Bugs, Frogs & Walkers

Foot bath at the Fabrica
Poplar woods at the Fabrica

September can be a great month here, with the rain coming back and bringing new growth and life. Canillas de Albaida’s Fabrica de la Luz is one of the best places to enjoy this, and river and trees are beautiful. It’s a great place to start and end a walk.

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April Fool

Yes, it’s official, I’m a fool for April. More than any other month seems the perfect blend of warmer weather with an abundance of life driven by the kind rains in spring.  This is a problem: I want to do everything – all my favourite day-long hikes. As for most people, that’s not fully practical, because of lack of time. What’s more, all the wilding can mean very slow progress: more time crouched over flowers but or aiming binoculars at the bushes. But at least April merits paying attention: a very short walk can be well worth it.

So, April Fool’s Day and an errand to run to the Finca Cerrillo. This just means heading down the zigzag mule path past Pepe’s smelly goatshed, crossing the Puente Romano and zigzagging up the other side. Barely worth the mention but for two things. I took a youngster with me who was immensely enthusiastic over wilding. And I took my camera of course.

Children are surprisingly good at hiking. They are usually carrying less weight, in terms of both packs and body, so all day walks are fine as long as they don’t get bored. Wilding is more of a challenge. Neither silence nor stillness are common habits among the nymphs, which is especially frustrating in terms of birding. Even eagerness can be a limitation: the urge to trap, poke, or pick up can be so destructive. Still, I took the nymph, code name is Sporty, along with me. I found I was expected to know the name and nature of every green thing within a 5 mile radius, which stretched my ability to hop blithely over gaps in my knowledge. That and the requirement to look out for Dangerous Wild Animals was a little outside my normal wilding walk.

RnB bugs

It was pretty good. I was pleased to find that every blossom elicited a scream of delight and a multitude of questions. I was also impressed that, when I pointed out an RnB bug with the point of my stick, I was told very sternly not to touch, hurt or upset the ‘beetle’.

Spanish Festoon

This wise philosophy didn’t entirely hold my companion back from, say, trying to catch a butterfly, but the thought was there.

 

What else did we see? Well, start as you mean to go on and point out that cracks in the town paving sprout lovely flowers if allowed to do so. Ivy-leaved toadflax is a med. native, and though it was so familiar from the brickwalls of my childhood close up it does have an exotic look.

Nettle-leaved Figwort

Nettle-leaved figwort, near the nettle-patch below the goats’ shed provided a good chance to explain how the plant is bluffing that it might sting without having to go to the trouble of getting the weapons. Sporty tenderly told the plant it was safe from predation from us.  We also saw some very lovely thistles, whose flowers are so often overlooked, before getting down to the road and the Roman bridge. The lovely dramatic sound of the rushing water fills the air; the bank is astonishingly rich with life; the giant cane bursts upwards, metres into the air, the brambles lace the banks, the tiniest flowers star every loose rock.

There were pretty bunches of three-cornered leeks on the bank scenting the air with garlic, and a couple of big fig trees growing up past the bridge from the riverside, laden with fruitbuds and bright leaves.

I thought some of the smallest plants, seen on the rocks on the stony path up, such as stonecrops, which can make a start in any sliver of soil, or the strange but beautiful patterns of lichens, were good to look at. The nymph was perhaps a bit more impressed by pretty flowers, but I can’t blame her. Many an adult overlooks the attractions of purple clover or pink catchfly by people used to enormous and handsome but unnatural flowers seen in shops and garden centres: I hope the nymph will keep using her eyes.

I reached the Finca, which always looks stunning, and popped in to say hello to David, Christine and Gordon and do my errand (Thanks, all). On the way out I was thrilled to see a hoopoe fly up to perch high on the lovely poplar trees near the gates. I couldn’t get a recognisable shot – it chose its branches too well and I missed its fan-winged flight. But they are one of those birds that put a smiley face on the day, a pleasure to see.

 

Back down to the river and we took a look at the plants beside it: great thick oleander bushes, huge clumps of giant cane, and willow bushes covered in spring catkins. There were horsetails growing into the water looking suitably medieval (see my horsetail blog) – I can’t believe I used to think they weren’t common here! I must have had my eyes closed!

With a little help from a friend (thanks, Jill) I pinned down this lovely vetch as Vicia lutea subsp lutea. I love that my shot captures the wildlife on it, tiny as they are, a reminder that its part of a complex network of life, not just a single flower.

