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NATURE TOURS

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Trip Report: Butterflies in the Spanish Pyrenees July 2014

This butterfly tour was a real success with more than a hundred different butterfly species and a hundred plus moths  seen during a week which turned out to be excellent despite the unpromising very hot weather and preceding three month drought! We had a really enthusiastic group with a huge amount of knowledge between them and enjoyed some amazing scenery, butterflies, birds and great company.  Thanks to all for coming and participating so actively.

As well as Lepidoptera we enjoyed the birds, flowers and fauna

Thanks as always to Peter and Melanie, our hosts at Casa Sarasa who made us really welcome in their lovely casa rural and kept us going with great breakfasts, delicious picnics and wonderful dinners.  Thanks too to Ivan who was helping out at the Casa during the week. 

Wednesday 15th July

Arrival at Zaragoza Airport where we picked up the rental minibus!  We had a good drive up to Casa Sarasa seeing Black and Red Kites, Griffon Vultures and White Stork along the way.  Once at Casa Sarasa we were shown our rooms and then, after a short welcome briefing we had the first of some excellent dinners.  We set up the moth trap in the garden and Ron set his up on his room´s balcony!

Thursday 16th July 

A hot, sunny day – about 35 degrees by midday.  Going over the moth traps with Dave we had a great first haul with among many others –  ´Spanish´Lappet – (Gastropacha populifolia), Poplar Grey, a Spanish ´Emerald´ (Phaiograma etruscari), Cetacious Hebrew Character (I love the names!).  As usual there were many Pine processionary moths which show how widespread this pest is in this part of the world.  We therefore weren´t too concerned to see the sparrows snap them up for breakfast!  

After yesterdays hot drive from the airport we decided to keep travel to the minimum and drove a few minutes away down to the North side of the River Aragón at Martes.  Here along the river, riverine forest and field borders we had an excellent start to the week with

Friday 18th July

Today had been forecast as being very hot so we decided to try for more alpine Lepidoptera by taking the ski lift to the top of the Astún ski station at 2200 metres.  The ride up on the lift was spectacular with amazing views over the high Pyrenees.  One of the group nearly went around twice but was rescued just in time!

Once up high a southerly wind got up and it was a bit too windy for butterflies to be on the wing but we enjoyed a walk towards a glacial lake and the group´s botanists had a fabulous time seeing some wonderful alpines including Trumpet Gentian, Pyrenean Buttercup, Alpenrose, and a host of other flowers.  The biggest bonus of the morning was a superb view of a Lammergeier which came over a rise and flew a few metres above us.  Quite stunning.

Some of the group walked back down the mountain while others caught the lift back down.  We enjoyed our picnic lunch keeping an eye on the clouds coming from the South which gave us a brief shower.

We then walked down from the border at the Somport pass towards Candanchu, always a good area for Lepidoptera and plants.  There were many Clouded Yellows,  the Apollo butterfly so characteristic of the Pyrenees made an appearance with it´s flight sound like paper.  Purple edged Copper was seen in it´s characteristic marshy habitat alongside Twayblade, Common Spotted and Early Marsh orchids.  Blues were abundant with Small, Common and Spanish Chalkhill identified.

We then drove down the Aragón Valley and after a stop for a drink and a look around the town of Jaca headed towards our base at Berdún.  We had one last stop at an area of dry grassland and oak woods with a stream running through it.  This proved to be the best site of the day with a huge variety of butterflies including Silver Studded, Long Tailed, Green underside, Provencal Short Tailed blues. It was also fantastic to see Forsters Furry Blues which have a small range in the exterior sierras of the Pyrenees.  There were many Pearly and Small Heaths and Spanish Swallowtails.  The Fritillaries were also abundant with Knapweed, Glanville, Dark Green, Silver Washed, Heath and False Heath Fritillaries.  Meanwhile Bonellis Warblers were singing in the oaks and one or two Golden Ringed Dragonflies were flying along the stream course.  

We finally dragged ourselves away and back to Berdún for a welcome drink, to go over the lists and enjoy another dinner at Casa Sarasa.     .

