TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
21 - 28 June 2003
Butterflies, birds & flowers of the Serra del Cadí
Apart from the poor weather towards the end of the trip, most days we were regaled with brilliant sunshine, which gave us ample opportunity to sample the butterfly fauna of the Serra del Cadí. We were all amazed by the sheer numbers of butterflies on the wing, which was also accompanied by a high level of diversity. No less than 101 species were recorded (a round hundred in the Cadí plus Dusky Heath in the Garraf): getting on for twice that of the whole of the United Kingdom! Particular highlights were the Mountain Alcon Blue near Orden, the Mountain Fritillary on the Muntanya dAranser, the Large Tortoiseshells near Talltendre and at Estana, and the Riparts Anomalous Blue near Villec, although what will remain uppermost in the mind are surely the banks of dwarf elder Sambucus ebulus, also known as danewort, with their hordes of nectaring Hairstreaks.
The number of vascular plant species that we encountered during the week came to around 350 excluding grasses, sedges and rushes and although only a small proportion were monocots, we delighted in the martagon and Pyrenean lilies and vanilla and bug orchids. The colour combinations in the damp meadow near Cap den Rec and the dry pastures below the Coll de Pal are surely among the most memorable experiences of the week.
A total of just 83 bird species was our tally for the week (82 in the Cadí plus Sardinian Warbler in the Garraf), which was a little disappointing, especially as we missed out on both Black Woodpecker and Lammergeier. However, considering that we were in an essentially montane environment, it was a bonus to be able to add such typically Mediterranean species as Eurasian Hoopoe, European Bee-eater and Golden Oriole to the list.
Other vertebrates were rather few and far between, with our mammal records being limited to a dead Pine Marten (a road-kill, seen by the leaders only when they went to get diesel), a few Isard (Chamois), a single Red Squirrel and a Weasel. Although our family of Wild Boar foraging below the viewpoint near the Coll de Pal was a rare treat, we were disappointed not to encounter any Alpine Marmots. The only reptile of the trip was the Common Wall Lizard, seen almost every day, with amphibians seen including Midwife Toad tadpoles and a few Common Frogs, plus calling Iberian Pool Frogs noted at the Sanavastre gravel pit.
Teresa went alone to meet the group at Barcelona airport as John had been stricken with some sort of virus, the doctor had been called, and he languished in bed until 5pm.
The temperature was well into the 30s, even at the 1100m altitude of Prullans. Once everyone had been installed in their rooms, we reconvened in the gardens of the Hotel Muntanya, in the relative cool and well supplied with beers, orange juice and coke, where we tucked into a merienda of Spanish omelette and plates of cold meat. For an hour before dinner, we went for a gentle stroll up through the village, accompanied by magnificent views of the Serra del Cadí on the opposite side of the Segre valley, bathed in evening sunshine. A Common Nightingale sang from the vegetable gardens just below the road, and those of us who had rooms facing west were able to listen to its haunting melody every morning.
We also had wonderful close views of a couple of male Black Redstarts in a little paddock by the road. The several wagtails that we encountered were initially identified by some of the group as Pied, but here it is the continental white race. Among the abundant House Sparrows, we also picked out Rock Sparrows, first by their almost Willow-Warbler-like tui calls, and later by their stripy heads; again, these were to be a regular feature of the trip, as a pair was nesting in the hotel itself.
Here too we spotted quite a few Colorado Beetles and their larvae on the potatoes in a vegetable patch below the track. This is a widespread beetle in Spain and does not seem to be the cause of any serious loss of crop, and it is interesting that we in Britain should think of it as in the same category as foot-and-mouth. Perhaps farmers do this to us? Teresa pointed out field eryngo Eryngium campestre among the wayside plants a common weed in Spain but confined only to a few sites in Warwickshire back home as well as meadow cranes-bill Geranium pratense, here in an extremely pale colour form.
Towards the end of the walk, we heard our first Golden Oriole, uttering a coarse, jay-like call from the riverine forest, rather than the familiar fluting song, saw a smart male Common Wall Lizard, and encountered a Humming-bird Hawk-moth.
We returned for dinner and a reasonably early night after a long days travel for most of the party. However, the young catalans seemed to have other ideas, and many of us had a very disturbed nights sleep until the firecrackers finally subsided sometime in the early hours.
We awoke to brilliant sunshine and it looked as though we were in for a scorcher. In the event, while it was definitely hot in the sun, there was a refreshing breeze from the west all day that helped to make movement possible. A still somewhat-under-the-weather John decided to see what he could do, walked with the group until lunch-time, took a siesta, and actually gained energy through the day, rather than lost it.
