The outings

The Gibraltar Ornithological & Natural History Society organise monthly outings for it's members within Gibraltar and further afield into Andalucía, visiting a variety of locations covering diverse habitats and offering the opportunity to see the wildlife of this beautiful area. The venues for the outings are chosen and timed to coincide with the season's happenings: see Cranes in their wintering grounds, Orchids in the spring, wading birds in the Doñana wetlands, butterflies and Ibex in the Sierras, come Autumn mushrooming in the Alcornocales and enjoy the spectacular sights of thousands of migrating raptors right on your doorstep.

For dates, contacts and how to join us, see the gonhs website

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Outing to Sierra de las Nieves - 11th June 2011

Outing led by Jill Yeoman                                                       Photographs by Theresa Leverton

The Sierra de la Nieves, or 'Mountains of the Snows', forms part of the Serrania de Ronda and rises dramatically above the surrounding valleys and countryside. The Natural Park covers an area of 30km by 20km, or 18,530 hectares; the peak is the tip of the ‘Torecilla’ at 1,919 metres. Historically, this was a place of refuge for highwaymen and outlaws, but today the Sierra de las Nieves is considered one of the best places in Europe for the study of nature.  The area was studied in the 19th century by Swiss botanist Edmond Boissier and in 1933 by Luis Ceballos;  in 1970 the park was declared a National Hunting Reserve and then in 1995 a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.
Access :  Take the Ronda road from San Pedro, the A376, which must be one of the most scenic routes in southern Spain.The road twists and turns upwards into the mountains, each bend revealing spectacular views across to the North African coast on one  side and craggy wooded mountains on the other. Eventually the road levels out and you are in the 'moonscape' of bare silver-white limestone crags. The entrance to the park is on your right-hand side, turning in at km136. There is a surfaced road that extends about 10km inwards. The first few kilometres of the road are currently not in the best of condition, and a 4x4 vehicle was a great asset, although several of our party were in more 'normal' cars and managed OK: the road surface improved dramatically after a while and we had a comfortable journey to the 'area recreativo', where we parked. NB -Later this month the latter section of the road will be closed as a precaution against fire and the only way to reach this area (where there are also toilets), is on foot. 
This has always been one of the most popular and best-attended outings in the annual calendar and today 16 of us met up in the car park located a short way into the park.The outing began well, the sun was shining, butterflies were out and a Nightingale serenaded us from close by as we exchanged greetings and posed for the group photo.
Group photo taken by Maurice
Following the photocall we drove further into the park enjoying the spectacular views across the Serrania de Ronda. Arriving at the car parking area of the Area Recreativo,the larger group split, so we have three separate and varied reports of the day's discoveries, a general overview by me (Theresa), a detailed report of the butterflies, moths & birds submitted by Charles Perez, as sighted by himself and Keith Bensusan, a detailed bird list from Robin Springett. In addition I am including a brief geological report put together for us by one of our members on last year's trip, with which I am starting, as the geology of the place influences everything else that is found there. 

Geology report by Margus Raha 

First of all- thank you for this wonderful walk!
About Geology: at the beginning of our walk we saw mostly limestone (gray-white) with the crystals of pure calcite (CaCo3, which is the main mineral of limestone). Also we saw the clayish layers of marl in the limestone. The further we walked, the more evidence of the metamorphic processes we encountered- dissolved crystals of calcite in the stones (empty cavities), shales, dolomitizations- in the limestone Mg replaces Ca. We met the process of weathering (breaking down of the Earth's rocks, soils and minerals through direct contact with the planet's atmosphere)- we saw rustic crust (coloured in red- iron-rich). We found one dark piece of stone which looked like (but was not) obsidian (volcanic glass) with sparkling cristals of biotite from the mica group (probably). Somebody thought it might be of alien origin (meteorite?). 
Also we found the piece of suphur or sulphured stone (yellow).

Iron-stained limestone with shale layer, the rocks shaped by water

Report by Theresa Leverton:

The Sierra de las Nieves is renowned for its diverse and abundant flora, with many species that are found only here. The cooler temperatures at this higher altitude also means that many plants flower later here than in our lower coastal areas, giving a second chance to see those that are more widespread. At the lower end of the trail, where there are open grassy areas, those of us who are particularly keen on the flora were spoilt for choice, darting from flower to flower, cameras in overdrive. Once more I must say that we were fortunate to have Michael in our group, whose botanical expertise, patiently and generously shared, was again much in demand, and is much valued and appreciated by us all.
Giant Squill - Scilla Peruviana - Albarrana

Common Gladiolus - Gladiolus communis
Viper's Grass - Scorzonera Crispatula
The large and beautiful seed-head of Viper's Grass