Saturday 19th July

Today dawned sunny and hot with a few clouds.  After breakfast we drove a short distance down to the Aragón river flats near Martes on the lookout for more new butterfly species.  As we arrived we saw a Roe deer which seemed to take a long time to find a way out of the field as it ran back and forth.  It was very hot and very little was stirring at first.  However we soon started seeing butterflies / Woodland Grayling, False Ilex Hairstreak, Brown Argus, Southern Brown Argus, Weavers, Knapweed and Lesser Marbled Fritillary, many Southern Gatekeepers.  We also saw Holly Blue and a Silver Studded Blue which was a new species for many of us.  There were quite a few Bee eaters flying above the trees near their nesting holes in the sandy river sand nearby and it was great to see a female Marsh Harrier fly above us.  We saw Pied and Spotted Flycatcher across the river from us and Common Sandpiper skiitered along the river bank.

We returned to Casa Sarasa to escape the midday heat and had a picnic indoors!  Then after a siesta we headed to the Binies Gorge just up the road from Berdún.  As Griffon vultures soared overhead we walked slowly along the river seeing false Ilex Hairstreaks, Southern White Admirals, Bergers Clouded Yellow, Cleopatras and Brimstones.  Spanish Swallowtails were really plentiful and there were a few Banded Demoiselles near the water.  Crag Martins swooped just above our heads and an Egyptian Vulture made an appearance on the way to its nest in the gorge cliffs.  One of the group also saw a Peregrine Falcon and a Kingfisher darting along the river. There were many Marbled whites and a variety of Skippers in the field just above the gorge and it looked a promising site so, as time was running out we decided to go back to Casa Sarasa and return the next morning.   

Sunday 20th July

Today dawned sunny and breezy.  After checking the moth trap as every morning (see appendix) we drove up the Binies gorge to revisit the meadow we had been at the day before.  It was much more lively at this time of day with many Marbled whites, Chapmans, Common and Fosters Furry Blues and many Small and Pearly Heaths.  There was a great selection of Skippers with Small, Silver Spotted, Red Underwing, Mallow and Dingy Skippers seen.  There were several Fritillary species including Glanville, Weavers and Twin spot.  A Short Toed Eagle flew above as did a Kestrel.  Griffon Vultures were soaring high starting their daily patrol in search of food.  For the group´s botanists the meadow was rather dry at this time of year and there were few flowers to admire.  After an excellent hour in the meadow we got in the minibuses to drive south to the Pre Pyrenees about 45 minutes away.

Our first stop was at the village of Aguero dominated by its majestic conglomerate rock pinnacles.  The strong breeze didn´t help with seeing butterflies but we did see plenty of Marbled Whites, Clouded Yellows and Bergers Clouded Yellows.  There were a few Fritillaries – Knapweeds and Weavers and the ubiquitous Spanish Swallowtails. Southern White Admiral and Black Satyr were also seen.  We saw Blue Rock Thrush on the cliffs and kept a lookout for Black Wheatear and Dartford Warbler which we heard but didn´t see. We did see Sardinian Warbler and enjoyed watching Egyptian Vultures coming and going from their cliff nest sites.

As it was fairly quiet we moved a few kilometres along a dirt road towards the tiny hamlet of San Felices which is surrounded by pine forest and, more importantly, by Strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo) – the food plant of the Two tailed Pasha which we really wanted to see.

We found a spot for lunch – another excellent picnic from Casa Sarasa – in the shade on this very hot day.  Meanwhile we kept our eyes open for the Two tailed Pasha which we saw but fleetingly, as it was very breezy and these magnificent butterflies are powerful and fast flyers! 

We then continued our exploration of this beautiful area of the Pre Pyrenees heading across to Riglos – rock pinnacles, a picture perfect village and another chance for butterflies!  After a cool drink or ice cream (or both!) we sallied out into the sun again walking under the cliffs looking for butterflies and enjoying wonderful views over the Gállego valley.  It was still windy so there weren´t many butterflies but we did see a few blues, Chapmans and Common, a Brown Argus and the inevitable Marbled Whites.