A short drive this morning took us a couple of miles to the east, before turning steeply up the hillside to the north, following a narrow road with innumerable very sharp hairpin bends. Towards the top of the hill, we stopped to look at the predominantly grey-leaved, scented Mediterranean vegetation, consisting of perennial herbs and small woody shrubs that had colonised the abandoned agricultural terraces at about 1500m. The main shrubs were the extremely spiny Genista scorpius, common juniper Juniperus communis and box Buxus sempervirens, while among the more eye-catching plants here were a pink form of the common rock-rose (Helianthemum nummularium ssp. pyrenaicum), a yellow-flowered kidney-vetch Anthyllis vulneraria ssp. sampaioana, meadow clary Salvia pratensis and two species of blue flax: beautiful flax Linum narbonense (with pointed sepals) and the very similar Linum perenne ssp. alpinum (with blunt sepals and slightly smaller flowers).
A Short-toed Eagle soared into view, an Ortolan Bunting did its striking imitation of the opening bar of Beethovens 5th Symphony: zee-zee-zee zurr, Eurasian Skylarks trilled incessantly overhead, and Linda found a splendid olive-green bush cricket that we all stopped to admire. Butterflies were whizzing by too frequently for us to keep count of a growing list, but it was exciting to see our first Apollo. We saw several more through the day, but none ever nectaring, and all moving too fast and/or too distantly to be closely examined, with other species of interest here including Swallowtail and Scarce Swallowtail, Black-veined White, Knapweed and High Brown Fritillaries, Large Wall Brown and Blue-spot Hairstreak. Perhaps the most exciting find, however, for John and Teresa, was a Mountain Small White, an extremely scarce butterfly in Spain, whose larvae feed exclusively on burnt candytuft Aethionema saxatile; despite much searching later on in the week, this was to be our only specimen.
A little further up the road, we stopped by a large manure heap which was literally teeming with butterflies, including masses of the very similar Idas and Silver-studded Blues; Teresa demonstrated that at least one male had a forward-pointing spine on its tibia: diagnosis Silver-studded Blue. She also considered the slightly browner ground colour of the underwings, together with a broader black border to the upper wings might be jizz features for distinguishing the two. We also saw a rather tatty Osiris Blue it was the end of the season for this species which is very similar to the Small Blue; its larval food-plant here, Onobrychis supina, was everywhere abundant, and the adults too are often seen nectaring on this species. Emily also turned up a strikingly-beautiful male Turquoise Blue here, and we also saw our first Mazarine Blues, Glanville Fritillaries and Chestnut/Spanish Heaths.
Plant-wise, colourful species here included peach-leaved bellflower Campanula persicifolia, straw foxglove Digitalis lutea, alpine aster Aster alpinus and St Bernards lily Anthericum liliago. A Eurasian Griffon Vulture floated lazily overhead, and we also saw an Ortolan Bunting, instead of just identifying its song, and glimpsed a Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush.
We were soon out of the minibuses in the little village of Orden, packing up our lunch for the proposed walk to Talltendre and beyond. The wet, muddy patches beside the minibuses provided some splendid groups of whites, skippers and blues sucking up nutrient-rich goo presumably all males who need such minerals to promote successful breeding.
After walking away from Orden, we dipped down across the first stream and began the hot, winding climb up to the other little village of Talltendre. Butterflies were buzzing around in such numbers that it was difficult to know where to turn next. Dudley recalled how he had recently had an experience like this, rare in Britain nowadays, in butterfly-rich Dorset, but involving fewer species of course. Teresa made the star spot of the morning by finding a Mountain Alcon Blue one of the extraordinary group of large blues, all rare and threatened by habitat loss in Europe in a scrubby meadow along the way, although searches for the food-plant in this part of the Pyrenees the cross gentian Gentiana cruciata proved unsuccessful. All along here, we could hear Common Quails uttering their soft, yet far-carrying whit whit-whit, whit whit-whit. As is usual however, we saw none.
By this time, the heat was getting to John, so he returned to Orden to bring the minibus up to Talltendre, at the end of the road. Both Orden and Talltendre are essentially still quite remote agricultural villages, yet the fingers of tourism are beginning to reach there, with well-marked walkers trails and restored, presumably second, homes. Once out of the village we spotted a number of interesting plants, such as the lovely Carthusian pink Dianthus carthusianorum, the yellow-rattle Rhinanthus mediterraneus, cornflowers Centaurea cyanus and the spaghetti-like strands of greater dodder Cuscuta europaea, which parasitises nettles and is nowadays pretty rare in the UK.
Beyond Talltendre, we found a shady spot for lunch, adjacent to which was a small stream, on whose margins we discovered 200-plus blues, mostly Silver-studded and Idas. Afterwards, with John having a siesta frequently interrupted, it has to be said, by passing must-see butterflies Teresa took everyone else for a further plod up the hill, where we encountered fringed pink Dianthus hyssopifolius ssp. hyssopifolius, globeflowers Trollius europaeus, the variegated-leaved Pyrenean eryngo Eryngium bourgatii, ground-pine Ajuga chamaepitys, nowadays very rare in Britain, black henbane Hyoscyamus niger, round-headed rampion Phyteuma orbiculare, stemless cotton-thistle Onopordum acaulon and dipcadi Dipcadi serotinum, which is rather like a brown bluebell.
