A Spring trip to Andalucia in late April 2010 with three very good friends, based not far from Ronda

Thursday 22 April – the outward journey

The Iceland volcano Eyjafjallajokull had caused chaos for a week and it was continuing. A chance visit to the Easyjet website early in the morning indicated that there were seats available on the flight we’d booked a long time previously but the ‘Manage my booking’ screen clearly showed that the only options available to us were to reschedule or claim a refund. This was contradicted, however, by the ‘Check flight status’ screen which showed the flight as being ‘scheduled’! The Customer Services (joke) phone line was in automatic cut-off mode on three consecutive calls following the usual advertising drivel so the only solution was to go to Luton and sort things out there. As things currently stood, David and I had rescheduled our departure to Saturday and Alan was to miss out. Arriving at the Easyjet desk just after 9am I managed without much difficulty to get our original booking reinstated and hurriedly rang Alan and David to let them know to pack their bags – all systems go!

 

Collected David at 3pm and were queuing by 4.15 when Alan joined us. Check-in was seamless and early but the 6.50pm departure was slightly delayed. Malaga touchdown was achieved at 10.40pm local time and an hour later David was driving our Seat out of the airport. The hotel Dehesilla suddenly appeared on the roadside towards Benaojan to the north-west of Ronda and we checked-in around 1.30am. First impressions were positive.

 

Friday 23 April – local Benaojan

The day had started grey, cool, and with low cloud in the valley. After yesterday’s journey we decided to keep things local today, so the plan was to walk into Benaojan to get the lie of the land and see what butterflies appeared along the way. A man was clearly having some sort of trouble up ahead and, despite speaking no English, managed to tell us that he’d lost his car keys in the grass whilst picking wild asparagus. So the 4 of us spent the best part of half an hour scouring the meadow for his keys, but without any luck. The first butterfly of the trip turned-up here though - a roosting Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus). The unusual yellow orchid, ophryx lutea, was common and the meadows contained beautiful purple irises. Mr Asparagus told us that Benaojan was in the opposite direction to the one we’d taken from the hotel, somewhat confusing because the hotel address was Montejaque which is through Benaojan! We had not been walking for very long before a car pulled-up – keys had been found and the offer of a lift into town was accepted, dropping us off at the railway station. The hotel Molina, used by Greentours, was signposted nearby so we went there for a coffee. This is a more nicely positioned hotel than the Dehesilla sitting alongside a cascading river. We were to return here for lunch following a short walk alongside the Rio Guadiaro where the first bit of sunshine brought out Morrocan Orange-tips (Anthocharis euphenoides).

 

After a pleasant lunch, we wandered up the concrete track towards the main part of the town in some decent sunshine. Alan netted a Lorquin’s Blue (Cupido lorquinii) (but no photos) and our first Spanish Festoons (Zerynthia rumina) were seen along with a Rosy Grizzled Skipper Pyrgus onopordi) and several Spanish Brown Argus (Aricia cramera). Arriving in the town we stopped at a scruffy roadside café for a coffee and Fanta before walking back to the hotel along the road. Loud explosions boomed out now and again – blasting somewhere we thought. Today we had seen 13 species – not bad for effectively only 4 hours decent weather.

 

Saturday 24 April – to Matt Rowling’s ‘Aetherie junction’

Another grey, cool and calm start. Some 4.5k south-west of Benaojan we stopped at the Cueva de la Pileta to explore a dry, flowery/shrubby hillside catching the full sun. Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui) were common and we stumbled on a strong colony of Panoptes Blue (Pseudophilotes baton panoptes) and False Baton Blue (Pseudophilotes abencerragus), though telling them apart took us the rest of the week to crack! (I think!!). The supermarket in Cortez de la Frontera provided us with lunch and some 45 minutes driving time from the hotel we parked at the café by the junction kindly suggested to us by Matt Rowlings. It wasn’t immediately obvious where his site was but we followed our noses along the A2304 into the cork oak forest of Mojon de la Vibora. Alan shouted that he’d ‘caught a green Hairstreak – no it was a Small Copper! – no it was a Small Copper with a green underside!!’ – it was, in fact, our first Provence Hairstreak (Tomares ballus) and caused much excitement, not to mention the leg-pulling that continues to this day. Green-striped White (Euchloe belemia) and Berger’s Clouded Yellow (Colias alfacariensis) were seen along with more Festoons. The stock fencing that prevents access to most of the countryside opened out a bit enabling us to explore the lovely cork oak habitat undergrown by white cistus and sprinkled with lavender stoechas. We ate our lunch sitting on a large flat rock outcrop, managing to find time to photograph a female Morrocan Orange-tip. The Wall Browns (Lasiommata megera) were very orange, masquerading as Aetherie Fritillaries (Melitaea aetherie) – damn! Several Griffon Vultures (Gyps fulvus) circled low overhead above the trees.

