Morouzos Beach: a unique and fragile dune habitat

European Marram Grass (Ammophila arenaria) behind the Mazouros beach
European Marram Grass (Ammophila arenaria) behind the Mazouros beach

Morouzos Beach (playa de Morouzos in Spanish) is a 2.8 km strip of sand which lies at the entrance to the Rias Ortigueira and Ladrido in A Coruña Province, Galicia, Spain.  Behind the beach there are dunes and wetlands with many interesting plants and flowers.

 Morouzos beach protecting a small estuary formed by  the river Baleo on the eastern side
Morouzos beach protecting a small estuary formed by the river Baleo on the eastern side

I wrote in a previous blog about the Ria de Ortigueira, but here I focus on the plants found in the dunes.  This area is a Special Protection Area (SPA) – under the EU Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds – known as ZEPA in Spanish.  The sites near the ria get flooded regularly and the wetlands are listed as a RAMSAR Site  – one out of a total of 74 such sites in Spain – which hopefully gives it some special protection (1).   The  Ramsar Convention is an international treaty that provides a framework for “the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources”. Ria Ortigueira at the start of the Morouzos Beach

The Morouzos Beach (or Praia de Morouzous-Cabalar; Praia in Gallego = Playa in Spanish) area also includes a lagoon (called lagao San Martiño) which is a great site for dragonflies and damselflies. The water level is somewhat variable, but is generally accessible via the wooded walkways. There are a few ducks lurking in the lagoon, but they are very shy.

San Martiño lagoon, Morouzos beach
San Martiño lagoon, Morouzos beach

The area is used for recreational purposes, such as dog walking and jogging, but people generally keep to the paths and for most of the year I would not say it is heavily utilised, at least not in my experience (apart from one week in July – see below).  There are a series of paths through the dunes (as shown below).

Dunes behind the beach with footpath
Dunes behind the beach with footpath

There is however, one exception, when the area in the pines behind the dunes is given over to camping during the very popular Celtic festival. The organisers do a very good job of cleaning up after this festival, but it seems to me that it must have an impact, particularly if the vegetation is very dry, as it has been in recent years.  There are however, excellent amenities (toilets, showers, life guards in the summer) and a series of wooden board walks to protect the fragile ecosystem beneath ones feet.  Nonetheless, the ecosystem is very delicate.

The dunes give way to a forest of pine trees behind the beach
The dunes give way to a forest of pine trees behind the beach

Another disturbance noticeable in recent years seems to have been caused by the grubbing up of the top layer of soil and grass by feral pigs (wild boar) looking for food (truffles).  People also appear engage in some collecting of these truffles – but they do not seem to have as much of an impact as compared to the pigs.

Flowering dune ecosystem in June
Flowering dune ecosystem in June

The wet or humid areas are covered with Juncus maritimos and reedbeds, sea meadows of eelgrass (Zostera marina and Z. noltii) lie in the wetter parts.

Sea rush, Juncus maritimus
Sea rush, Juncus maritimus

Vegetation associated to the dune system includes European Beachgrass (Ammophila arenaria), which helps to bind and stabilise the sand, and a variety of plants including Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum), Sea bindweed (Calystegia soldanella) and Sea Spurge (Euphorbia paralias).

European Marram Grass (Ammophila arenaria) binding together the dunes behind Morouzos beach
European Marram Grass (Ammophila arenaria) binding together the dunes behind Morouzos beach
 Sea bindweed (Calystegia soldanella)

Sea bindweed (Calystegia soldanella)
Sea Spurge (Euphorbia paralias)
Sea Spurge (Euphorbia paralias)

There are also clumps of various flowers in the dunes, such as the so-called Curry plant (silly name) (Helichrysum italicum spp serotinum) and Sea Mayweed (Tripleurospermum maritimum) to name just two.

