TRIP REPORT, EASTERN ANDALUCIA, 25 March – 3 April 2017

Saturday 25 March

Our Easyjet flight from Gatwick's North Terminal to Almeria required an early start, so at 4am I picked David up at home, and off we went to catch the 7.25 departure, using Tudor Rose Meet & Greet again. We arrived at Almeria at 11.20am after 2hrs 30 in the air with great views over Spain looking parched and approached over a sea of plastic. It was sunny, windy but cool. Less than an hour later we were driving away in our Europcar VW Golf with David at the wheel, having lost the toss, finding the roundabouts quite confusing until we reached the open road of the A92. Confusion occurred again at Guadix as we searched for the junction eastwards on the A92N.

The ‘meeting point’ suggested by Javier Olivares north of Baza was reached at 2pm and in warm sun several pierids were flying. We found the old road running parallel to the autovia and duly made our first stop delighting in finding Provence Hairstreaks (Tomares ballus) before seeking out the ‘twin peaks’ shown on the map supplied by Javier. It was here that the first Spanish Greenish Black-tip (Euchloe bazae) was seen, blown on the wind but with no intention of stopping. Portuguese Dappled Whites (Euchloe tagis) and Western Dappled Whites (Euchloe crameri) behaved in a similar way and when they did stop it was fleeting. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) was the main nectar source. Three Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui) in various states hill-topped on the peaks. The landscape of the Hoya de Baza is remarkable – a creamy white geology studded with grass clumps and low shrubs and with shards of gypsum catching the sun like pieces of shattered glass. We called in again to the first site and took further shots of the Provence Hairstreak, disturbing 2 or 3 Hoopoe (Upupa epops) as we approached.

The Hotel Casa Grande was located after I erroneously directed David down a new road not shown on our map but which avoided going through the town. No English spoken here, and we discovered pretty much throughout the region, and no other guests were staying at the hotel. But two Alhambra beers each settled us in. As the hotel restaurant was closed we wandered into town looking for another one and eventually found Restaurant La Parra due to open at 8.30pm so we got another beer in a nearby bar whilst we waited. The wait was worth it though as our ‘degustation’ choice was superb, all 8 courses of it, and the staff were good fun too.

We returned to our rooms around 10.30 and 45 minutes later with clocks going forward this evening it was already Sunday.

Sunday 26 March

Breakfast was planned for 8.30 but we were told that, unfortunately, we’d have to find breakfast somewhere else as the restaurant was still closed: the Bar Garpe, close by, was recommended. Frost on the car roof confirmed a chilly night despite the cloudless blue sky and jip-up jackets were essential. The Bar was packed with locals, busy, noisy, shouting – fantastic! And no English spoken. In our best Spanish we ordered fresh orange juice, sliced baguette with serrano ham and melted cheese, and Americano con leche. This is precisely why trips like these are so brilliant! As the supermarket wouldn’t be open until 10am, the time we’d arranged to meet Javier, and after having failed to find the normal way out of town I reverted to the new A334 alternative and set off to the ‘meeting point’ again. Javier arrived at 10.15 and we followed him into the Hoya where he parked in the shade of some pines and joined us in his VW. He led us to his ‘twin peaks’, much higher and deeper into the Hoya than the pair we’d discovered yesterday, along mostly ok ‘soft roads’ with the occasional ‘complication’ so that we finally arrived in the field around 11am. The air temperature was still cool, though the warmth of the sun on our backs was lovely. Butterfly activity was slow and Javier netted a Green-striped White (Euchloe belemia), a species we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to identify as they all seemed to be intent on flying. Several other key locations were visited during the day until Javier had to depart around 3pm by which time a stiff south-easterly was blowing making attempts at photography pointless, and by 4.30 David and I called it a day. But, we realised the only way to photograph a Spanish Greenish Black-tip (Euchloe bazae) was somehow to catch one, if we could, and for us to take it back to the hotel overnight returning in the morning to get our shots. My pill box was perfect for the task and with great luck we managed to secure one! The butterfly would spend the evening in my bathroom sitting in the pill box on the cold surface of the bidet. Good use for a bidet!

Back at the hotel we supped another Alhambra and as the bar-restaurant was now open some free tapas was offered too, very welcome as we had missed lunch. This would be a good time to go to the supermarket for tomorrow’s provisions – but it had shut at 2.30! Meeting again at 7pm for another beer and tapas, and to look at the day’s photos etc, passed some time before dinner and a revisit to La Parra was a no-brainer. Except it’s shut on a Sunday!! Fortunately, our hotel restaurant wasn’t, so we ate-in and shared a bottle of Rioja. Our captive bazae was transferred to the car boot for the night to cool his heels. 

