A decumbent toadflax and its weevil

Prostrate toadflax (Linaria supina subsp. maritima), Galicia, Spain
Prostrate toadflax (Linaria supina subsp. maritima), Galicia, Spain

This beautiful little flower is found along the coastline of northern Spain. It is often associated with dune systems (1) but also occurs on headlands, rocky areas and outcrops. These photographs were taken in late April at Punta de Estaca de Bares (Cape Bares), which is the northernmost point of the Iberian Peninsula.

Prostrate Toadflax (Linaria supina subsp. maritima)
Prostrate Toadflax (Linaria supina subsp. maritima)

The Prostrate linaria, Linaria supina subsp. maritima also known as Linaria maritima is a common and abundant plant along the coasts of northern Spain and looks very attractive, nestling on the ground amongst the sea pink flowers (below).

Prostrate Toadflax (Linaria supina subsp. martima) and sea pinks
Prostrate Toadflax (Linaria supina subsp. martima) and sea pinks

This lovely species, which is related to common toadflax, has a very characteristic feature which distinguishes it from the latter: a decumbent posture! Decumbent means trailing along the ground (i.e. procumbent) but with the apex of the shoot turning upwards! Prostrate is another word for the same appearance. It looks to me like someone lying on their side with their elbow on the ground!

Prostrate Toadflax (Linaria supina subsp. maritima) in decumbent mode
Prostrate Toadflax (Linaria supina subsp. maritima) in decumbent mode

As is often the case when you take a picture of a flower, and then look at the image more closely on the computer screen, an insect appears that you failed to notice in the field! In this case is was a small, grey, weevil-like beetle, head down in one of the linaria flowers. After a little Googling, I came to the conclusion that is must be Rhinusa antirrhini, the Toadflax seed-feeding weevil. After all, what else would it be doing there?! 

Rhinusa antirrhini on Linaria maritima

Rhinusa antirrhini on Linaria maritima

Rhinusa antirrhini (Curculionidae), is ‘a species of weevil broadly distributed across Europe that both feeds on, and oviposits and develops within, species of the plant genus Linaria’ (2). It turns out that some Linaria species are invasive plants in the USA and Canada, and this little beetle is being pressed into service as a biological control agent (3).

Some of the clumps of flowers were only just opening in late April, and had a very striking appearance, bunched-up, green and rubber-like before they became the yellow flowers (below).

Prostrate Toadflax (Linaria supina subsp. maritima) partially opened in late April
Prostrate Toadflax (Linaria supina subsp. maritima) partially opened in late April

1. http://www.asturnatura.com/especie/linaria-supina-subsp-maritima.html

2. HERNÁNDEZ‐VERA, G. E. R. A. R. D. O., et al. “Host‐associated genetic differentiation in a seed parasitic weevil Rhinusa antirrhini (Coleoptera: Curculionidae) revealed by mitochondrial and nuclear sequence data.”Molecular Ecology 19.11 (2010): 2286-2300.

3. https://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hra/plants/downloads/FieldGuide_Rhinusa_antirrhini.pdf

Thyme broomrape

 Thyme broomrape (Orobanche alba) in NW Spain in late April

Thyme broomrape (Orobanche alba) in NW Spain in late April

Broomrapes are strange parasitic plants. I did a blog on these plants before which featured Ivy Broomrape (Orobanche hederae) and Red broomrape (Orobanche foetida) in Galicia, Spain (1). I came across another broomrape this year, which I think is Thyme Broomrape (Orobanche alba), a parasite of Wild Thyme (Thymus polytrichus) and other plants. Broomrapes are however, remarkably variable plants and their appearance changes quite a lot as they age. The flowers of thyme broomrape vary from purplish-red to white. The flowers of this one, which is freshly opened, are much more white on the inside. They seem to shoot up pretty quickly, and this one had opened up and flowered within a day. Since they are parasitic on the roots of other plants, the stimulus presumably comes from the host plant.

Thyme broomrape (Orobanche alba) in NW Spain in late April
Thyme broomrape (Orobanche alba) in NW Spain in late April

One diagnostic feature of this species is that the bracts on the main stem that are shorter than the length of the flowers. Another very noticeable feature is the glandular-hairy nature of the stems and flowers, which is particularly obvious in this close-up (cropped) photo (below). Each of the tiny hairs ends in a small globular gland. I wonder what the purpose of these glandular hairs are? The funny looking red balls are the stigma – the female part of the plant – although they look rather like tiny little testicles hanging down. Sorry but they do!

