garden I was attracted to the dragonfly in the following photograph when I spotted something glittering in the sunlight: it was perched on a lavender flower and stayed there for some time. It was clearly a ‘fresh’ specimen an immature male, I think, although females are similar to this.

8/9/10-  Orange-winged dropwing-trithemis-kirbyi -immature male or

8/9/10- Orange-winged Dropwing- immature male

The Orange-winged Dropwing had the ‘territory’ to himself for a week or so, but then two individuals of different species arrived on the scene and also became very regular visitors. One of these was also red coloured, but a darker red with purplish shading whose common English name is Violet Dropwing (Trithemis annulata). The  other a powdery-blue Epaulet Skimmer (Orthetrum Chrysostigma).

The behavioural dynamic between the three males was interesting. The Orange-winged Dropwing was always the first to appear, then later the Violet Dropwing and the Epaulet Skimmer would arrive in the garden at virtually the same time and settle themselves in positions on the edge of the pool, sometimes virtually next to one another. There was no sign of any aggression or territorial disputing between them at all. However, the Violet Dropwing did chase the slightly smaller Orange Dropwing whenever it flew out over the water or generally got too close.

VIOLET DROPWING – Trithemis annulata

family: Libellulidae other common names are violet-marked darter, purple-blushed darter or plum-coloured dropwing

The adult male Violet Dropwing has a blue pruinescence overlying a scarlet body that creates a purplish-violet colour that is unlike that of any other dragonfly in Europe.

100907-Violet dropwing-Trithemis annulata-Sotogrande-Spain

Violet Dropwing (Trithemis annulata) has distinctive red veins & an orange patch at base of hindwings

Adult length is 3.2-3.6 cm wingspan: 60 mm (2.4 in). The mature male has a dark red head and a yellow labium with brown central spot. The eyes are red with white spots on the rear edge, and the frons is dark metallic purplish-red.

Violet Dropwing perched on car ariel

Violet Dropwing perched on car ariel

The wings have distinctive red veins, the pterostigma is orange-brown and there is a large orange-brown splash at the base of the hind wings. The abdomen is fairly broad and is pinkish-violet, with purple markings on the top of each segment and blackish markings on the terminal three segments. Females are a similar size to males but the thorax is brownish and the abdomen is yellow with dark brown markings. The wings of females lack the red veins of males but have similar orange-brown patches.



EPAULET SKIMMER  Orthetrum Chrysostigma

family Libellulidae

Longer established in Iberia than the Dropwings, the Epaulet Skimmer is one of a number of dragonfly species where the mature male is predominantly blue and the female/immature male is predominantly a tan/brown colour.  The wings have a reddish-brown costa and brown pterostigma.

4/9/10-Epaulet skimmer -Orthetrum-chrysostigma

4/9/10-Epaulet skimmer -Orthetrum-chrysostigma

The Epaulet Skimmer is widespread throughout the Sahara region in Africa; it’s larvae are able to survive in moist sand, suggesting that it is an insect very well adapted to surviving in an arid landscape. 

100904TGSP-Epaulet skimmer-Orthetrum chrysostigma

4/9/10-Epaulet skimmer- Orthetrum chrysostigma

The Epaulet skimmer is unique amongst the Skimmers occurring on the Iberian peninsula in having a single white stripe or “epaulet” outlined in black on each side of the thorax, which is just about visible in the enlarged photograph below.


The Epaulet Skimmer has a diagnostic white stripe on the side of the thorax

length: 39 to 46mm flight period in Iberia: late March to mid December habitat: marshes, streams, & pools in open terrain, plus man made water bodies distribution: Southern Portugal & Spain, North Africa & the Near East. Not uncommon in southern Portugal and Spain, currently absent from the north of the Iberian peninsula, but perhaps expanding it’s range in that direction.

A week or so after the arrival of the three adult males described above I began also to notice cast-off dragonfly larval ‘skins’ stuck to the inner walls of the swimming pool. Each morning there would be a few more, but several days passed before I was out early enough to witness a dragonfly still preparing for its first flight. I believe it was an Epaulet skimmer as it had the distinctive white stripe on its thorax.

100908TGSP-Sotogrande-Emerging dragonfly on wall of pool

8/9/10- An emerging dragonfly on wall of pool is probably an Epaulet skimmer

I am relieved that all the new dragonflies emerged and set off into the world before the swimming pool was emptied and cleaned and rather wished it could have been left as a pond.

Update on species 2015:

The presence in Southern Spain of all three species described above is now sufficiently established for them to be included on many species lists for the area and their ranges are extending year on year.






High Noon on the Garden Wall

One hot sunny July morning a little before noon a large, dark-coloured gecko climbed the garden wall then settled in a sun-dappled spot on the top amongst the honeysuckle; the perfect spot for a siesta. He was surprisingly well-camouflaged here, despite being dark brown and on a white wall. His skin was a similar texture to the surface of the wall blocks and in the dappled shade surrounded by honeysuckle stems and leaves he was well sited to snap up any unsuspecting nectar-seeking insects.