On the way back to Casa Sarasa we briefly stopped at a meadow area at the Arres junction to see if we could get a few more species on our list but it continued windy and there were few butterflies to be seen. Even so we had had a really good day getting to know a new and different area.  The Pre Pyrenees are better for butterflies earlier in the summer – May and June but it was worth it to see the Two tailed Pasha even if only as it whizzed past

Monday 21st July

Monday dawned cloudy and it gradually cleared up for another brilliantl sunny day.  We decided to head for another of the High Pyrenees valleys, this time the Aisa valley a bit further east.  

Once in the valley we stopped at likely looking meadows along the road up the valley.  The plentiful Scabious and Wild Carrot blooms were a real draw for the butterflies – there were literally clouds of Marbled Whites and a huge variety of other butterflies including our first Queen of Spain and Marsh Fritillaries, Spanish Purple Hairstreak and many, for us, new blues Mazarine, Turqoise, Meleager´s, Osiris and Lang´s Short Tailed to name a few.

There were many skippers in evidence, mostly Large Skippers but also Mallow, Small, Lulworth and Silver Spotted.  The sheer amount of butterflies was almost overwhelming with, as well as the above, many Scarce Coppers, Small Coppers, countless Silver Washed Fritillaries on the brambles, White Admirals, Southern White Admirals, Commas…..

We gradually got to the top of the valley where most people stayed along the (quiet) mountain road spotting, photographing and identifying the different species – the blues take some close observation to identify – thanks to Reg for his expertise and amazing visual memory with the blues.  Higher up we saw Apollos, De Prunner´s and, appropriately, Pyrenean Brassy Ringlets plus Swallowtails which hadn´t been much in evidence until today.

The botanists had a fantastic time in the alpine area beyond the road seeing some wonderful specimens of Martagon Lilies, Pink Kidney Vetch, Pyrenean Pinks, Angelica, Mountain Pines, Pyramidal Orchids, several different Rockroses, Ladies Bedstraw which filled the air with its scent, various saxifrages etc etc!  Please see the list.    

This was certainly the best day of the tour for butterflies, not to mention flowers.  In total we saw 65 different species in one valley.  Quite staggering when you think that there are 59 species which breed in the entire UK!

We returned tired but happy to Casa Sarasa and enjoyed a cold beer while compiling the day´s lists.  Between butterflies, flowers and birds this took quite a while!

Tuesday 22nd July

Another sunny morning!  We started the day by Walking a really nice and gentle track, part of the Aragonese Camino de Santiago,  East from the village of Arres.  Birds of prey were a highlight here with Short Toed eagles, Booted Eagles and a Montagu´s Harrier seen. We spotted an Adonis Blue – the one and only specimen of the trip as well as Long Tailed and Osiris Blues.  It was good to hear Wood Lark singing and Gerald pointed out a Lesser Whitethroat.  We also saw Sardinian and Dartford Warblers, Red Backed Shrike, Cirl and Rock Bunting and heard Bonellis Warblers.  Pearly and Dusky heaths were plentiful as were Spanish Gatekeepers and, of course Marbled Whites.   

After our walk we managed to get the group together from searching the meadow for new species and headed for Santa Cilia and its Muladar – this is a fenced off area where dead animals are dumped for disposal by Griffon and other vultures.  We knew that today was when the dead farm animals were to be dumped there so we got to the hide overlooking the Muladar just in time for the spectacle to begin.  It´s amazing to see several hundred huge Griffon Vultures circling and when one finally decides to land to feed then all of them swoop down and a macabre natural spectacle begins!  As well as Griffons there were Egyptian Vultures plus Ravens and Red and Black Kites getting in on the act.  We watched for half an hour or so and by this time several dead sheep had been reduced to skin and bone.  

Before driving off we braved the midday sun to investigate a promising meadow, quite dry but still full of butterflies including many large Skippers and Adonis, Long Tailed and Osiris Blues.  There were also thousands of crickets which are a mainstay food source for the Montagu´s Harriers.  

We then drove up to San Juan de La Peña, the site of an ancient monastery and excellent area for Lepidoptera, birds and plants.  We had another great picnic lunch in the shade of a big old Scots Pine and after coffee and ice creams in the nearby café we struck off along a forest path.  We saw False Heath Fritillary, a Camberwell Beauty  was seen by some of us (the only one of the whole trip!  We tend to see more either earlier in the year or in September).  There were hundreds of Silver Washed Fritillaries and a very fine Emperor Dragonfly flew among the pines.  Also in evidence were Short toed Tree Creepers, Coal and Crested Tits and we heard a Black Woodpecker call.  Looking out north from a viewpoint we had an excellent  view of the high Pyrenees to the North.

