TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
12 - 19 June 2003
Firstly, we would like to say how lovely it was to have the company of such an interesting and enthusiastic group, and secondly, that there just isnt room here to list everything we saw, so this report limits itself to recording some of the highlights of the trip, rather than giving lists of species seen on each day, which we hope will make for more interesting reading.
The total number of vascular plant species (not counting grasses, sedges and rushes) that we encountered during the holiday came to over 400, which was not bad going when you consider than birds and butterflies were the main interests of the group. Despite a rather late season, following heavier snows than usual (well, heavier than for the past ten years or so, but not a patch on the hard winters of the middle of the twentieth century a sign of global warming?), we encountered 13 members of the Liliaceae and 23 species of orchid, including five of the six species of Ophrys that occur in the Picos.
We were very fortunate with the weather during the week and, when rain and cloud threatened, we were able to avoid it in large part. Thus we had a very good week for butterflies, although the purist might say that we cheated a little with our bad-weather-avoidance strategy on the 17th by going over the mountains to the south, thereby adding several non-Picos species to the list! The total of 87 for the week left everyone feeling well satisfied, with David in particular stunned by the fact that on several occasions we saw more species in one day than he had in his whole life in the UK (and that was 50-odd!). Some butterflies were unusually abundant and widespread, for example, Small Tortoiseshell, Glanville Fritillary and, near Tudes, the Meadow Brown. Noteworthy highlights include the endemic Chapmans Ringlet at Piedrasluengas, the almost wholly black Lefèbvres Ringlet on the Fuente Dé screes, and the endemic subspecies of Gavarnie Blue, also at the top of the cable car. The complete daily butterfly log is given in Appendix 2.
We set the moth trap on five successive nights in the hotel garden. On the third night, coinciding with cloudy but warm conditions, 43 species were recorded. In total, the five nights yielded 79 species of macro-moth and 4 pyralids, although several of the smaller geometrids were not identified. No one species was particularly abundant, with the maximum recorded on a single occasion being 11 Green Arches on the last night, and not a single species turned up every night. It is particularly interesting, however, to note the proportionately large number of new species which turned up each morning; on the first night (12th June), for example, we recorded 19 species, then 21 species on 13th June, of which 18 were new to us, with a further 15 new species on 14th, 7 on 15th and 13 on 15th. The rain at night and the voracious garden birds! made further trapping unfeasible, but the total could obviously have been much higher had we continued. Details of the more notable species on each occasion are given in the daily diary, while the full records appear in Appendix 3.
We recorded a total of 93 birds during the trip, including those heard but not seen and those observed on the journeys to and from the Picos. Among the highlights were the many Eurasian Griffon Vultures, several Egyptian Vultures, an excellent close-up Wryneck and the Eurasian Snowfinches and Alpine Accentors at the top of the cable car.
Of the seven species of mammal recorded, two were limited to dead individuals (Western Hedgehog and an Iberian Blind Mole, which Steve kindly left for Teresa in the moth trap!), with the remainder being Red Fox, Red Squirrel, Pine Marten, Roe Deer and Chamois Rupicapra pyrenaica parva, which should more accurately be referred to as Isard, as the Chamois proper Rupicapra rupicapra is nowadays considered to be confined to the Alps. Reptiles were rather more in evidence, with nine species recorded and notable sightings including Schreibers Green Lizard and Cantabrican Viper, both of which are endemic to northwestern Iberia, while of our seven amphibians, the pièce de résistance was undoubtedly the Marbled Newts at Tudes.
Finally, we really must acknowledge the excellent home cooking of breakfast and dinner at the Nevandi and the caring attentions of the cheerful staff.
The plane arrived more-or-less on time at Bilbao airport and, by all accounts, everyone had reasonably smooth journeys, some having stayed overnight near Gatwick. The whole party was impressed by Jamies organisational skills in producing a fly-by Eurasian Hobby the Travelling Naturalist logo as we waited with the luggage outside the terminal building for Teresa to return with the first minibus.
We then drove off through the industrial suburbs of Bilbao, showing evidence of pollution on a scale now rarely encountered in the UK, and westwards along the recently completed Autovía del Cantábrico towards the Picos de Europa. The coastal cloud in places was thick enough to produce some light drizzle but, by the time we reached the Santander Peninsula, there were distinct signs of the sun fighting its way through; the thick mist that Teresa and John B had driven through earlier in the day gradually cleared until it was brilliantly sunny. The two minibuses in touch by walkie-talkie competed for sightings of raptors, producing an impressive haul of Eurasian Griffon Vultures, Common and European Honey Buzzards, Black Kites and Common Kestrels.
We stopped in the pinewoods at Liencres for our first picnic lunch, after which we dispersed into the forest in search of pendulous-flowered helleborine Epipactis phyllanthes, in what is said to be its only Iberian locality. Despite finding hundreds of spikes of this orchid here in 2003, this year there were none to be seen, and we had to make do with singing Firecrests instead. We then headed down to the sand-dunes proper, where John B guarded the minibuses full of luggage and had a snooze, and everyone else explored the floristic delights of the dunes.
Sea spurge Euphorbia paralias, sea bindweed Calystegia soldanella and sea holly Eryngium maritimum were all abundant, the latter accompanied by its parasite carrot broomrape Orobanche maritima: a rare species in southern England, where it normally parasitises wild carrot, hence the vernacular name. Here too were the everlasting flower Helichrysum stoechas, a pink-flowered form of kidney vetch Anthyllis vulneraria, the evening primrose Oenothera biennis and sage-leaved cistus Cistus salviifolius, the latter dominating the rather desiccated dune slacks (now being engulfed by an enormous mobile dune which is gradually moving inland), where we also found our first orchids of the week bee orchid Ophrys apifera.
