Algarve Wildlife - Sightings and Prospects 2014

Spiranthes spiralis - Autumn Lady's-tresses
Above: Autumn Lady's-tresses flowering beside the Quarteira river close to Paderne in mid-November.

The elusive Algarve autumn-flowering orchid

Most of the Algarve's beautiful wild orchids flower in early spring but there are two exceptions and both are rare and difficult to spot. These two orchids, Summer Lady's-tresses Spiranthes aestivalis and Autumn Lady's-tresses Spiranthes spiralis are closely related. Summer Lady's-tresses flowers in shady margins of rivers and streams in June, and Autumn Lady's-tresses flowers in the same type of habitat but waits until the first rains of autumn to arrive and then pops up along the edges of our water courses or in other moist and shady locations.

Although these orchids look remarkably similar to the casual observer they are easy to tell apart because of their very different flowering times. Close inspection also reveals that the inflorescences are different in appearance too. In the case of Summer Lady's-tresses the small white flowers protrude horizontally from the stem, but with Autumn Lady's-tresses the flowers open in a tight spiral around the very hairy stem.

Summer Lady's-tresses are particularly rare in the region but have been recorded close to Caldas de Monchique. Autumn Lady's-tresses are more widespread (but not easy to find) and are reported from the banks of the River Algibre and lower down in the valley where the Algibre joins the River Quarteira in the area of Paderne.

A female Epaulet Skimmer
Above: Which of the Algarve's Dragonflies is this? Read the article in full...

A living river by the door...

Clive Viney discovers some of the Algarve's wealth of dragonflies, damselflies and other wildlife that still flourish in the high summer heat...

Clive Viney is co-author of Algarve Wildlife - the natural year...

Scabiosa stellata
Above: Scabiosa stellata is one of the later-flowering wildflowers of the Algarve and is a magnet for insects, especially butterflies. Picture Clive Viney.

June 2014 - Pincushions and Fritillaries. Clive Viney pays homage to an Algarve star.

Late May and early June would seem to offer few opportunities to see the best of Algarve’s wildlife. Many birds have finished breeding and migrants travelling north have moved on. The wildflower show that was so good in March and April is all but over. Rain has become a memory and long summer days have arrived. The countryside is edging from green to brown and the beach and swimming pool beckon. But it is still not too hot to discourage a country walk to enjoy the scenery and see just what is about. The surprise will be butterflies and the place to look for these is where wildflowers are still in bloom and the good news is that butterflies are more active during the middle of a sunny day. Early morning starts are unnecessary.

Scabiosa stellata is as the name suggests a species of scabious. It is distinguished not so much by its pale lilac or white flowers but by the round papery cups that are left when the flowers fall. Although a native of southwest Europe it has become an ornamental plant and thereby attracted a number of English names including starflower pincushions, drumstick scabious and moonflower. In the Algarve it is a native wildflower and blooms in late May and early June. It is an insect magnet and especially attractive to butterflies.

Spotted Fritillary
Above: Spotted Fritillary on Scabiosa stellata. Picture Clive Viney.

Inland from Tavira the Alportel River winds its way through lovely hills down to the sea. For part of its journey a riverside track follows the valley and with its gentle inclines makes a perfect early summer walk. River pools burst with life and a passing golden oriole or bee-eater can take the breath away. In one place Scabiosa stellata grows alongside the track for just fifty metres or so.

Last week I photographed no fewer than 15 species of butterflies on these plants. The flowers must be intoxicating because the butterflies just gave themselves up. Among the species were Spotted Fritillaries and Chapman’s Blues, which are rarely seen in the Eastern Algarve. It also provided a wonderful opportunity to study our little known skippers – small moth-like butterflies. Before my walk was finished I added another ten butterfly species, unfortunately not so intoxicated. I would love to have photographed an exotic Two-tailed Pasha but they just flew by.

As the wildflowers finally disappear, I will seek out the last of the river pools for dragonflies to photograph. Summer is never dull in the Algarve.