Monday 27 March

David and I thought it would be a good idea to get back to the Hoya before breakfast to photograph our prisoner before it took flight. There had clearly been a shower in the night and it wasn’t as cold as yesterday, though still chilly. A pair of Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa) with deep russet patches either side of the tail got up as we drove into the habitat. Back on the Hoya we posed bazae and got our shots, he remaining torpid throughout, and as stomachs were rumbling I potted him up again and we all returned to town for breakfast. Bar Garpe was great again and the staff had even remembered our order from yesterday.

Then it was back to the Hoya again to select a good spot for bazae where he was duly posed out of the breeze. Rooted to the spot, and assessing his every twitch, David and I hardly moved for the next hour and 35 minutes – yes, really! – and then it happened, his antennae parted and his wings began to open, almost imperceptibly at first. Shutters clicked in a frenzy. And within 2 minutes he’d flown, taken on the wind deeper into his home territory. But we’d got a series of photos inconceivable without Javier’s help.

Javier had told us to look for bazae females 1.5km down a track and this became our next destination, but no females were seen though Green Hairstreaks (Callophrys rubi) and Provence Hairstreaks were there. A late lunch back in town at La Parra was enjoyed, mine being a salad nicoise washed down with water, after which we made our final return to the Hoya to visit ‘ballus lawn’. Spanish Argus (Aricia morronensis) was added to the list, and another Hoopoe seen.

It is very clear that the future of the Hoya is greatly under threat from ploughing as almost every level patch of ground has been prepared for crops, and a bulldozer could easily level a lot more. Gypsum too lies here in great quantity and is susceptible to extraction.

The hotel was reached at 5.40pm and we did our own thing, including settling the bills, until meeting for a beer at 7 then dined in the hotel restaurant.

 

Tuesday 28 March

Bar Garpe again for desayuno. There was no need for an early departure as the air temperature was still low under an overcast sky. We took the A92N westwards taking a right turn up a long straight road towards Bacor Olivar as recommended by Javier. In particular we were to look out for roadside oak shrubs – Quercus ilex – so we duly stopped but with no sun and still cool the only butterfly was a roosting ballus. Continuing through the town we stopped again at the foot of the reservoir dam but that was quiet too. By now the idea of a coffee came to the fore and in the next town, Cuevas del Campo, we found one. And an atmospheric and very rustic fruit and veg market came to the relief of our 5-a-day withdrawal symptoms. Retracing our route, a track on the right just before the dam descent yielded a Green Hairstreak and Large Wall Brown (Lasiommata maera), teased out by the first rays of the sun, now about midday. With the sun now out we stopped again at our initial site to find a thriving ballus colony, before pressing on with our transit.

Only back on the A92 for a short time we took another right through flat agricultural land and orchards heading for the ‘badlands’ around Gorafe which we’d notice on our right. Our main aim in taking this turn was not topographical but to locate and follow south the Rio Fardes valley as a known hotspot for another key target, the superb Sooty Orange-tip (Zegris eupheme). Many of the trees were bare, still in early season mode, as we pulled into an opening where a trailer was being loaded with long poplar branches, presumably for bio-fuel. The two hefty blokes showed some real interest in what we were doing although I felt a tad self-conscious. Anyway, no Sooties here, sadly. Other species seen included a nice female celina, both Swallowtails (Papilio machaon gorganus) and Southern Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides feisthamelii) flew through, Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas), Green-veined Whites (Pieris napi) and Speckled Woods (Pararge aegeria)

 

The Lumix fz1000 also began to behave oddly, failing to focus for no apparent reason. So we called it a day, re-joined the 92 and headed for Alfacar where we’d spend the next 3 nights. Scenery was dramatic with the snow-capped Sierra Nevada on our left.

Our accommodation was booked in the Hostal Ruta de Lorca and what a great choice this was! I loved it!! My room measured no more than c10 sq m and the bathroom hardly a metre wide, but right up my street. The mandatory Alhambras were taken on the raised patio, plus crisps, and for €25 per night who could grumble? We took a couple of hours ‘time out’ before meeting up again at 8pm for dinner in the hostal. 