Thyme broomrape (Orobanche alba) with glandular hairs and bi-lobed red stigmas
Thyme broomrape (Orobanche alba) with glandular hairs and bi-lobed red stigmas

This species is quite scarce in the UK, so it is nice to see it in Spain. There are over 30 species of Orobanche in the Iberian peninsula (2), so plenty more to look out for.

1. https://rcannon992.com/2014/01/14/broomrapes-are-funny-plants/

2. Foley, Michaeli Y. “Orobanchaceae in the” flora iberica” área: new taxa, excluded-taxa, and typification.” Anales del Jardín Botánico de Madrid. Vol. 58. No. 2. Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2001.

Seaside flowers: the good, the bad and the invasive!

Arctotheca calendula flowers, Galicia, Spain.
Arctotheca calendula flowers, Galicia, Spain.

Arctotheca calendula is an attractive flowering aster known as cape weed, cape dandelion or cape marigold. It originates from South Africa where it widespread in coastal areas or on disturbed soil. It has however, spread right around the world, including around the Mediterranean. I came across it in northern Spain (Galicia), where all these pictures were taken.

In many of the countries where it has spread to, A. calendula is seen a Noxious Weed (USA) or an Invasive Alien Plant (1); primarily, because it can infest turf and pasture and also because it can compete with economically important crops. It seems to have taken a special liking to Australia, where it has become naturalised, and very large infestations covering acres of land can be seen in southern, central and eastern regions of Australia (3). It has to be said, that it is doing quite well in NW Spain as well (see below), although most people seem to like and admire this plant when they come across it on the coast in Galicia. Judging by the number of people who take pictures of it whilst it is blooming.

A field of Arctotheca calendula flowers growing near Cabo de Bares, Galicia, Spain.
A field of Arctotheca calendula flowers growing near Cabo de Bares, Galicia, Spain.

Despite being invasive, it is said not to compete well in natural – i.e. undisturbed ecosystems – or with native species, but when established, can have a moderate impact on native plant communities (2). I have however, seen it growing in grasslands, inland for the sea. Nevertheless, it is good at growing right at the margins of the beach, actually on the sand, where it does not seem to be competing with any other native plants, not even Marram grass. I came across this clump on Morouzos beach on the Ria Ortigueira.(https://rcannon992.com/2014/10/28/morouzos-beach-a-unique-and-fragile-dune-habitat/). It is present right along the north coast of Spain, from Galicia through Asturias and Cantabria and into the Basque Country (9).

Arctotheca calendula clump on the beach at Morouzos, Ria Ortigueira, Galicia.
Arctotheca calendula clump on the beach at Morouzos, Ria Ortigueira, Galicia.

Carpobrotus edulis is another South African invasive with a long list of bad habits; it forms impenetrable mats which shut out native species and cause a reduction in the number of plant species. It is commonly known as the Hottentot fig, Cape fig, ice plant or pigface, the latter sounding more like an insult rather than a plant name! Confusingly, it also hybridises with another succulent in the same genus, C. acinaciformis, forming patches of the hybrid (hybrid complex known as C. affine acinaciformis) containing flowers of mixed colours (8).

Carpobrotus edulis in Galicia (Cabo de Bares)_edited-1

This succulent perennial is now distributed all round the Mediterranean and up along the Atlantic coasts of Portugal, Spain, France and the British Isles. It is particularly well suited to the conditions found on sand dunes and on sea cliffs. In Spain, it is called uña de gato (cat’s claw) which is a bit confusing as there are other plants around the world with this name. I am calling the plants in these photographs Carpobrotus edulis but they might be the hybrid, C. affine acinaciformis (see 10). Such hybridisation, can of course increase the vigour, and hence the invasiveness of such species.

Carpobrotus edulis in Galicia (Punta de Estaca de Bares)
Carpobrotus edulis in Galicia (Punta de Estaca de Bares)

It is possible to remove this species by hand-pulling, but it would be an enormous under-taking which would have to be done on a regional basis to prevent re-invasion (10). Whilst it might be desirable, it is very hard to imagine that such a coordinated and costly undertaking would ever be carried out – particularly under present financial constraints – and given the fact that many people like these plants. It would involve a huge task of re-education of the public to the desirability of native flora over such mixed ecosystems. It would be nice to see more studies on the effects of this invasive on native species such as the sea pink, Armeria maritima (see photo below), or Bladder campion, Silene vulgaris (next photo down).

