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Butterflies of north-east Spain (Montes Universales & Pyrenees). 4-15 August 2021. (1 Viewer)

Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
Butterflies of north-east Spain (Montes Universales & Pyrenees). 4-15 August 2021.

Following on from a trip to the Italian Alps a couple of weeks earlier, a shift to the west - ten days in noeth-east Spain. Primarily focussing on the Montes Universales, a range of mountains located between Madrid and Valencia, I then added a day on the coast near Valencia and a short extension to the eastern Pyrenees. With the walled town of Albarracín at its heart, the Montes Universales rise to 1900 metres and are a mix of arid scrub at lower altitudes and juniper or pine forest at higher elevation. Hot and dry in summer, with temperatures touching 40 C, a relative abundance of greenery and flowers does nevertheless exist along river courses and streams. In these areas, butterflies are abundant and include quite a number of species endemic to the region or north-east Spain. The main targets on this trip were Zapater's Ringlet, Mother of Pearl Blue and Southern Hermit, though the ultimate goal was simply to enjoy the spectacle of butterflies in dramatic landscapes.

Having had a very productive first week, I then spontaneously decided to add extensions to the coast and the Pyrenees, the ideas here being to see African Grass Blue and Mediterranean Skipper on the coast and thereafter a selection of high mountain species.

4 August. Barcelona to Albarracin.

No direct flights to the closer airport in Valencia, so instead flew to Barcelona, approximately five hours distant from the Montes Universales.

Arrived mid-afternoon, picked up a rental car and immediately hit the road. With no chance of reaching butterfly areas near Albarracin before evening, I decided to make good use of the afternoon and made a fairly random stop in the low hills west of Barcelona - chosen spot was on the edge of the Parc Natural de la Muntanya de Montserrat. Exceptionally arid however - no flowers, nothing green and basically no butterflies. I found a grand total of only six butterflies - one Southern Brown Argus, two Common Blues and three Mallow Skippers!

Gave up pretty quickly and continued the drive across the equally dry plains of Aragon, not a single butterfly seen on the wing. Did see a Golden Eagle however, plus one Griffon Vulture, a couple of Marsh Harriers, a flock of Lesser Kestrels and a bunch of White Storks.

Arrived in Albarracin at 8.30 pm, calls of Bee-eaters over the hills, Black Redstarts around my accommodation.

Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
5 August. Noguera.

After the absolute lack of butterflies on the route across the plains the previous day, I was slightly apprehensive as to how many I would see on this day ...I needn't have been, the elevation and relative greenery of the Montes Universales resulted in miracles - a superb day it was to be. I mistimed sun up and arrived at Noguera, my destination for the day, far too early ...the deep barranco north of the village still in deep shadow. As it was 8.30 am and pretty warm, I decided to try instead a nearby hillside already bathed in sunshine. On a bramble hedge, the first butterfly of the day was a very faded Sloe Hairstreak, good start! This would also be the only Sloe Hairstreak of the trip! Moments later, more butterflies began to take to the wing, first several Small Whites and Gatekeepers, then a whole flood of species, tops being Azure Chalkhill Blues, Damon Blue, Oberthur's Anomalous Blue and Cinquefoil Skipper. Soon, among a good scattering of other species, plenty of Clouded Yellows, Iberian Marbled Whites and Silver-spotted Skippers.

Looking back towards Noguera, it seemed the barranco might now be in sunshine, so via a village bakery, there I headed. Essentially, from the village, the barranco opened out into a lush wet meadow fed by a small stream, then divided into two forks, one side leading through a lightly wooded area, the other more open but rich in streamside flowers. All areas were simply superb! Several Great Banded Graylings and Rock Graylings along the rocky path to kick things off, plus a number of Tree Graylings and a Black Satyr, then immediate success at the wet meadow with a couple of pristine Spanish Sooty Coppers - now split from Sooty Copper, the underwings are a warm orange, especially so in these very fresh individuals. Sharing the same broad patch of flowers, many more butterflies, including abundant Gatekeepers, lots of Silver-washed Fritillaries, a few Queen of Spain Fritillaries, three Lesser Marbled Fritillaries, both Long-tailed Blues and Lang’s Short-tailed Blues, many Southern Brown Arguses, several Silver-spotted Skippers and a couple of Cinquefoil Skippers. A little further up, another patch of damp meadow supported yet another Spanish Sooty Copper, plus a few Spanish Chestnut Heaths, a couple of Holly Blues and several Wood Whites, while nearby thistles added yet more fritillaries - same species as before, plus Provincial Fritillary, Dark Green Fritillary and quite a lot of High Brown Fritillaries. Really was beginning to buzz now - Iberian Scarce Swallowtails drifting up and down, Red Admirals and Painted Ladies, a Cleopatra among more frequent Brimstones.