Wednesday 29 March

Up lazily at 7.50 and went for a stroll on my own in the town before we could get breakfast at 9am. Still very cold, despite the blue sky. Our aim today was to visit Dudar in search mainly of Chapman’s Green Hairstreak (Callophrys avis) but we couldn’t find any of the roads going south through the massif and eventually we gave up. Instead we followed the road north towards Prado Negro in the Sierra de Huetor and made our first stop once we’d passed through the pine forest and entered the realm of evergreen oaks. This is a truly stunning location with a wonderful limestone geology. Activity was slow at first but steadily built with Spanish Festoon (Zerynthia rumina), a Large Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis polychloros), a male Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines) and female Large Wall Brown. Small Copper and Provence Hairstreak were present too.

We then pushed on through the tree line and stopped to follow a track running steadily uphill alongside a stream. This turned out to be a fantastic spot! Species included Cleopatra (Gonepteryx cleopatra), Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni), Queen of Spain (Issoria lathonia), Berger’s Clouded Yellow (Colias alfacariensis), Clouded Yellow (Colias crocea)Provence Orange-tip (Anthocharis euphenoides), Panoptes Blue (Pseudophilotes panoptes), Black-eyed Blue (Glaucopsyche melanops), Mallow Skipper (Carcharodus alceae) and Wood White (Leptidea sinapis)…we would have stayed longer but had to leave at 3pm in order to meet José Miguel Barea-Azcon and Javier at the BP station on the A92 just south of Alfacar. Javier and Jose are co-authors of the superb book 'Las Mariposas diurnas de Sierra Nevada'.

We were first to arrive and parked up away from the pumps. A short time later a car pulled up in front of us and we assumed it was José so as he got out we introduced ourselves, addressing him as José which he seemed to acknowledge. David then asked him if he would be joining us in the field to which the guy said, ‘no I’m on my way to Murcia for dinner’. ‘That’s a shame’, we said, ‘as we were hoping to buy you dinner here’. With that he sauntered off into the garage and came back with a bottle of pop. So we shook his hand, bade him farewell, and thanked him for all his contributions in helping us to plan the trip. All a bit strange. Then Javier arrived, shortly followed by the real José – David and I had inadvertently propositioned a complete stranger!!

J and J joined us in the VW leading us to a site near Loreto to the west where False Baton Blue (Pseudophilotes abedcerragus) exists in an isolated colony. But we had arrived too early as the flowers were not yet out on its foodplant and the butterfly wouldn’t emerge until they were. But we saw a Red Fox, a Spanish Argus (Aricia morronensis) and a Swallowtail (Papilio machaon gorganus). The route back to Alfacar took the old road through hilltop towns of Illora and Pinos Puente and other villages to the north of the A92. Funnily enough, J & J had chosen our hostal as the venue for a beer and a meal, which was perfect. Alhambras and tapas, then more Alhambras in different coloured bottles, salad, meat and chips resulting in getting quite merry – this was a great session and our ‘shout’! Got back to my room at 9.30 having sorted out some future locations and meeting points for Friday and Saturday. End of a great day.

Thursday 30 March

Breakfast at 9 again but our hostal restaurant had failed to open (?!) so we walked into town and found a ‘desayuno’ bar and ordered the staple. A fruitshop on a nearby corner supplied healthy fodder for the day after which I drove towards the Rio Genil valley to the east of Granada. I’d been there 11 years ago with good friend Alan, albeit a bit later in the year. We took the road due south right through the centre of the city and although it was slow going, the traffic was light and drivers courteous and unhurried. An hour + later we parked in the valley (could have gone a bit further to the very end) and set off walking upstream on the right hand side of the river. On a lovely sunny morning we were greeted by our first Small Tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae) of the trip, and a few Large Tortoiseshells teased us by posing nicely then dashing off before we could get our shots in. But butterflies were few and far between, the valley having a late winter feel to it with the trees still mostly bare, though scenically gorgeous. Some way up the path to Estrelle we decided to return and try our luck elsewhere by taking the road to the north-east through Dudar. I was having focussing trouble with my camera to the point of becoming p**d off with it, so a good time to move on.

Just before reaching the town we stopped to explore a gully on the left hand side of the road and picked our way through piles of fly-tipping detritus, all very unpromising. But then David called out ‘deione’ and our first Provencal Fritillary (Melitaea deione) was seen. A Long-tailed Blue (Lampides boeticus) was here too, Green Hairstreaks and Black-eyed Blues. On the other side of Dudar we repeated the experience in another rubbish-filled gully and here we did even better, this time David finding a mating pair of deione, both in mint condition. An African Grass Blue (Zizeeria knysna) was also seen by him at this spot. 