 Helichrysum italicum spp serotinum flowering in July

Helichrysum italicum spp serotinum flowering in July
Sea Mayweed (Tripleurospermum maritimum)
Sea Mayweed (Tripleurospermum maritimum)

There are a large number of other plants, some of which are quite small and subtle.  Others are common, such as Biting stonecrop (Sedum acre), but are only at their best at certain times of the year when they are in full flower.  They give a gorgeous colour to the dunes.

 Biting stonecrop (Sedum acre)

Biting stonecrop (Sedum acre)

There are extensive coverings of sphagnum moss in some places but in recent years the vegetation appears to me to have become drier.  The ecosystem gets wetter after the winter rains, but there have been a series of relatively dry years, even in Galicia which is always wet!

Helichrysum italicum spp serotinum on Mozouros dunes in July (note dryness of the vegetation)
Helichrysum italicum spp serotinum on Mozouros dunes in July (note dryness of the vegetation)

When I visited the site in October, there were a good many ferns to be seen in the dunes; not sure what species they are, but they look nice against the light!

 Ferns in dunes on Mozouros beach.

Ferns in dunes on Mozouros beach.

In June, Mediterranean lineseed (Bellardia trixago) is very common amongst the dunes.

Mediterranean lineseed (Bellardia trixago)
Mediterranean lineseed (Bellardia trixago)

Duneland ecosystems such as this are subtle; they do not reveal all of their glories in one go and need to be visited time and again to get a full appreciation of their magic.  They are however, vulnerable to disturbance and overuse.  Morouzos beach gets a reasonable number of visitors in the summer, but like most beaches in Galicia, is never really crowded.  In fact, on most days there are only one or two locals going for a walk or searching for a spot to enjoy the infrequent Galician sun.  If treated well, and respected for its uniqeness, this little ecosystem will I hope continue to be appreciated by us visitors, and remain a home to the wonderful plants and animals that live there.

1) http://www.ramsar.org/about-the-ramsar-convention

Autumn Crocus

Autumn crocus (Crocus serotinus)
Autumn crocus (Crocus serotinus)

I came across these little blue belles whilst walking along the Rio Sor in Galicia earlier this month.  There were not present in any sort of profusion, but they had a delicate blue colour which made them stand out amongst the green grass.  There are it seems three subspecies of this autumn flowering species, Crocus serotinus, subspp. clusii, serotinus and salzmannii.   They can only be separated with confidence by examining their so-called tunics (lovely word!) covering their underground corms. Since I did not think (or want) to dig them up, I will have to live without knowing the subspecies.  Maybe it is Crocus serotinus subsp. clusii , it looks a lot like it and the distribution is right, NW Spain (1).  They can all be grown as garden plants it seems.

Autumn crocus (Crocus serotinus)
Autumn crocus (Crocus serotinus)

As an aside, I am always amazed at the complexity of plant nomenclature.  For example, the scientific names – including the authorities (i.e. referring to who first named them) for the two subspecies which this plant might be are as follows:

1)  Crocus serotinus subsp. clusii (J. Gay) B. Mathew (2)

2)  Crocus serotinus subsp. salzmannii (J. Gay) B. Mathew (2)

It almost as though taxononomists have been busy complicating the naming system again, since Carl Linnaeus developed the simple binomial system of naming plants!

1) http://www.alpinegardensociety.net/plants/Crocus/serotinus+clusii/107/

http://ww2.bgbm.org/EuroPlusMed/PTaxonDetail.asp?NameId=41819&PTRefFk=8000000

Pity the poor pitta!

Red-bellied pitta (Pitta erythrogaster)
Red-bellied pitta (Pitta erythrogaster)

I have searched long and hard for a pitta!  I am not a very good bird-watcher; I tend to get bored too easily if the bird does not appear right in front of me, sanding still for its photograph!  Pittas are usually the least-likely bird to do this, they have to coaxed out of their jungle hiding places, usually using call-back.  A friend and I searched hard for one in Khao Yai NP in Thailand, but we didn’t stand a chance, we did not use call-back (or call out it should be called!) and it was probably the wrong season anyway.  I came closest in India, but even a really good bird-watcher (our guide Craig Robson – who wrote the guide-book for Thailand and South East Asia) could not tempt it to come into view.  We stood there for hours, or at least it seemed like it, waiting for the little bleeder to come into view.  He (or she probably) didn’t.  She just looked out at us silly humans, standing in a row, playing the call of the pitta.  She was not fooled, and went back to whatever she was doing before we came along.