 

Not entirely convinced that we’d found Matt’s site we ventured back to the café and chatted over a coffee. Having now reinterpreted his email, we followed the A373 down towards Ubrique and found a strip of land between grazed fields that ran a long way down the hillside and concluded that ‘this must be it’, despite being too damp (we felt) for Aetherie. Drifts of Scilla peruviana were common but butterflies were few and far between. More Provence Hairstreaks were seen, however, and a Western Dappled White (Euchloe crameri) was caught and photo’d.

 

At 5.45pm we set-off back and after going the wrong way up a one way street in Cortez stopped at a bar near the hotel for a beer. Discovered that the loud explosions were to do with St George’s Day celebrations. 

 

Sunday 25 April – Grazalema

A few drops of rain appeared on the windscreen. The first stop was to book dinner at the Molina en route to the meadows just beyond Montejaque. Although the habitat looked promising the weather was not conducive to anything other than a solitary Painted Lady. Just below Grazalema we stopped at the open area recommended by Neil Thompson and found Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus), and more of the species already seen, but the overcast conditions made things very quiet.

 

An early lunch in the town square – healthy fried eggs, choriso, and chips – once David had managed to find a space to squeeze into, witnessed a fly-by by a Spanish Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius feisthamelii) and a Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria). Around 1pm the sun finally broke through. At another of Neil’s sites, the car park on the way out to the Puerto de las Palomas, a strong colony of Black-eyed Blues (Glaucopsyche melanops) was flying though not much else, other than Moroccan Orange-tips flying through. The dry rocky area through the gate looked promising but only delivered Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas). The Puerto itself was very windy, and cold, with little or no chance of seeing much, and so it proved. Botanising became the main pursuit.

 

On the way back we visited a landfill site full of building rubble to find Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), more Black-eyes, and Western Dappleds but otherwise quiet. A short way further down, just beyond the Benamahoma junction, we stopped again and saw a passing Spanish Swallowtail but not much else. A similar story unfolded on the lovely hillside below the crags just to the south of Grazalema. Turning towards Montejaque beyond Los Arenosos we passed a solitary Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) and the cork oak/cistus forest invited us to stop and treated us to a strong colony of Green Hairstreaks (Callophrys rubi) nectaring on stoechas and clearly breeding on the abundant gorse. The small ‘barbary nut’ iris was a lovely addition to this habitat. Our final stop was at the meadow visited initially this morning but only had a few Small Heaths.

 

A welcome day’s end beer at the Cave of the Cats café near the hotel delayed our arrival until 7.45pm: at 8.20 we set-off in the car for the short drive to the Molina. The meal and service were excellent, and the restaurant was filled with Brits – a West Beds walking group of oldies and a more robust group of six blokes. The owner told us at the bar afterwards that the winter had been appalling – cold and extremely wet, and that the season was 2 to 3 weeks late. The impact on butterfly emergings would probably mean that the Aetherie Fritillary would have to wait another year or so. The local liquor – Chinchilla de Ronda – was offered but was too much like cough mixture to warrant over-indulgence. Shame! 

 

Monday 26 April – Sierra de las Nieves

Today dawned sunny under a cloudless sky and we set off to find a supermarket in Ronda prior to exploring Nieves en route to Alan's late evening flight from Malaga. Ronda turned out to be a much bigger, and uglier, town than any of us had imagined where on-street parking was impossible. Eventually a supermarket was found with its own underground car park and provisions purchased.