Once atop the limestone plateau which stretches from Talltendre to above Prullans, in and amongst the scattered pines we came across Common Linnets, Mistle Thrushes and a family of Coal Tits, but the butterflies turned out to be rather disappointing, with our most exciting finds being a Piedmont Ringlet and the burnet moth Zygaena rhadamanthus. As is so commonly the case in these parts, it is the meadowforest mosaic, particularly close to water, which proves to be the best place in which to observe butterflies. And so, on returning to the lunch-time stream, we saw a Rock Grayling towering over the carpet of blues on the mud while, just above, Malcolm spotted a Large Tortoiseshell nectaring on thyme beside the path, in surprisingly good condition when you consider that it had been on the wing since last July or August. Here too were Pearl-bordered Fritillary and a female Eschers Blue, as well as a smart Golden-ringed Dragonfly.
Hot and tired now, we returned towards the minibuses and a welcome cold drink. Teresa, Linda and Chris eschewed the offer of a lift back to Orden, instead descending by a steep, narrow shepherds path, where they spotted a Queen of Spain Fritillary. Once reunited in Orden, a single Eurasian Hoopoe briefly announced its presence, with its distinctive, soft and mellow poo poo poo call, although we were unable to catch more than a fleeting glimpse of the bird.
In our evening meeting we noted that we had recorded 56 species of butterfly during the day. This is exceptionally good, especially when you consider that it equals the whole of the British butterfly fauna!
We drove a few miles west down the main road to Martinet, along the Segre valley, before turning sharply right to begin winding north up towards the village of Lles. Below here, at about 1400m, we stopped for a 5-minute leg-stretch and mini exploration. This turned into a full half hour because, of course, we all began finding interesting things in the warm sunshine of our second day of excellent weather.
We were on acid rocks all day today, to begin with mainly slates and shales, plus glacial sediments with granite boulders in them, and thus were not expecting to see the spectacular range and number of butterfly and plant species as yesterday. However, we were not to be disappointed. At this first site, Malcolm immediately noticed a stranded, recently-emerged, but imperfectly formed, Marbled White. This turned out to the Iberian Marbled White, which has pale shoulders on the upper wing, in contrast to the black ones of the British species. Then Emily noticed a little black butterfly zooming about along the soft-muddy stretch of the track. We had perfect views of it through binoculars once it had settled; its rich coloration of dark red-brown making it look black in flight made it unmistakably a newly-emerged Red-underwing Skipper. And then we had a long and close examination of a fritillary that Teresa and John predictably! fought long and hard over and, maybe, John just about won on points after an exhausting and prolonged bout. It was either Lesser Marbled or Marbled, and on balance, we settled for the former, making three new species in half an hour .not a bad start for the butterflies.
Meanwhile, the birds were calling our attentions. Predictably, a Common Quail in the adjacent meadow kept up its simple symphony throughout, a Corn Bunting trilled from the top of a hawthorn bush, and a Yellowhammer sang from the pines. But perhaps the find of this first stop was the stand of almost perfect bug orchids Orchis coriophora in a small wet flush, accompanied by twayblades Listera ovata and fragrant and heath spotted orchids (Gymnadenia conopsea and Dactylorhiza maculata, respectively).
Once back in the minibuses, we soon stopped again at the borders of a very large and well fenced off haymeadow surrounded by pine woodland near Cap den Rec. It was a pity that we couldnt wade in here, as there were Bog Fritillaries galore here, among their larval food-plant common bistort Polygonum bistorta. This very rare European species is most threatened because of the frequency of agricultural drainage of sites like this. Mazarine Blues were also ten-a-penny here, and we also saw a female Purple-edged Copper and several Queen of Spain Fritillaries.
It was a beautiful sight, this great meadow stretching down towards the forest edge, full of colour and variety, including eye-catching species such as great yellow gentian Gentiana lutea, spring gentian G. verna, field gentian Gentianella campestris, whorled lousewort Pedicularis verticillata, spiked rampion Phyteuma spicata and spotted cats-ear Hypochoeris maculata. The adjacent forest consisted of two pines Scots Pinus sylvestris and mountain P. uncinata and appeared to be natural in its structure and extent. Goldcrests were heard (by some!) singing high in the canopy.
Further up the track we drove through the high altitude pine forest which began to look increasingly threadbare, possibly as a result of acid rain: certainly, many of the trees seemed less than fully healthy. This said, Teresa and Ken thought they saw a Black Woodpecker disappearing through the trees, but it was such a fleeting glimpse that neither would like to stake their lives much less their reputations! on it.
