Thursday, 24 November 2016

Monarch Butterfly Monitoring in Portugal and Spain

Monarch Butterfly Colonies in Portugal and Spain

Monarch (Photo: Public Domain)

I have been wondering what happens to monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) that emerge from their chrysalises in the late autumn in Portugal and Spain. I am wondering if there are any organisations or individuals out there that know or are monitoring the colonies and populations of these insects.

Migratory Monarchs

It is common knowledge that these beautiful butterflies conduct an incredible migration from Canada and the northern states of America down to Mexico and the California in the south of the US each fall and then repeat the journey in the opposite direction with the coming of spring.

Overwintering Monarchs (Photo: Public Domain)

The monarchs overwinter in vast numbers that cling to trees. Conservationists have become rightly concerned about the diminishing numbers of monarchs that are arriving to overwinter and that are successfully accomplishing this essential part of their life cycle. Forests in Mexico are being destroyed and freak winter weather due to Climate Change is taking a toll.

In America the subject of monarch migration is being taken very seriously and efforts are being made to monitor the numbers of these butterflies. If you search online for “monitoring of monarch butterflies” you will find plenty of relevant entries for America but not so if you search for “monitoring and distribution of monarch butterflies in Portugal and Spain.” Yes, there are plenty of results but none that I can find that tell you much about the populations in the Iberian countries, only that they exist. It is known that monarchs can be found on the Azores and in Madeira too, as well as the Canary Islands, which count as part of Spain.

Monarchs in Portugal

I have a book I bought in Portugal entitled thebutterfliesofportugal, edited by Ernestino Maravalhas and published by Apollo Books, and it has a distribution map for the monarch butterfly. It is shown as living in the Aveiro area on the northern coast and along the coast of the Algarve in the south.

Monarch caterpillar (Photo: Public Domain)


I have recently obtained some monarch caterpillars from a butterfly farm in Aveiro but the owner tells me there are no monarchs in the north in winter.  I have the food-plants scarlet milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) and the bristly fruited silkweed (Gomphocarpus fruticosus) growing here on which the caterpillars are feeding.

Bristly Fruited Silkweed  (Photo: Public Domain) 

Incidentally it is these plants that have been introduced into Iberia as garden plants that have enabled the monarch to colonise Spain and Portugal. The same goes for Tenerife and the Canary Islands where the scarlet milkweed is often grown as an ornamental garden flower.

Monarch on Milkweed (Photo: Public Domain)

I have successfully reared many monarch butterflies in Tenerife when I lived on the island where there are non-migratory populations, and I know that the insects there continue flying and breeding in the warmer coastal areas through the winter months when it becomes too cold and their food-plants die back in the mountains and higher ground. But I am wondering if the situation is the same in Portugal. If so what temperatures do all stages of the insect need to survive and complete their life-cycle? I estimate my caterpillars are going to need a week more here before they will change into chrysalises and probably a bit longer before they emerge than the ones I have reared before in the slightly warmer part of Tenerife where I lived. I estimate that the butterflies will be emerging late in December but what will they do if I set them free, allowing for sunny and warmer winter days here in Portugal. Will the monarchs attempt to overwinter, will they die doing so or will they fly south?

I have been trying unsuccessfully to find out in searches on the Internet but most information I find is mostly about the migratory monarchs in the US.



I know that the milkweed and bristly-fruited silkweed can continue growing throughout the winter here so the food-plants are available, but I don't know whether it simply gets too cold for any stage of the monarch’s life-cycle to survive.  Anyone reading this who can tell me more about the monarchs in Portugal and Spain, please get in touch or leave a comment.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Forest Farm and Glamorganshire Canal are Great Places for Nature

Forest Farm Reserve and the Glamorganshire Canal


Photo: Steve Andrews

Just on the outskirts of Cardiff lies a wonderful area for nature that I have been visiting since I was a boy. I am talking about Glamorganshire Canal and the Forest Farm Nature Reserve, which offer long stretches of freshwater, pools and wetland habitats, forests and fields.

Photo: Steve Andrews


There are several ways to get there but I usually walk up through Hailey Park in Llandaff North and continue along Ty-Mawr Road that goes past the old Melingriffith Tin and Iron Works and the old water wheel which is still there as a relic of the South Wales industrial past. The Melingriffith Works that were founded sometime before 1750, closed in 1957.  At the end of the road you reach the end of Velindre Road, which is part of the suburb of Whitchurch.



Here you can either go into the Forest Farm reserve or wander along the banks of the canal, which ends below Tongwynlais and in the area of the Coryton Interchange. It is also possible to get there by crossing the River Taff from Radyr.

Herons and Kingfishers


Photo: Steve Andrews

Birdwatchers can easily spot herons in this area and if lucky you can get a glimpse of the kingfisher too as it hunts for prey in the waters of the canal. I remember seeing one there many years back and it inspired me to write a song, aptly entitled Kingfisher.

Kingfisher 'live' at the Andrew Buchan


Mallard ducks are very common here and can be seen on the Glamorgan Canal and on the feeder which runs alongside it, as are moorhens. Water rail, snipe, dippers and reed warblers are also reported from Forest Farm Reserve. Even the elusive bittern have been seen here.

Photo: Steve Andrews


Beech and Oak

Beech and oak are the main trees that grow alongside the Glamorganshire Canal and in the Long Wood. Some of the trees are said to be 200 years old. In autumn the dead leaves in their brown and golden autumnal shades can be seen coating the ground and floating on the canal’s surface.

Common Toads
Common toads gather to spawn in the canal in springtime, and I remember when some ponds many miles away on the banks of Llandaff Weir were destroyed many years ago. I remember seeing toad tadpoles in the canal that year and wondered if it was possible that some of the displaced toads had somehow found the canal even though it was miles away. I often wonder what amphibians do when they return to spawning grounds to find them gone.

Grass Snakes
I have seen grass snakes swimming in the Glamorgan Canal too. It is good to know these once much more common reptiles, have found a home here.

Waterlilies
In summer the surface of a lot of the Glamorgan Canal is covered by the large rounded leaves of the yellow water lily. However, when I recently visited in late autumn they had all died back. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed my recent walk along this canal that is an interesting place to visit all year around.
Photo: Steve Andrews

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
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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

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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

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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

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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.