A large dark gecko on the garden wall

A large dark gecko on the garden wall

The gecko’s peace was short-lived however, as minutes later a smallish skinny Wall lizard appeared, climbing up the wall and seeming not to have noticed him stretched out on its top.  The gecko spotted his approach and edged forward slightly. I anticipated trouble, but the lizard spotted the movement and skittered sharpishly over the wall out of reach. The gecko settled himself back down.

The Wall lizard hurrying past the gecko

The Wall lizard hurrying past the gecko

The lizard had had a lucky escape, but fate wasn’t finished with him yet, he would soon discover that bigger trouble awaited him on the other side of the wall…

He seemed to have crossed over the top of the wall then travelled along it until he was behind the gecko, as a couple of minutes later I spotted movement amongst the leaves and aimed the camera there, anticipating seeing his little head emerge. The leaves began shaking violently and I  briefly glimpsed the lizard, who appeared to be struggling to reach the top of the wall. Suddenly, he shot out from cover with another lizard, a larger version of himself, in hot pursuit. He almost made it back over the wall, but his pursuer grabbed his tail, pulling him back.

The larger lizard had the other's tail clamped tightly in his mouth

The larger lizard had the other’s tail clamped tightly in his mouth

A fierce struggle ensued, the captive lizard twisting and writhing desperately trying to escape, whilst his captor hung on determinedly.

The captor hung on whilst the captive struggled to get free

The captor hung on whilst the captive struggled to get free

Somehow the little lizard managed to break free and raced away with his tail intact.

The gecko seeming rather disgruntled to have been disturbed by the lizards’ kafuffle and set off back down the wall to seek a more peaceful spot.

The gecko set off back down the wall

The gecko set off back down the wall

The lizards are Iberian Wall Lizard – Podarcis hispanica

Male Iberian wall lizards are somewhat territorial and in fights  combatants will grab for the root of the other’s tail. The lizards can shed the most part of their tail and if it is possible they will do so to escape as they are able to grow another. However, if the aggressor manages to grab his victims tail nearer its root, escape is more difficult. Larger lizards may also prey on smaller ones.

The gecko in this drama is a Moorish GeckoTarentola mauritanica. You can see from its tail that it has lost it before as it has lost the original ‘bumpy’ scale covering of the original. The colours of individuals changes in intensity according to the light. When they are active by day their colour is darker than during the night.


The Moorish gecko and Iberian wall lizard will drop their tail if threatened or if their tail is grabbed. This tail dropping type of defense is called autotomy  and they are designed to do this, with special connective tissue in the tail that creates a “weak spot” where the tail breaks off readily. The blood vessels to the tail will constrict, so very little blood loss occurs.

The dropped tail will continue to move -wriggling and twitching on the ground which acts to distract the predator, allowing the gecko or lizard to get away while the predator is left holding just a tail.

Although geckos and lizards are able to regenerate their tails, the new version is not an exact replica of the original. Research has shown the new tail  “has a single, long tube of cartilage rather than vertebrae, as in the original. Also, long muscles span the length of the regenerated tail compared to shorter muscle fibers found in the original. ”

“These differences suggest that the regenerated tail is less flexible, as neither the cartilage tube nor the long muscle fibers would be capable of the fine movements of the original tail, with its interlocking vertebrae and short muscle fibers,” Fisher said. “The regrown tail is not simply a copy of the original, but instead is a replacement that restores some function.”

“Another interesting finding is the presence of pores in the regenerated cartilage tube. While the backbone of the original lizard tail is made of many bones with regular gaps, allowing blood vessels and nerves to pass through, in the regenerated tail, only blood vessels pass through the cartilage tube pores. This observation suggests that nerves from the original tail stump grow into the regenerated tail.”

Late June in a Spanish garden

This blog post, with more to follow were made possible by the generous hospitality and chauffeuring of my good friend and her family during my recent short trip to Spain and Gibraltar. The family have a lovely weekend house out in the campo near Jimena de la Frontera and their garden combines with those of the neighbours’ to provide a bountiful summer  oasis  for a fascinating and varied array of wildlife, in an otherwise rapidly desiccating landscape.

I have done a few blog posts based on this garden and its surroundings over the years and I was looking forward to seeing some familiar sights and interested to see if anything had changed since I’ve been gone. I am happy to report that a few short hours spent here brought back some very happy memories and was reassured that life was continuing here very much as when I had left it.

View from the house of the surrounding landscape, rapidly drying out

View from the house of the surrounding landscape, rapidly drying out

June 23rd

Yesterday afternoon I  had sat and watched several Violet Carpenter Bees make frequent forays to nectar on the beautiful purple trusses of a wisteria which together with a grape vine, completely covers a sizeable pergola and shades the eating area of the patio at the back of the house. Not at all bad for a plant that began life here a few years ago as a rather unpromising twiggy offshoot, passed on from another gardening friend.

