By February and through March farmers are hoeing and digging over the terraces up and down the valley. They have pruned the vines and in the next month will be trimming the olive trees. You can see plumes of smoke as the weeds are burnt off (the ash can go back on the land, and burnt seedheads won’t sprout). Am I worried to see these wildflowers dug out?
Malaga has been in drought for over two years.
The La Viñuela reservoir in the heart of the Axarquía has capacity for 165 million cubic metres of water. It provides water for irrigation to hundreds of farms and drinking water to thousands of homes.
Up to the 26th of February – six months into a nine month “rainy season” – it held just 35 million cubic metres: 21% of capacity. So the promise of a week or more of rain seemed heaven sent.
Admiring the building rain clouds (at last we may have rain!) I pull over to get a shot of an old ‘Jerusalem tree’ against the dark sky. I haven’t time to walk today but on the other side is a patch of waste ground covered in wildflowers. Are they all Oxalis? Let’s have a look.
Yesterday saw a flock of some 20-30 Choughs, flying over from Corumbela side towards Sayalonga.
Been getting the bus to work recently due. No one used to having a car at beck and call likes getting the bus, but it does have advantages. In my case the advantage is a 10 minute walk up a track between banks of fallow land. This may not seem like much of a gain considering the tiresome loss of independence (not to mention my stomach when Emilio is driving), but it is pure gold. After the frantic morning hour of getting self and family organised and out a perfect break into a silence noisy with birdsong: stonechat chipping away, flocks of goldfinch twittering, the cross wicker of a sardinian warbler. I’m afraid I can’t get photos – the overgrown olive groves on the higher bank are so overgrown the birds can laugh at me with abandon; I can only see glimpses. Still, I’m happy to hear them.
I walk slowly up, clearing my mind and looking at the weedy banks. They are unbelievably rich with moss – a bank of moss can be truly beautiful. The water from the recent rainfall doesn’t have a clear channel here so it seeps all through the bank enrich the plant-life. There are young giant fennel sprouting up, and alexanders. A few gorse bushes in flower, though no broom just here. The gorgeous french lavender is especially rich, early Spanish Vetchlings are coming out. And within the last week (my last carless, I hope) the orchids were in full flower.
Then I saw Pink Butterfly Orchid (Orchis papilionacea). This is the orchid I see most of within the valley, especially on the west side – the Cájula river valley, the Fogarate ridge – and it is a really beautiful flower, always a pleasure to show walkers new to the area.
I was a little surprised to see it this early – I expect late March-April and in looking this up had a surprise. The first was to discover that my nice family Pink Butterfly orchid is probably a heroic subspecies. The description (Kreutz, 1998) certainly fits: “O. papilionacea ssp. heroica has a shorter and wider egg-shaped inflorescence, besides bigger flowers and a rather, broad egg-shaped, light pink coloured lips”.
The second surprise was that plenty of sites were coming up with an entirely different name for the orchid. Not merely a different species name but a different genus, going from Orchis papilionacea to Anacamptis papilionacea. What?! Had I mis-id’d an orchid? Had someone rewritten the taxonomy? How many photos would I have to re-name? Turns out to be in dispute – the complex world of orchidology split by a modern attempt to reorder the genera causing great confusion. I greatly enjoyed a blog that described the conflict (A Hornet’s Nest) that is worth a read and relieved when the author concluded that he would be sticking to the old name. I wouldn’t need to revise all my photos anyhow.
All that was, of course, when I’d got home. But the Orchis papilionacea ssp heroica (that is absolutely what I am sticking with) was only halfway up the bank. I had one more surprise to come, a wonderful flower, the Woodcock Orchid (Ophrys scolopax). This I have only previously seen in the Cájula valley itself. It’s dark lobe reminds me of bee orchids, but the three pink sepals are unmistakable.
As I took the Woodcock shot my batteries packed up. Oh well, time for work. But half a dozen song birds, a short walk and orchids – not a bad start to the day.
When I was a teenager my Gran said she would pay me the vast sum of £5 if I could clear a small area at the bottom of the garden of horsetails. I worked away enthusiastically for a bit – I had to go back to the house for gloves because they hurt my hands, but before she came to see ‘how I was getting on’ I had a great heap of the bristly green plants. The jointed stems had broken easily but Gran wasn’t in the least impressed. “It’s no good just snapping them off. You have to try to dig them up.” Digging up horsetails is no piece of cake. They have deep, deep root systems and love to dig down into damp soil. Clever Gran.
They are simple and ancient plants – the last of their family and a contender for the oldest surviving plant genus on land. According to New Scientist the plant family Equisetum dates back 150 million years! For an age they dominated the understory of the late Paleozoic forest. Some species forested the land, up to 30 metres tall – horsetails to picnic under!