Clive Viney is is co-author of Algarve Wildlife - the natural year

Calidris ferruginea
Above: Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea in breeding plumage - picture Ray Tipper...

May 2014 - Give Waders a chance - see Ray Tipper's guide to identifying some of the Algarve's wading birds...

Cynomorium coccineum - Maltese Fungus still alive and well in the Algarve
Above: Maltese Fungus grows on the south coast of the Algarve. Photograph by kind permission of Chris Thorogood

April 2014 - Two of the rarest plants in the Algarve still going strong this year

Cynomorium coccineum, often referred to as the ‘Maltese fungus’, is a rare and poorly understood parasitic flowering plant.

The plant is very distinctive and has a blackish-red infloresence which bursts up through the earth from an extensive underground rhizome system. Cynomorium coccineum has no green pigment and is unable to synthesise (make from sunlight) its own food. It steals its nutrients from the roots of other plants.

More about Cynomorium coccineum...

Silene rothmaleri is an extremely rare endemic of the southwest coast of Portugal, where its occupancy is less than 400 km2, and less than 3,500 individuals are believed to exist.

Below left - Silene rothmaleri is not extinct, but is an extremely rare endemic of Cape St. Vincent. Photograph by kind permission of Chris Thorogood
Silene rothmaleri thought to be extinct has been refound in the Algarve

The species was first collected in 1945, officially described in 1956, and never collected again, and was therefore believed to be extinct by most botanists. In fact S. rothmaleri still occurs on a few remote shale slopes in the Cape St. Vincent area (where it is legally protected) and the authors of Field Guide to the Wildflowers of the Algarve, Chris Thorogood and Simon Hiscock, have observed the plant in flower most years in the last decade.

More about Silene rothmaleri...

Chris Thorogood and Simon Hiscock are co-authors of the new Field Guide to the Wildflowers of the Algarve, (Kew Publishing 2014) ISBN 978 1 84246 497 7, available via www.kewbooks.com

The book was launched in April 2014 in the Algarve.

Below: Portuguese Sundew with its pretty yellow flower. Picture by kind permission of Ron Porley.
Portuguese Sundew Drosophyllum lusitanicum

April 2014 - Portuguese Sundew Drosophyllum lusitanicum is in flower and so small insects should be careful where they land!

This carniverous plant is Portugal's equivalent of Round-leaved Sundew Drosera rotundifolia which is found in the more northerly parts of Europe, but rather than living in acid bogs and marshes, Drosophyllum lusitanicum makes its home in dry chalky and stony ground. Its flower is also bright yellow and much more attractive than the diminutive white flowers on other sundews.

Portuguese Sundew is extremely rare and is disappearing from many of its formerly-known stations due to habitat loss and collecting by carniverous plant nuts. Today it is (probably) only found in a few remote areas in the far west of the Algarve. It is also recorded from Spain and Morocco but Portugal has traditionally been its stronghold and there is an ongoing conservation programme to try to restore the plant to some of its previous locations.

Like other sundews Drosophyllum lusitanicum exudes a sticky substance from its stems and leaves which traps small insects and kills them. They are then digested by enzymes which occur in the leaves of the plant.

Spanish Marbled White
Above: Spanish Marbled White butterfly makes an early appearance in the Algarve

Burgeoning Spring

As April progresses more and more of the wildflowers of the region are bursting into bloom, and with them come the insects who depend upon the nectar on offer by the flowers in exchange for the part the insects play in pollination. We have already seen several of the gorgeous butterflies that make their homes in the Algarve - Spanish Festoon, Swallowtail, Cleopatra, Red Admiral and Speckled Wood to name but a few.

Most of the spring wild orchid species to appear in the Algarve are now flowering, including the Green-winged Orchid Anacamptis morio. The Green-winged Orchid is under great threat further north in Europe due to the destruction of its habitat caused by modern intensive farming methods. In the Mediterranean it is still common and good colonies of this multi-coloured species can be found scattered throughout the Algarve. It comes in a variety of colours from deep purple, through pale pink and even white. The dark purple specimens are sometimes confused with the Early Purple Orchid Orchis mascula subsp. olbiensis which also occurs here, but close inspection of the 'hood' above the lip of the flower will reveal the difference between the two species - Green-winged Orchid has fine green lines and the Early Purple Orchid does not.