Violet Carpenter Bee visiting wisteria

Violet Carpenter Bee visiting wisteria

This morning I sat outside with a cup of tea relishing the warm air and the peace of the surroundings, where for a while the only sounds were of a greenfinch calling and the cooing of Collared Doves. I was aware that the  carpenter bees were already hard at work amongst the wisteria, but suddenly one of them left the wisteria and much to my surprise flew in front of me, landing on the ‘bee hotel’ located quite high up on the garden wall.  I ran back inside to grab my camera, hoping the bee would still be there when I got back. She was and had just begun to investigate the hollow length of bamboo cane tucked into the top left-hand corner of the structure.

Violet Carpenter bee checking into the bee hotel.

Perhaps it may not seem surprising that a bee should check in thus, after all, it’s what the structure was designed for and it’s clear on close inspection that other ‘rooms’ have already been occupied and sealed up. The surprise was more that Violet Carpenter bees are large, robust insects and the hollow bamboo canes are quite small in diameter and I would never have imagined one of their bulk able to fit in.

I stood on a garden chair to get a better look at the bee’s activity and realised she had moved down to the tube below and was venturing inside it. With the benefit of the camera zoom, this one looks as though it may have been at least partially excavated and widened to fit: the wall appears thinner than those of neighbouring tubes and there is fresh ‘sawdust’ around the entrance. More specks on the bees’s body could mean she is still working on it.

Carpenter bee squeezing in

Carpenter bee squeezing in

Almost in

Almost in, but a very tight fit

I felt a little fearful for the bee. I know they are ‘carpenter’ bees and chomping through wood to nest is what they do, but what if she got stuck in the tiny space and couldn’t get out? Does that happen I wonder? And how does the egg-laying work? Presumably she needs either to be able to turn herself around in there or come out backwards and reverse in to lay eggs? Sadly I only have one day here, so further observation is not possible this time. I am hoping for updates though. I’d love to know what has occupied and sealed up some of the other ‘rooms’ too; surely something smaller than a Violet Carpenter bee?

Other rooms already occupied and sealed up

Other rooms already occupied and sealed up

Just below the bee hotel, attached to the wall is a pupa of a Small White butterfly.

Small White butterfly pupa

Small White butterfly pupa (enlarged)

Looking up

Early on I watched a flock of Griffon Vultures circling in the distance, gradually disappearing from sight as they wheeled around searching for thermal currents to carry them up and away. I has a better view of a White Stork that circled above the garden, but it was still quite high up.

A White Stork circled high overhead

A White Stork circled high overhead

Wisteria sinensis

The wisteria is past its best now and some of the flowers have already transformed into seed pods. The flowers remaining are being worked hard;  a host of insects, including aphids are feasting whilst the going is good. Soon heat and drought will bake the countryside and flowers will be scarce.

Wisteria seedpods

Wisteria seedpods

On the vine

Underneath the vine leaves  a well-camouflaged Egyptian Grasshopper was munching his way through leaves from underneath, hanging on upside down.

Egyptian Grasshopper overhead

Egyptian Grasshopper overhead

Later on it either fell or dropped down onto the patio beneath; maybe he ate too much of the leaf and lost his grip. What a handsome insect.

Egyptian Grasshopper-Anacridium aegyptum

Egyptian Grasshoppers are sometimes mistaken for locusts, but the diagnostics for the former are the vertically striped eyes and the  pronuptum, the shield type shape behind the head, (as seen in the image above) is distinctly ridged, like plates of armour. (More about Egyptian Grasshoppers here)

The vine leaves were under attack from another angle too. Lower down was a large fat Elephant Hawk moth caterpillar gripping on with its short little legs wrapped entirely around a twiggy stem.

Elephant Hawkmoth caterpillar

Elephant Hawk moth caterpillar

Like most hawk moth caterpillars, they have a backward curving spine or “horn” on the final abdominal segment. The head end of the caterpillar appears to have the shape of a trunk-like snout. It is this elephant look, rather than its large size, that gives the moth its name.

The underside of the Hawkmoth caterpillar showing how it grips on with its legs

The underside of the  caterpillar showing how it grips on with its legs

When the caterpillar is startled, it draws its trunk into its foremost body segment. In this pose it then resembles a snake with a large head and four large eye-like patches. The caterpillars are preyed upon by birds, but they may be put off  by those taking up a “snake” pose, although it is not known whether the birds actually regard the caterpillar as a snake, or are more taken aback by the sudden change of a familiar prey item into an unusual and boldly-patterned shape.

Head and mouthparts

Head and mouthparts- it is the ‘elephant-like’ appearance of this end of the caterpillar that gives it is name

We left the caterpillar chomping through a vine leaf, although with some trepidation. We feared that should it venture down the ground to pupate, which seemed a possibility as it was already sizeable and low down in the vine,  that it would become prey for some of the ants that seem to be everywhere. We looked for him the next day and were sad to see our fears had manifested. The poor caterpillar was indeed on the ground and had ants swarming all over it. At first  we thought it was already dead, but ‘rescued’ it anyway.