Abundant clumps of sea daffodil Pancratium maritimum leaves made us wish that it were late July when this exquisite species comes into bloom rather than mid-June, although swathes of the lovely pink-flowered Jersey pink Dianthus gallicus filled the dunes with colour, interspersed with coastal crucianella Crucianella maritima: a tough, sprawling member of the bedstraw family (Rubiaceae) with whorls of honey-scented yellow flowers.
Peter made the exciting find of some Spurge Hawk-moth caterpillars on the sea spurge, while adult moths present were Bordered Straw, the ubiquitous Silver Y and Humming-bird Hawk-moth. Butterflies noted included abundant Clouded Yellows and Painted Ladies, plus a female Brimstone, both male and female Cleopatras, Wood White, Small Copper, Common and Short-tailed Blues, Peacock, Meadow Brown and Speckled Wood: not bad going for a quick sprint around a habitat not normally noted for its butterfly fauna! We also saw a number of Red-veined Darters Sympetrum fonscolombii here.
Western Three-toed Skinks and Common Wall Lizards represented the reptiles, while two Sanderling in summer plumage initially confused the birders, with European Serins, European Goldfinches and a female Whinchat also on offer. Of the much-vaunted Tawny Pipits there was no sign, which Teresa put down to increasing human activity in the older dunes, this being her third attempt this season to locate this previously easy-to-see bird here.
Despite a long day, most people were able to stay awake during the stunning drive through the Desfiladero de La Hermida, carved out over millennia by the Río Deva. This spectacular defile is the northeastern entry point to the Picos, after 22km opening out into a broad valley in which stands Potes: the principal town of Liébana. We arrived, all suitably tired, at Hostal Nevandi in time to settle in before dinner, at which the number of identification books sitting on the table indicated many lively discussions to come.
Despite heavy early morning rain, the sky before breakfast was clear. We examined the contents of the moth trap before breakfast and were treated to some splendid specimens: a Poplar Hawk-moth, with its orange warning flashes on the hind wings, a pink and green Small Elephant Hawk-moth, the delicate geometrid known as The Vestal and a Brussels Lace, the latter two very rare in Britain.
We took the minibuses just 2km up the road and parked them near the Pido cheese factory. The weather promised to be hot and sunny, and as lunch-time approached we were glad of the partial shade offered by the green lane up towards Fuente Dé. The afternoon became very hot indeed and we were grateful for the spring-fed trough at the high point of the track, which enabled us to replenish our bottles with wonderfully cool, clear water.
Soon after leaving the vehicles we had good views of a Short-toed Eagle, and then more distant ones of Golden Eagle, Common Buzzard and Eurasian Griffon Vulture. At ground level, the haymeadows were dominated by greater yellow rattle Rhinanthus serotinus ssp. asturicus and kidney-vetch, interspersed with colourful patches of large self-heal Prunella grandiflora, bloody cranes-bill Geranium sanguineum, clustered and rampion bellflowers (Campanula glomerata & C. rapunculus, respectively) and white asphodel Asphodelus albus.
More rocky areas hosted the mat-forming, Picos endemic greenweed Genista legionensis, white flax Linum suffruticosum ssp. salsoloides, Pyrenean eryngo Eryngium bourgatii, Pyrenean germander Teucrium pyrenaicum, and the shaggy lilac, virtually stemless flowerheads of the composite Carduncellus mitissimus. Among the more eye-catching monocots were the English iris Iris latifolia and spiked star-of-Bethlehem Ornithogalum pyrenaicum, as well as several species of orchid: pyramidal Anacamptis pyramidalis and man Aceras anthropophorum, plus sawfly and early spider ophrys (Ophrys tenthredinifera and O. sphegodes), as well as a range of hybrids between the latter two. The constant panoply of colour in the flowery meadows and banks is always a treat, with the dilemma being where to point the camera next!
The beechwood-meadow mosaic a little further on provided us with views of coal tits feeding their noisy young, while the tuneful song of the blackcaps provided a constant background, but unfortunately, no black woodpecker often present here was even heard, let alone seen. Typical shade-loving plants included green and stinking hellebores (Helleborus viridis & H. foetidus, respectively), lesser meadow-rue Thalictrum minus, narrow-leaved bitter-cress Cardamine impatiens, wild liquorice Astragalus glycyphyllos, the umbellifer Pimpinella siifolia, which is endemic to the Cordillera Cantábrica, astrantia Astrantia major, sanicle Sanicula europaea and spiked rampion Phyteuma spicatum, in its dark-blue Pyrenean form.
We took a detour through one of the richer meadows, the middle of which graduated into a wet flush with a wonderful show of whorled lousewort Pedicularis verticillata and heath spotted and early marsh orchids (Dactylorhiza maculata & D. incarnata, respectively) forming a purple ring round a gleaming white patch of broad-leaved cotton-grass Eriophorum latifolium. While traversing a particularly boggy patch, trampling the ragged robin Lychnis flos-cuculi, globeflowers Trollius europaeus bog pimpernel Anagallis tenella and marsh ragwort Senecio aquaticus underfoot, Chris spotted a superb specimen of broad-leaved marsh orchid Dactylorhiza majalis. Several Keeled Skimmers also put in an appearance here.
On a dry bank on the far side of the same meadow we found a scattering of tongue orchids Serapias lingua, the almost fluorescent maiden pink Dianthus deltoides and rock cinquefoil Potentilla rupestris (a particularly rare plant in Britain). An invertebrate of note here was the ascalaphid Libelloides longicornis, a fast-flying relative of the ant-lion which traps prey on the wing; dozens of them zoomed around in the sunshine, resembling nothing so much as small black and yellow delta-wing aircraft. Although our eyes were mainly on flowers and butterflies at this point, we did also manage to add Booted Eagle and Tree Pipit to our list.