Carpobrotus edulis surrounding sea pinks in Galicia (Cabo de Bares)
Carpobrotus edulis surrounding sea pinks in Galicia (Cabo de Bares)

What’s going on here? Are the native species co-existing with the invasives, or are they being squeezed out before our eyes?

Carpobrotus edulis surrounding Silene vulgaris (Cabo de Bares)
Carpobrotus edulis surrounding Silene vulgaris (Cabo de Bares)

Despite being invasive, noxious and weedy (!) these plants are probably here to stay. There are simply too widespread and established to be eradicated. Additionally, they may have some benefits which have not been fully appreciated, despite their bad reputations! They are bright and colourful, and people certainly like them (unaware for the most part of their invasive natures). So, the questions we need to ask about these plants, is: are they all bad, or do they have some redeeming features?! The ‘costs’ of invasive organisms, plants and animals, are well documented, but the ‘benefits’ are less well understood. In areas where native species have been eliminated – i.e. are extinct – some invasive species have taken over the roles of the original natives. They have formed a ‘novel ecosystem’ (4). In many, if not most cases, it will not be possible to completely restore the original ecosystem – and we may not even wish to; we may prefer the new one! Or at least one that contains novel species but is under control (i.e. the native species remain). So, in cases such as this, where the stable door has been left wide open, so to speak, and the invasive species are highly established, we are probably going to have to work to manage and stabilise these novel ecosystems (6). Many people, growing up with ‘invasives’, will probably not even know what the original habitat looked like, and would arguably miss their invasive species if they all disappeared, be they cape marigolds, cape figs or grey squirrels! It’s a complex world. We have altered these ecosystems for better or worse, and we now need to make some difficult choices. Go all out to eradicate the invasive species – a massive and costly undertaking – or try to manage them and minimise their impact on the native species we love as well.

1. http://www.eppo.int/INVASIVE_PLANTS/iap_list/Arctotheca_calendula.htm

2. https://florabase.dpaw.wa.gov.au/browse/profile/7838

3. http://keyserver.lucidcentral.org/weeds/data/03030800-0b07-490a-8d04-0605030c0f01/media/Html/Arctotheca_calendula.htm

4. Hobbs, Richard J., Eric Higgs, and James A. Harris. “Novel ecosystems: implications for conservation and restoration.” Trends in ecology & evolution24.11 (2009): 599-605.

6. https://www.conservationgateway.org/News/Pages/you-can%E2%80%99t-evolve-if-you%E2%80%99r.aspx

7.  http://issg.org/database/species/impact_info.asp?si=1010&fr=1&sts=&lang=EN

8. http://www.europe-aliens.org/pdf/Carpobrotus_edulis.pdf

9. Campos, Juan Antonio, et al. “The role of alien plants in the natural coastal vegetation in central-northern Spain.” Biodiversity & Conservation 13.12 (2004): 2275-2293.

10. Andreu, Jara, et al. “Vegetation response after removal of the invasive Carpobrotus hybrid complex in Andalucía, Spain.” Ecological Restoration 28.4 (2010): 440-448.

 

Tamarisk: the manna tree

Tamarisk shrub flowering in late April in Galicia, Spain.
Tamarisk shrub flowering in late April in Galicia, Spain.

The French Tamarisk (Tamarix gallica) is a deciduous shrub, or small tree, which originates from Saudi Arabia and the Sinai Peninsula and is now very common around the Mediterranean region and beyond. It is wind and salt tolerant and frequently occurs in coastal areas, near the sea. It is easy to miss, or ignore, until it bursts into flower in the Spring. I came across this one – flowering in late April – on the Ria Ortigueira, in Galicia, Spain.

Tamarisk (Tamarix gallica) in flower in late April in Galicia, Spain
Tamarisk (Tamarix gallica) in flower in late April in Galicia, Spain

The small white, pink and red coloured flowers occur in dense clusters (or panicles), with five of each: sepals, petals and stamens. Amazingly, each tiny flower contains 20 or more ovules, each of which is capable of developing into a seed (1). A  single mature plant can therefore produce hundreds of thousands of seeds in single season.