The caterpillar had changed colour and was badly injured

The caterpillar had changed colour and was badly injured

After a while it did move slightly, so we were hopeful that it may survive and disappointed we had left it to its own devices for the night. Sadly, it was badly wounded, most probably pumped full of formic acid by its attackers and it died, never to change into a beautiful moth like the one below:

Elephant hawk-moth - Deilephila elpenor (picture from wikipaedia)

Elephant hawk-moth – Deilephila elpenor (picture from wikipaedia)

In the shade

There are resident geckos here, some very large ones that are probably a few years old; geckos can live up to 8-9 years. They spend much of the day hiding away in the shade but emerge occasionally.

A large light-coloured Gecko that lives in the outhouse

A large light-coloured Gecko that lives in the outhouse

Another large gecko, but a much darker one, trying to hide from me

Another large gecko, but a much darker one, trying to hide from me

There are a couple of paper wasp nests suspended from the shaded ceilings of the outdoor covered areas. These are not the common wasps that are attracted to outdoor tables in search of easy food. Known as the European Paper Wasp these are social wasps of the ‘polistes‘ species, probably polistes dominulus. 

Wasps working to feed and guard their baby sisters and future co-workers

Wasps working to feed and guard the developing next generation

The nests are made of chewed-up wood and saliva and are beautifully made. The wasps hunt and eat a variety of insects.

Beautifully crafted nest of a paper wasp colony

Beautifully crafted nest of a paper wasp colony

A hunting polistes wasp

A hunting polistes wasp

Taking time out to drink

Taking time out for a drink

There were a few butterflies about, a number of Small Whites and high on the wisteria, some small blue ones, probably Long-tailed Blues. In the shade under the citrus trees was a Speckled Wood, looking a bit tattered, resting in a tiny patch of sunlight.

A Speckled Wood butterfly in the shade under the citrus trees

A Speckled Wood butterfly in the shade under the citrus trees

And a little frog who came out of the little pond to sit on a rock and sunbathe.

Little frog

Little frog



Buttercups & butterflies

If you’ve ever wondered about the pretty yellow flowers that flower prolifically and often carpet large areas of roadsides and fields at this time of year, it’s very likely to be this one:

Bermuda Buttercup-Oxalis precaprae

Common name: Bermuda Buttercup – Oxalis pre-capri ; Other common names include:  African wood-sorrel, Bermuda sorrel, Buttercup oxalis, Cape sorrel, English weed, Goat’s-foot, Sourgrass, Soursob and Soursop; (Afrikaans: Suring); Family: Sorrel; Oxalidaceae; Native to: South Africa

Flowers: November to May

Bermuda Buttercup

Bermuda Buttercup

Not related to buttercups at all and actually a sorrel, the flowers are large, yellow and funnel-shaped; the petals are 20-25mm long and borne in broad umbels. Leaves are long stalked, at ground level.

Bermuda buttercup also occurs in a double-flower form.

Bermuda buttercup also occurs in a double-flower form & flowers may be more of a coppery-yellow colour

The Bermuda Buttercup looks pretty, but it is a widespread weed of cultivated and waste land, roadsides, olive groves, vineyards, plantations & orchards that spreads rapidly and has a reputation for being difficult to eradicate once it has established itself and spread over an area of land. Native to South Africa, it is generally believed that the species was introduced to Malta around 1806 and within fifty years had become widespread in the Mediterranean region.

Oxalis pes-caprae - roots & bulbs

Oxalis pes-caprae – roots & bulbs (photo wikipaedia)

The plant produces copious quantities of underground ‘true bulbs’ in botanical terms  through which it largely propogates. This is one reason why it is so difficult to eradicate, as pulling up the stems leaves the bulbs behind. Soil in which the plant has grown is generally filled with small bulbs. It is particularly resistant to modern herbicides.

The plant contains exceptionally high levels of oxalic acid, which is palatable and in modest quantities is reasonably harmless to humans and livestock. However, in spite of its comparatively benign nature, where it has become dominant in pastures, as sometimes happens outside South Africa, Oxalis pes-caprae can cause dramatic stock losses. For example, when hungry stock, such as sheep are let out to graze in a lush growth of Oxalis pes-caprae, they may gorge on the plant, with fatal results, as has been found in South Australia at least. (Bull, L.; Australian Veterinary Journal, 1929, Vol. 5 p. 60).


Oxalis pes-caprae is often called by the common name sourgrass or soursob due to its pleasant sour flavor. This sourness is caused by the exceptionally high content of oxalic acid. In South Africa it is a traditional ingredient in dishes such as waterblommetjiebredie (water flower stew) and the underground runners, which tend to be fleshy, have been eaten raw or boiled and served with milk. The plant has been used in various ways as a source of oxalic acid, as food, and in folk medicine. The raw bulbs have been used to deal with tapeworm and possibly other worms.  The golden petals can be used to produce a yellow dye.

Association with insects

Being in flower early in the year, the Bermuda buttercup, for all its faults does provide useful nectar to the earlier flying insects such as Violet Carpenter bees and the pretty Moroccan Orange-tip butterfly.