The group had split up more or less at the outset, but the majority of us, led by Jill, set off on a trail leading up a mountain slope through a lovely shaded pine forest. Birds abounded amongst the huge pines we were walking between, but were tricky to see as they flitted around in the dense foliage. From the outset we could hear Greenfinch,Chaffinch and Chiffchaff (Iberian?) and had glimpses of Blue Tits, Crested Tits and Coal Tits, then higher up at a point where we had more open views down into the valley below and beyond, there were better views of Great Tits, Chiffchaff and a Serin singing. All seemed to be still very much in the throws of feeding nestlings, a little later up here than nearer the coast where most birds of these species have fledged. In the distance across the valley Jill and Alfred picked up on a large flock of Chough in the air - (50-60 birds were estimated). We had a glimpse of a Booted Eagle here and beneath us a family of pigs foraged in a grassy pasture. 
A family of pigs were foraging in a grassy clearing in the valley below us. Some of us would like to believe they were wild boar, but how do you tell? The boar spotted us and looked up, so we were glad to be seeing them from a distance, just in case.   
Spanish Fir -Pinsapo Pine - Abies Pinsapo

The Pinsapo pine

In 1837, during one of his exploratory visits to the south of the Iberian Peninsula, the Swiss Botanist Edmond Boisser discovered a new species of tree: Abies Pinsapo, popularly known as the pinsapo pine or Spanish fir.
Found only in the southern mountains of Andalucia and in the north of Morocco, botanists discovered that the pinsapo had been around since the Tertiary geological time period - predating  the Ice Age. The tree can grow up to 30m tall and live as long as 200 years. It has tiny needle-like leaves, which are extremely sharp and cylindrical in shape, and although this foliage appears lightweight, it throws out a very dense shade on the ground. 

As we continued uphill track, taking care not to trip on the network of exposed tree roots that criss-cross the  well-worn track, we heard a Robin singing and also a song we did not immediately recognise as that of a Redstart. We also intruded into the territory of a pair of Nuthatch who loudly and insistently demonstrated their disapproval, then went on to upset a Wren that was trying to deliver a very large grub to its hungry chicks.
The Wren had its beak stuffed with a huge grub, but it continued to chastise us for preventing access to the waiting offspring.

Our track eventually levelled out, continuing around the side of the slope. It was very pleasant there, but we realised that those of us remaining in our group (a few of the others had gone ahead at a faster pace), had no idea where we may end up if we continued on it. The decision was made to make a scramble up the steep rocky mountainside to its top, where we thought we may find the surfaced track that would take us back down again.

Nuthatch waiting to take food in to the nest

There was a very narrow track up parts of the slope, but in places we were clambering rather than walking. It was well worth the effort for the close views of some of the lovely flora, but most of all for the amazing views

An eye-level view of a Grayling butterfly that came to rest on a rock next to me. It is thought that this butterfly, and others similarly marked with 'eyes', keep them exposed on initial landing as targets for potential strikes by predators that may have spotted them. The insect can better afford to lose part of a wing than its 'real' head or body. Once the butterfly closes its wings completely, lowering the forewing and covering the eye it will be perfectly camouflaged against the similarly patterned rock.

Common White Rockrose - Helianthemum appenninum

We paused several times to look more closely at plants and once to watch two Griffon Vultures cruising over the top of the mountain, but finally made it to the top, all of us unscathed but with muscles that were already promising to protest in the days to come. We  settled to eat our lunch and to appreciate the indescribably spectacular panoramic views we had across mountains that stretched to the far horizon and probably beyond.

Part of the stunning views we had from our picnic spot, looking towards the north-west
Granada Thyme - Thymus granatensis - Tomillo

Refreshed we set off again, and as hoped we did meet up with the road that would take us back to where we had set off from, and just as we stepped onto it, the people from our group that had left us earlier were strolling down towards us. They had had some great bird sightings further up the mountain, noted in Robin's report to follow. With them we heard another Redstart singing and located it at the top of a tree a distance away, it's surprising how far the sound made by a smallish bird carries here. 
Northern Wheatear - Oenanthe oenanthe - Collalba Gris

Out in the open now and on a track cutting through the rocky mountainside was like being in a completely different world. There were a number of birds flying around the rocky terrain,   Black Redstart males that were singing from the tops of craggy rocks, Northern Wheatear and Rock Buntings, including a pair that were feeding fledged young, one of which we could see and hear perched at the top of a small Pinsapo pine tree.
Rock Bunting - Emberiza cia - Escribano Montesino

The flora on the exposed rocky slopes is more alpine in nature or otherwise evolved to withstand the extremes of temperature and seasonal lack of moisture. 

The fascinating flowers of the Pine-cone Knapweed - Leuzea conifera

Every part of this amazing location is brimming with life from the trees to the smallest of flowers and from the rock surfaces down to the ground, everywhere you look there are birds, butterflies and a myriad of creeping, crawling or flying insects.