The drive back to Alfacar took an age as the two roads across the massif failed to materialise and we emerged at last on the A92 at the La Peza junction, east of Diezma! Once back at the hostal we hit the beers, tapas crisps and chorizos, and dined-in. 

Friday 31 March

A transit day today, heading south to Almunecar on the coast, leaving the hostal at 8.30 for breakfast and fruit, as for yesterday. We departed west on the A92 for a short way before taking the A44 south on a pleasant day encountering the heaviest traffic of the trip around Granada. Just before Padul we took a right turn marked Otivar and Lentegi following Javier’s hand drawn map of a location below wind turbines. We’d hoped to find Spanish Marbled White (Melanargia ines) but searched in vain: in fact, the site was a combination of ploughed fields, orchards and karst-like areas incapable of taking a plough. But in a stream gully, sheltered from the wind, we found Provence Orange-tip (Anthocharis euphenoides) and other ‘regulars’. Having wandered around for a good while we rejoined the 44 taking the old road, the 323, from the Izbot junction. This dual carriageway running parallel with the new one was very quiet and offered stopping places. The first was at the southern end of the Embalsa Rules dam but nothing new here. We then joined the A7 going west then taking the Almunecar exit and after some fiddling about found the San Sebastien hotel up a one-way side street. Our rooms were freshly painted – the whole hotel was undergoing redecoration – but my door hadn’t yet been returned!

Dumping our bags we wasted no time in seeking out a Desert Orange-tip (Colotis evagore) site in Torrox behind the buildings as indicated on Javier’s sketch. I think he must have had something else in mind because this was definitely not classic evagore territory, and we didn’t take to the town at all. Undeterred we continued west along the coast road to Lagos where another potential site had been indicated. We could see as we approached that the high rocky outcrop fitted the bill – and it did. A strong colony was thriving here, most in good condition, and pretty easy to photograph, a real delight.

Back at the hotel, we went out looking for dinner and stopped for a beer at a nearby bar. We walked northwards out of town looking for a restaurant and kept going when we were clearly unlikely to find one but eventually we retraced our steps, passing our hotel again and heading into town. The first few eateries were very downmarket but then, up a side street in the old town, we spotted Restaurant La Parra (déjà vu from Baza!). Quite an upmarket place but we were worth it, and the food was good eaten over a bottle of red. A couple on an adjacent table chatted with us as we left, Swedes looking for a place to buy. She had coached the Swedish ladies darts team and he was a keen player. Thence back to the hotel, quite late, around midnight.

Saturday 1 April

Woken by blackbirds singing, unexpected in the middle of this large town. Located Motril and the reserve on my laptop where we’d meet José at 11.30. David and I tried the ‘unimpressive’ nearby bar for breakfast but it was shut, so we wandered into town and found Los Cactus run by a couple of sparky, fast moving lasses, and had our usual desayuno there.

To pass the time usefully before we needed to set off for Motril we inspected a couple of roadside patches we’d noted previously and picked up Speckled Wood, Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) and a torn Large White (Pieris brassicae). Finally we parked just off the slip road roundabout under the A7 where I added Lang’s Short-tailed Blue (Leptotes pirithous) to the list.

Leaving at 11am we arrived in the designated car park a couple of minutes before José and it was great to see he’d brought along his little daughter Ilena and his slightly older nephew Pablo. He was taking us to the ‘currently closed to the public’ wetland reserve of Le Charca de Suarez, a remnant of what used to be there but now surrounded by high rise developments. Two volunteers awaited us, nice girls in their 20’s, and we were joined inside by Pepe, the local man who’d fought developers, local authorities etc to protect the site. From a butterfly point of view, asclepias is being grown here for the Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and also the tropical fruit tree, anonas, which is favoured by the Two-tailed Pasha (Charaxes jasius). This was a heart-warming experience and the effort and passion were brilliant. José gave David a copy of the superb book he’d co-written with Javier on the butterflies of the Sierra Nevada.