Anacamptis longicornu
Above: the long, straight spur that differentiates the Long-spurred Orchid from a normal Green-winged Orchid

In the Algarve Green-winged Orchids are differentiated by more than colour; some believe that there are three separate species (or subspecies) occuring here. They are the Champagne Orchid Anacamptis morio subsp. champagneuxii and the Long-spurred Orchid Anacamptis longicornu as well as the most common simply named Green-winged Orchid Anacamptis morio. The Champagne Orchid and the Long-spurred Orchid are much less common than Green-winged Orchid, and put in rare appearances among colonies of Green-winged Orchids. The differences between the three species are quite marked: the Champagne Orchid has a laxer flowerhead with fewer and larger flowers than the Green-winged Orchid, but the real defining feature is that there are no markings on the lip of the flower - it has a pure white 'patch' in its centre. The Long-spurred Orchid, as its common name suggests, has a long, very straight 'spur' protruding beyond the back of the flower. The plant also tends to be taller and more robust than the other two species.

All three of the Green-winged Orchids like grassy places and can often be found along grassy roadside verges and ditches. A really good place to look for them at the moment is on the road between Barragem da Bravura and Marmelete where they are accompanied by some good colonies of one of the tongue orchids that grow in the Algarve, Serapias strictiflora

Ophrys speculum hypochromatic form
Above: a hypochromatic form of the Mirror Orchid. Picture by kind permission of Ron Porley

April 2014 - not just lots of wild orchids, but strange ones too

From time to time orchids lacking their normal colours will appear as a result of genetic abnormalities. This condition can affect the whole plant, the flowers or sometimes just part of the flowers. When all the red and blue pigments (anthocyanins) are blocked, the resulting flowers will appear completely white, green or yellow as in the case of this Mirror Orchid Ophrys speculum photographed at Boca do Rio on 1st April. The lack of anthocyanins allows the anthoxanthan (white to yellow) pigments and chlorophyll in the flowers to become dominant.

The reverse condition, hyperchomy, can also appear in orchid populations and this results in very dark, strong coloured flowers.

More information on the nature and biology of orchids...

Viola arborescens - Woody Violet
Above: Woody Violet Viola arborescens

April 1st 2014 - despite the date this is no wind-up!

Just coming into flower are two of the rarest plants in the Algarve and so they are perfect for visiting and photographing now. Travel to Cape St. Vincent to pay homage but please do not dig up and remove - these plants are rare enough as it is.

Woody Violet Viola arborescens is a low-growing plant that hides among other woody and prickly shrubs on Cape St. Vincent. You will need thorn-proof trousers and something to kneel on if you want to record this in the Algarve album of plants.

Astragalus tragacantha ssp. vicentinus

Above: Astragalus tragacantha ssp. vicentinus flowers in the open at Cape St. Vincent

The second is Astragalus tragacantha ssp. vicentinus which is a member of the Pea family of plants - Fabaceae, formerly known as Leguminosae. It is a low-growing plant which is extremely spiny. It has flowers which, from a distance, look pure white but on closer examination are delicately tinged with purple.

Cape St. Vincent is protected as a Natural Park and is famous for its flora and fauna. More information...

Sue Parker is author of Wild Orchids in the Algarve

Hybrid between Ophrys lutea and Ophrys fusca
Above: a cross between the Yellow Bee Orchid Ophrys lutea and the Sombre Bee Orchid Ophrys fusca photographed in the Algibre valley in late March

March 2014 - it's another great year for wild orchids in the Algarve

Preliminary visits to known sites for wild orchids indicate another bumper year for orchids and so now is the time to get out into the countryside and look for them.

