TRIP REPORT, MONTES UNIVERSALES, CENTRAL SPAIN, 29 JUNE - 5 JULY 2011
Wednesday 29 June
Our route from Madrid airport took Alan and I along the M40 south and then the A3 and A40 towards Cuenca and by 1.15pm we had arrived at the Hotel Cueva del Fraile on the northern edge of the town.
Within 50 yards to the right of the hotel gates we came across an uncut meadow swarming with butterflies - Great-banded Graylings (Brintesia circe), the 4 big fritillaries (Argynnis paphia, pandora, aglaja, and adippe), Queen of Spain (Issoria lathonia), Twin-spot Fritillary (Brenthis hecate) and Spotted Fritillary (Melitaea didyma), Cleopatras (Gonepteryx cleopatra), Brimstones (Gonepteryx rhamni), Iberian Marbled Whites (Melanargia lachesis), Spanish Gatekeeper (Pyronia batsheba), Dusky Heath (Coenonympha dorus), Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina), many Blue-spot Hairstreaks (Satyrium spini) favouring santolina, Common Blue (Polyommatus celina/icarus), Chapman's Blue (Polyommatus thersites) , Spanish Chalk-hill Blues (Polyommatus albicans), Red-underwing Skipper (Spialia sertorius), Oberthur's Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus armoricanus), and Southern Marbled Skippers (Carcharodus baeticus), Grayling (Hipparchia semele), Small Whites (Pieris rapae) and Green-veined Whites (Pieris napi)…..
Thursday 30 June: Tierra Muerta
After breakfast we set off towards Buenache some 10km to the east. As soon as we had reached the plateau we stopped but with a fair breeze blowing and not much doing we pushed on. Stop #2 was made just before Buenache and produced the lovely dark green form chlorodippe of the High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe) plus Berger's Clouded Yellow (Colias alfacariensis), the females looking like regular 'whites'. Once through the small town we took the right fork into the Tierra Muerta, an area of grassy but open pine forest underlain with spurges, santolina, and sage/phlomis. In a damp shallow valley we found Dusky Heath, Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris), and Twin-spot Fritillary (Brenthis hecate).
At the next cross-road I turned right stopping soon after to explore a man-made pond for cattle. Oriental Meadow Brown (Hyponephele lupina) and Spanish Swallowtail (Iphiclides feisthamelii) got added to our list and some of the blues and skippers proved challenging to identify. We had selected the Fuente de las Tablas as our likely lunch stop and detoured down to the centre before pulling into a roadside clearing. A female Knapweed Fritillary (Melitaea phoebe) was busy ovipositing on a member of the thistle family whilst Cardinal (Argynnis pandora) and Silver-washed Fritillaries (Argynnis paphia) took salts from damp earth alongside a spring: Spanish Heath (Coenonympha iphioides liked the small-headed scabious flowers.
Returning to the 'main' road we passed the Casa del Prado and took the right to Beamud along deserted tarmac during siesta time. Turning left immediately before the town we followed the stream running northwards into its deepening valley/gorge and pulled up just across a bridge where a tributary entered. Immediately a Spanish Purple Hairstreak (Laeosopis evippus) was found nectaring, but with wings closed, and a chase resulted in a Mother-of-Pearl Blue (Polyommatus nivescens) being snapped: it was nice to see Southern White Admirals (Limenitis reducta) flying in this deciduous setting. Continuing up the valley led us to the junction at the Jucar valley where we turned left alongside the Embalse de la Toba before taking the first available left turn south: butterflies included many Rock Graylings (Hipparchia alcyone) and regular Graylings (Hipparchia semele), Black-veined White (Aporia crataegi), and Long-tailed Blues (Lampides boeticus).
Upon returning to our hotel I revisited the local meadow which was still alive with butterflies - Black-veined White, Comma (Polygonia c-album), and Great-banded Graylings were still addicted to the tall thistles and in the field a solitary Hermit and Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) were enjoying one too along with the ubiquitous Iberian Marbled Whites and larger Fritillaries.
Friday 1 July: Sierra de Valdecabras
I had great trouble finding the road north out of Cuenca to Una but eventually after an unscheduled tour of the old town, a Unesco World Heritage Site, we stumbled upon our exit. The Rio Jucar led us out of town until the left turn to Valdecabras and its Sierra. Our first stop in the breezy gorge didn't produce very much with a Wood White (Leptidea sinapis) being the greatest surprise, and despite the abundance of sedum there were no Chequered Blues (Scolitantides orion) to be seen.
Our second stop occurred immediately after the right turn into Valdecabras town where a beautifully floriferous meadow beckoned us in. We weren't disappointed with Silver-Washed Fritillary, Spanish Chalk-hill Blues and False Ilex Hairstreak (Satyrium esculi) amongst the tally. A mirador on the descent to the Una road became our next brief stop for a photo shoot and a Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus) was one of several species feasting on a solitary bramble bush.