I used to joke that pittas were made up!  They were the most colourful and fantastic birds that anyone could imagine, and some unscrupulous but imaginative bird artist simply made them up – using all the colours in the palette.  But they do exist, and someone even managed to see them all in one year! The tale of how he (Chris Gooddie)  did this is a really good read; both funny and enlightening (1).  But as this pitta expert reveals, they can be maddeningly difficult to see; they have the power to vanish into thin air, reappearing somewhere else, without seeming to move.  They truly are conjuring artists.

So it was with some trepidation and disbelief when my guide Esli, mentioned that he had spotted a pitta.  There it was, standing right in front of us in Tangkoko Nature Reserve, Sulawesi.  Even I could not fail to get a picture of it.  It hopped around a little, but mostly just stood there – like it was waiting for something!   Red-bellied pittas (Pitta erythrogaster) are clearly not your average pitta; they have not heard that they need to be invisible; to make birders work really hard to see them!  No, they just pop and stand there; proud of their lovely plumage, wanting to be admired.  They are the exhibitionist of the pitta world!

 red-bellied pitta (Pitta erythrogaster)
red-bellied pitta (Pitta erythrogaster)

So there it was – pittas do exist!  And I not only saw one, I managed to get a half-decent shot.  Almost everyone does who visits to Tangkoko.  Now, perhaps the jinx is broken and I can get to see some of the other 31 species present on the planet!

1)  The Jewel Hunter. http://10000birds.com/review-the-jewel-hunter-chris-gooddie.htm

Selamatkan Yaki! (Save the yakis!)

Black Crested Macaque (Macaca nigra)
Black Crested Macaque (Macaca nigra)

Black Crested Macaques or Sulawesi Black Macaques (Macaca nigra) are only found in northeastern Sulawesi (and on a couple of adjacent islands) in Indonesia, and are critically endangered as a result of both habitat loss and hunting for bush meat.  Unfortunatley for them, they are considered a delicay in this part of Sulawesi (Minahasa) so have to be heavily protected; there is however, a large introduced population on the island of Pulau Bacan in the Moluccas which according to the IUCN probably numbers at least 100,000 individuals (1), although they may have hybridised with other macaques I understand.

 Juvenile crested-black macaque ((Macaca nigra) showing characteristic crest or quiff of hair.
Juvenile crested-black macaque ((Macaca nigra) showing characteristic crest or quiff of hair.

I have wanted to see these lovely primates ever since I saw them featured in a couple of television programmes – including Bill Bailey’s excellent programme on Alfred Russel Wallace (2).   Tangkoko-DuaSudara Nature Reserve, in North Sulawesi is a good place to see them as they are habituated to people and highly accessible.  Whether they like it or not, they are followed around constantly by researchers – who monitor their habits and behaviour – as well as by tourists, such as myself, eager to take photographs.  Anyway, all this attention does not seem to adversely affect them – a 2009 study found that ‘ecotourism does not appear to have long-term behavioural effect on the primates of Tangkoko’ although there were concerns about the effect on their immune systems!  At least they are relatively safe in the park although dogs – one can be seen in the photo below – can be a predator of the macaques.

Crested-black macaques on the road through the park at Tangkoko NP.
Crested-black macaques on the road through the park at Tangkoko NP.