While I was grumpily digging them up I thought modern horsetails boring but they are useful. They are a good source of elements like silicone and phosphorous, and are used to treat a broad range of ailments. What’s more, they make a great scrubbing brush: their bristly stems make them good for polishing metal. No wonder I needed gloves!
However, they do spread. As my Gran knew you can’t pull them up because the jointed stems come apart easily, leaving the roots intact. I believe cavers have reported their roots hanging down through underground caverns, but perhaps this is a tall (or a deep) story.
Horsetails prefer wet ground, though, so living in Malaga I hardly saw them. Then one February I came across this strange growth. It looked like a strangely extended mushroom; spongy textured, white (no photosynthesis happening here), about 10 cm high. I couldn’t name it but had a strong feeling that mushroom was not the right place to start (why? No idea). It was in a shady place on the riverbank. And the stem reminded me of something.
After some false starts I realised the ‘something’ was horsetails. I objected: I knew horsetails: hard stems, weak joints, dense clusters at the bottom of Gran’s garden, where I’d never seen such a thing (perhaps I wasn’t looking). No, this alarmingly phallic mushroom couldn’t possibly be a horsetail!
Of course, it is. It turns out that this structure, sent up from the underground rhizomes, is the fertile, spore producing strobilus, the first stage of a horsetail’s life cycle. It is there to promote a bit of genetic diversity and help the plants spread. The spores have a (brilliant) spring-system that fires them off as they dry, helping them reach fresh ground. My better known bristly grass-like structure is the second life-stage of the plant and, to my surprise, is infertile. I can (almost) here my Gran muttering, “Infertile but Infernal. Plaguey stuff”.
Malaga’s yearly drought prevents a real abundance – no wonder the strobilus was just by the Rio Turvilla. Since then I have spotted horsetails, on various river valleys and a few cracked acequias, peeking out nervously from behind rocks or banks. Perhaps they have heard of global warming (Be afraid. Be very afraid).
But I am impressed. I never thought horsetails could be interesting. And would you have guessed these two were the same plant?
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.
And there were butterflies everywhere. A red admiral, countless Whites, a couple of Wall Browns, a couple of Cleopatras, and Fritillaries.
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!
They are out again. I have seen them today – Malaga’s most seen hairy caterpillar. And in this instance I wave my love of all creepy crawlies and concur with the old nursery rhyme’s conclusion:
“Little Arabella Miller found a hairy caterpillar
First she put it on her mother, then upon her baby brother.
All said, ‘Arabella Miller! Take away that caterpillar!'”
Processionary caterpillers are the larvae of the Pine Processionary Moth (Thaumetopoea pityocampa). The moth itself is inoffensive; it only lives for 12 hours or so, but the female does her best to mate and lay eggs before calling it a day. She causes lots of trouble in doing so. The eggs are laid in pine trees and are covered in scales that make them mimic pineshoots. The trouble comes later.
The siblings stay together as a colony; they make a couple of practise homes and finally spin a ‘tent’ – a ball of silk webbing – on the outer branches of the pine tree they are in. It is an effective home, water proof and resilient and the caterpillars march out at night, in single file, to feed on pine needles. Since there can easily be 3 or 4 tents in a single tree it is no surprise that they are a threat to younger trees because of the defoliation their needle-nibbling causes. They will sometimes come down to the ground to seek a new tree if not satisfied with the original.
To pupate the caterpillars come down for one last times. Again they come in single file, nose to tail, forming a marching column, the procession that gives them their name. They search for suitably soft ground before burrowing into it and weaving their cocoon. Given that there can be over a hundred caterpillars to a nest, the ‘processions’ can be yards long; disruption leaves scattered groups of them reforming into smaller chains.
But it is not their affect on pine trees that irritates. It is their hairs. This is their key defence mechanism; the hair is harpoon shaped, designed to pierce the skin and break off within it like nettle hairs. They shed hairs continually and the tent nests are full of them. Older caterpillers, if threatened, can actually shoot hairs at the attacker!
If you imagine something downy floating past you think again; they may be almost invisible but if you breath them in they are no joke. In humans they can actually be dangerous. They cause a painful, burn-like reaction, but some people may suffer anaphylactic shock. If they get in your eyes you can suffer temporary blindness and will need treatment. This may sound unlikely, but remember the nests are full of the damn things: I’ve often warned walkers not to get too close while getting their shot of a nest that’s above their heads.
All the dog walkers I know hate them: they are lethal for pets, because dogs and cats will lick at an injury; dogs will investigate anything odd with their nose. The reaction to the hairs can close the dog’s airways; the reaction to licking at afflicted parts can cause necrosis in the mouth – some afflicted dogs have need parts of their tongue removed.
So the WARNING is out. This last week in February I’ve seen the first long lines wending their way across tracks near Sayalonga and on the road to Árchez.
We need more Golden Orioles, more Bee Eaters – both of which can make supper out of the wretched things – to hurry on over from Africa for a free meal. Please, “Take away your caterpillar!”