The understorey of the pine forest was composed mainly of the alpenrose Rhododendron ferrugineum, azalea-like and flowering brightly, and we stopped by a clump of the spectacular Pyrenean lily Lilium pyrenaicum to do a little more exploring. We found a single, late-flowering individual of the yellow form of alpine pasque flower Pulsatilla alpina ssp. apiifolia, as well as robust specimens of the umbellifers molopospermum Molopospermum peloponnesiacum and masterwort Peucedanum ostruthium. Here too were mountain houseleek Sempervivum montanum, alpine rose Rosa pendulina, columbine Aquilegia vulgaris and striped toadflax Linaria repens, several Common Frogs and a singing Common Chiffchaff.
At the end of the track, by now at 2135m, we parked and began to explore the lush habitat around the crystal-clear stream running through a walled-off picnic area. The wetter areas harboured ten-petalled, deep-violet Pyrenean gentian Gentiana pyrenaica, Pyrenean lousewort Pedicularis pyrenaica, common and large-flowered butterworts Pinguicula vulgaris and P. grandiflora, starry saxifrage Saxifraga stellaris and purple colts-foot Homogyne alpina, which is extremely rare and protected by law in the UK. Drier patches, by contrast, were studded with alpine clover Trifolium alpinum, tormentil Potentilla erecta and alpine catchfly Lychnis alpina, another scarce and legally protected species in Britain.
The butterfly folk made strenuous efforts to net one of the many individuals of a small fritillary buzzing around, but were failing dismally .when a small boy came up with one in his hand! It turned out to be a Small Pearl-bordered: our first of the week. We laid out the picnic lunch on a table in the partial shade and enjoyed the sound of the cattle bells and tinkling stream while we ate.
After lunch, Emily had a relaxing time watching a pair of wood ants manipulate, with great skill and patience, a green caterpillar towards their nest, while the others trekked slowly on up the mountain. To their astonishment, Malcolm spotted a butterfly which, if not unknown to science, was certainly new to Teresa: a female Mountain Fritillary, our fourth new fritillary species of the day, which in Spain is confined to the eastern Pyrenees and possibly the Puerto de San Glorio, to the south of the Picos de Europa.
Up in this area of scattered pines we also heard and saw Citril Finches, Crested Tits and Great Spotted Woodpeckers and obtained good views of Rock Buntings, as well as seeing Grey Wagtails and a female Eurasian Bullfinch, but from the normally noisy Alpine Marmots on the surrounding slopes, there was not even a peep! To complete the day, it only remained for Sue to spot a pair of Golden Eagles soaring serenely and majestically up ahead of us as we drove back down to Martinet via Aranser.
We awoke to another day that promised to be fine and sunny, even if there was a high haze throughout the day. Immediately after breakfast, we headed back through the Cadí tunnel to the village of Bagà, where we spent a few minutes looking round the interpretation centre of the Cadí-Moixeró parc natural and also purchased maps, postcards and not a few T-shirts!
Our first stop on the narrow winding road which leads up to the Coll de Pal (2100m) was for a quick wander beside the road where it crosses the stream and into pastures and mixed woodland either side. Floristically there was little that was new to us, but the butterflies proved to be excellent in this mosaic of habitats. Among the many species already on the wing, that morning by far the most eye-catching were the Apollos nectaring close to the road, plus a Silver-washed Fritillary dashing about. This was our first new species and we soon added two more: a handsome female Sooty Copper and an Ilex Hairstreak, as well as seeing a male Eschers Blue (wed only seen a female previously).
At the second short stop, halfway up a tortuous cliff-side section of the road, we were treated to a Common Buzzard spectacular, with two individuals stooping from a great height, followed soon by a European Honey Buzzard with a slightly different taste in aerial dynamics. Here, we also saw another Rock Grayling and were pleased to discover (only in the sense of it being a species new to us) that the dead butterfly picked up a little way back down the road was a White Admiral. A single Pyrenean bellflower Campanula speciosa growing from the cliff here was, sadly, the only example that we found during the whole week.
At the mirador, with its superb view over the pre-Pyrenean ranges to the south though not very far today because of the haze we located some splendid plants growing on the adjacent cliffs. There were colourful clumps of lavender cotton Santolina chamaecyparissus, Pyrenean lavender Lavandula angustifolia ssp. pyrenaica and wall germander Teucrium chamaedrys, as well as the related felty germander T. polium, here represented by the yellow subspecies aureum, and white-flowered, straggly clumps of Pyrenean flax Linum suffruticosum ssp. salsoloides.