Moroccan Orange Tip – Anthocharis belia  (euphenoides)

Family: Pieridae; Flight period: March – June

A fairly widespread species in Spain in the Spring, the Moroccan Orange tip is similar to the Orange tip, Anthocharis cardamines, found in Northern Europe but with a yellow ground colour. They are tricky butterflies to photograph as they fly quite fast and don’t settle often, but they do seem to be attracted to the flowers of Bermuda buttercup where it occurs in their ranges.

Moroccan Orange-tip on Bermuda buttercup flower

Moroccan Orange-tip on Bermuda buttercup flower

Females do not have the distinctive orange wing tips, theirs are more of a golden yellow and not quite as broad. They lay their eggs singly onto their Larval Host Plants (LHPs): Buckler Mustard (Biscutella laevigata), B. auriculum & B. ambiguavarious brassica plants.

Moroccan Orange Tip (f)-nectaring on Bermuda buttercup flower

Moroccan Orange Tip (f)-nectaring on Bermuda buttercup flower

Scientific naming note:

The range of this species has recently “lost” its European distribution. The European taxon euphenoides has been designated a new species in its own right. There are two subspecies of belia in N Africa – belia which covers most of the distribution and androgyne which flies in SW Morocco and the Anti Atlas mountains. The north African subspecies are more poorly marked on the underside hindwing, ssp. androgyne almost lacking underside markings.

Aftermath of a winter storm

The western end of  the Mediterranean coastline of Southern Spain, closely linked to the Atlantic Ocean by the Straits of Gibraltar, may often be battered during the winter months by storms and wind, rain and high seas can cause a lot of damage.

When I first began visiting the  Guadiaro Nature Reserve in Sotogrande in 2004, there was a boardwalk in place that began at the entrance to the beach, ran right along the edge of the reedbed and ended at a rotunda set close by the mouth of the estuary. The structure made a good viewing platform from which to look over the reedbeds as well as offering protection to the reserve area, keeping people and dogs at bay.

The boardwalk that used to be in place along the beach with Gibraltar in the background

Part of the boardwalk that used to be in place along the beach with Gibraltar in the background

Winter storms soon began to take their toll on the woodwork and repairs were made each spring until they more or less admitted defeat and/or ran out of money in 2007. I made this entry in my journal on January 30th 2007, following a particularly dramatically stormy weekend.

Keen to see the effects of the weekend’s storms and to take advantage of a sunny morning, I decided to head for the Reserve to see what was about.

The reedbeds around the lagoon have been battered and flattened by the storms; much will have been done by the wind, but I suspect that the sea may have reached over there too. At first it appeared that there were few signs of life; nothing moved on the water, although I could hear the sounds of small birds about in the reeds and shrubs around the hide. The belting calls of a Cetti’s Warbler were so close I thought that today I may have a good chance of seeing the elusive little bird, but no luck again. Then a Chiffchaff called and appeared for me to see, complete with a leg ring.

Blue tit

Blue tit with leg ring

A beautiful brightly-coloured Blue Tit arrived to feed on the reed seed-heads, again complete with leg ring.  One of my biggest bug-bears about people using this little stretch of beach is the amount of rubbish they leave behind and there’s nothing like a good storm for exposing the extent of the problem. It seems so wrong to see beautiful birds rummaging around plastic bags and bottles in what should be a natural setting; but then on the other hand, the birds are probably around the rubbish as it attracts, or gives cover to insects. Birds are quick to learn to exploit our less savoury habits and are far more concerned with survival than aesthetics.

A beautiful robin hunts around a plastic bottle

A beautiful robin hunts around a plastic bottle

Black Redstart (m)

Black Redstart (m)

A beautiful Robin appeared from low down amongst the reeds to perch on an old cut stem and a handsome male Black Redstart flew in to take up a higher viewpoint; both had their feathers well fluffed out against the chilly breeze.

A pair of Moorhen emerged from the cover of the reeds at the water’s edge to investigate the area in front of the hide. They too are in their breeding- best now, with glossy, colourful plumage and bright shiny yellow-tipped red beaks.

A moorhen looking in peak condition

A moorhen looking in peak condition

Breaking the peace, a flock of about ten or so Snipe  flew in fast and explosively, scattering themselves and rapidly settling into various spots around the edges of the water, where perfectly camouflaged, they effectively disappeared from view in seconds. From over the top of the hide, almost simultaneously with the Snipe, a Marsh Harrier swooped over the water, landing in on a low shrub a short distance away in the midst of the long reeds; maybe chasing the snipe? Surprised,  I didn’t even think to grab my binoculars. I watched and waited for quite a while to see if it would move again, but it seemed content to stay put.

Snipe heading rapidly for cover

Snipe heading rapidly for cover

Outside the hide the sun was bright and it was warm but there was a definite nip in the air; the best winter weather, although it didn’t look set to last as there was plenty of cloud around too.

Walking towards the beach, I heard Fan-tailed Warblers, saw more Chiffchaffs and a Sardinian Warbler, I heard the Cetti’s again and watched a Moorhen that was swimming about close to the nearside edge of the lagoon, it was flicking its wings and flashing its white tail-end; perhaps the Marsh Harrier was still about.