 

We entered the park from the west just beyond the turn to Juzcar etc to be welcomed by a stiff cold wind. Unsurprisingly, very little butterfly action was happening save for a solitary male Panoptes Blue and a Western Dappled White. At this point my Sigma macro lens conked-out but could still be used in manual (manuel?) mode. Several stops were made inside the park in an attempt to find some sheltered sites amongst unpromising habitat – a dense ground cover of holly oak below cork oaks and pines – but Spanish Festoons, a Small Copper, another Rosy Grizzled Skipper and solitary Provence Hairstreak, plus passing Moroccan Orange-tip’s.

 

Lunch was taken in the mouth of a side stream across a dry river bed shortly after spotting our first (and only) Cleopatra (Gonepteryx cleopatra) but we still couldn’t escape the wind. With David nodding-off in the car we drove to the end of the forest track, to the Recreation Area and despite further stops, we found little other than vast limestone landscapes. Time now to retrace our route to head further south in the hopeful search for warmer and richer habitat but not until Alan spotted a vulture sitting atop a large rock near the park exit. Alan got out of the car to approach the bird, which turned-out to be a good fake and I photo’d him embracing it. Unknown to us, Municipal police had been observing us from the park entrance and intercepted us as we were about to join the road. Had Alan been trying to nick it? The episode was relaxed and even good natured and soon we were on our way south. Decent stops were hard to find as most of the route, as in Grazalema, is fenced-off on both sides of the road. At one pull-in we did see a Marbled White (Melanargia galathea) blown-by but not much else.

 

Taking the coast road east from San Pedro eliminated the possibility of further stops – this is a horrible part of the world but, amazingly, seems to attract people in their droves. But in Fuengirola the A3108 looked interesting leading into the hills towards Coin, so we took it. We found some lovely flowery hillsides but with few butterflies though a Green-striped White caught by Al sat getting its breath back long enough for me to get my first shots of this lovely species. A little further on, major roadworks diverted us over a blind summit down a steep road which felt ‘wrong’ so the first opportunity to pull off was taken. A streamside path looked good and the Spanish Festoon’s foodplant aristolochia spp draped the bushes. Good shots of a wind-blown male Moroccan Orange-tip completed the day’s session.

 

The focus was now on finding somewhere outside the airport where we could have our final dinner with Alan but nothing was found until the terminal was reached. I drove back along the toll road to Puerto Banus where we had decided we’d look for an eatery. This is a surprisingly clean and even pleasant town with a wide range of restaurants to choose from. An Italian establishment, the Metro, was selected. 

 

Tuesday 27 April – staying local again

On another glorious day with a fair easterly wind we drove the short distance to Benaojan railway to follow the Rio Guadiaro south-west. But this was mostly in shade and apart from courting Small Heaths was very quiet. However, a Wood White (Leptidea sinapis) caught our attention at the edge of the path and posed for photos before fluttering down the hillside. Close inspection later revealed that it appeared to be an Eastern Wood White Leptidea duponcheli) (?) a long way west of its known nearest distribution in Provence. Unfortunately our photos only highlight the brown antennae tips (which Tolman cites as sometimes being present in the regular Wood White form) and not vein 1 of the forewing which would have been more conclusive.

 

As the sun would be full-on the Cueva de la Pileta hillside we decided to pay it another visit to try and sort out our Panoptes Blues from our False Batons – which I think we did! It was quite blowy on the hillside and I noticed that the blues favoured stretches where the ground was stonier rather than grassier. A two-beer lunch was enjoyed in dazzling sunshine at the Molina where we arrived around 1.40pm. A dinner booking was also made for tomorrow evening. Afterwards, we walked to the streamside ‘Lorquin’s site’ but found nothing other than an ovipositing Green-striped White. Then we revisited the SW path abandoned in the morning and went as far as the olive grove which remained quiet. So we turned round and ventured NE alongside the river to see what was cooking here. Under the road bridge another surprising discovery was made – a pristine Green-underside Blue (Glaucopsyche alexis) was enjoying the mud enabling us to take our shots. It was also at the limit of its western range, just, although Teresa Farino cites it as being present in the Sierra de Grazalema. Our walk took us to the riverside hotel at the end of the track and we reflected that the swollen river would have submerged its ground floor judging by the height of the debris adorning the riverside trees and bushes. In hot conditions we ambled back to the Molina and dumped our rucksacks in the car. Once again we returned to our ‘Lorquin’s’ spot, now in shade, and climbed across to the opposite hillside, still in warm sun. Good photos were taken of a Spanish Festoon preparing for the night and David spotted a Geranium Bronze (Cacyreus marshalli) but sadly photos weren’t possible.