Black Crested Macaques (known locally as yakis) are quite small – or at least smaller than I thought they were from the TV!  They go about in large groups of between 50 to 100 individuals – sometimes smaller – and spend most of their time either moving about searching for food, especially fruits, or resting and socializing.  Not a bad life really!  What struck me about them was the variety and intensity of the social interactions.  Everything seems to happen in double-quick time, so to speak, perhaps because they are small and agile (compared to us).  We are however, macaques and humans, both primates, so we share similar emotions and expressions.  These are most apparent when you look at the photographs.  This particular individual seems to have an expression of outright amazement or surprise, but it was only fleeting.  Yawns can also be a sign of stress in monkeys.

Look of surprise on  Surprised crested black macaque
Look of surprise on
Surprised crested black macaque

Previously this same individual was feeding quietly on a piece of fruit but watching the antics and goings-on of other members of the troop; they are intensely social creatures.

Crested black macaque eating a piece of fruit.
Crested black macaque eating a piece of fruit.

In reproducing groups of black macaques, females out-number males by up to four to one apparently.  There are a small number of males in the troop with one dominant male; there are also gangs of bachelor males in other troops.

Dominant male Sulawesi crested black macaque, (Macaca nigra)
Dominant male Sulawesi crested black macaque, (Macaca nigra)

They are promiscuous primates, with both males and females mating multiple times with multiple partners.  The receptiveness of the females (whether she is in ‘heat’) can be seen from the very swollen and red buttocks (‘perineal tumescence’).

 Female crested-black macaque with swollen backside

Female crested-black macaque with swollen backside

The males have smaller buttocks.

Male Juvenile crested-black macaque.
Male Juvenile crested-black macaque.

The menstrual cycle in this species is about 37 days and the gestation period is about 5 and half months (4).  The infants look to me a bit like chimpanzees! They are highly active, always on the move, no doubt a right handful for their mothers! In the low light of the forest, the infants were always slightly blurred in my photographs, due to their non-stop movement!  I could have used a faster shutter speed, but I quite like the effect.  It’s hard not to anthropomorphize when you see the tender loving gaze of the mother macaque towards her baby.

 Mother with infant crested-black macaque
Mother with infant crested-black macaque
 Crested black macaque mother and infant

Crested black macaque mother and infant

Fortunately for the dedicated researchers who follow the macaques throughout the day – from the time they get up, to the time they go to bed – the monkeys seem to like to get an early night.  This troop was preparing to retire to the trees for the night, well before sundown.  This mother and infant started to climb a tree in the forest, together with another females coming up from below.

Crested-black macaque mother and infant

There is a lot of movement and interaction going on in these macaques troops, including calls and vocalisations, but there is also time for repose. This dominant, or alpha male crested black macaque was well aware of my presence – I had been following him and the troop – and he had even bared his huge canines at one point (a clear signal to back off!), but he was also very calm and reflective almost (am I imagining this?  Probably!) as shown in the following photographs.

Dominant male Crested black macaque examining some leaves
Dominant male Crested black macaque examining some leaves
Dominant male crestedblack macaque
Dominant male crested black macaque
Dominant male crested black macaque
Dominant male crested black macaque

One of the nice things, at least to my mind, about this species, is that they are what is called ‘highly socially tolerant’.  That is to say that they put as much, or more importance on friendship, or other such  social bonds, than on dominance or kinship in their social life (5).  It rather goes against the stereotypical idea of nature red in tooth and claw, where all that matters is size or dominance.  Friendships matter!  They certainly seemed to me to be very tolerant, which is such a shame given that they are killed and eaten by humans.  It we cannot share the planet with these beautiful and tolerant creatures, then I do not think that we (us humans) deserve to be here.

Crested-black macaque peering through the leaves in Tangkoko NP, Sulawesi
Crested-black macaque peering through the leaves in Tangkoko NP, Sulawesi

There is a lot of interesting information about the ongoing conservation efforts for this species on the Whitely Wildlife Conservation Trust Website (6); and they have a blog on WordPress (7).  Amazingly, the Sulawesi crested black macaque is one of seven macaque species found only on Sulawesi; can’t wait to meet the other species!

