Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Where have all the British butterflies gone?

British Butterflies conspicuous by their absence

Small Tortoiseshell (Photo: Public Domain)
I have been in the UK since the end of August and have been sad to find that many once common British butterflies are conspicuous by their absence. It needs to be asked: where have all the British butterflies gone?

I remember a time when buddleia (Buddleia davidii) bushes were rightly also known as butterfly bushes, a time when you could count on seeing many species of butterfly feeding on the nectar provided by the colourful and perfumed flowering spikes. Those days, it seems, have long gone.

 Peacock on Buddleia (Photo: Public Domain)

Butterfly species that feed on Buddleia

Small White on Buddleia (Photo: Public Domain)
There used to be a butterfly bush in my father’s garden in Cardiff on which on a sunny day you could expect to see several small tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae), a peacock (A. io) or two, one or more red admirals (Vanessa atalanta), a comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album), several small whites (Pieris rapae) and a large white (P. brassicae) all at the same time. Now you are lucky to see a single butterfly. 

 Red Admiral on Michaelmas Daisies (Photo: Public Domain) 

At time of writing we are approaching the end of September, and despite the UK having had some very warm and sunny days, my butterfly sightings have been at an alltime low. Now you may be thinking, well, it is autumn, but the season shouldn’t matter. Hibernating butterfly species feed up in September and October too to help sustain them through the winter months ahead. The buddleias have mostly finished now but michaelmas daisies (Aster amellus) and orpine (Sedum telephium) are two commonly planted garden flowers that butterflies love, but this year the butterflies are missing.

It is not only flowers that butterflies will feed from. Red admirals, in particular, have a liking for rotting fruit and enjoy feeding in late summer and autumn on windfall fermenting apples and pears. There are plenty of apple and pear trees about but again a real shortage of butterflies. 

Reasons for the butterfly decline

The disappearance of so many British butterflies is a very worrying issue, not just because of the great beauty of these winged insects that we all enjoy seeing, but because it shows that all is not well in the environment. If butterflies are vanishing this will have an adverse effect on other creatures that feed on them. Many birds eat caterpillars, for example, so their numbers are affected by a shortage of food.

Many reasons have been put forward for the serious decline in many species of British butterfly, ranging from pesticides and herbicides, pollution, disease, parasites and Climate Change. A change in farming practices is another reason so many species are thought to be dwindling in numbers. 
 Comma on Buddleia (Photo: Public Domain)

Red admiral, small tortoiseshell, peacock and comma butterfly caterpillars all feed on stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) and there is no shortage of this plant, although I have seen it deliberately destroyed by herbicide.

The decline of the small tortoiseshell has been a real mystery, and a warm winter followed by a chilly spring, is thought to have done a lot of harm to this pretty species.

2016 has been recognised by scientists monitoring the situation as a very bad year for butterflies, and it can only be hoped that next year is a lot better. How many butterflies have you seen this year?

Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Swallowtails of Portugal

The Southern Scarce Swallowtail

Southern Scarce Swallowtail (Photo: Steve Andrews)

There are two types of swallowtail butterfly seen flying in Portugal, and one of these is known as the Southern Swallowtail or Southern Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides feisthamelii). A large and very beautiful insect it is often regarded as a subspecies of the very similar Scarce Swallowtail (I. podalirius). This latter species is actually a fairly common butterfly across many parts of Europe, but it earned its moniker because of rare migrants or strays that made it to the UK, where it is indeed a very “scarce” butterfly.

The Southern Scarce Swallowtail is also found in Spain, Italy, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. It frequents gardens and parks as well as the countryside and will definitely catch your eye as it soars  and glides or sips nectar from flowers. It has attractively marked wings of pale yellow or cream with black bands and markings, and at the tips of the rear wings are the characteristic “swallowtail” projections that are bordered by blue spots against more black.

The Swallowtail

The Swallowtail (Papilio machaon)  is a very rare species in the UK where it is confined to the fens of the Norfolk Broads. This is because in Britain, the caterpillar will only feed on Milk Parsley (Peucedanum palustre), a plant which is uncommon in the UK, and which needs wetlands and marshes in which to grow. The British type of the Swallowtail can only be seen in the wild by visiting its habitat in the Norfolk Broads, and it is not found anywhere else in the UK.