Arriving at the boardwalk it began to become apparent that the storms had once again wreaked their havoc on this ill-fated construction. The ramp to the new rotunda had separated from it, leaving a wide gap to step across to get onto it. But that was minor damage compared to what had happened further along. Much of the new length of boarding that was only put in place last year has been shattered and incredulously, whole sections have been lifted and hurled piecemeal back to the edge of the reedbed.

A displaced section of the Boardwalk

A displaced section of the Boardwalk

It’s such a shame after all the time and effort that went into rebuilding it, but you do have to question why previous experience hasn’t led to a more substantial structure being built. I wonder how long it will be before it will be repaired this time, if at all? The major problem now is that it leaves the reserve open and vulnerable once more as there is no fencing to protect it either.

A lot of pebbles have been dredged up from the seabed and piled up in places to cover a lot of the previously sandy beach. Large numbers of cockle shells have also been thrown up and mainly scattered randomly along the sea edge, but in a few places there are piles of them. Some were evidently alive when wrenched from their rocky homes and now the poor dead animals await being eaten by gulls or flies. It’s quite a gory sight to see them like that, but its surprising how differently we view them when they’re cooked and on a plate!

Cockle shell open, exposing the animal inside

Cockle shell open, exposing the animal inside

Cymbium shells

Cymbium shells

Unusually, there were quite a number of Cymbium shells of varying sizes, with one of them also still containing the animal. I have only ever found two of these lovely shells before, one sun-bleached one on the sand on the water-works side of the beach and the other here a short while ago, but broken. Research I have done puts these as native to the seas around the coast of Portugal, but I suppose that’s not so far away and they could easily be carried through the Straits to arrive here. It is interesting that they were all thrown up in the same spot though, I wonder if they are, or maybe were, living in one of the reefs close to the shore?

Cymbium, body exposed

Cymbium, body exposed

There were dozens of oranges scattered along the length of the beach as there often are after stormy weather. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine they arrive here after being carried downriver out into the sea and are then washed back in again. 

The beach is always strewn with oranges after a storm

The beach is always strewn with oranges after a storm

More Chiffchaffs flitted back and forth between the shrubs at the back of the beach, where there was also a Sardinian Warbler, a Robin and several Goldfinches. Cutting across towards the estuary there were Cormorants flying hurriedly to and from the sea and the usual host of Yellow-legged Gulls. There were more on the water together with a smaller number of Black-headed Gulls. A  Grey Plover, a Turnstone and a small flock of Sanderling were resting behind some debris.

At the Estuary, a Grey Plover, Turnstone and a small flock of Sanderling resting behind debris on the water's edge

At the Estuary, a Grey Plover, Turnstone and a small flock of Sanderling resting behind debris on the water’s edge

The water level of the estuary has risen  considerably and the sand around it was still very soft and waterlogged so walking further around was not going to be easy, so I turned round and took a brisk walk back the way we had come.

A Grey Wagtail flew in over the reedbed to land by the water and near to the rotunda a pair of Stonechats came out to perch atop a low shrub, the male flying up and diving down; their characteristic display to a female.

Male Stonechat perched on debris on the beach

Male Stonechat perched on debris on the beach

Getting back to the spot where the shells were washed up I stopped again to see if I could find anything else, I sat down on the sand at the back of the beach and lost in thought I didn’t immediately notice that there were three Turnstones very close by pecking around in the sand and taking no notice of me either. All that spoilt the moment was the plastic supermarket carrier bag immediately behind them.

Turstones- a very close-up view

Turstones- a very close-up view

Back on the path going out there seemed to be Chiffchaffs everywhere; flying around the stands of tall reeds that grow on the land in front of the buildings on the opposite side to the lagoon, perched on the wire fence and in or on almost every available shrub. It would seem that they are on the move, maybe they stopped here en route from Africa to wait for the storms to pass.

My Bird List for the morning was quite amazing, amounting to 22 species:

Cormorant; Common Moorhen; Marsh Harrier; Purple Swamp Hen (Gallinule); Grey Plover; Sanderling; Turnstone; Common Snipe; Black-headed Gull; Yellow-legged Gull; White Wagtail; Grey Wagtail; Blue Tit; Goldfinch; Robin; Stonechat; Black Redstart; Common Blackbird; Cetti’s Warbler (heard); Fan-tailed Warbler; Sardinian Warbler; Common Chiffchaff (numerous);

Purple Gallinule or Swamp Hen

The bizarre but gorgeous Purple Gallinule-Porphyrio porphyrio, or Purple Swamphen as it should be more prosaically known, is rated as a scarce resident in Southern Spain. It has the reputation of being  generally difficult to see, so I count myself more than lucky to have had a colony of them very close by, residing within the confines of the Guadiaro Nature Reserve at Sotogrande.

A number of the Purple Swamp Hens feeding around the lagoon edge, viewed from the beach

A number of the resident Purple Swamp Hens feeding around the lagoon edge, viewed from the beach

There is a small but stable breeding community of 10 – 12 Purple Gallinules here and as non-migratory residents it is possible to see them at most times of the year. The best months for good views are during the winter, particularly January and February before the reeds and other vegetation grow too high and they are more likely to be seen out in the open. They become more secretive in the spring and summer when they are breeding, although you may well hear them still. 