 

Wednesday 28 April – Matt’s junction, and Grazalema transect

The wind had veered 180º overnight but the fine weather was still with us. Today we decided to revisit some old haunts with the elusive Aetherie Fritillary still in our sights. Stop #1 was in an orchard just before Cortez where, apart from the mandatory and ubiquitous barking dogs, we were greeted by a Speckled Wood and a Large White (Pieris brassicae). A second stop before number 3 at the Penon del Berrueco had turned-up nothing, other than little frogs, and the long distance footpath that doubled as a forest track was pretty sterile too. The fourth stop was up the track half way down the hill to Ubrique: the top end was very exposed to the wind but lower down where we had not ventured previously looked much better and confirmed in our minds that this was Matt’s reference site. A Swallowtail came past on the wind.

 

Having done it to death, we drove through Ubrique and Benaocaz stopping for lunch in the small town of Villaluenga del Rosario stumbling upon a smashing local bar/café, the La Cancela restaurant, empty apart from us. After lunch we passed through Grazalema stopping once more at the ‘Black-eyed Blue’ car park for another photo-fest, spending quite a while there. Just above the town on our return journey we stopped to take rooftop photos of the multi-coloured terracotta pantiles. A short detour up the road NE beyond the town proved fruitless. Time now to push on to our final destination for the day, the ‘asparagus key’ field near the hotel, where we arrived by 6pm. Both sides of the road contain superb botanical collections but not much in the butterfly context.

 

A couple of beers at the Cueva of the Cats, allowing ourselves a 40 minute turn round before leaving for the Molina, where dinner was excellent, as was the crack with waiter Victor. 

 

Thursday 29 April – country route to Malaga, and home

The Cueva de la Pileta just had to be visited one last time, and apart from its usual confusing Blues, delivered a Spanish Marbled White (Melanargia ines), soon to be whisked away on the wind, and a sheltering Western Dappled White, both of which entered our cameras.

 

In Ronda we took the road east skirting the northern edge of the Sierra de las Nieves making our first stop just below the Puerto del Viento where a sheltered dry stream bed entered from the right. A colony of Lorquin’s Blues, all males, made this their highway and were very photogenic.

 

Lunch was taken in the small town of El Burgo in a bar/café full of locals enjoying their tapas and diluted wine. 

 

Our next stop was inspirational, another dry river bed out east along the Rio Turon turning right at Casarabonela. Parking at the hairpin amongst lovely vegetation we picked-up a solo Spanish Gatekeeper (Pyronia bathseba) and managed, at last, to get some fair shots of Spanish Marbled White. Lorquin’s and False Baton Blues were there also – an excellent spot. The final stop was a detour off the main road to Malaga from Zalea at Cerralba amidst heavily agriculturalised landscapes though a resting Green-striped White obliged me with my final shots of the trip. A drive up to the dead-end at Gibralagia due to my duff directions didn’t waste too much time.

 

Time now to find some dinner pre-airport and Cartana looked to be a likely spot. Wrong! This weird town with no real centre or character didn’t seem to have any restaurants either so we made do with a beer at a roadside café accompanied by loud music and locals. Airside we found a decent restaurant that also happened to be showing the Liverpool v Atletico Madrid Champion’s League semi-final second leg, so at least David was happy (though not with the result). 

 

Friday 30 April – home

Touched-down at 12.40am at Luton to find our cases already on the carousel through immigration. And the bus to the Long Term car park was waiting. 

 

This had been a good trip though Aetherie Fritillary and Portuguese Dappled White live to fly another year.