 Juvenile crested black macaque

Juvenile crested black macaque

1) IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Maca nigra.  http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/12556/0

2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3vFHXM-KvA

3) Audrey Paulus  (2009). Impacts of Ecotourism on the Behaviour of Sulawesi Crested Black Macaques (Macaca nigra) and Spectral Tarsiers (Tarsius spectrum) in the Tangkoko-Batuangus Nature Reserve, North Sulawesi, Indonesia. http://www.wwct.org.uk/userfiles/pagefiles/conservation-research/sulawesi/macaques/Research%20report%202009%20-%20impacts%20of%20tourism.pdf

4)  Thomson, J. A., et al. “The Sulawesi Crested Black Macaque (Macaca nigra) menstrual cycle: changes in perineal tumescence and serum estradiol, progesterone, follicle-stimulating hormone, and luteinizing hormone levels.”Biology of reproduction 46.5 (1992): 879-884.

5)  Micheletta, Jérôme, et al. “Social bonds affect anti-predator behaviour in a tolerant species of macaque, Macaca nigra.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 279.1744 (2012): 4042-4050.

6) Selamatkan Yaki – Save the Sulawesi crested black macaque.  http://www.wwct.org.uk/conservation-research/sulawesi/macaques

7) http://selamatkanyaki.com/

Blues on the heath!

Small blue butterfly (Lycaenidae)
Small blue butterfly (Lycaenidae)

The hills and mountains of of Galicia in north-west Spain are covered in heather and gorse which flower from late summer into autumn.  The heather and gorse are alive with insects (and spiders!) including an array of small blues.  When I visited Galicia in early October, the heather was still flowering and butterflies were still flying.  Despite being late in the year, there were still lots of small blues (Lycaenidae) flying around in the sunshine, including the Long-tailed blue (Lampides boeticus), seen below.

Long-tailed blue (Lampides boeticus) male on heather
Long-tailed blue (Lampides boeticus) male on heather

Surprisingly enough,  the Long-tailed blue (Lampides boeticus)  is one of the most widely distributed species of butterfly in the world, since in occurs on four continents and ranges across most of the so-called Old World (1).  It has even been found in southern England on rare occasions!  It is also called the Pea Blue. 

 

Long-tailed blue (Lampides boeticus) male
Long-tailed blue (Lampides boeticus) male

The males have the attractive violet-blue wings, whilst the females are a more brownish colour (but equally attractive!).  These butterflies are very stong fliers, which accounts for the very wide distribution of this species, which even managed to colonise New Zealand in 1965.  It was however, considered to be a natural colonisation, so it did not get tarred with the brush of being an invasive species!  Just a very flighty one.

https://rcannon992.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/long-tailed-blue-upperside-male-2.jpg
https://rcannon992.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/long-tailed-blue-upperside-male-2.jpg

Another little blue which was also very common up on the delightful heather and gorse-covered hills above Ortigueira in Galicia, was Lang’s Short-tailed blue (Leptotes pirithous).  Incidentally, it is hard to tell whether the so-called tails are short or long, as they get worn down, so these are not very useful names in my opinion!

 Lang's Short-tailed ble (Leptotes pirithous)

Lang’s Short-tailed blue (Leptotes pirithous)

Leptotes pirithous is also a very widely distributed species, with a Pan-African distribution extends north into most Mediterranean countries (2).  It is another stongly migratory species and has recently spread to the Canary Islands (3).  One individual was even found in the UK in 1938!  Probably blown off course on their way to the Canary Islands!

Lang's Short-tailed blue (Leptotes pirithous) male
Lang’s Short-tailed blue (Leptotes pirithous) male

As with the Long-tailed blue, Lang’s Short-tailed blue also has males with purplish-blue wings (upperside) and females with bluish-brown wings (upperside).  This sexual dimorphism may be to do with mating or territorial displays.  The blue wings of lycaenid butterflies are highly reflective of ultra violet light, and the males may be using their wings to display to females or to let other males know that this is their patch!