Swallowtail (Photo: Public Domain) 

The continental variety of the Swallowtail does not have such specific food-plant needs and will accept Wild Carrot (Daucus carota), Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), Rue (Ruta graveolens) and a number of other plants. This has led to the wide distribution of this butterfly across Europe and elsewhere, and like the Scarce and Southern Scarce Swallowtails, it can be found in a variety of habitats, including gardens and parklands. There are as many as 37 recognised subspecies of the Swallowtail and P. machaon britannicus is the type found in the UK, whereas P. machaon gorganus is the widely distributed butterfly found in Portugal and across southern Europe. Other subspecies are found in central and northern Europe and in Asia and North America.

The Swallowtail is a large butterfly and the biggest species found in the UK, apart from the very rare migrant known as the Monarch (Danaus plexippus). It has pretty yellow wings veined and banded with black, as well as blue spots and red eye spots near the “swallowtail” projections from its hindwings.
Swallowtail larva (Photo: Public Domain)

The caterpillar is a pretty creature too with a pale green body striped with black and marked with orange. It has a defensive organ known as an osmeterium behind its head. This organ consists of fleshy projections that emit a foul smell and taste and can be retracted after deterring a would-be predator. The chrysalis is either green or brown.

The caterpillar of the Scarce Swallowtail feeds on species in the Plum and Cherry genus (Prunus) and also on Pear trees (Pyrus communis) and Apples (Malus domesticus). The wide distribution of wild species and cultivated varieties of all these fruit-bearing trees has benefited this butterfly a lot and have enabled it to live in very varied habitats. The green larva is difficult to see against the foliage of the trees it feeds upon and it will also eat Hawthorn (Crataegus spp).

Both the Southern Scarce Swallowtail and the Swallowtail are very beautiful species to look out for in Portugal and the other countries where they can be seen flying. We can help attract them to our gardens by growing their food-plants, as well as providing nectar-bearing and colourful flowers for the adult butterflies to feed from. 

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Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Environmentally friendly bicycle trends

Environmentally friendly bicycle trends
A row of rental bikes in the center of Amsterdam (Photo: Michael Renner)

Bicycles are an environmentally friendly way of getting around because they do not burn fuel to do so. Bicycles rely on human energy to power them. They do not pollute the air with exhaust fumes like cars and other motorised vehicles do at present. Going by bike is one greener way ahead and is something many of us can do to help in turning things around in the world today. Of course, the more people who use bicycles the better, and in many parts of the world they are becoming increasingly popular, but are there any new eco-friendly bicycle trends? Let us take a look at how much cycling is being seen as the way forward?.

Denmark is becoming a cycling nation

Cyclists in Copenhagen (Photo: Colville-Andersen)

The Scandinavian country of Denmark is one of many nations where bicycles have become more and more popular as a way of travelling. Back in the 1960s cars were threatening to replace bikes as the main means of Danish transport but due to the oil crisis, the environmental movement and road traffic problems, the situation changed in a positive way and more people went back to their bikes or took up cycling. Amsterdam in the Netherlands is a very bike-friendly city too, where cycling has been a popular way of getting around the city for many years.

The demand is on for E-bikes

An E-bike (Photo: Jannis Blume)

The demand for Electric bikes or e-bikes is continuing to grow. These bikes are zero emissions transport vehicles which are usually powered by rechargeable batteries. Admittedly the electricity still needs to be generated and the disposal of the limited life batteries they use may be problematic, however, when all is considered e-bikes are more environmentally friendly because they make less environmental impact than cars and motorbikes. E-bikes are also useful for health reasons. They have been successfully used in cardiac rehabilitation medical programmes and to help obese people lose weight.

Wooden or Lumber Bikes

Wooden bike (Photo: Jose Hernandez)

Another growing trend is for lumber bikes made from wood. These bikes can utilise plywood and are marketed as having eco-frames. They look very attractive and are very different to the old-fashioned bicycles with metal frames. Bamboo is another natural material that is being used to make bicycles from and then there are the new D-I-Y bikes that are catching on too. There is something very pleasing about a bicycle you built yourself, and you don’t have to know too much about making things because you can buy a kit to assemble your bike from. You follow the instructions to build your own bike. It is fascinating to see how the bicycle is evolving in different ways.

Of course, e-bikes and wooden bikes, just like the old sort of bicycles we all know, depend on good maintenance to be in good working order. Small components, such as roller bearings, are so vital to safe cycling and a reliable machine!