We continued on up to a small refuge at about 1900m, set amid incredibly diverse sub-alpine pastures and backed by a low limestone cliff. Not only was it botanically interesting, but it was also immensely pleasing aesthetically, with its really dense patches of yellow rock-roses and pink rest-harrows. We encountered many of the typical Pyrenean grassland species here, including vanilla orchid Nigritella nigra (located by Chris and Linda), star-of-Bethlehem Ornithogalum umbellatum, clustered bellflower Campanula glomerata, the trailing Pyrenean vetch Vicia pyrenaica, with large, solitary pink-purple flowers, the white-flowered mountain clover Trifolium montanum, cypress spurge Euphorbia cyparissias, large self-heal Prunella grandiflora and alpine gypsophila Gypsophila repens, with delicate pale pink flowers, as well as carpets of the rest-harrows Ononis striata (yellow) and O. cristata (pink and white), the latter going under the distinctive common name of Mount Cenis restharrow.
The adjacent limestone rock-gardens hosted the white-woolly, scented lesser catmint Nepeta nepetella, the yellow-flowered labiate Sideritis hyssopifolia and Pyrenean germander Teucrium pyrenaicum, while another plant of note here was the Pyrenean golden drop Onosma bubanii. We were torn between looking at the many butterflies on and around the limestone screes and pastures, and gazing up at the cliffs for passing raptors. Despite our best efforts, no Lammergeiers appeared, so we had to make do with the Eurasian Griffon Vultures which cruised by at regular intervals, as well as distinguishing between the calls of distant Red-billed and Alpine Choughs.
Closer to the ground, we were mainly preoccupied with the skippers and spent a long time agonising and arguing over the various features. Finally, we added three new species to our list for the week: Rosy Grizzled, Foulquiers Grizzled and Carline Skippers. They are extremely difficult to separate except by dissecting their naughty bits and someone really needs to come up with a convincing key to the field identification of Pyrgus skippers!
Lunch was eaten at the picnic tables at the refuge, during which Peter whod wandered off with his spotted a splendid female chamois standing in the shade of a line of pines no more than 100m away. And there it remained for the whole of our lunch break. Afterwards, we walked slowly in the hot sun up towards a second mirador looking north.
The first batch of limestone crags proved to be very rich botanically, turning up Pyrenean honeysuckle Lonicera pyrenaica, rock soapwort Saponaria ocymoides, Globularia repens, with flowers on stalks barely 5mm long, livelong saxifrage Saxifraga paniculata, mountain kidney vetch Anthyllis montana, mountain tragacanth Astragalus sempervirens, hiding both its white flowers and spines beneath its leafy canopy and, last but not least, several amazing spikes of Pyrenean saxifrage S. longifolia, unfortunately too high for photographic purposes. Instead Ken spent some time photographing a rather splendid spike of greater butterfly orchid Platanthera chlorantha which Sue had located for him. Nearby some extensive mats of alpine skullcap Scutellaria alpina decorated the screes, while common houseleek Sempervivum tectorum, with leaves only hairy round the edges, adorned a small limestone outcrop. Ken also found a superb Apollo caterpillar, black velvet with bright orange spots feeding, as it should do, in full sun on a stonecrop Sedum sp.
Next stop was a small area of abandoned mines, whose shady tunnels and fissures hosted yellow wood violet Viola biflora, alpine forget-me-not Myosotis alpestris, Valeriana apula, alpine pasque flower (this time the white-flowered subspecies font-queri), more Pyrenean saxifrage and, perhaps best of all, ramonda Ramonda myconi, looking for all the world like African violets. Growing in full sunshine on the outer margins of the mines were some large cushions of rock storks-bill Erodium petraeum and the yellow-flowered Pyrenean toadflax Linaria supina, and we had good views of a pair of Alpine Choughs, who came to investigate our party. On a large boulder a little further on, we also found the very rare reddish saxifrage Saxifraga media and some more-photographable spikes of Pyrenean saxifrage.
Meanwhile, a Wood Lark was singing magnificently from where Peter spotted it on the very top of a pine not far away and several of the group had excellent photographic opportunities provided by an Apollo nectaring on a thistle on the path, instead of simply whizzing b,. The mirador which looked north over towards the back of the Moixeró massif was memorable apart from the views for the family of Wild Boar which Chris spotted below us, rummaging around in a small clearing in the pines; we counted at least one adult (some members of the party claimed two) and around six half-grown boarlets.
Tea was taken and, while one minibus proceeded directly back, the other hovered in the valley below to have a final look for butterflies. We were in luck, and added the splendid Marbled Fritillary and Langs Short-tailed Blue to our list, making a total of ten new species for the day, as well as enjoying the sight of live White Admirals gliding about!
After breakfast, we went west to Martinet to buy bread for lunch, which also gave us the opportunity to watch out for White-throated Dippers and European Crag Martins on the Segre river, both of which were duly located. We then retraced our steps and drove a few miles east of Prullans to an abandoned and flooded gravel pit near the village of Sanavastre for a rather different range of birds.