Description and appearance

The Purple Swamp Hen is so strangely colourful and exotic-looking that it wouldn’t be out of place as a character in a Dr. Seuss story. It is highly unlikely to be confused with anything else and doesn’t really need a description as there is nothing else quite like it, but here is one anyway.

English name: Purple Swamp Hen, Purple Gallinule; Scientific name: Porphyrio porphrio; Spanish name: Calamon comun; Family: Rail railidae

A gorgeously glossy Purple Gallinule

A gorgeously glossy Purple Gallinule

Similar in size to a domestic chicken, both sexes of the bird are similar in appearance. They have striking bright blue plumage to the throat and breast that blends into a glossy darker purple-blue over the rest of the body and the wings. There is a short upturned tail which is often flicked as the bird walks flashing the bright white coverts beneath it. The very large bill is bright red and triangular in shape, almost parrot-like. The upper mandible is  bulky and curved, adding to the bird’s unique appearance. The bill extends to the top of the head as  a bright red plate, similar to that of the Coots’ white one (the species are related). The long legs are also bright red. The feet have long slender toes with fine claws, especially the rear toe, and were designed for walking across floating and emergent vegetation. The eyes are red too.

The bright white rump

The bright white rump topped with a short upright tail


The swamp hens have some very strange calls, none of which could be called bird-like or melodic, but what they lack in musicality they make up for in originality and decibels. If you don’t know the sounds you may well think they were eminating from an animal rather than a bird. Some days I have walked through the gate at the entrance to the reserve and immediately heard them but then not had a single sighting of them.

Purple Swamp Hen squawking whilst stalking along the edge of the lagoon

Purple Swamp Hen squawking whilst stalking along the edge of the lagoon

On other occasions I have heard an alarm call followed by a swamp hen breaking cover from the reeds then flying noisily and dramatically from one side of the lagoon to the other. The flight is clumsy, but the birds are capable of flying long distances. They are particularly noisy during the breeding season. They swim well, particularly for a bird without webbed feet and have a style similar to a duck’s, moving their heads back and forth as they travel through the water.

An alarmed bird running, flapping its wings and flashing its ruffled white rump

An alarmed bird running, flapping its wings and flashing its ruffled white rump

Feeding & Diet

The Gallinules’ diet is known to consist predominantly of plant matter including shoots, leaves, roots, stems, flowers and seeds. They have also been known to eat eggs, ducklings, small fish and invertebrates such as snails.

Swamp hens out feeding in the flooded reed bed on the edge of the lagoon

Swamp hens out feeding peaceably in the flooded reed bed on the edge of the lagoon

The birds have a suitably strange technique for feeding, which is fascinating to watch. They wade through the shallow water of the lagoon edge, stopping periodically to grasp a stem from under the surface. They select a food item, picking it up with one foot, then hold the stem or root between the toes and raise it up towards the bill. The bird then strips the tough outer casing from reed stems or roots and eats the softer material inside.

Food item is grasped with the long toes then lifted up towards the bill

Food item is grasped with the long toes then lifted up towards the bill

The foot clasping food is raised up towards the bill

The foot clasping food is raised up towards the bill


Although I have never witnessed it, the male Purple Swamp Hen apparently has an elaborate courtship display, holding water weeds in his bill and ‘bowing to the female with loud chuckles’ (wikipaedia).

Purple Swamp hens are monogomous

Purple Swamp hens are monogomous

Members of the species here in Spain, P. porphyrio, tend to be monogomous. Pairs nest well hidden amongst matted reeds slightly above water level in clumps of rushes, where the female lays 3–6 speckled eggs, pale yellowish stone to reddish buff, blotched and spotted with reddish brown. The incubation period is 23–27 days, and is performed by both sexes.

The chicks are feathered with downy black feathers and able to leave the nest soon after hatching, but will often remain in the nest for a few days. Young chicks are fed by their parents for between 10–14 days, after which they begin to feed themselves.

A Purple Swamp Hen chick is not particularly beautiful. I photographed this one at Laguna Sidonia Medina

A Purple Swamp Hen chick is not particularly beautiful. I photographed this one at Laguna Sidonia Medina

I never saw once saw chicks here in Sotogrande, but came upon this one on a trip to Laguna Sidonia Medina one May. Up to their ankles in soft mud, there were two of them out in the open on the bank of a shallow stream and a parent was close by calling them anxiously from nearby cover.


Other places to see Purple Swamp Hen in Southern Spain

Purple Swamp Hen - La Janda

Purple Swamp Hen – La Janda

Other sites in Southern Spain I have recorded sightings of Purple Swamp Hen include the other smaller lagoon in Sotogrande, Laguna de las Camellias; Coto de Donana (Brazo del Este); La Janda & Laguna de Sidonia Medina

The Spotted Flycatcher

July and August are not the best months to see birds in Southern Spain, but one that can still be seen in a diverse number of locations, fairly frequently and right through to mid-late September  is the Spotted Flycatcher. Although not colourful, they are very attractive and characterful and very entertaining to watch as they dart from their perch to chase acrobatically after flying insects.