Monday, 27 June 2016

Birdwatching in Tenerife

Tenerife Birds

Blue Chaffinch  (Photo: Public Domain)

Tenerife in the Canary Islands is a very popular destination for sun-seeking holidaymakers but it is also a great place for birdwatchers because of the variety of habitats and variety of birds. Some species are very rare ones too.  Amongst the birds that are in that category is the Blue Chaffinch (Fringilla teydea), an endemic species only found in the mountain forests of the island. With its distinctive blue feathers and rarity, this is definitely one bird to watch out for.

On the subject of rare birds that can be seen in Tenerife, there are two species of laurel pigeon that only live in the  laurel ("laurisilva") forests in the mountains of the island. Bolle’s Pigeon (Columba bollii) and the Laurel Pigeon (Columba junoniae) are both very limited in their range of distribution because they need this type of woodland habitat. These evergreen mixed forests that mainly consist of laurel trees were once plentiful in the Mediterranean area, but now the few patches left in the islands of Tenerife, La Gomera and La Palma are some of the only remaining stands of this form of woodland in the world.

Great Grey Shrike (Photo: Marek Szczepanek)

The Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor) is an uncommon bird in the UK but can be found on Tenerife, especially on the mountains and high on Mt Teide. It is also known as a “Butcher Bird” because of its habit of impaling its prey on the thorns of bushes as a sort of makeshift larder where it can eat them later. The Great Grey Shrike feeds on beetles, grasshoppers and small animals, including lizards and mice.

Water birds

Little Egret in flight (Photo: Public Domain)

Although Tenerife has very little naturally occurring freshwater habitats, the reservoirs, ornamental ponds and irrigation tanks provide enough places for frogs and fish to live that can provide food for birds such as the Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea). The Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), with its white plumage, is a very distinctive bird that can be seen all over the island, including along its coasts and on farmland.

The Coot (Fulica atra) and the Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) are two widely distributed water birds that both breed in Tenerife. Both species can be seen on the ponds near the village of Erjos.

One strange-looking bird you might encounter on Tenerife beaches is the Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus). This wader has a very long bill that it uses for probing into sand and rocks where it can find its food.

The Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius) is another wader that lives in Britain that can be also be seen in coastal areas of Tenerife, including Las Galletas and El Medano. It likes beaches and open areas of ground near the sea or by lagoons.

Birds of Prey

Kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) and Buzzards (Buteo buteo) are the two most commonly seen birds of prey  that live on the island of Tenerife. The Long-eared Owl (Asio otus) hunts by night in many parts of the island. None of the birds of prey are as common as they once were.

The Hoopoe
Hoopoe (Photo: Public Domain)

One of the most exotic looking birds found on Tenerife is the Hoopoe (Upupa epos). It stands out with its salmon-pink plumage, black and white striped wings,  long pointed beak, and a tufted crest of feathers on its head. A rare migrant to the UK, on Tenerife it can be seen in gardens, parks and farmland where it hunts for insects and other small creatures to eat.

Canaries in the Canary Islands

Wild Canary (Photo: Public Domain)

Of course, as you might well expect the Canary Islands have canaries, and although this is not why the islands were named with their descriptive moniker, there are these types of birds living there. The Common Canary (Serinus canaria) is a bird that is very often seen and heard on Tenerife, although this wild type doesn’t have the bright yellow colouring all over its body that the the domestic version you would probably be more familiar with has. Domestic Canaries are sold in pet stores and commonly kept as pets throughout the island.

These are just some of the more interesting examples of birds that can be found in Tenerife, and that birdwatchers can be on the lookout for.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Why Tenerife is a paradise for naturalists

Tenerife is a naturalist’s dream
Tenerife forested mountains
Tenerife is a popular island in the Canary Islands for tourists who spend their holidays there but it is also every naturalist’s dream. With its forests, mountains, semi-desert areas, cliffs, sand dunes and range of beaches there is a real diversity of habitats. There are so many types of countryside on the island, and also a range of very different microclimates. This is why so many forms of flora and fauna can be found there, both endemic species and introduced and naturalised plants and animals.
Laurel Pigeon (Photo: DrPhilipLehmann)
There are two main sorts of forests: pine forest and ancient evergreen laurel forest. The latter of these is very important because the patches of this type of woodland that still stand on Tenerife and some of the other Canary Islands are some of the only remaining stretches of this form of forest in the world. Rare birds, such as the laurel pigeon (Columba junoniae) and endemic plants like the Canary Islands foxglove (Isoplexis canariensis) can be found in the laurel forests.