Moorhens and Great Reed Warblers announced themselves in the pit itself, the latters song hard to pick up amid the raucous croaks of the Iberian Pool Frogs, while European Sand Martins and splendidly colourful European Bee-eaters hawked over the water and dived in and out of their nest-holes. We all had a brief but splendid view of a brilliant male Golden Oriole in one of the poplars, while Rock Sparrows called from the entrances to their nests in some of the old Bee-eater holes on the far side of the pit.
In the surrounding arable land, the atmosphere and sounds were redolent of East Anglia golden cereal crops, arable weeds, Eurasian Skylarks singing but here too, Crested Larks and at 1100m! Our first new butterfly of the day was, appropriately enough, the Essex Skipper. This little one was abundant everywhere we went during the morning along track and field edges. We also had reasonable views of a Eurasian Hoopoe and Spotless Starlings here.
Moving on into the charming little village of Sanavastre itself, we parked the minibuses and walked down the track through the water meadows towards the river Segre. It was a remarkable sight to see a medieval system of agriculture, common in the river valleys of the southern English chalklands until the early 20th century, still being properly practised here. How lovely to see clear water being channelled down to the recently cut meadows to promote rapid regrowth of the aftermath of hay or silage cutting. The colourful flora along the ditches was dominated by purple loosestrife Lythrum salicaria, great willowherb Epilobium hirsutum, meadow-sweet Filipendula ulmaria, comfrey Symphytum tuberosum, blue water-speedwell Veronica anagallis-aquatica and yellow flag Iris pseudacorus. Here too the odonates attracted our attention, the most obvious species being Beautiful Demoiselle, Large Red ands Azure Damselflies and Broad-bodied Chaser. A smart pair of Red-backed Shrikes was also seen here.
We disturbed a Little Ringed Plover leading its little chicks along the riverside track and we listened to a fair cacophony of birds singing in the waterside scrub and tall herb vegetation Common Nightingales, Blackcaps and a Eurasian Wryneck. Here too, we caught occasional glimpses of a butterfly that was almost certainly the elusive Lesser Purple Emperor dashing about among and between the poplars and willows, but no-one got a convincing view, and we added a further two new butterflies to our growing list for the week: several Ringlets, dancing attendance on a flowering bramble bush, and the charming little Weavers Fritillary.
We made for Alp and another twisting climb up towards La Molina to our lunch spot in a little side valley at about 1700m. This was beside a small dam, amongst pine trees to give us shade as the temperature climbed towards the mid-30s, where there was a tremendous range of plants and butterflies. Almost immediately, we saw a spectacular moth zooming along the edge of the water clearly a hawk-moth, and when John caught it after lunch, it turned out to be a magnificent Striped Hawk-moth.
Malcolm meanwhile located a male Scarce Copper, a butterfly as brilliantly reflective orange as could be imagined, and both he and Sue managed to obtain good photographs. Later, a male Purple-edged Copper, almost similarly resplendent, was even more obliging after the sun retreated behind gathering thunderclouds. Other new species of butterfly quickly encountered after lunch as we walked up the sylvan path beside the gurgling stream were Green Hairstreaks a great surprise this late in the season a Green-underside Blue and a False Heath Fritillary. The great find of the day was left to Teresa, who located a place where Clouded Apollos were flying. Less exciting, but not much so for John, was finding Large Ringlet for the first time during the week.
We constantly came across new and beautiful plants, including broad-leaved helleborine Epipactis helleborine, martagon lilies Lilium martagon, common valerian Valeriana officinalis (great for nectaring butterflies), fly honeysuckle Lonicera xylosteum, serrated wintergreen Orthilia secunda, water avens Geum rivale, and gromwell Lithospermum officinale. No new birds made an appearance, but the pines were full of the songs and calls of Crested and Coal Tits, Goldcrests and European Robins. It was a tranquil place but, suddenly, felt less so with the rumble of distant thunder. It came to nothing as we descended to the minibuses and made for Alp and Bellver de Cerdanya for a spot of shopping. The latter is an ancient hill village with the church characteristically perched right on top. It is a fair climb up there, the reward for which is a fine view and a rather splendidly kept herb garden.
This really was an incredible butterfly day! Those less interested in these beasts and more in plants and birds may have felt short-changed, but to see 71 species of butterfly in one day, with 60 before lunch, is really an astonishing achievement.
We got cracking in good time this morning. After a rather feeble early morning thunderstorm, we were off and away at nine in bright, quite cool conditions, despite which we noticed that the butterflies were already very active as we drove up the hill towards Estana (1483m). We parked at the entrance to the village and, while walking up through, noticed a good cluster of butterflies nectaring on the cotton thistles Onopordum sp. on a bank on the right. Here, there were two Large Tortoiseshells, a Rock Grayling and two Commas a good start to the day. Then a Great Banded Grayling a striking dark butterfly with bold white stripes in flight sat on the road blocking our way, while a Common Whitethroat sang lustily.