With Sandy Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus cinarae) in our sights today we passed through Una and stopped just beyond the town above the Laguna and decided to eat lunch in the shade of the observation hut. It was very hot with the car gauge reading 32.5°. Near the lakeside we picked-up Mazarine Blue (Cyaniris semiargus), Chapman's Blue, Escher's Blue (Polyommatus escheri) and Common Blues, along with Pearly Heath (Coenonympha arcania) and a Spanish Swallowtail fly-by. Carrying on eastwards after lunch past the Embalse de la Toba again the left turn northwards up the deeply contoured valley signed Las Majadas was too enticing to miss. Here was lovely habitat, open green grassy clearings amongst scattered pines yielding Black Satyr (Satyrus actaea), Grizzled Skipper Pyrgus malvae), Safflower Skipper (Pyrgus carthami) and Cinquefoil Skippers (Pyrgus cirsii), a sole Oberthur's Anomalous Blue (Polyommatus fabressei) puddling in the company of Silver-studded Blues (Plebejus argus) and Chapman's Blues, and our first Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia). Another stop in similar habitat, though higher, produced what turned out to be a very localised colony of Esper's Marbled Whites (Melanargia russiae) flying with Iberian Marbled Whites. Esper's seemed to be slightly larger and very difficult to get anywhere near compared to the Iberians and only one individual was photographed despite intense attempts to get more. Idas Blue (Plebejus idas) was here and a Southern White Admiral flew into our parked car. Graylings abounded, Queen of Spain, Silver-washed and Twin-spot Fritillaries also, and the two species of Meadow Browns.
Saturday 2 July: Canete and back cross-country
Leaving the hotel at 9.20 we drove through Cuenca heading east on deserted roads with smooth surfaces unknown back home. With Canete as our target destination we nevertheless permitted ourselves a detour towards Boniches where the road runs alongside the river. Under an overcast sky and with the odd spot of rain falling, a Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) was seen on bramble and a Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus) made us feel at home. Another bramble thicket down a steep slope boasted a False Ilex Hairstreak.
We stopped in Canete to find provisions and located a small supermarket in the lovely town square. Our plan now was to explore the road north but this proved to be a disappointment, being largely agricultural land. The road was good as far as the huge Liviana water plant at Huerta del Marquesado at which point we decided to go no further but to retrace our route to the Valdemoro-Sierra turn just beyond Campillos-Sierra. The road looked promising where the Rio Guadarroyo passed under it and this became our lunch stop. Although breezy, the butterflies were good including Silver-washed, High Brown and Knapweed Fritillaries, Spanish Chalk-hill, Mother-of-Pearl, and Adonis Blues (Polyommatus bellargus), Bath White, Berger's & Clouded Yellows, Grayling, Rock and Great-banded varieties, Cleopatras and the ever-present Iberian Marbled Whites. It was only later that Alan and I both described a Grayling that 'looked different' being dark and showing no orange or white bands in flight - had we missed Striped Grayling in our over-familiar way?
Through the town where the river comes close to the road, albeit down a grassy bank, and where a stand of poplars had been felled, we decided to stop again. There wasn't much doing although a colony of Spanish Heath - iphioides - was living here. The right turn towards La Cierva was taken for a few hundred yards only but little was happening so we came back. We passed the clutch of Lagunas and took the right fork before Canada towards the Torcas. The habitat was dry, grassy, scattered pines with an understorey of phlomis, spurge, and spindly scabious with very little doing. We couldn't pass a Torca without checking one out so we stopped at the first to appear, the Torca de la Novia, a fair-sized sink hole, typical of karst scenery. This turned out to be our last field stop of the day as we wound our way across the Tierra Muerta eventually turning left into Buenaches.
Back at our hotel I made a last visit to the meadow - to finish as I'd started. With shorts on today I found the green-eyed horseflies liked the back of my calves and were in blood-drawing mood but I put up with them and added Mazarine and Holly Blue to the usual suspects for this rich site.
Sunday 3 July: transit to Javalambre
We had checked out and were off by 9.15 retracing yesterday's route non-stop through Canete and beyond into Valencia and then Teruel Provinces. The road was totally clear through the vast agricultural zone east of Cuenca. Our first stop came just into Valencia in the El Rincon de Ademuz where we pulled in to a relatively unpromising-looking lay-by. However, what I initially took to be a 'new' Heath turned out to be a Southern Gatekeeper (Pyronia batsheba), much smaller than its two other namesakes. Alan located another Oberthur's Anomalous Blue in very different surroundings to the initial find and Lulworth Skipper (Thymelicus acteon) was here also - so not too dull after all!
The road was followed to Ademuz, a hilltop town looking very Moorish and ancient, particularly so due to the extensive terracing all around. But we didn't pass through turning left before it seeking out the track to Pobla de Sant-Miguel finding the road hard to understand on the map with the contours not 'boxing' somehow. Our first stop was on a cultivated hillside where Alan found a large snake and where the local dog soon located us, barking to let everyone know. So we pushed on, still overcast, stopping again at a bend in the road that looked promising. It was - our only Meleager's Blue (Polyommatus daphnis) of the trip was here, a lovely fresh brown female form steeveni exclusive to Spain - along with Adonis Blue and a Wood White. Pobla was eventually reached and we parked off the road near some water tanks as the lunch spot. This is a heavily cultivated area so butterfly activity was minimal.