By the time we lunched on the edge of this splendid meadow, we had already seen 39 species of butterfly. It was indeed an outstanding butterfly day and we were continually adding to the list right through to about 5.30pm, with Western Dappled and Bath Whites bring the days sightings to a quite exceptional 52 species. Considering that John B and Teresas group the previous week saw only 53 species in total, this was a measure of how things had come on in the intervening period, also helped by some exceptionally sharp Travelling Naturalists eyes!
It is difficult to know what was the star of the show. Was it the fleeting glimpses of Swallowtail, Scarce Swallowtail and Dark Green Fritillary, all large, fast-flying butterflies? Or was it the gorgeous golden orange-brown Spotted Fritillary that John B and Teresa spent a long time humming and hawing about? There was certainly no shortage of lycaenids, with Sooty and Purple-edged Coppers, Green Hairstreak, Spanish Brown Argus and Common, Holly, Small, Black-eyed and Adonis Blues all making appearances during the course of the day, while the most abundant day-flying moths were Common Heath, Chimney Sweeper, Clouded Buff, Feathered Footman and Burnet Companion. The latter looks so like a skipper butterfly, it frequently causes confusion.
Having returned to the track once more, we once again detoured into the depths of the beechwoods to look for birds-nest orchids Neottia nidus-avis, which were duly located by Tony, after which we climbed sharply but shortly up to the aforementioned water trough, where we quenched our thirst and added Duke of Burgundy Fritillary (spotted by John H) and Long-tailed and Turquoise Blues to our list.
Our descent along the track towards Fuente Dé turned up columbine Aquilegia vulgaris, Linaria triornithophora (a superb orange and purple toadflax, noted by Sheila) and spreading bellflower Campanula patula, then we turned off into the woods once more in search of Herb-Paris Paris quadrifolia, a stand of which was soon located. After coming across a juvenile Slow-worm, we emerged into another flowery meadow, where more acid soils hosted burnt and fragrant orchids (Orchis ustulata and Gymnadenia conopsea, respectively), winged greenweed Chamaespartium sagittale, wood bitter-vetch Vicia orobus and the lovely orange-yellow flowers of chamois ragwort Senecio doronicum. Just as we arrived at Fuente Dé, a fine stand of Pyrenean lilies Lilium pyrenaicum was an added bonus.
Throughout the day we had been admiring wonderful views of the natural amphitheatre that is Fuente Dé and, when we emerged from the woods into the bowl formed by these 800m-high limestone cliffs, we experienced something of a wow factor. After much-needed refreshing drinks, cakes and fruit, we ended the day with an exploration of the dry, limestone meadows fan below the cable car. A water trough here turned up a smart, but rather stressed Viperine Snake, which found it difficult to choose an escape route owing to the plethora of legs surrounding it.
In the margins of the beechwood we came across some fly ophrys Ophrys insectifera, while the scree-fan which trails across the pasture was a source of many high-altitude plant species which normally flower later in the summer, here brought down by the melting snows to around 1100m, and in full bloom in June. These included alpine gypsophila Gypsophila repens, Pyrenean vetch Vicia pyrenaica, Pyrenean mignonette Reseda glauca, alpine toadflax Linaria alpina ssp. filicaulis and alpine aster Aster alpinus. Here too were the attractive pink-flowered sticky flax Linum viscosum, the yellow snapdragon Antirrhinum braun-blanquetii and the bronze-flowered foxglove Digitalis parviflora, the latter two being unique to the Cordillera Cantábrica.
Returning to the minibuses (which John B had sprinted back for earlier), we stopped briefly en route to the hotel to see the fine stand of robust marsh orchids Dactylorhiza elata: a perfect end to a perfect day.
A group of keen early-morning birdwatchers accompanied Steve on a walk up the track behind the hotel, where they encountered a Red Squirrel and various common birds, thus working up a big appetite for breakfast, while some of the rest of the group examined the contents of the moth trap, although clear skies and a full moon had not provided the best conditions. Perhaps the most memorable moth that morning was what Teresa calls the Rusty Tiger Hyphoraia dejeani, which is not a British Species, although in terms of rarity value, the less eye-catching Small Ranunculus was of note, as it has not been seen in the UK since 1939.
After departing the hotel at 0930, we proceeded through Potes, past Teresas new home in Pesaguero, and up towards the 1345m pass at Piedrasluengas. The male banter in and between the minibuses rather precluded watching out of the windows but, nevertheless, we noted the Pyrenean valerian Valeriana pyrenaica growing alongside the brilliant yellow Austrian leopards-bane Doronicum austriacum along parts of the roadside. One or two Cleopatras were noted too before we reached the viewpoint at the top of the pass, from which the normally magnificent view of the Picos to the northwest was rather obscured by haze.
From here, we walked up towards the handful of peaky limestone outcrops that poke up through the acid Devonian rocks in this area. Having first explored a small boggy patch by the road, populated by such charismatic plants as large-flowered butterwort Pinguicula grandiflora, hairy stonecrop Sedum villosum and the lousewort Pedicularis mixta, we proceeded up the hill to locate a colony of several hundred lizard orchids Himantoglossum hircinum on more calcareous soils, although by this stage in the season, they had mostly gone over. Compensation was to be had, however, in the form of a rather peculiar ophrys, spotted by Mic, which may well have been something like Ophrys castellana (this genus is constantly evolving and new species being described) while an Egyptian Vulture circled overhead.
The cool, windy-yet-sunny conditions gave us the rare treat of having both De Prunners and Piedmont Ringlets in the hand together, so that we could distinguish the key features that separate these two very similar, yet not closely related, Erebia species. Later in the day, we were also able to closely examine another Erebia Chapmans Ringlet which is the largest of all the European mountain ringlets. It is a beautiful butterfly, with its almost black wings and brilliant eyespots within orange patches, and is confined to the heights of the Cordillera Cantábrica between Asturias and Palencia: the species that all lepidopterists come to these mountains to see.