Viper's Bugloss species

Red Bugloss
Tenerife has a very great range of species in the Echium genus of viper’s bugloss. The most spectacular species is the red bugloss or Teide bugloss (Echium wildpretii), which as its name suggests has red flowers that form in tall spikes, and it is found growing high on Mt Teide where there is a very extreme habitat. Because it is so high the sunlight is very strong but it gets very cold at night. The ground is dry and rocky and it looks like another planet in the Tenerife highlands.
There is a shortage of naturally occurring freshwater in Tenerife because it drains quickly into the ground and down to the sea after it rains but this has not prevented a fascinating selection of freshwater creatures and water birds being found on the island. Many species of dragonfly, two species of frog and the mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis) mainly depend on the reservoirs and irrigation tanks used by farmers for collecting water for their crops. The frogs, by the way, are the Mediterranean tree-frog (Hyla meridionalis), and the Iberian water frog (Rana perezii). In the village of Erjos, however, there are some large ponds that formed after the topsoil was removed many years ago. These pools attracted all sorts of wildlife and make a wonderful area for appreciating nature and walking in the surrounding hills and forests. 
Grey Heron
The grey heron (Ardea cinerea) is a bird that uses natural and artificial freshwater pools to search for fish and frogs and is often seen on the island. It will also take goldfish from ornamental ponds in parks and gardens.
Tenerife has lizard species, two types of gecko and a skink but no snakes, despite having excellent habitats for these reptiles.
Monarch butterfly
There are many interesting insects to be found on the island. A butterfly to look out for is the monarch (Danaus plexippus). It was able to colonise the Canary Islands because the tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is often grown in gardens, flower borders and parks. This large and beautiful butterfly can be seen flying all year round and is most often seen in cities, towns and resorts where its caterpillar’s food-plant grows in gardens. The massive and strange looking death’s head hawk moth and its larva are often found on Tenerife. This moth gets its name due to the skull-like marking on its thorax. The fact that it can squeak too has added to its weirdness and has made it the subject of various superstitions. The caterpillars are very big and feed mostly on thorn-apple (Datura stramonium), which is a very common weed on the island, and also on the shrub Lantana (Lantana camara).  There are also some species of praying mantis that can be found on Tenerife.
Botanists will be excited by the very large number of succulents that grow wild on Tenerife. There are many endemic species of Aeonium and Euphorbia. The Canary Island spurge (Euphorbia canariensis) looks more like a cactus and grows in large clumps on arid and rocky ground around the island.

Look out too for the prehistoric-looking dragon trees (Dracaena draco), which can still be found occasionally growing wild but are very rare. They are much more commonly seen in parks and gardens around Tenerife, and there is the famous “Drago Milenario,” said to be 1,000-years-old that is in its own park in Icod de los Vinos.

If you are interested in wildlife you will find plenty to interest you wherever you are on the island.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Goats of Es Vedra culled

Es Vedra's goats culled

Mountain Goat (Photo: Public Domain)

The mysterious rocky island of Es Vedra, off the southern coast of Ibiza in the Balearic Islands, has lost its goat population. The goats were rather cruelly culled, or killed being a more accurate description, and animal-lovers that knew about the proposed cull were disgusted to find that the killing of the goats went ahead despite campaigns to stop this.

The goats had been living on the island for the last 25 years, after a male and four females had been introduced there to replace an earlier colony, and estimates put their numbers as being between 40 and 50 animals.  The goats were a great talking point for local people in Ibiza because some people didn't even believe the animals existed and were no more than another of the many myths and strange stories about the islet, but the goats were very real and one of the attractions of cruises around the island of Es Vedra was to see if you could spot any goats there. 

The problem was, though, that the goats had little to eat on the barren and rocky island, which was, indeed, becoming even more barren and rocky due to the animals eating whatever vegetation they could find. This was causing soil erosion because the goats were often ripping the plants out of what little soil there was there.

The local government stepped in because there are endemic and protected flora growing on Es Vedra, as well as some interesting fauna, including Eleanor's Falcon (Falco eleanorae), which breeds on the island, and a subspecies of the Ibizan Wall Lizard (Podarcis pityusensis formenterae). The island's wildlife needed protecting unlike the poor goats that were a threat to the unique habitat Es Vedra provided.