Lang's Short-tailed blue (Leptotes pirithous) on heather
Lang’s Short-tailed blue (Leptotes pirithous) on heather

The ‘patches’ themselves were highly attractive the my human eye, and it is hard to think of a more aesthetically pleasing habitat than this, with small blue butterflies flitting about the pink and mauve bell heathers, and the yellow gorse flowers.

Heather and gorse

It is amazing how long the heather flowers for, from August to October. A close look at the heather (see below) shows that some of the little flowers had died, but many others continue to bloom, thus providing the nectar-feeding bees and butterflies with a continual source of food.

Heather showing some of the tiny flowers in bloom and others having flowered and died.
Heather showing some flowers in bloom and others having died.

There were large numbers of bumblebees in the heather, but that will have to be the topic of a future blog (and some are very hard to photograph!).

1)   Lohman, David J., et al. “Phylogeography and genetic diversity of a widespread Old World butterfly, Lampides boeticus (Lepidoptera: Lycaenidae).” BMC evolutionary biology 8.1 (2008): 301. http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2148/8/301.

2) KUDRNA, O., HARPKE, A., LUX, K., PENNERSTORFER, J., SCHWEIGER, O., SETTELE, J. & WIEMERS, M., 2011.– Distribution Atlas of Butterflies in Europe: 576 pp.

3)  Wiemers, M., B. Acosta-Fernández, and T. B. Larsen. “On the recent invasion of the Canary Islands by two butterfly species, with the first record of Leptotes pirithous (Linnaeus, 1767) from Gran Canaria, Spain (Lepidoptera: Lycaenidae).” SHILAP Revista de Lepidopterología 41.161 (2013): 95-104.

A comma, not a full stop!

 Comma (Polygonia c-album) male

Comma (Polygonia c-album) male

The Comma (Polygonia c-album) is a very distinctive butterfly with an interesting history in the UK.  It was very common and widespread in the early nineteenth century, but then its range contacted and it became rare, so that by the 1920’s it was hardly ever seen in Britain.  From the 1940’s however, numbers started to pick up and it increased its range northwards again, as far as Scotland (1).

There are two theories as to why this might have happened.  Firstly, there was a reduction in the cultivation of hops (H. lupulus), one of its main larval host plants, which might have caused the decline; but there was also a marked cooling at the end of the nineteenth century which also might have been a factor (1).  The fact that it started expanding again after the 1940’s, when temperatures started to rise, also reinforces this climate change explanation, but another factor has been a change of diet.  Apparently, it has shifted its preference for feeding on hops to other more widespread species, including Common nettle (Urtica dioica) and wych elm (Ulmus glabra).  The Comma seems to be quite an adaptable species; it is widely distributed throughout Europe, and specialises on different host plants in different places.  Its flexibility in terms of what it is able to feed on means that it is able to respond to the changing climate; an example of a generalist, which we will hopefully continue to enjoy seeing in the countryside as global warming brings increased temperatures and changes to the native plant communities, in the UK.

 Comma (Polygonia c-album) male

Comma (Polygonia c-album) male

I still haven’t been able to discover what the distinctive white coma is actually for!  The Comma appears very much like a dried leaf in profile, especially the darker autumn form, shown here, and researchers have found that it relies on remaining still and cryptic, when approached by predators such as birds (2).  In other words, it does not appear to use its white comma as a sort of flag to flash at and intimidate predators, or at least not in these experiments.  Both males and females have these prominent white commas on their underwings; perhaps they use them to communicate with each other?  Or perhaps they are a bit like epaulettes and no well-dressed comma would be seen with out them!

1) BRIGITTE BRASCHLER and JANE K. HILL (2007). Role of larval host plants in the climate-driven range expansion of the butterfly Polygonia c-album. Journal of Animal Ecology 76, 415–423. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2656.2007.01217.x/full

2) Adrian Vallin, Sven Jakobsson, Johan Lind, Christer Wiklund (2006).  Crypsis versus intimidation—anti-predation defence in three closely related butterflies Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 59(3), 455-459.