We also stopped to examine other difficult species of butterfly through the day, including the Glanville Fritillary and our first Heath Fritillary, located by Peter. A special pleasure was finding the Bog Fritillary in one of Teresas special places just before lunch; this species has an extremely disjunct European distribution, and is not normally considered to fly this far west in Spain, so the location of this colony is a well-guarded secret. The Queen of Spain Fritillary, another very beautiful butterfly with large, mother-of-pearl patches on the undersides of the hindwings, also gave pleasure to many. Overall, we saw nine new species of butterfly that day, bringing the three-day total to an impressive 63, just ahead of the total British list of, arguably, 58 species.
We paused for elevenses, which coincided with the appearance of a herd of the local and very beautiful tudanca cattle (grey-roan, with impossibly wide horns) on the road below us, huge bells clanking in bovine concerto. Here was traditional European transhumance in action still, but for how much longer, we wondered?
The numerous cow-pats which surrounded us were literally swarming with invertebrates, among them the curious rove beetle Emus hirtus, whose abdomen is clothed in long golden hairs, while the small birds of these open pastures and outcrops included Black Redstart, Northern Wheatear, Yellowhammer and Common Linnet, and Red-billed Choughs circled the crags off to the south. Several members of the group also saw a male Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush here.
Plants typical of the acid soils at Piedrasluengas include St Dabeocs heath Daboecia cantabrica, large-flowered sandwort Arenaria montana and the delightful violet mountain pansy Viola bubanii. By contrast, special plants of the limestone outcrops include the cushion-forming saxifrage Saxifraga canaliculata, livelong saxifrage S. paniculata, the yellow-flowered lousewort Pedicularis schizocalyx and Malling toadflax Chaenorhinum origanifolium. On the far side of a marshy area, teeming with early marsh orchids and bistort Polygonum bistorta, we spotted some fine clumps of great yellow gentian Gentiana lutea, growing together with the Spanish endemic thrift Armeria cantabrica, the pansy Viola saxatilis and a dwarf cornflower Centaurea triumfetti.
At this point, Jan flushed a pair of Common Quail, after we had been driven mad by their ventriloquial whit whit-whit, whit whit-whit call for much of the morning. At lunch, we had good views of Rock Sparrows, with their plaintive call sounding much like a slightly more strident Willow Warbler or Chiffchaff, as well as of several Corn Buntings trilling madly from the adjacent wires and bushes. A Black Kite and a Short-toed Eagle flying over also distracted us somewhat from our fare.
After lunch we descended through a series of delightful meadows, where we found many more butterflies, including our first (and only) Moroccan Orange Tips and Mazarine Blues of the week, with Linda spotting a mating pair of Glanville Fritillaries. Here too were a number of plants that we had not seen before, notably the yellow-flowered monks-hood Aconitum vulparia ssp. neapolitanum, spotted by Sheila, water avens Geum rivale, wood cranes-bill Geranium sylvaticum, Irish spurge Euphorbia hyberna and adenostyles Adenostyles alliariae. Many Beautiful Demoiselles flitted among the streamside bushes, and we also encountered some Green Tiger Beetles.
The crags near where John B had parked the minibuses also turned up beautiful flax Linum narbonense and mountain valerian Valeriana montana, while looking over the bridge we spotted fly honeysuckle Lonicera xylosteum and mountain currant Ribes alpinum, both of which are pretty uncommon in the UK these days.
Steves early morning foray this time turned up an Iberian Blind Mole (which he left, carefully posed, examining the contents of the moth trap!), and a Pine Marten crossing the track, while Dave took some excellent photographs of Pearly Heaths and Marbled Whites roosting at the tops of grass stems, and Alison and Douglas saw a Eurasian Bullfinch on their pre-breakfast stroll. The moth trap attracted some 43 species, including a couple each of Cream-spot Tiger and the closely related Arctia tigrina, which is not found in the UK, a splendid Fox Moth, and The Cosmopolitan, the latter a very scarce immigrant in Britain.
After stopping in Potes for bread and posting cards, we made for Beges: a small village perched high up in a side valley off the La Hermida gorge. We drove up the snake-like road to the village, stopping en route to get a good view of the gorge from a strategically placed mirador. Here, although it was only beginning to warm up, we almost immediately saw three species of butterfly new for the week Small and Lulworth Skippers, and False Ilex Hairstreak. All required close examination to distinguish them from closely similar species. Bird interest was centred on a few perched Eurasian Griffon Vultures, a pair of Short-toed Eagles flying over, and calling Western Bonellis Warblers and Iberian Chiffchaffs from the surrounding western holm oaks Quercus ilex ssp. ballota.
Among the plants new to us here were the delicate lilac-flowered lettuce Lactuca tenerrima, annual valerian Centranthus calcitrapae, and blue-leaved petrocoptis Petrocoptis pyrenaica ssp. glaucifolia, which is unique to the Picos and immediately adjacent ranges, all growing on the surrounding limestone outcrops, with vervain Verbena officinalis and French figwort Scrophularia canina in the verges.
The people of Beges, along with those of Tresviso nearby, produce the picón blue cheese that we had already sampled for our lunches. We saw (and smelt!) the cheese caves through their sealed doors as we walked up the old mining track from the village. The relatively slight gradient on this track is due to the careful calculation of the maximum weight of zinc minerals that could be safely kept under control by yoked pairs of oxen in the early part of the last century.
Before we made our own arduous slog up the hill in the increasing heat of the day, however, we paused to examine the contents of the water trough in the village, enjoying the huge Midwife Toad tadpoles, almost as big as the adults themselves; and the male Alpine Newts with their orange bellies. Almost as soon as we had left the village, we encountered some fine spikes of woodcock ophrys Ophrys scolopax and bee orchid O. apifera, as well as close-packed spheres of Round-headed Leek Allium sphaerocephalon, which is so rare that it is protected by law in the UK. Further along, we added swallow-wort Vincetoxicum hirundinaria, cut-leaved self-heal Prunella laciniata and harebell Campanula rotundifolia to our list.