Tamarisk (Tamarix gallica) flowers in late April
Tamarisk (Tamarix gallica) flowers in late April

This tree was once quite common in the Sinai desert – not sure of its status now – and it is thought to be the origin of the term ‘manna from heaven’ in the bible (2). The tamarisk manna scaleTrabutina mannipara, produces large quantities of honeydew which solidify in a thick sugary exudate on the leaves. The book of Exodus 16:1-36, states that raw manna tasted like wafers that had been made with honey (2). There did not seem to be any manna on these trees in Spain, so perhaps the insect only occurs in the Sinai? The mealybug was still present there in 1988 (3); I guess both the tree and the insect have been there for millions of years.

This tree boasts a long list of medicinal properties. One researcher writes that ‘Tamarix gallica possesses both anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects comparable to that of non-steroidal drugs such as diclofenac and Aspirin respectively’ (4).  Extracts from the shoots of  Tamarix gallica were also found to have an anticancer effect on human colon cancer cells (5). Well let’s hope some Tamarix drugs appear on the market soon (assuming that it does not have any negative side effects!).

Although native to the Mediterranean region and Arabia, this plant is listed as an invasive species in South Africa and North America, where it is considered to be a noxious weed! It gets its bad reputation as a result of the fact that it crowds out other native riverside species, and because of its long tap-root, which can reduce water tables. This also makes it resistant to forest fires! Sounds like a born survivor to me! It no doubt adapted to harsh desert conditions – including putting up with the sap-sucking insects! – so perhaps it finds life fairly easy-going in other spots?!

The plant was cultivated and introduced to many places beyond its native range; it even occurs along the south coast of England, but I had never seen one in flower until I came across this one, looking pretty in pink (!), on the pathway from Santa Marta de Ortigueira to Morouzos Beach.

1. http://age-web.nmsu.edu/saltcedar/BiologyandEcology.htm

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manna

3. BEN‐DOV, Y. A. I. R. “Manna scale, Trabutina mannipara (Hemprich & Ehrenberg)(Homoptera: Coccoidea: Pseudococcidae)*.” Systematic entomology 13.4 (1988): 387-392.

4. Chaturvedi, S., S. Drabu, and M. Sharma. “ANTI-INFLAMMATORY AND ANALGESIC ACTIVITY OF TAMARIX GALLICA.” International Journal of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences 4 (2012).

4. Boulaaba, Mondher, et al. “Anticancer effect of Tamarix gallica extracts on human colon cancer cells involves Erk1/2 and p38 action on G2/M cell cycle arrest.” Cytotechnology 65.6 (2013): 927-936.

Riverside bugs in Beds

Great Ouse on 13 May 2015, near Felmersham, Beds
Great Ouse on 13 May 2015, near Felmersham, Beds

The Great Ouse flows north-east for about 140 miles through the counties of Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire, eventually flowing into the Wash near King’s Lynn. It flows in a meandering course around the village of Felmersham in Bedfordshire, where these photographs were taken (1). Walking along the river leading up the bridge at Felmersham, the banks looked particularly attractive in mid May with the trees all sporting their new outfits in various shades of green.

River bank of the Great Ouse, near Felmersham, Beds, on 13th May 2015.
River bank of the Great Ouse, near Felmersham, Beds, on 13th May 2015.

There was also a lot of insect life to be seen along the river bank. Mayflies were in abundance, and were flying even in the middle of the day. There were lots resting on foliage, having no doubt just hauled themselves out of the river. After one or two years as larvae, feeding in the mud at the bottom of the river, they have just a few short hours (24 hours max) to meet and find a mate, before they die. Don’t ask me how many fail to find a mate! It’s a cruel world and if there was a kindly God they would all find a mate and live happily ever after in their rocking chairs in Mayfly never-never land!

Mayfly (Ephemera vulgata) adult, R Ouse Beds
Mayfly (Ephemera vulgata) adulk, R Ouse Beds

The males dance in swarms above the water trying to attract females to fly into the swarm and mate. The males grab the females with their long front legs and the pair mate whilst in flight. The females then fly down to lay their eggs on the surface of the water, before falling onto the water, spent and motionless, food for fish (2). The males fly off to die on the land apparently. Anyway, for a brief moment, they get to dance in the sun and I love the way they fly up and float down, almost as if they were attached to a yo-yo! Difficult to photograph them doing this though.