We were starting to climb now through the light, open pinewoods and heard and saw Firecrests and Crested Tits. Most of the group ascended to about 1750 metres, while Emily stayed sensibly cool at a lower altitude and contemplated life, the world and the universe. We were hoping to see Black Satyr but were to be disappointed on this occasion; it was probably a little early in the season. However, at about the time we needed to turn back, we had a delightful surprise. Peter was trying to catch a butterfly (and missed!) but nearly caught, to the immense surprise of all of us, a Rock Bunting! Quite by chance, it was sitting on its beautifully hidden nest beneath a lavender bush right at his feet, with five exquisitely marked eggs.
Although our attentions were mainly on the butterflies, we saw in passing a few interesting plants, including the magnificent red trefoil Trifolium rubens, cut-leaved self-heal Prunella laciniata, the composite Tanacetum corymbosum and round-headed leek Allium sphaerocephalon, the latter extremely rare and protected by law in the UK.
Returning to the minibuses to go and find a shady spot for lunch, Emily spied a Long-tailed Blue and, by the Estana water-trough, some mud-puddling Chalk-hill Blues, a Purple-shot Copper and a Grayling caught our eye: all new species for the week. And Estana still had one more surprise up its sleeve: a Sloe Hairstreak nectaring on dwarf elder by the minibuses. What a superb butterfly site this is!
On the way down from Estana, Johns minibus (well, those inside it!) saw two Lesser Purple Emperors gliding along in front. Lunch was late and taken in a newly-cut meadow with a beautiful view near the ancient chapel at Mare de Deu de Batanist. After a short stroll up the adjacent lane, we went down to one of Teresas special spots near the church at Villec where those of us really into butterflies enjoyed an unforgettable and probably unrepeatable butterfly fest. Here, there were no less than five species of hairstreak on a single flower head (one of many) of dwarf elder. These were Ilex, False Ilex, Blue-spot, Sloe and, the one we had particularly come to this spot to see: the White-letter. These are all very closely related and rather similar in appearance, so it was a joy to see them all together and be able to see the small differences which separate them.
Meanwhile, Emily and Peter were investigating the plant scene and found some splendid clumps of masterwort Astrantia major, a familiar garden plant in England, together with swallow-wort Vincetoxicum hirundinaria, bladder-senna Colutea arborescens and a fine clump of martagon lilies in full bloom. A little further down the valley, we had a final exploration of a small meadow by the river, together with the tree and shrubby vegetation beside the road. Here, Teresa caught an odd-looking blue. It wasnt blue at all, but a kind of latte-brown on the underside and a uniform coffee colour on the upper. It turned out to be a female Riparts Anomalous Blue, previously unrecorded in this area, indeed an exciting discovery.
Most of us then returned to the hotel, while part of the group remained here to try and sort out which of the White Admirals it was that we had seen floating about. It turned out to be the White once more, and not the Southern White, which we were not to see on this trip (as a point of interest, during Teresas trip the following week, the Southern White Admirals far out-numbered the Whites). A brief stop on the banks of the Segre in search of Mountain Small Whites turned up, instead, several Spanish Purple Hairstreaks and a Holly Blue, bringing our total species number for the week thus far to an astonishing 98!
Greeted with yet another brilliant, clear, sunny morning, we got off to a flyer with Teresa and Malcolm returning triumphantly from an early morning butterfly recce with species number 99: Espers Marbled White. Malcolm had suspected for much of the week that some of the roosting marbled whites that he had been photographing early in the morning had been Espers, and was proved right when Teresa went along to investigate.
After breakfast, we headed towards the high ground above Alp and La Molina. We stopped to look at a very handsome Red Squirrel in the pinewoods, which obliged by remaining motionless and then gracefully leaping from tree to tree in full view. We parked initially near the bottom of some ski lifts, towards the tree-line, where it was surprising not to see devastating erosion in the face of ski pressures. Here, the turf is obviously robust and, during the summer, grazed by cattle, giving a short, herb-rich sward. Here the flora was very similar to that of the pastures below the Coll de Pal, so we concentrated on the birds, having good views of Northern Wheatears, Common Linnets, Eurasian Serins and Red-billed Choughs, while a Eurasian Hobby darted past at a distance.
At the Collada de Toses (1750m), we parked the minibuses and strolled off on a track roughly contouring round towards the north-west. At first, the edges and grassland and scattered pinewood and juniper either side were very heavily grazed by cattle and were predictably uninteresting, with few plants or butterflies of note. In rockier areas though there were some fine clumps of the paper-white Paronychia kapela, plus maiden pink Dianthus deltoides, rock stonecrop Sedum forsterianum, Crepis pyrenaica and both stinking and green hellebores (Helleborus foetidus & H. viridis). Quite a lot of birds here were attracting us with their calls, including Eurasian Bullfinch, Common Chaffinch, Hedge Accentor, Common Chiffchaff and Coal and Crested Tits.