We also started seeing a number of lycaenids that looked a bit like Common Blues, but smaller. These turned out to be either Idas or Silver studded Blues, and to determine which, we had to look very closely at the fore-legs of the males to see whether or not they had a forward-pointing spine on the tibia! We eventually concluded that those down along the track were Idas Blues, while those up in the meadow on the top of the Sierra de Beges were Silver-studded. Together with our first Marsh Fritillaries, this made another three new species for the week.
Further up the track, Betty spotted a Western green lizard, while Peter nearly managed to net a strongly-marked Cantabrican viper, both species unique to the Iberian peninsula. The most notable birds en route were Tree Pipit, Common Stonechat, Yellowhammer and Rock Bunting, all of which were provided good views at close quarters. Near the top of the track, another water trough turned up several Palmate Newts and some huge Midwife Toad tadpoles, some of which were semi-metamorphosed.
We were very glad of the shade of trees and bushes at the top of the hill under which to consume our picnic, as it was becoming very hot. After lunch we began to walk along the top of the Sierra de Beges towards another of Teresas special places. We were delighted to find numerous clumps of the almost-black pasque flowers Pulsatilla rubra ssp. hispanica, accompanied by fragrant, large tongue Serapias cordigera, pink butterfly Orchis papilionacea and heath spotted orchids, and some beautiful spikes of the delicate white St Bernards lily Anthericum liliago. As everyone had just about finished recording this delightful meadow on film, a loud chattering overhead heralded the passage of numerous Alpine Swifts, unfortunately heading so quickly southwards that some members of the group didnt even have time to raise their binoculars.
Continuing through the sessile oak Quercus petraea forest, we came across yellow pea Lathyrus occidentalis (whose yellow flowers turn a glorious rusty-orange as they mature), long-leaved lungwort Pulmonaria longifolia, greater meadow-rue Thalictrum aquilegiifolium, and a wealth of ferns, including lemon-scented Thelypteris limbosperma. These forests failed to turn up the expected European Pied Flycatchers, however, and we had to make do with Great Spotted Woodpecker, Short-toed Treecreeper and Eurasian Nuthatch, and hearing, rather than seeing, Crested Tits.
Meanwhile, large, orange fritillary butterflies were buzzing around the glades and meadows everywhere we went. We were able to see through binoculars and from two caught specimens that all were Dark Green Fritillaries; none were the very similar high brown that tends to emerge rather later in the season. We did, however, track down a Sloe Hairstreak on the abundant blackthorn Prunus spinosa bushes here.
While we were waiting to see what turned up on a small hummock which is usually haunted by hill-topping Swallowtails and Scarce Swallowtails (none today though, unfortunately), a huge green lizard scuttled off into the undergrowth. Various attempts were made to catch it, all unsuccessful, although the many glimpses we got of the beast were enough to identify it as a male Schreibers Green Lizard, endemic to northwestern Iberia, on account of its brown tail and hind legs.
We paused to catch our breath by a stone water-trough, behind which shady limestone boulders were smothered with the round-leaved rosettes of hairy saxifrage Saxifraga hirsuta, where we also found a few plants of whorled Solomons seal Polygonatum verticillatum, so rare in the UK. A little further on, we hunted for and found! several spikes of frog orchid Coeloglossum viride, a rather obscure small, greenish species that is difficult to see among the grass. Nearby were a few magnificent spikes of leafy lousewort Pedicularis foliosa, and the large yellow blooms of the St Johns-wort Hypericum richeri ssp. burseri.
We enjoyed the walk back down the hill, stopping for many photographs on the way, including the rustic scene of traditional haymaking in the open-field meadows in La Quintana and Beges far below. The beer at the village inn was also hard to beat; most welcome at the end of such a hot day, and accompanied by our own splendid black cherries and jam-filled cakes.
The House Sparrows as usual waited impatiently for us to attend to the contents of the moth trap before breakfast. It was becoming increasingly difficult to find secure hiding places for the moths into which to release them., and Teresa was having to get up earlier and earlier to rescue those species which had chosen to land on the surrounding sheet before the birds ate them. This morning, the catch was rather small just 24 species seven of which were new to us, including Peppered Moth and a smart Angle Shades.
It was Monday and that means market day in Potes: great for local atmosphere old men in berets and three-legged wooden albarcas (clogs) and for shopping for artisan souvenirs, be they edible or ceramic. Members of the group returned to the minibuses in the gathering heat of the day laden with many goodies to take home.
In the meantime, those who did not wish to spend time shopping accompanied John B on a short walk in the gathering heat along the west bank of the Río Deva. They saw an impressive number of butterflies, including three species new for the week, two of them characteristic of hot, dry, weedy or flowery places: Blue-spot Hairstreak and Langs Short-tailed Blue. The third was the Geranium Bronze, introduced to Mallorca from South Africa with Pelargonium cuttings in 1995, and since spreading rapidly across the Iberian peninsula: the first Picos record, however, dates only from the previous autumn, in Potes. John Bs group also had fine views of a Wryneck, and a White-throated Dipper, while Cettis Warblers were exploding continuously into song along the river.
Reunited once more, we drove a little way along the Puerto San Glorio road past Valmeo, before turning left up the hill towards Tudes. Teresas minibus stopped en route to examine the flora, which is typical of dry, acid areas, noting round-headed thyme Thymus mastichina, French lavender Lavandula stoechas, the everlasting flower Helichrysum stoechas andryala Andryala integrifolia and galactites Galactites tomentosa.