That was it. It was time to go. Sporty looked for, but failed to find any frogs, then we headed back to the bridge. I had pointed out earlier how you could see the light shine on specks of insects afloat in the air over the stream and that there were birds flying out of the bushes to catch them (yellow wagtails and a swallow or two) but not they seemed to have disappeared. Then we heard a high cry, kee-kee-kee, from above. The kestrel flew in to perch on the sand-coloured cliffs above the Puente Romano. She flew and called, perched, and flew again. I didn’t see a partner but I wondered who she was calling to: perhaps they are thinking of nesting. Not a bad spot. I was very happy with her – she was settled enough to let Sporty look at her through the binoculars, watch her fly, hear her call. Not a bad start to a birding career, I hope! And the nymph seemed happy: she shrieked for joy. Another April fool.

 

 

 

 

 

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Andalucía Day’s Walk

Andalucia Day – 28th February. Time, as the hymn of Andalucia says to Arise – and in my case, to hop out into the perfect sunshine, lovely temperatures and find lots of wildlife to say hello to: a perfect celebration of this beautiful part of the world.

All the bugs were out, especially the R&B band … no, no, not Fats and Aretha, I mean the red&black bugs, Spilostethus pandurus, that appear in our very early spring. They were still pretty small (only around 1cm), but this is the adult form, so size didn’t stop them doing what the birds and bees do, too.

Queen of Spain Fritillery

And there were butterflies everywhere. A red admiral, countless Whites, a couple of Wall Browns, a couple of Cleopatras, and Fritillaries.

Cleopatra, Gonepteryx cleopatra,

The one thing that all of them had in common, as they rose from the banks and fluttered past, was being too busy to stop for the camera; these shots are from other walks.

I glimpsed a snake down by the Rio Cájula – a lazily moving coil deep in a thick bed of oxalis – but even as I leant forward, the snake felt the movement and was gone. It was the blue-yellow pattern I associate with Montpellier Snakes, but a 5 second glimpse is a tough i.d. Of cours I’d love to have got a picture; I just didn’t want it enough to go wading into the undergrowth on the hunt for a venemous reptile.

On such a day you get self indulgent. I spent some time wandering a path I suspected to be a dead end that I’d never checked before for the pleasure of time in the narrow verdant river gully complete with trees; such a pleasure to see the sun through leaves. Then I hiked steeply uphill passing masses of French Lavender in bloom and wondering how I’d let myself get this unfit. The path veered through an olive grove, rich with an understory of wildflowers; I was sad to see a farmhand at work spraying away at the spring growth. Then a cousin of mine, the Egyptian Grasshopper (Anacridium aegyptium) whirred passed – he likes to make an entrance – like a small bird. Egyptian Grasshoppers can reach 7 or 8 cms: it can be a startling experience for the walker who becomes his accidental landing site.

And then, at last, I reached the top and took a look at the valleys. It wasn’t just the sunshine and the blue skies – it was the richness of green patterning the hillsides that struck me. The avocados, heavily planted in on the terraces, have almost yellow leaves; the carob trees are dark; the almonds pale; the poplars gold…so many shades of a single colour enriching the landscape. Fantastic!

It was while I was admiring the view that a couple of walkers, Rosario and Calum, appeared from the upper road; they wanted to check that the path down lead to the bridge but after a chat we realised they wanted the second track (which I was headed for) to hit the later bridge higher up the valley. In talking I found that Calum writes a walking blog with a friend. It’s axarquiaonfoot.com, and is worth taking a look at if you want more routes (obviously mine are the best, but you may want to hop around a bit!) – he said they’ve over 30. He is based down in Torrox and his friend is in Frigiliana, so perhaps more in that locale: I will have to try to walk any that are new to me some time. It was lovely to meet someone who was a fellow enthusiast. While we talking an eagle drifted into view behind them. They weren’t surprised (or offended) when I broke off to look through the binoculars – they said they’d seen four in the area as they came up the valley. My guess would be two breeding pairs, but that – and the bird’s id – would be mere speculation. Against the light it glided quietly out of sight.

I came down into the valley again and headed to the Merendero picnic site. Again I was disappointed to see evidence of spraying; they’ve cleared the ground. I understand that farmers want to give priority to their crops, but the wild flowers were surely an asset to a picnic ground. Still, you can’t fail to be charmed by this lovely site; they have planted in a few more poplars, a tree I have always loved. The beautiful colour of the new leaves is breath-taking. It make me think of Frost’s (rather sad) poem: ‘Nature’s first green is gold,/her hardest hue to hold’.