Back through Pobla, making the odd stop on clearly unproductive hillsides. However, at one of these, in a grassy gully, I managed my only photo of a Spanish Swallowtail and another huge Spanish Chalk-hill Blue almost the size of a Small White: Adonis Blue was here also.
The final stop en route was made through Hoya de la Carrasca on a bend where a dry river bed crossed the road through pines. After a slow start in still overcast but muggy conditions we ended-up with Cardinal, the stunning Spanish form of Silver-studded Blue, Dark Green, Knapweed, and Spotted Fritillaries. The scenery beyond this point was fantastic - deep gorges on a massive scale in sandstone with Griffon Vultures close-by overhead and the occasional mesa formation - quite superb.
The town of Aras de los Olmos was reached around 5.30pm and we set about locating the hotel, which wasn't too difficult. A large pine-clad chalet-style building stood out on the open hillside where we were to be the only residents that night - 'would we remember to lock ourselves in?' - and, of course, the restaurant was closed.
Monday 4 July: Sierra de Javalambre
…taking the road to Torrijas via Losilla and Arcos de las Salinas. Just before Torrijas we took the first turning to the west on a forest track (erroneously shown in yellow on the map) and stopped shortly afterwards. In nice thyme habitat we found Spotted Fritillaries, Graylings, skippers and the odd blue but nothing additional to our tally. We pushed on a bit stopping at the edge of more cultivated land and here we found Essex Skipper (Thymelicus lineola) and Lulworth Skippers, Dark Green Fritillary, and more Graylings. Along the forest track the butterflies were great - Sloe Hairstreak (Satyrium acaciae), Oberthur's and (we thought erroneously) Ripart's Anomalous Blues, Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), Lang's Short-tailed Blue (Leptotes pirithous) etc. Back towards the road we made another stop and in a fallow field full of thistles were Southern Small White (Pieris mannii), the large and Heath Fritillaries, Great Banded Graylings and others.
With lunchtime approaching we crossed the road to take the track marked Javalambre stopping immediately to inspect a large patch of dwarf elder, always a productive plant. Our only Purple-shot Copper (Lycaena alciphron) was there and Meadow Fritillary (Melitaea parthenoides) was another first for the trip in addition to more familiar species. A little way further up the track we pulled in to a track where a spring created a puddling spot, though it turned out to be fairly quiet. Our only Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) of the trip flew past and other butterflies seen included Cardinal, Heath Fritillary, and Southern White Admiral.
The track continued its bumpy climb until the tree line was reached and patchy prostrate juniper scrub began to dominate the savin. An Apollo (Parnassius apollo) drifted past! Having parked on a bit of a plateau we saw several other wind-assisted Apollos but none were stopping. Black-veined White was up here along with Silver-studded and Spanish Chalk-hill Blues. Having spent an hour at this site I changed my lens to take some landscape shots and, choosing my spot, saw an Apollo at rest on the juniper!! A quick lens change ensued and several photos taken .The butterfly was quite torpid and I wondered if it was an ant or spider victim, but it began to struggle and fall down through the twigs so I retrieved it and launched it in the breeze. It didn't travel far and I launched it again. This time it seemed to have got the idea and I concluded that it was freshly emerged and had only just 'fledged'. Fantastic!
On the way back we stopped and found another Apollo nectaring, Zephyr Blues (Plebejus pylaon) around their astragalus larval host plant, Damon Blue (Polyommatus damon) was here also, another superb butterfly. A little further on we found Adonis and Holly Blues on dwarf elder.
Tuesday 5 July: heading home
The sun was already hot on my back for the 8am pre-breakfast walk from the hotel and the butterflies were alert including Lang's Short-tailed, Long-tailed, large Spanish Chalk-hill and Common Blues, Berger's and Clouded Yellows, Southern Gatekeepers and Meadow Browns.
Our route back to Madrid took us through Landete and Campillos-Paravientos before we re-acquainted ourselves with Boniches. Before reaching the main drag we made our penultimate stop by a crag and extensive bramble thickets - a pair of Spanish Swallowtails refused to be photographed. Great Banded and Rock Graylings were about in great numbers and were being slaughtered by every vehicle that passed on the road - literally thousands must be killed every year either just flying into radiators or caught basking on the hot tarmac.
The road to Pajaroncillo was selected for lunch where, in hot dry scrub, we had our last encounters with Iberian Marbled Whites, Spotted Fritillaries, Spanish Chalk-hill Blue and Wood White.
NOTE: our planning had failed to realise that Valencia airport was much closer to us now, at the end of the trip, than our return airport to Madrid and we could have had a much better final day had we got this bit right - remember for next time!