By now, thundery-looking clouds were gathering over Peña Prieta and soon there were distant rumbles. However, the storm passed us by and we had lunch and spent the afternoon mainly in warm sunshine. We set up the tables for lunch, while taking in a few more of the very different plants here that make up the Mediterranean-type vegetation on this side of Potes on the Devonian slates and shales, including pitch trefoil Bituminaria bituminosa, wall germander Teucrium chamaedrys and the black-centred yellow flowers of Tolpis barbata. We lunched to the delightful descending-scale song of the Wood Lark, and had excellent views of both Egyptian Vulture (quite close) and a more distant Short-toed Eagle.
After lunch, we abandoned the minibuses and strolled in the very comfortable temperature into Tudes with its delightful vernacular architecture, then through the dry grasslands and Mediterranean forests of Tolibes, before emerging onto the road at Valmeo. Notable plants en route included Cistus psilosepalus, strawberry-tree Arbutus unedo, rock stonecrop Sedum forsterianum, St Lucies cherry Prunus mahaleb, , narrow-leaved crimson-clover Trifolium angustifolium, field eryngo Eryngium campestre, dark swallow-wort Vincetoxicum nigrum, ground-pine Ajuga chamaepitys, Etruscan honeysuckle Lonicera etrusca and several composites Pallenis spinosa, mantisalca Mantisalca salmantica and cone knapweed Leuzea conifera plus a new species for the Picos: the restharrow Ononis pusilla.
Animal-wise, Dave spotted a splendid lizard the Large Psammodromus on the roadside bank after lunch, and we also found some spectacular lime-green and black Marbled Newts in a water trough in Tudes, with the village also turning up a family of Common Redstarts and potato-fields sporting fat, puce-coloured Colorado Beetle larvae. The familiar Meadow Brown was very abundant, while we also had very good close-up views of False Ilex and Blue-spot Hairstreaks. Two new species were also closely examined the delightful Spanish Purple Hairstreak and the spectacular High Brown Fritillary. The interesting burnet moth Zygaena lavandulae (almost black on both fore- and hindwings, with a white collar) was also seen along the way. On the bird front, we heard Cirl Buntings singing and saw a Black Kite circling overhead.
With the help of a taxi, we got both vehicles down to Valmeo to meet the walkers, refresh with tea, and then we got back to Espinama in good time for rest and recuperation before yet another excellent meal at the Nevandi.
The day dawned with heavy, low cloud in the valley. John B took a group for an early morning stroll up through the beechwoods near the Pido cheese factory. They saw nothing of special interest, although the still, damp atmosphere and mist made for a pleasing experience. Linda found a very big cep Boletus edulis, much favoured in French cuisine, but it looked a little too aged for our breakfast. Meanwhile, Teresa was dealing with another good array of moths in the moth trap, including a splendid Goat Moth, a species not that rare in Southern England but with an extraordinary life cycle that involves a larval stage in the wood of common trees lasting 3-4 years. Also new for the week were Lesser Swallow Prominent, L-album Wainscot, True Lovers Knot, Burnished Brass and Small Angle Shades, although the star for British mothers (as in moth enthusiasts), was probably the Orache Moth, which has been extinct in the UK since 1915.
At breakfast, we decided that, weatherwise, it was not a good day for the cable car, so off we went to ascend the Puerto de San Glorio which, at 1609m, is the highest major road pass in the northern Spanish mountains. On the way up, Teresas minibus detoured via her current home in Barrio, where a Red Fox was spotted in the meadows, and then her group had a fine view of a Short-toed Eagle sitting in a tree by the road and of three Common Buzzards one with its wings outspread protecting a kill, and the other two looking on.
We stopped near the top of the pass in one of Teresas pet meadows for a look at the marshy meadow on acid soil. The cloud was lifting and then closing again tantalisingly. Here we turned up similar species to the Piedrasluengas meadows, with the addition of horned pansy Viola cornuta, alpine woundwort Stachys alpina and dozens of tiny deep-red pyramids of black vanilla orchids Nigritella nigra. We were also pleased to find the little mauve field gentian Gentianella campestris.
Butterfly-wise, the San Glorio pass is famous for certain species such as Chapmans Ringlet (endemic to the western part of the Cordillera Cantábrica), with a long list of eminent lepidopterists having made captures here. In fact, most of the northern Spanish road passes have impressive lists of species, which rather makes you wonder if indeed butterflies prefer to fly wherever theres a major road, perhaps attracted by the remains of sandwiches like the Alpine Choughs, or whether its just that most eminent lepidopterists are too lazy to stray far from their vehicles?
Anyway, Teresas meadow always produces interesting butterflies, although, on this occasion, it was too cool for much to be on the wing. However, the much-vaunted Chapmans Ringlet did make an appearance, together with a Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary. We then moved on down to Llánaves to fill up with diesel, while the party explored a track leading into a side valley, by now in brilliant sunshine. Mallow Skipper was added to the butterfly list here by Dave, while Alison and Teresa found a beautiful small Viperine Snake in the hot, dry bank. Sharp-eyed Steve, from the bridge over the stream, noticed a much larger individual under water and we observed the sudden drama of it attempting to snatch quite a sizeable Brown Trout. Here too some members of the group had fleeting glimpses of a Blue Rock Thrush in flight, and a lovely little pink turned out to be Dianthus pungens ssp. brachyanthus.
There was no sign of the cloud lifting over the Picos to the north, so instead of going to one to the Arroyo de Mostajal as intended, we chased what we thought might be better weather further south in León. We passed through some majestic scenery of broad sweeping valleys with unfenced meadows within a matrix of both acid and limestone mountains. He we saw our first White Storks and heard the song of the Common Nightingale by the stream as we whizzed along.