Mayfly (Ephemera vulgata) imago R Ouse, Beds
Mayfly (Ephemera vulgata) imago R Ouse, Beds

The were also lots of damselflies along the banks of the Great Ouse, particularly the Banded demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens), with the showy males appearing very striking with their dark iridescent, blue-black spots. This species is sexually dimorphic – meaning the sexes look quite different – and the wings spots are a ‘sexual character’, a bit like antlers in male red deer. Wing spots vary in size, but it is thought that the females may choose to mate with males with large and showy wing spots (3). The males with large wing spots might do well with the females however, but it seems that they are also more prone get into fights with another damselfly species, the Beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo)! So they are very attractive to the lady damselflies, but their increased attractiveness means that they can’t hold onto a high quality territory, because they are so flashy they bring out the aggressiveness of the other species! (3). What do you want girls? A fancy man or a nice home? Sorry, I could not resist anthropomorphising! It’s called a trade-off.

Banded demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) female
Banded demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) female

As the great evolutionary biologist W D (Bill) Hamilton hypothesised, the intensity of colouration of features such as these wing spots (or feathers in birds) can be a true and reliable indication of male fitness. And it turns out that wing spot colouration is indeed ‘correlated with male disease resistance and immunological condition’ in this species (4), so the females are actually being quite canny in choosing the best males to mate with, based on these wing spots.

Banded demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) male
Banded demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) male

The spots are also highly visible and rather mesmerizing in flight and the males display in front of the females in an aerial dance. It’s Nature’s way of ensuring the best genes flow into the next generation, but it’s hard on those guys who can’t dance!

Banded demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) immature male
Banded demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) immature male

There has been an enormous amount of research carried out on this, and related species. Just drop Calopteryx splendens into Google Scholar and take a look!

1. http://www.felmersham.net/journal/river-ouse.htm

2. The mayfly’s lifecycle: a fascinating, fleeting story.  http://freshwaterblog.net/2011/05/16/the-mayflys-lifecycle-a-fascinating-fleeting-story/

3. Rantala, Markus J., et al. “Immunocompetence, developmental stability and wingspot size in the damselfly Calopteryx splendens L.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences 267.1460 (2000): 2453-2457.

4. Svensson, E. I., et al. “Molecular population divergence and sexual selection on morphology in the banded demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens).” Heredity 93.5 (2004): 423-433.

Oak leaves in Spring

New oak leaves
New oak leaves

Our native oak trees (Quercus robur, Q. petraea) support the largest number of insect species of any tree species in Britain (1). Oak leaves emerge pristine and tender, but (like most of us!) become tougher and less nutritious as they age! These lovely virgin leaves are gradually colonised by leaf feeders in a regular seasonal pattern: first come the leaf chewing insects such as caterpillars in the Spring, then the sucking insects such as aphids, followed by leaf mining species in the summer; finally galls form on the leaves in late summer and early autumn (2). It’s remarkable that the leaves manage to do their job of photosynthesising for the tree, with all the hundreds of insect and mite species which rely on them for food!

References to classic studies by the late Professor Dick Southwood and co-workers.

1. Kennedy, C. E. J., and T. R. E. Southwood. “The number of species of insects associated with British trees: a re-analysis.” The Journal of Animal Ecology(1984): 455-478.

2. Southwood, T. RICHARD E., et al. “Seasonality abundance, species richness and specificity of the phytophagous guild of insects on oak (Quercus) canopies.” European Journal of Entomology 101.1 (2004): 43-50.

Stonechats: complex or misunderstood?!

Common Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult male in early March in NW Spain (Galicia)
Common Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult breeding male in early March in NW Spain (Galicia) showing the ‘rich,burnt orange-brown feathering’ on the breast, which ‘on most individuals extends onto the belly and flanks (Ref. 9)

Stonechats are common birds which many people will recognise, but when you start to dig a little deeper, they turn out to be a maddeningly complicated bunch of races or subspecies which vary subtly with age, sex and region. The taxonomy also seems to vary from bird book to bird book!

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult male non-breeding plumage, in mid Oct in Galicia, Spain
Common Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult male in non-breeding plumage, in mid Oct in Galicia, Spain

I am not a very gifted bird watcher! I like birds which are willing to sit still in front of you for a while, whilst you try to work out what they are! Stonechats fit that bill, but then it turns out that there are different races, and you can get demoralised trying to identify them!