We then walked down to the old monastery with its 900 year old cloister sheltered under the overhang of a huge, conglomerate cliff.  Some of the group went to look around the monastery while the rest of us walked slowly down the road enjoying the shade and seeing many more Silver Washed Fritillaries and the occasional Marbled Fritillary.  There were Blackcap and Nuthatch calling in the trees.

Once all of us had joined up from our various explorations we got the minibuses and drove back to Casa Sarasa after an excellent and varied day.  That evening our hosts Pete and Mel made us a barbecue outside in the garden and it made a perfect final supper of the week.  

It´s amazing how much you can pack in to a day!

Wednesday 23rd July 

Our last day.  As the flight from Zaragoza wasn´t leaving until early evening we had all day to explore new areas between Berdún and Zaragoza.  We started out after breakfast and soon stopped at a dry meadow where Reg identified an African Grass Blue with its metallic wings with a darker fringe around them.  We also saw Purple Shot Copper, Long Tailed and Short Tailed Blues.

We were soon driving past Riglos and turned uphill to the Mirador de Los Buitres – the Vulture Lookout – a stunning viewpoint looking over the Gallego Valley, the Riglos pinnacles and south towards the Huesca plains.  We had our final picnic in this wonderful spot and despite the wind keeping most butterflies out of sight it was wonderful.  We saw Stonechat, more vultures and many Crag Martins before going back downhill to Loarre Castle.  Some of us looked around this fantastically preserved 11th Century castle built when this was the frontier between Moorish Spain and the kingdom of Aragón.  The rest of us looked for butterflies seeing Bath White, Mountain Argus, many Clouded Yellows, Queen of Spain Fritillary and Spotted Fritillary.  It was really hot and most of us ended up in the café having cold drinks and ice cream before we continued on to Zaragoza.

We had quite a lot of time to spare so we headed for a wetland area called Los Galachos which can be an excellent site for butterflies including the African Monarch but at this late stage of the Summer there was very little to see and the strong wind didn´t help.  After spotting ducks and Coots and Reed Warbler from a hide we beat a retreat from the extreme heat and explored along the River Ebro a little finding a few butterflies and seeing Common Sandpiper along the banks.  Then it was time to drop everyone at the airport where they could cool off and have a bite to eat before catching the flight back to the UK.  We said our goodbyes and so ended a brilliant week of Butterflies and moths in the Spanish Pyrenees.

MOTHS

We set a moth trap each night, either at Casa Sarasa or in a garden a little further North.  We listed 40 species many of which have been very hard to identify exactly.  Spain doesn´t have the excellent moth guides that we have in the UK.  Many thanks to Tony Mainwood for his input and efforts during and after the tour to keep an excellent photographic record and subsequently to identify the moths.  Chris Gibson also helped Tony to identify the mysteries so thanks to him also.  It was fantastic to start a proper record of moths in the area and we will continue to add to the list as time goes on.  Many of the moths were strikingly beautiful and it´s a fascinating if highly intricate and, here in Spain, difficult study.  Please see the list attached.

PLANTS

There were two very keen botanists on the trip and we observed a huge list of alpine and Mediterranean species in the many different habitats we visited.  As this was principally a butterfly tour I haven´t gone into any detail in this report.  There is a list attached which attests to the huge range of plants in this area.  Again huge thanks one of the tour participants Frances who compiled an exhaustive list of the flora after the tour.  Her list is attached.  There are still one or two mystery plants we are looking into!

BIRDS

We also saw a huge range of birds, again not the main objective of the tour, but a great bonus.  Thanks to John for his assiduous spotting during the week.  We had some fantastic sightings – not least the Lammergeier up close the day we went up the ski lift at Astún.  Another exciting spot was the Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia curruca) which doesn´t breed here (It’s a more northern European bird) and is very rarely seen in Huesca province.  Up to 1998 it had only been recorded 4 times in the province, each time in the Canal de Berdún.  This makes it a 5th time!  

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