By this time stomachs and the people attached to them were grumbling for lunch, so without further ado we picnicked next to the Embalse de Besande, amid brilliant weedy patches of flowers and damp areas ideal for many insects. The butterfly highlights here included Safflower Skipper, Chestnut/Spanish Heath, Scarce and Purple-shot Coppers and Green-underside Blue. Much effort with hand lenses was expended on the Silver-studded/Idas Blues to determine whether or not they possessed the forward-pointing spine on the tibia of the forelegs and they didnt: conclusion Idas Blue. All in all more than 30 species of butterfly were recorded here in just over an hour.
A small pond proved to be a natural congregation point for naturalists and wildlife alike, where we recorded our only Iberian Pool Frogs of the week, as well as odonates such as Four-spotted Chase, Emperor Dragonfly and Common Blue and Azure Damselflies.
Eventually, we dragged people away, somewhat unwillingly, as there seemed so much else to explore and moved down the road into the full sun of a hot, dry, limestone slope not far from the local tip. Here we added Spanish Gatekeeper to the butterfly list, had a welcome tea of cold drinks, plums, loquats and chocolate magdalenas, before climbing into the vehicles once again for the long journey home. The top of the San Glorio Pass was in deep cloud, while the valleys on the other side were grey and gloomy, so it looks like we had made the right decision.
Our last day, so we just had to go up the cable car to explore the limestone landscape at 18002000m. It dawned with a lot of cloud filling the valley, though with promising breaks that suggested that it might burn off. So, off we went in hope. The cable cars mysteriously disappeared into the clouds high above us, so Jonah, in the form of John B, put all his warm rain-gear on. Meanwhile Chris was steeling herself to overcome her fear of such heights.
Three minutes and a swift 800m ascent were all it took to whisk us up into the rarefied atmosphere of the Central Massif of the Picos de Europa, at 1800m. We all got to the top in good order and to a miraculous transformation of the weather. We were just at the height of the top of the cloud layer and wisps were moving across the face of neighbouring peaks. All day we were in this fabulous sun and light: a vista to be treasured. At first it was cold, but became increasingly comfortable, with hot sunshine tempered by a cooling breeze.
As soon as we left the main track some of the typical high-altitude plants of northern Spain started to put in an appearance. Most are either mat- or cushion-forming, as defence against the harsh climatic conditions, both in summer and winter. Among the rock outcrops we spotted the Picos endemic anemone Anemone pavoniana, chamois-cress Pritzelago alpina, Pyrenean spurge Euphorbia pyrenaica, the rock-jasmine Androsace villosa, spring and trumpet gentians (Gentiana verna and G. acaulis), the deep-blue-flowered flax Linum perenne ssp. alpinum, alpine forget-me-not Myosotis alpestris, fairy foxglove Erinus alpinus, mats of Globularia repens and spring squill Scilla verna.
A section of limestone pavement, with its characteristic clints and grikes, provided an accumulation of soil in the crevices for deeper-rooted species requiring more shelter and higher humidity, in particular holly fern Polystichum lonchitis, brittle bladder-fern Cystopteris fragilis and green spleenwort Asplenium viride, as well as, rather surprisingly for UK botanists, spurge laurel Daphne laureola which, in Britain, is usually an indicator of ancient woodlands! Other attractive rock-garden species here included such botanical gems as pink sandwort Arenaria purpurascens and the diminutive cone saxifrage Saxifraga conifera, unique to the Cordillera Cantábrica and the Pyrenees, whose vegetative shoots do indeed bring to mind tiny pine cones, while John H located some velvety cushions of moss campion Silene acaulis.
We started to get excellent views of Northern Wheatear, Alpine Chough, Water Pipit and Black Redstart among the rock outcrops, but looked in vain for the Lammergeiers that had been spotted earlier that year. Closer at hand, Linda found a black-and-yellow individual of a high-altitude moth known as Eurranthis plummistraria: earlier in the year this area is literally teeming with this species. We all scanned the surrounds for evidence of Isard (Chamois), and Teresa finally spotted one and then two more, far away, basking on some snow patches.
A shady area beneath a large rock turned up new plants such as yellow wood violet Viola biflora and leafless-stemmed speedwell Veronica aphylla, and nearby we had our first close-up views of Eurasian Snowfinches. Meanwhile, Dave had caught a butterfly which he knew to be new Gavarnie Blue, the asturiensis subspecies, which is endemic to the Picos. It is a beautiful little silvery butterfly, not blue at all. Elevenses was taken by a small pool harbouring dozens of Alpine Newts, with an adult Midwife Toad found tucked underneath a large stone. The large Common Frog that Peter found did its best to eat the red-bellied Alpine Newt that shared his net but judicious separation prevented this Attenboroughian scenario.
As we trekked across the rocks and screes to reach the main Peña Vieja track, we came across a smart pair of Alpine Accentors and the third new butterfly species of the day the Mountain Clouded Yellow although we were unable to catch one of these skittish beasts to show everyone in the group. Distant Wallcreepers were seen by some of the group just before lunch a pair chasing each other in circles in front of the massive limestone crags at the foot of Peña Vieja while others saw, probably the same pair, later in the afternoon by dint of some determined watching. The Alpine Choughs, as usual, invited themselves to share our picnic, making for some excellent photographic opportunities.
After lunch, Tony and Betty elected to walk down to Espinama and, by all accounts, had a splendid time, while others of us trekked further up the mining track for better views of Isard, some Iberian Rock Lizards endemic to the peninsula and the beautiful flowers of the mat-forming Erodium glandulosum right by the path. On the return walk, Dave paused to take yet more butterfly photographs at a small flush where male Large Skippers, Gavarnie Blues and Lefèbvres Ringlets were gathered to suck up essential nutrients; we were so absorbed in the spectacle that the last few of us barely managed to catch the last cable car down.