I wandered down to the river and enjoyed the relaxation of listening to water burbling away to itself and watching the pond-skaters sliding on the moving surface. At the bridge by the mill I had seen flycatchers over the water, but here the water was moving a little faster and there seemed to be fewer insects. No flycatchers anyway. Perfect spot for a dipper but alas, I didn’t see one. Maybe next time.

And then finally it was time to walk up to the town and think about what I ought to have been doing while I was out enjoying myself. Such a beautiful walk. There had even been a lovely breeze every time on the uphills; though now it was getting a bit insistently wild. Then I noticed the cloud above the west side valley ridge, shaped like a flying saucer – or a long lentil. The latter gave this cloud formation it’s name, it’s called a lenticular, and in my experience it means a windy day or two on the way. Might be time to batten down the hatches. Grasshopper hopping off home!

 

 

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Bugs

Very fond of bugs, among which are some of nature’s most peculiar beasties. I like them because they are strange and interesting, I like them because I can get quite often catch them on camera, I like them because, like the mountain, they are there!

A couple of years ago I saw these lovely Dock Leaf Bugs – dozens of them, mating or looking for a partner on a few leaves by the river – in the Cájula Valley.

I was with a group of walkers and commented, “I think I can promise this is the only group sex you will see on the walk!” Not a line I often get to say!

A few bugs seem to be named for their shape from the Shield Bugs like this one:

Hairy Shield bug, Dolycoris baccarum
Hairy Shield Bug

To the marvellously named “Rhombic Leatherbug” – I think of it more as diamond shaped – which I saw on a window the other day.

Rhombic Leatherbug, Syromastus rhombeus

Then you get creatures that are just very odd like the jumping bristletail, which I often see on house walls around the town. I know it is not a true bug – true bugs have a “stylet”, a straw-like mouth to suck juices out of plants (or blood out of animals in the case of, say, bedbugs) – but it is a curious wingless insect and I’m including it in this blog!

Jumping Bristletail
Jumping Bristletail

 

Now I have a puzzle and – sorry about this – a bit more sex (only one pic!). This spring, as every year I have seen the BlackandRed bugs I have long identified as ‘Lygaeus’, specifically Lygaeus equestris. It is an attractive little book and very common during the spring to see on the stony paths or in the vineyards as per the pair mating in one of the pictures below.

In the vineyard next to my work they have recently been weeding and I took the opportunity to wander up with my camera to see what had been disturbed. Initially I thought the only creatures visible were disturbed ants getting very agitated…their movement drew the eye but in the photo they are hard to see – there are at least 9 here if you can find them!

Black ants...can you see them?
Black ants…can you see them?

Then I saw a nervous, rather handsome bug trying to avoid contact with the ants. Having seen one I realised there were half a dozen in the area. What were they?

Spilostethus pandurus, bug nymph_BB_2016 (4)

I struggled to i.d. it and, after failing with books and general searches, got onto ispotnature, the Open University site, and Natural History Museum’s NaturePlus. Both are helpful and interesting sites, both came back with a suggested i.d: the nymph of the Spilostethus pandurus bug.

Nymphs are junior bugs, a common feature of insect life-cycles: it is the same, as it happens, for grasshoppers: egg turns into tiny nymph but as the exo-skeleton doesn’t allow for growth once it has hardened (which it does rapidly) the next stage is a moult, producing a bigger nymph. Followed by a bigger nymph again … this can go on and on in some species … followed, eventually, by an adult. It is like this:

Grasshopper lifecycle

In some insects the nymphs look identical to the adult, in others they are radically different. I didn’t know the Spilostethus pandurus that, apparently, my nymphs would become so I looked it up. And got a shock. It looked exactly like the bugs I’d designated Lygaeus equestris.

How could I have missed this? See what you think. Here are pictures of the two species taken from Wikipedia.

Lygaeus_equestris
Lygaeus_equestris
Spilostethus pandurus
Spilostethus pandurus

 

 

 

 

 

To me the colour – red or orange – is the only obvious visible difference. It does suggest that, annoyingly, I shall have to re-designate my familiar redandblack bugs from Lygaeus to Spilostethus, which is harder to say. It is true; the orange coloured bug is what I normally see.

I’m left feeling rather less smug about my bug-knowlege, and wondering what else I might have i.d.’d incorrectly.

With a bit of luck I’ll see some more interesting nymphs – and find out.

 

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