Thapsia flower covered with insects

On the way down
The hot afternoon sun had brought out the butterflies and although I did not see quite the amount of species as on trips here in previous years, there were high numbers of individuals of some of the species that I did see. Spanish Gatekeepers, Marbled Whites, Marsh Fritillaries, Clouded Yellows and Cleopatras were particularly numerous. Fewer in number were Common Blues and Small Whites and I saw just one Wall Brown, one Black-veined White, one Small Skipper and a single beautiful Scarce Swallowtail that had no mind to stay still long enough to be photographed. 

Wall Brown -Lasiommata megera
Marsh Fritillary - Eurodryas aurinia
Black-veined White - Aporia crataegi on Scabious

As our larger group set off on our upward journey, Charles Perez and Keith Bensusan had  already begun to gather a list of the visibly abundant insect population amongst the flowers and grasses of the valley. The following is Charles' report of their sightings:

We thoroughly enjoyed the outing and visit to Sierra de las Nieves.  We did notice that it was a little bit cool and that may have affected the lack of Butterflies that were around at the time.

We did see the following Butterflies:

Black-veined White  Aporia crataegi :- several at the entrance and a few more at around the Hawthorns at the picnic area.
Queen of Spain's Fritillary Issoria lathonia:-  Four that would land and sun themselves on the track and one on stones by the little stream.
Common Blue Polyommatus icarus:-  Several along the border of the track.
Lorquins Blue Cupido lorquinii:-  Only one, at northern end of track in grassy vegetation which I managed to photograph.
Marsh Fritillary Euphydras aurinia:  Several on the wooded area on way up and one worn and one fresh specimen at picnic area
Meadow Brown Maniola jurtina:-  Several males flying about in the open glades.
Escher's Blue Agrodiaetus escheri:-  Only one but a fresh specimen.
Painted Lady Cynthia cardui:-  One at the entrance carpark and one at picnic area.
Small White Pieris rapae:-  Several along the northern track.
Bath White Pontia daplidice:-  Four first brood individuals along the northern track.
Scarce Swallowtail:  Only one male that flew by fast along northern track.
Spanish Festoon Zerynthia rumina:-  Only one feeding on the nectar of the Scabious near the picnic area.
Spanish Gatekeeper Pryonis bathseba:- Several males in open glades in fresh condition.
Wall Brown Butterfly lasiommata megera:-  Several along northern track all in good condition.
Iberian Marbled White Melanargia lachesis:-  Very few, one or two by northern track but mainly seen along the southern slopes on way down.
Brown Argus Aricia cramera:-- Only one specimen.
Large Grizzled Skipper Muschampia proto:-- several along the northern track.
Lulworth Skipper Thymelicus acteon:-- Common both at entrance and around open areas at picnic site.
Mallow Skipper Carcharodus alceae:-- Only one seen along the track.
Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas:-  Only one fresh specimen.
Cardinal:- Argynnis pandora:-  only one seen along northern track.

and Moths:-

Forester sp.  Adcita sp.:-  A lovely green metallic winged day-flying moth that got away before I could take its picture.
Royal Burnet. Zygaena sarpedon:-  A fresh specimen that got away when I tried to take its picture.
Synaphe moldavica:-  Everywhere in the grassy meadows; the most common moth around.
Hummingbird Hawkmoth. Macroglossum stellatarum:-  One feeding on the nectar of the Scabious.
Chrysocrambus dentuellus:--  Several of this well marked moths on seen landed on the stalks of grasses


Golden Eagle;- a pair that dived into a nearby valley flushing a flock of red-billed Choughs.
Red- Billed Choughs:  This flock then soared up and up until it was well above the height of the mountains.
Booted Eagle:  Up to four individuals along ridge of Northern track.
Cirl Bunting:  Several pairs singing and seen along the vegetation along the track:
Rock Bunting:  Two pairs foraging in the hawthorn bushes along track.
Bonelli's warbler:  heard singing and calling from the wooded areas.
Subalpine Warbler:  One seen in hawthorn bushes.
Melodious warbler:  One very concerned individual that was holding territory and was singing, annoyed at our presence.
Grey wagtail:  A pair that flew over the group before we split.

And Robin's bird report:

Just to say thanks for organising the outing Sat last.  We thoroughly enjoyed it!

Bird list as follows:

Blackbird, Cirl Bunting, Chaffinch, Bonelli's Warbler, Nuthatch, Stonechat, Wheatear, Black-eared Wheatear. Wren, Black Redstart, Redstart, Goldfinch, Serin, Chough, Crested tit, Rock Bunting, Woodlark, Red leg Partridge, Booted Eagle(LP), Short toed Eagle, Griffon Vulture, Woodpigeon, and the highlight for us, 2 x Whitethroat feeding young, and a second brood, of just fledging young, with the adult Whitethroat calling them out; both at the top of the hill.

PS from Theresa - Our journey home was more productive than usual in terms of birds too, we added Kestrel and Rock Thrush to our day's list, all seen at the side of the road more or less in the same spot.

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