The day was most memorable for the stunning mountain limestone landscape under a brilliant blue sky grey rock faces and scree, with snow patches and then, in close-up, the wonderful rockgardens of brilliant blue gentians, pink kidney vetch, white rock-jasmine and yellow rock-roses.
An early start was required in order to make the return journey to Bilbao, with barely time for a pause for coffee en route. As we crossed the tarmac to catch the plane, we heard our last birdsong of the trip: trilling Skylarks and the distinctive zitting flight song of the Fan-tailed Warblers.
© Teresa Farino & John Barkham; June 2003
ANNOTATED FAUNA LISTS
White Stork Ciconia ciconia :
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos :
Buzzard Pernis apivorus :
Black Kite Milvus migrans :
Vulture Gyps fulvus :
Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus :
Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus :
Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus :
Common Buzzard Buteo buteo :
Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos :
Booted Eagle Hieraaetus pennatus :
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus :
Eurasian Hobby Falco
Red-legged Partridge Alectoris
Common Quail Coturnix coturnix :
Yellow-legged Gull Larus cachinnans :
Gull Larus fuscus :
Pigeon Columba livia :
Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus :
Dove Streptopelia decaocto :
Common Cuckoo Cuculus
Tawny Owl Strix
Alpine Swift Apus melba :
Common Swift Apus
(Eurasian) Wryneck Jynx
Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius :
Woodpecker Dendrocopos major :
Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius :
Green Woodpecker Picus viridis :
Wood Lark Lullula arborea :
(Eurasian) Sky Lark Alauda arvensis :
Eurasian Crag Martin Hirundo rupestris :
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica :
Common House Martin Delichon urbica :
White Wagtail Motacilla alba :
Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea :
Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis :
Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta :
Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio :
Cinclus cinclus :
Winter Wren Troglodytes troglodytes :
Alpine Accentor Prunella collaris :
[Dunnock] Prunella :
Thrush Monticola saxatilis :
Blue Rock Thrush Monticola
Common Blackbird Turdus merula :
Song Thrush Turdus philomelos :
Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus :
European Robin Erithacus rubecula :
Common Nightingale Luscinia
Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros :
Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus :
Common Stonechat Saxicola torquata :
Northern Wheatear Oenanthe
[Zitting Cisticola] Cisticola juncidis :
Cetti's Warbler Cettia cetti :
Melodious Warbler Hippolais
Iberian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus ibericus :
Warbler Phylloscopus :
Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla :
Garden Warbler Sylvia borin :
Firecrest Regulus ignicapillus :
Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata :
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus :
Coal Tit Parus ater :
Great Tit Parus major :
Crested Tit Parus
Blue Tit Parus caeruleus :
Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea :
Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria :
Treecreeper Certhia brachydactyla :
Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius :
Black-billed Magpie Pica pica :
Red-billed Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax :
Alpine Chough Pyrrhocorax graculus :
Carrion Crow Corvus corone :
Common Raven Corvus corax :
Spotless Starling Sturnus unicolor :
Corn Bunting Miliaria
Rock Bunting Emberiza cia :
Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus :
Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs :
European Serin Serinus serinus :
European Greenfinch Carduelis chloris :
European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis :
Common Linnet Carduelis cannabina :
Eurasian Bullfinch Pyrrhula
House Sparrow Passer domesticus :
Rock Sparrow Petronia
Eurasian Snowfinch Montifringilla nivalis :
Western Hedgehog Erinaceus
Iberian Blind Mole : Talpa
Red Fox Vulpes
Pine Marten Martes
Roe Deer Capreolus
Isard [Chamois] Rupicapra
pyrenaica parva :
Red Squirrel Sciurus
REPTILES & AMPHIBIANS:
Iberian Rock Lizard Lacerta
Lizard Lacerta schreiberi :
Western Green Lizard Lacerta
Common Wall Lizard Podarcis
Large Psammodromus Psammodromus
Skink Chalcides striatus :
Viperine Snake Natrix
Cantabrican Viper Vipera
Marbled Newt Triturus
Alpine Newt Triturus
Palmate Newt Triturus
Midwife Toad Alytes
Common Toad Bufo
Common Frog Rana
Frog Rana perezi :
Zygaena nevadensis :
Slender Scotch Burnet Zygaena
Zygaena lavandulae :
Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet Zygaena
Latticed Heath Semiothisa
Eurranthis plummistraria :
Common Heath Ematurga atomaria :
Speckled Yellow Pseudopanthera
Black-veined Moth Siona
Rhodostrophia vibicaria :
Silver-ground Carpet Xanthorhoe
Yellow Shell Camptogramma
Chimney Sweeper Odezia atrata :
Feathered Footman Coscinia
(Spiris) striata :
Clouded Buff Diacrisia sannio :
Burnet Companion Euclidia
Silver Y Autographa gamma : at Liencres on 12th, on the Sierra de Beges on 15th.
Bordered Straw Heliothis peltigera :
Common Blue Damselfly Enallagma cyathigerum :
Azure Damselfly Coenagrion puella :
Beautiful Demoiselle Calopteryx virgo meridionalis :
Four-spotted Chaser Libellula quadrimaculata :
Emperor Dragonfly Anax imperator :
Keeled Skimmer Orthetrum coerulescens :
Red-veined Darter Sympetrum
Field Cricket Gryllus
Libelloides longicornis (ascalaphid) : many on 13th between Espinama and Fuente Dé.
Tipula maxima (cranefly) : in damp meadows between Espinama and Fuente Dé on 13th.
Green Tiger Beetle Cicindela campestris : at Piedrasluengas on 14th.
Emus hirtus (rove beetle) : hunting around cow-pats at Piedrasluengas on 14th.
Wasp Beetle Clytis arietis :
Colorado Beetle Leptinotarsa decemlineata : larvae feeding on potato crops in Tudes on 16th.
APPENIDX 3: MOTH TRAP RECORDS; ESPINAMA - June 2003