José and the kids joined us, or we joined them, for a light snacky lunch and we picked up the tab. After we’d said goodbye, we returned to the Lagos site but the strong wind made photography near-impossible and the Desert Orange-tips (Colotis evagore) were sheltering in the grass. An unexpected highlight was the appearance of a green Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon) which didn’t like being handled and made its lurching escape into the grass. As we exited the A7 we tried the site we’d visited earlier in the day only to find things very quiet.

Dinner was taken at the Restaurant Meson Emilio in town, authentic, quality, plus another Rioja. 

Sunday 2 April

Loaded our case into the car, got the mother of the hotel guy out of bed in her dressing-gown to take our payments at 8.30 and went back to Los Cactus for breakfast. Same two girls were there, remembered what we’d had yesterday when prompted by David, and brought it over.

The BP garage in Salobrena was where we met Javier again, at 10am, but as we were running ahead of time we stopped opportunistically en route and found another African Grass Blue. We followed Javier through agricultural land and orchards some 3km north parking next to a pile of fly-tipping and walking a short way to a completely enclosed fallow field of c2,000 square metres. There is no way we’d have ventured up there on our own. But in this field grew asclepias and a breeding population of Monarchs, probably the last remaining colony in Eastern Andalucia, though no adults put in an appearance. Eggs indicated the recent presence of the butterfly though.

Javier then took us to his house to show us his wild garden and larvae and pupae of Monarch and Spanish Festoon, both taking natural advantage of the host plants growing there. We declined a kind offer of refreshment as we’d already taken up too much of hs Sunday. Javier donated and signed a copy of his Sierra Nevada book for me.

David and I then went back to the fallow field and were in luck as a solitary Monarch was flying and we filled our memory cards! David also found a solitary Geranium Bronze (Cacyreus marshalli), another new species for the trip.

Time now to move east to the Cabo de Gata, our final destination of the trip. Just through Retamar we took a rough concreted track down towards the sea and landmark towers on the hunt for Common Tiger Blue (Tarucus theophrastus). It took us a while to determine the foodplant Zizyphus lotus but a photo in Paul Browning’s book gave us what we were looking for and adults were soon found, rarely straying away from it. My camera was still playing up, sometimes apparently making random changes to my settings, not to mention suddenly going out of focus for no apparent reason. Homework required. Our final hotel was now a short drive away, an ugly rectangular block, the Hotel Blanca Brisa on the edge of Cabo de Gata town, but it was the poshest place we’d stayed at. With a couple of hours to while away before we met up again for beers at 7.45 I attempted to sort out my cameras. At dinner we shared a paella and in attempting to swat one of the many fruit flies invading our table I managed to knock a bottle of balsamic onto the floor, which duly smashed. Oops! 

Monday 3 April

Last full day, starting with a continental buffet style breakfast for a change. No time was wasted getting back to the Common Tiger Blue location and we arrived before 10am on a sunny morning but with a cold wind blowing. After waiting some time for the first butterfly to appear it was only females that I saw, showing a range of colour forms. A pristine Green-striped White (Euchloe belemia) settled on the ground allowing close access, underside only.

The nearby imposing headland, of volcanic origin, the Sierra de Cabo de Gata, just had to be visited and we soon parked up and began to tramp the flowery hillside. David spotted the first Spanish Marbled White but in the stiff wind pursuit was pointless. That was true for the various pierids, Black-eyed Blues, and then for Spanish Gatekeepers (Pyronia batsheba), and they all gave us the run around. These Spanish Gatekeepers were all male, continuously skulking around the base of bushes and rarely sitting clear of vegetation, or for very long. And mosquitos were a real pest, surprisingly so given the location. But maybe they originate from the nearby lagoons? All in all, a frustrating morning/early afternoon. Perhaps we could find a sheltered spot in the lee of the headland, but we couldn’t as the wind was swirling and seemed to be blowing from all directions. Fortunately, David watched a Spanish Marbled White settle and we both got our shots at last.

A final visit to the Common Tiger Blue site proved pointless in the wind, so we called it a day and went back to the hotel for 5.45 to pack. These to’ing and fro’ing trips across the Cabo revealed how perilous the habitat survival is given the expansion of polytunnels to the immediate north and west. Two hours later we met for a beer and dinner in the hotel, then settled the bills.

Tuesday 4 April

Set off at 7.15 for Almeria airport, topped up the fuel, parked the car, and found the terminal delightfully quiet. Checked-in our cases and had breakfast before going through security where I was pulled to one side to have my hands and laptop swabbed. Don’t know why they picked on me!

From here on everything went to plan to round-off a great trip.