Many species of orchids readily hybridise with each other producing curious-looking flowers which feature colour and characteristics from both 'parents'. Hybrids are the result of a pollinating insect carrying pollen from one species to another rather than between two plants of the same species.

Many of the bee orchids are difficult to tell apart because of naturally occuring variability within species, and the presence of hybrids can add to the confusion.

Strange-looking orchids are not always the result of cross pollination. So called aberrant or 'monstrous' forms can also be caused in species which have the ability to self-pollinate if insect pollination fails to take place.

Sue Parker is author of Wild Orchids in the Algarve

Fritillaria lusitanica at Parque Natural da Ria Formosa
Above: star of the early spring show - Fritillaria lusitanica

February 2014 - coming to life at Parque Natural da Ria Formosa

Bright sunshine accompanied by a brisk and cold easterly breeze meant that we had to don an extra layer of clothing before embarking on the obligatory walk around this marvellous nature reserve. No visit to the Algarve would be complete without this ritual, and each time it is fully rewarded. Today (24th February) our procession around the paths and tracks were accompanied by many others - the caterpillars of the Pine Processionary Moth were on the move in their hundreds via their strange slow-moving queue to fulfil the next stage in their life cycle - nicely illustrated by one of the information boards at the reserve.

We also saw numerous Hoopoes feeding on the ground and then flying quickly up into the trees when they spotted us. In the wader department we saw Black-winged Stilt, Curlew, Little Egret and Grey Heron.

Close to the Visitor Centre the Bumblebee Orchids (Ophrys bombyliflora) were in perfect condition. There are many hundreds of plants in this particular colony, demonstrating their ability to spread by means of stolons (extending roots) rather than depending on insects to pollinate their flowers to ensure future generations - insects can be few and far between so early in the year.

To accompany the burgeoning wildflower displays which included early Sage-leaved Cistus Cistus salvifolius, Spotted rockrose Tuberaria guttata, Purple Vipers Bugloss Echium plantagineum and Rosy Garlic Allium roseum, were a few early butterfllies - Speckled Wood and Spanish Festoon were plentiful.

Without doubt the star of the early spring show at Ria da Formosa was the sight of a single Fritillaria lusitanca. This rare and beautiful wildflower tucks itself away in dense (and usually very prickly) undergrowth, making it a special find for those with great determination - and thornproof trousers!

Sue Parker is author of Wild Orchids in the Algarve

Sawfly Orchid Ophrys tenthredinifera in the Algarve February 2014
Above: Sawfly Orchid Ophrys tenthredinifera photographed on 20th February 2014 close to Barragem de Bravura

February 2014 - another bumper spring for wild orchids in the Algarve?

Early indications for wild orchids in spring 2014 are excellent. After a very dry autumn what stands for winter in the Algarve has been mild and rainy, and we returned here in mid February to a moist and very green landscape. A trip out towards the west to see both Gennaria diphylla and Sawfly Orchids Ophrys tenthredinifera yielded plants in far greater numbers than we have seen on both sites in previous years.

Sawfly Orchid flowers very early in the Algarve which explains why it took so many years to find it here. I had previously seen many of them in southern Italy and in Crete - in both instances flowering in late March and early April. Here they are in full flower by the mid-to-end of February and wither away as soon as the temperatures rise above 20 degrees C. The Algarve plants favour moisture-retaining habitats including ditches at the foot of steeply sloping banks, often on the sides of roads and tracks.

Regarded by many as being the most beautiful of the Bee orchids, Ophrys tenthredinfera in the Algarve has (generally) deeper pink petals and sepals and the broad, square lip is often browner than plants in other parts of southern Europe and has a narrower yellow border.

Other early-flowering orchids in the Algarve this year are Bumblebee Orchid Ophrys bombyliflora and Yellow Bee Orchid Ophrys lutea both of which are showing on lime-rich substrates in sheltered positions.

Sue Parker is author of Wild Orchids in the Algarve

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Wild Orchids of the AlgarveAlgarve Wildlife, the natural year, Second EditionWildflowers in the Algarve