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult female in late April in Spain. Note the 'dark throat and white neck patches set off against a dull orange-toned breast' (Ref. 9)
Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult female in late April in Spain. Note the ‘white neck patches set off against a dull orange-toned breast’ (Ref. 9). The dark throat is turned away in this photo.

As I understand it, the rather similar looking Stonechat races were originally divided into three big species, an African Stonechat, a European Stonechat and an Asian (or Siberian) Stonechat (1). This system of three separate species still seems to be the one used by Wikipedia (2).

I am no expert, but this system appears to have broken down recently – or perhaps there remains disagreement? – as a result of all the different subspecies within these separate continental regions. So according to the influential publication, Handbook of the birds of the world Vol. 10, the bird we call the Stonechat or Common Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus), is now recognised as being a complex of 24 different subspecies (3). That’s quite a bundle, covering birds from Ireland to Japan, Finland to South Africa. According to (Collar, 2005), ‘all continental forms of [The Common Stonechat] are retained here as a single polytypic taxon’ (Collar, 2005). I.e. one big group. Surely, it will get split up in the future? Well be that as it may, there are usually only two or three types of interest to us here in Europe.

1) The Common Stonechat (subspecies S. torquatus hibernans) [also called S. rubicola hibernans by some authors (1) and just Saxicola torquatus by others (4)] which occurs in Ireland, parts of Great Britain and in Brittany and along the coast of Portugal (a sort of Atlantic marginal distribution; more on this later).

2) The Common or European or Continental Stonechat (subspecies S. torquatus rubicola) [also called S. rubicola rubicola (1) (4); or the European stonechat (Saxicola rubicola] on Wikipedia (5)] which occurs across Europe from Spain, France and Italy, westwards and down into Greece and Turkey as well as along the coast of NE Africa. A broad, mainly mainland distribution. All photographs here are of this subspecies (I think!).

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult female in late April in Spain. Note the 'dark throat and white neck patches set off against a dull orange-toned breast' (Ref. 9)
Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult female in late April in Spain. Note the ‘dark throat and white neck patches set off against a dull orange-toned breast’ (Ref. 9)

There is a so-called ‘Eastern Stonechat’ (4) which was called the Siberian Stonechat (S. maura) (1) but is now referred to as Saxicola torquatus maurus, which occurs on the eastern fringes of Europe, for example in E. Finland and N and E European Russia (3). There is another subspecies of so-called Siberian Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus prezewalskii) which many British birdwatchers will be familiar with seeing in S E Asia if they have birded out there (e.g. Thailand) during the winter season (6). Finally, there is a fourth subspecies (Saxicola torquatus variegatus) which occurs in the E Caucasus area E to lower R Ural and S to NW Iran; non-breeding in NE Africa (7).  There are some excellent photographs and videos of some of these subspecies on the Internet Bird Collection, which shows the locations of all the different photos (7).

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) breeding male with ring (Cabo de Bares, Galicia, NW Spain) early April
Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) breeding male with ring (Cabo de Bares, Galicia, NW Spain) early April

All of the photographs shown in this blog were taken in NW Spain, in the Province of Galicia. More specifically, they were taken on the northern coast of Galicia, along the Rias Altas, either at or near the town of Santa Marta de Ortigueira or at Bares (a prominent Cape nearby). This is important (at least to me!) as this is within the area supposedly occupied by S. t. rubicola, but very close to the coastal zone along the western Iberian seaboard reportedly occupied by S. rubicola hibernans! According to the recently published book, The Birds of the Iberian Peninsula (8), ‘the two races [i.e. subspecies] are poorly defined, intergrade and are not safely separable in the field’. Similarly, Urquhart & Bowley (2002) state that although the hibernans subspecies is marginally paler than rubicola, differentiating themwhere the two subspecies meet is virtually impossible in the field’. So, if expert birders cannot separate them, I am rather hesitant in claiming these images for one subspecies. That said, I will call them S. t. rubicola until such time as someone of authority and more experience of this tells me they are otherwise. It all leaves me wondering how anybody ever worked out their distributions and how reliable they actually are. I think I am going to have to work this out for myself!

 Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult male in early April in Galicia, Spain

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult male in early April in Galicia, Spain

Happy to say, Common Stonechats are a relatively common species, with an estimated 2,000,000-4,600,000 breeding pairs in Europe, equating to between 6,000,000-13,800,000 individuals (BirdLife International 2004). This may be an underestimate, as according to Eduardo de Juana & Ernest Garcia (2015) there may be as many as 7.7 million Common Stonechat individuals just in Spain (8). They certainly seem to be very abundant in Spain, popping up (literally) in a wide range of different habitats from the coasts to the mountains.

 Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult male sitting on a gorse bush in late April in Galicia, Spain

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult male sitting on a gorse bush in late April in Galicia, Spain

I like seeing Stonechats when I am out birding or taking photographs. I enjoy the way the breeding males appear on the tops of small trees and bushes, proclaiming their territories in squeaky song. I also like the way the ‘loyal’ females – anthropomorphising strongly here! – pop up nearby, often just below the males; a confident pair defending their patch.

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult female in early April, Galicia, Spain. Note dark throat which can darker as the spring progress according to Ref . 9.
Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult female with ring in early April, Galicia, Spain. Note dark throat which can darker as the spring progress according to Ref . 9.

So there is nothing else for it. I am just going to have to wander down the Iberian coast – from Galicia into Portugal – looking at Stonechats and seeing if I can see a transition from one form or subspecies to the other. Sounds like a good excuse for a jolly!

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult male on the ground in Galicia, Spain. Note broad white neck patch and white extending up the breast.
Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola rubicola) adult male on the ground in Galicia, Spain. Note broad white neck patch and white extending up the breast.

Rather late into writing this blog, I came across the excellent article in British Birds by Magnus Hellström and Mats Wærn (9). Although their focus is primarily on the Siberian Stonechat, there are lots of excellent photographs of S. t. rubicola of both sexes. There is also a very useful may map showing the 8 races which occur in Europe and Asia.

I also came across another interesting article by David and John Cooper, on WordPress this time (10), showing that the ‘Continental Stonechat’ – as they call S. t. rubicola – can also occurs along the south and east coasts of Britain. So the plot thickens, and perhaps there is much more of a mosaic pattern in the distribution of these different subspecies than the books suggest. Scope for more birding, especially along European coastlines.

Finally, a word on migration. Some Stonechats stay where they are for the winter (sedentary) whilst other migrate down to north Africa. Others move down from the mountains to spend the winter on the coast. My feeling, although I am not certain, is that these Common Stonechats in northern Spain do not migrate very far. There are always Common Stonechats near the coast all year round. Nevertheless, some Iberian Stonechats are not sedentary according to Eduardo de Juana & Ernest Garcia (8) and ‘may winter south of their natal areas’. Stonechats ringed in Spain have also been recovered in FDrance and Britain (8) but presumably these were ringed during their southern migration and did not fly northwards to winter! Birds are flexible and adaptable and such movements may vary from season to season.

In conclusion, I would say that what at first was rather difficult and confusing turns out to be interesting and exciting. I will never look at Stonechats again without doing a quick check to see whether they are the race or subspecies I was expecting to see. I will also go looking for Stonechats in some of the transitions zones to see whether I can spot any changes from one subspecies to another.

1. Urquhart, E., & Bowley, A. (2002): Stonechats. A Guide to the Genus Saxicola. Christopher Helm, London. ISBN 0-7136-6024-4

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saxicola

3. Collar, N. J. (2005). Family Turdidae (thrushes and chats). Pp. 514-807 in J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott & D. Christie, eds. Handbook of the birds of the world, 10. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions.

4. Collins Bird Guide 2nd Edition, Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström. Published 2010 by HarperCollins.

5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_stonechat

6. http://orientalbirdimages.org/search.php?Bird_ID=2539

7. http://ibc.lynxeds.com/species/common-stonechat-saxicola-torquatus

8. Eduardo de Juana & Ernest Garcia (2015).  The Birds of the Iberian Peninsula. Christopher Helm, London. ISBN Number: 978-1-40812-480-2

9. Magnus Hellström and Mats Wærn (2011). Field identification and ageing of Siberian. Stonechats in spring and summer. British Birds 104, 236-254. http://britishbirds.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/V104_N05_P236%E2%80%93254_A.pdf

10. Continental Stonechats. http://birdingfrontiers.com/2011/07/12/continental-stonechats/