The butterflies took a bit of time to warm up, but became much more abundant as soon as we entered a part from which the cattle were excluded by a low wire fence. We eventually added one further species to our list for the week the Brown Argus bringing up the century! One striking feature of the butterflies along here was the abundance of Painted Ladies: there were literally dozens of them at one point. Now, the clouds were beginning to gather together in a somewhat ominous hue of dark grey and we had decreasing lengths of sunny period. A spot of rain was felt. Half the group retraced their steps at a steady walking pace at this point, while the other half made for an interesting-looking limestone ridge to the north, towards Cap del Ginebrar (1984m).
The staid and steady group made it back to the minibuses just as it started to rain seriously, but unfortunately the other group were high on the ridge at this point and got caught beneath a sharp thunderstorm and torrential rain. All equipped with brollies, so they returned much drier than might have been the case, and all felt that the drenching had been well worth it in the light of the burnt orchids Orchis ustulata, mountain everlasting Antennaria dioica, hoards of Apollos and a Common Crossbill family feeding young that had been seen on the ascent.
The storm cleared just sufficiently and the sun obligingly came out for just long enough for us to set up our familiar lunch tables and eat well, as usual. Then the weather clagged in seriously and we had a very wet afternoon. Nevertheless, on the way back to the hotel, we stopped briefly at another spot known for its colony of Mountain Alcon Blues, where we duly located the food-plant cross gentian speckled with the eggs of this handsome butterfly.
We arrived back in Prullans in the middle of a really torrential downpour, the roads running with brown water, and thunder and lightning crashing and flashing overhead. Time for an early bath .
As we had time to spare before we were due at the airport, we headed down to the coast to the south of Barcelona to the parc natural of Garraf a dry limestone massif rising to just 595m where we had lunch near the summit. Our last new butterfly species of the week was found here Dusky Heath and our first Sardinian Warblers chattered from the surrounding scrub, but perhaps for once we were more interested in the vegetation: a low garrigue which was quite unlike anything we had seen all week. The dominant shrub species were holly oak Quercus coccifera, lentisc Pistacia lentiscus, rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis, dwarf fan palm Chamaerops humilis, Phillyrea latifolia, sage-leaved cistus Cistus salviifolius and the winter-flowering heather Erica multiflora, studded with robust clumps of the grass Ampelodesmos mauritanica.
Other species of interest were blue aphyllanthes Aphyllanthes monspeliensis, the curious cone knapweed Leuzea conifera, the yellow-flowered Phlomis lychnitis and the eye-catching Scorzonera hispanica. We ate our last lunch looking out to sea, just before the rains came down once more, and then drove down to the airport, where we said our goodbyes and headed off to our respective homes.
© Teresa Farino and John Barkham; June 2003
BIRD DAILY LOG; SERRA DEL CADÍ; JUNE 2003
DAILY BUTTERFLY LOG; SERRA DEL CADÍ; JUNE 2003
Zygaena rhadamanthus : on 22nd on plateau beyond Talltendre.
Zygaena carniolica : above Estana on 26th.
Aglaope infausta : several flying round blackthorn bushes at Estana on 26th.
The Lackey Malacosoma neustrium : caterpillar seen on 22nd
Black-veined Moth Siona lineata : on 22nd beyond Talltendre
Rhodostrophia vibicaria : seen on 24th near the Coll de Pal
Yellow Shell Camptogramma bilineata : on 22nd near Talltendre
Chimney Sweeper Odezia atrata : : on 22nd near Talltendre
Humming-bird Hawk-moth Macroglossum stellatarum : on 21st in Prullans; 22nd below Orden; 24th below the Coll de Pal; on 26th at the Collada de Toses
Striped Hawk-moth Hyles livornica (= H. lineata livornica) : on 25th near La Molina
Ruby Tiger Phragmatobia fuliginosa : on 24th near hotel
Bordered Straw Heliothis peltigera : on 24th below the Coll de Pal.
Great Green Bush Cricket Tettigonia viridissima : near Sanavastre on 25th.
Beautiful Demoiselle Calopteryx virgo meridionalis : near Sanavastre on 25th.
Azure Damselfly Coenagrion puella : near Sanavastre on 25th.
Large Red Damselfly Pyrrhosoma nymphula : near Sanavastre on 25th.
Broad-bodied Chaser Libellula depressa : near Sanavastre on 25th.
Golden-ringed Dragonfly Cordulegaster boltonii : on 22nd by stream beyond Talltendre
Colorado Beetle Leptinotarsa decemlineata : adults and larvae seen on potato crops in Prullans on 21st.