Formentera Wall Lizard ( Photo: Arnau.sellares)

Sadly the government decided that the goats would have to go and that it was too difficult to catch them all and remove them to Ibiza, despite offers from animal-lovers willing to find homes for them.  On the morning of 4 February 2016 at 8am. environmental agents sailed over to Es Vedra and started shooting at the terrified goats. By 2pm it was all over and the bodies of the slaughtered goats were left where they fell.  It had also been decided that the corpses of the animals would be left to decompose naturally, even though this is against the law (Ley 8|2003 de Sanidad Animal).

Caterina Amengual, Director of Natural Areas of Biodiversity for the Balearic Department of the Environment is reported to have said: "It's a question of priorities and the conservation of ecosystems is a priority."

Although it is very sad to know what happened to the goats, and in no way do I condone the way the animals were killed, I can see her point of view. Something had to be done to protect the natural wildlife of Es Vedra and the goats had no such protection. 

Es Vedra at Sunset (Photo: Public Domain)

Es Vedra is an interesting island, not just because of its flora and fauna, but because it is the subject of many myths and legends, including that it has mysterious magnetic powers that mess up navigation and that it is where an underwater base for UFOs exists. There have been reported sightings of UFOs near Es Vedra. It has even been linked with Atlantis, and on the coast opposite it is an area that is known as Atlantis because of its unusual rock formations. In reality it was an old quarry and the rocks got taken away to build the walls of Ibiza Town. 

Trek to film the lizards of Es Vedra

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Is the Chupacabra just a Kinkajou?

What is a Chupacabra? 

The chupacabra is a creature that is the subject of an ongoing myth. Its name translates from the Spanish as "goat-sucker," and, indeed, the animal is reported to be carnivorous and to act like a vampire in sucking the blood from its prey.  It is said to be like a small bear with spines on its back and it has claws and fangs. Other descriptions liken it to some sort of reptilian creature. Some stories that have circulated in conspiracy theory, the world of the paranormal and in ufology have suggested the chupacabra is an alien animal, the product of genetic engineering in secret experiments, a hybrid and even a demon or a life-form from another dimension. 
Chupacabra (Public Domain)

The chupacabra was first reported from Puerto Rico in the mid-1990s but soon after other reports started circulating of sightings of this weird creature in other parts of Central and South America. It wasn't long before the chupacabra was seen in North America and even in Tenerife in the Spanish-speaking Canary Islands. The chupacabra was reportedly seen in the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Brazil and Mexico. It is usually seen at night and domestic animals, such as sheep and goats, that it is said to have attacked are drained of blood. This ties in with reports of animal mutilation cases, said to have been done by aliens. Reports circulate in ufology about cattle and other animals that have been killed and had parts of their bodies surgically removed with great precision and the blood being drained.  Of course, there is also the link with the very real vampire bats which do feed on blood. Lots of videos exist on YouTube and elsewhere that are said to prove, or at least question, the reality of the chupacabra. 

The world of science and rationality is not convinced about the truth of any of these reports and  of the animals that have been photographed or captured on film, most have been identified as some type of dog, including coyotes, that is suffering badly from the condition known as mange, which makes the fur fall out.

The Kinkajou

Kinkajou (Public Domain)

The Kinkajou (Potos flavus) is a rainforest mammal related to raccoons and its range is throughout many parts of Central and South America, which just happens to be where the chupacabra is reported. It is also known as a honey bear and normally feeds on fruit and leaves but also eats, insects and the eggs of birds. It is often hunted for its fur, its meat and for the exotic pet trade. Because of its wide distribution it is not yet regarded as an endangered species of animal. 

Kinkajous are often kept as pets in Central and South America, and in Peru they are known as "lirón," an animal that is regarded as a hybrid of a monkey and a bear which is another fanciful belief not based on reality. In El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, which are also in the range where chupacabras are said to live, the kinkajou is often kept as pets and are commonly called micoleón, meaning "lion monkey." This idea that it is a hybrid has fed into the stories of the chupacabra being a hybrid created by genetic engineering. 
Yawning Kinkajou (Photo: Robrrb)

There is currently a video being circulated by La Extra Bandera newspaper doing the rounds on Facebook social networking site showing what is said to be a chupacabra. The poor animal, whatever it is, is desperately trying to bite its way out of the metal cage it is in. It appears to be a kinkajou just like the one in the photo above that is showing its claws and teeth, or maybe the animal in the La Extra Bandera video is some type of small bear that has lost its fur due to disease. I think you will agree that there are far too many coincidences for the true identity of the chupacabra not to be a kinkajou. Mystery solved: the chupacabra is nothing more than a kinkajou!