Spotted Fly Catcher – Muscicapa striata

Spanish: Papamoscas gris

‘Spotted’ Flycatcher is a bit of a misnomer, as the adult bird’s head and greyish-brown throat and breast is streaked with brown rather than spotted, as suggested by the ‘striata‘ of its scientific name. Having said that, the young birds could be described as spotted, so perhaps that’s where it stems from.

Spotted Flycatchers are summer migrants to Southern Spain, and are then very common throughout the region, often staking a claim to territories that include gardens and other ‘humanised’ areas. They arrive from their wintering grounds in Africa to breed here, sometime around the end of April to the beginning of May, as insect numbers are rising.

This one arrived in the garden on May 1st

This one arrived in the garden on May 1st

We were very lucky to have had Spotted Flycatchers return to our garden every year and I used to look forward very much to their arrival and the opportunities to watch them at very close quarters. I have no way of knowing whether any of the returned birds were the same ones that had been to this particular place in previous years; I have been informed by people that are far more knowledgeable than me on the subject that it is not very likely and that this is simply a ‘territory’, open to claim by whichever bird gets there first and can hang onto it.

I still like to think that at least for some of the years it may have been perhaps at least one of a pair that had been before, or perhaps one of the young ones that had been raised there. I also discovered from the BTO website that the maximum recorded age for a Spotted Flycatcher is 7 years 10 months 7 days (Recorded in 1963), so surely they don’t go about hunting for a new home every year!

I’ve never witnessed a territorial dispute between Spotted Flycatchers and have no idea if they arrive alone or with a mate. I also admit that I have never heard one sing, which was a bit puzzling as I spent so many hours watching their behaviour over several years. I was quite relieved to read the following on the Wildlife Sound Recording website  “Sound is not a conspicuous feature as spotted flycatchers arrive in their nesting territories. It is true that the male will sing a high-pitched warble from time to time but this occurrence is far from being common and it is no disgrace for an ornithologist to admit that he has never heard the true song.”

I first saw this one on 6/5/07

I first saw this one on 6/5/07

Some newly returned birds made more of their arrival than others. On a couple of occasions I have become aware of them as the first thing they did was to take a bath. Others arrived quietly and were just suddenly ‘there’. The occasional one arrived with some drama. The day the bird in the photograph above arrived back I was out in the garden having just taken some photographs of a lovely Red Admiral butterfly that was posing obligingly on some blossom. I thought I had glimpsed the bird a little earlier on perched in our tall yucca tree, but was taken completely by surprise when it suddenly swooped past me, snatched the butterfly from where it was basking and swooped back to the tree with it. At least I had a photograph of the butterfly to mark its short life.

The Red Admiral before it was snatched away by the Spotted Flycatcher

The Red Admiral before it was snatched away by the Spotted Flycatcher

Within our garden there were several favoured perching spots, some of which were in open spots that were clearly visible from the house so I could watch them closely and without disturbing them; one was on the hand rail of the swimming pool, another on the top of the outdoor shower. They definitely show a preference for perches that are not too far above the ground and in other locations I often saw them on boundary fences or on top of posts.

Watching for prey from the handrail of the swimming pool

Watching for prey from the top of the swimming pool

While they wait for prey to fly into range, the bird sits upright, head slightly sunk into its shoulders. When it spots potential prey it darts out after it, then depending on the outcome it may loop around to return to the same perch or swoop to another.

29/5/09-On top of the shower pipe in typical slightly hunched hunting pose

29/5/09-On top of the shower pipe in typical slightly hunched hunting pose

A range of insects in addition to flies will be pursued as potential food including butterflies, bees, wasps and hoverflies.


The birds begin breeding in May, soon after their return. In June 2006, I was thrilled to see ‘our’ pair of flycatchers together with a family of three young ones. They were all gathered on a branch of one of the cork oaks that overlooked the garden at the back of the house and the parents both worked hard at keep their offspring supplied with food. 

One of the adults perched  on the corner of the roof beneath the cork oaks watching for flies

16/6/06 One of the adults perched on the corner of the roof beneath the cork oaks watching for flies

The following day I was even more delighted to see that two of the young birds were perched together in the small fig tree that grew against the wall on the boundary with the Cork Oak plot and no more than a metre from a bedroom window.

060616TGSPN-Spotted Flycatcher young-Sotogrande, Spain

Two of three young Spotted Flycatchers in a fig tree

The young or juvenile spotted flycatchers are a more grey-brown than the adults and are prominently speckled; they remain dependent on their parents feeding them for about three weeks after leaving the nest. It must take quite a bit of practice before they become adept at catching their own.

A closer look at one of the young birds

A closer look at one of the young birds

The birds will be around until at least September, as long as there is food available, before heading back to their winter feeding grounds. They may well be joined by others on their return migration south from Northern Europe too, that stop to refuel before also heading off.