TRIP REPORT, CATALONIA'S PEAKS AND VALLEYS, LATE SUMMER 2016
This was the 20th successive year that Alan Bernard and I had ventured onto the continent in search of butterflies, choosing on this occasion to base ourselves for nine nights in the small French Catalan town of Prats-de-Mollo-le-Preste (P-M-P) at the western end of the richly forested Tech valley, not far from the Spanish border, and overlooked by the towering Mount Canigou. Our prior research had identified many potential sites at various altitudes radiating from P-M-P making it a perfect node from which to explore the region. We think it proved successful too, yielding c65 species of butterfly during 8 full days in the field, although many specimens were well past their best (as, indeed, are we). We flew to Perpignan on August 25th and apart from a heavy thunderstorm on the 28th resulting in a cloudy aftermath for the next day and a half, we were treated to blue skies and hot sun for the rest of the visit.
In this account of our trip I'll describe selectively what we saw at altitude, roughly at 1,000m and above - the 'Peaks' - and the remainder below this height in the 'Valleys'.
Although we didn't acquaint ourselves with the detailed complex geology of the region, it was clear from the vegetation that this was primarily an acid habitat indicated by pine, heaths, and bracken. So you can imagine our utter surprise at being met by a Chalk-hill Blue (Polyommatus coridon) immediately on stepping out of the car at the Col d'Ares (1,513m) straddling the border with Spain! Confusion continued when grey (male) versions of this species also appeared plunging us into an identification crisis but the other possibility, the Provence Chalk-hill Blue (Polyommatus hispanus) is not found above 1,200m.
In the same family, weary Adonis Blues (Polyommatus bellargus) occurred in the company of the Spanish Brown Argus (Aricia cramera). Notable also was the presence of medium-sized Erebias initially intent on seeking out mates in preference to sitting conveniently on flowers, or even the ground. But eventually they did and a strong colony of the Autumn Ringlet (Erebia neoridas) - a new species for both of us - was added to the list. In an area of longer, though dessicated grass, I pursued a smaller insect which suddenly crashed into the sward but left enough of itself visible to be identified from the photo as a Mountain Ringlet (Erebia epiphron), the only individual seen on the trip. In fact, 12 of our sightings were of singletons, quite a high proportion we thought.
As is the way with Ringlets, it is always necessary to keep checking them out because every now and again, a gatecrasher turns up. So at the Col d'Ares Alan's persistence revealed a solitary Piedmont Ringlet (Erebia meolans) and then at a hairpin amongst the beeches and pines beyond La Preste I tracked a further individual 'for ever' until it settled on a scabious flower only to be grabbed by a crab spider on the next one it visited. Alan was later to pick out a sole Scotch Argus (Erebia aethiops) flying amongst - we think, but can't be certain - smaller sized Pyrenees Brassy Ringlet (Erebia rondui) at around 2,100m at the Spanish ski resort of Vallter 2000, and the brassies were also in good number on the slopes 'grazed to beize' at the Nuria ski station at a similar altitude.
Other notable sightings at altitude, although not exclusively so, included Weaver's Fritillary (Boloria dia), Oberthur's Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus amoricanus), Silver-spotted Skipper (Hesperia comma) and probably Rock Grayling (Hipparchia alcyone).
On our last full day, September 2nd, still above 1,400m on our descent from the Col d'Ares, we stopped at the 'second hairpin down' to inspect a large uncut meadow even though it was largely parched. A Short-tailed Blue (Everes argiades) was there along with other grassland species familiar to those of us who live in the UK. But then my attention was taken by a fairly large butterfly the like of which I had never ever seen before and I followed it frantically until it settled. It turned out that I was looking at an albino Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina ab. cinerea) - for me the outstanding highlight of the trip - and it is in the photos for you to look at as well! It's always great to end a trip with something truly memorable. This last day also turned up our second Provençal Fritillary (Melitaea deione) and our one and only Spotted Fritillary (Melitaea didyma).
The bulk of our species were, understandably, found at lower levels where conditions were warmer and water was more generally present. We/the car received a memorable reception from a huge butterfly just as we turned up the narrow lane towards Les Fourquets on the edge of La Preste at c735m. Not only did it fly straight at us from its tree perch, it then followed us up the road, buzzed the car again, settled momentarily on the tarmac, and finally came to check us out as we stepped from the car. It was to be our only encounter with a fantastic Lesser Purple Emperor (Apatura ilia). A short way up the next track on the left, just past Saint-Sauveur, Alan found and photographed a White-letter Hairstreak (Satyrium w-album).
Memorable also were our two meetings with another species with attitude, the irrepressible Two-tailed Pasha (Charaxes jasius). The first came on the day after the thunderstorm when we decided to leave the Pyrenees and head towards the coast to visit the Gorges de Lavall due south of Argelès-sur-Mer. On a sunless day in dry, dusty, Mediterranean scrub vegeatation, the car disturbed a Pasha that had been tucking into faeces to which it soon returned after we'd parked up. It was to turn up later near Rocabruna, this time taking moisture from a stream, and presenting a more socially acceptable composition!
The following day turned out to be one of our best when we drove into Spain, headlights on dip through the post-thunderstorm low cloud atop the Col, hoping that the sun would be shining on the other side. UV levels were certainly much higher and as we pulled off the road for our lunch stop up a rough track just beyond Rocabruna (to the south-east of Mollo) a large black and white Grayling settled on a nearby rock. Our task was now to figure out whether it was the Rock or Woodland version. But as neither Alan nor I were medically qualified to perform the necessary investigative procedure, essential for absolute certainty, we fell back on the useful tips offered in Paul Browning's book, pages 216 and 217. We concluded that we'd found a strong colony of Woodland Grayling (Hipparchia fagi). A couple of happy hours were spent at this spot revealing, amongst others, singles of a Swallowtail (Papilio machaon gorganus), an Iberian Marbled White (Melanargia lachesis), Bath White (Pontia daplidice), Provençal Short-tailed Blue (Cupido alcetas), Cleopatra (Gonepteryx cleopatra), and our first Olive Skipper (Pyrgus serratulae) of the trip. Accompanying these were Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia) and Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolas), both species being seen every day.
New species turned up unexpectedly on September 1st when we visited San Damond, a vandalised chapel site sitting at c830m at the end of a rubble-strewn road close to the Spanish border to the east of Coustouges, itself pretty much due east of P-M-P. Alan's bird watching habits proved useful in spotting a Purple Hairstreak (Neozephyrus quercus) high up in an oak to which I added a Lang's Short-tailed Blue (Leptotes pirithous) another of the singletons. Similarly, our sole Striped Grayling (Hipparchia fidia) also dropped in, settled for a short while on a rock permitting me to take its photo but denying Alan the same opportunity.
In drawing to a close, I should add that both the White Admiral (Limenitis camilla) and Southern White Admiral (Limenitis reducta) were seen but conspicuous by its absence was Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae). And finally, the thunderstorm seemed to wipe out Sooty Copper (Lycaena tityrus) and Scarce Copper (Lycaena vigaureae) which had been seen on each of the previous days.
This article was previously published in the Newsletter of the European Butterfly Group