Taking the left fork, butterflies were beginning to puddle aside a small trickle, mainly blues and skippers, also more Iberian Scarce Swallowtail and a couple of Striped Graylings. Very many Graylings and Rock Graylings here too, plus one False Grayling! And it was here that I found one of my main targets of the trip - a couple of exquisite Mother-of-Pearl Blues. Underwing very similar to Turquoise Blue, several of them also present, but cold grey-blue uppers making them distinctive ...even had one friendly enough to come and take salts from my hand. Lots more butterflies along this track, not least quite a few Azure Chalkhill Blues, several Spanish Chalkhill Blues, quite a few Common Blues, one False Ilex Hairstreak and more Southern Brown Arguses. After a very enjoyable couple of hours, I eventually decided to return to the fork, where yet more butterflies were now puddling - Silver-spotted Skippers numbering a dozen or so, assorted blues including another Mother-of-Pearl Blue, Turquoise Blue, a number of Azure Chalkhill Blues and an Oberthur's Anomalous Blue. Pretty hot now, I then decided to walk the more open right fork ...no tree cover and pretty dry away from the stream, but a glorious strip of flowering herbs along the water's edge. And on these flowers, many Iberain Scarce Swallowtails, numerous Gatekeepers and a good number of fritillaries, mostly Silver-washed and High Brown. Early afternoon I returned to my car on the outskirts of Noguera, one Comma just adjacent, plus three Large Whites and a Peacock in a weedy patch of cultivation.

Not too many kilometres away, Sierra Alta marks the highest point of the Montes Universales - here, at 1854 metres, the open rocky summit is supposed to be home to Mountain Brown Argus. Whether it was or not, I did not discover that day - due to my useless Spanish, I misunderstood a sign and thought it said 'no vehicle access without permission'. What I later realised it said was 'no collecting without permission'! Given it was 35C and the summit was a good three kilometre walk, I opted for laziness over Mountain Argus and departed instead.

To conclude the day, I made a couple of very nice stops midway back to Albarracin. Random sites where habitat looked good, I added some nice butterflies at both places - tops being Damon Blue, Ilex Hairstreak and Bluespot Hairstreak.

And so finished my first full day, a grand total of 56 species, happy enough with that.

Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
Still sorting photographs, but a few blues to start...

1. Oberthur's Anomolous Blue (centre)
2. Oberthur's Anomolous Blue
3. Common Blue
4. Long-tailed Blue
5. Azure Chalkhill Blue

Oberthurs Anomolous Blue sp 3.jpg

Oberthurs Anomolous Blue sp 1.jpg Common Blue sp 1.jpg Long-tailed Blue sp 1.jpg Azure Chalkhill Blue fem sp1.jpg


Registered User
Just love reading your travel blogs, but am in awe of your photography,
I have a very hard time getting any shots of blues or skippers, much less getting good shots suitable for identifying them.
Spain is a treasure house of natural beauty, so glad that you're helping it get better appreciated.

Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
A few more from Noguera:

Iberian Scarce Swallowtail
Southern Brown Argus
Cinquefoil Skipper
False Ilex Hairstreak

Iberian Scarce Swallowtail sp 1.jpg Iberian Scarce Swallowtail sp 2.jpg Southern Brown Argus sp 1.jpg Cinquefoil Skipper sp 3.jpg False Ilex Hairstreak sp 1.jpg
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Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
6 August. Albarracin.

Just to the north-east of Albarracin lie three barrancos (dry valleys) running north from the Guadalaviar Valley. Hot and arid, a relative profusion of flowers do nevertheless still grow along the course of the dried out streams. Under a bit of a baking sun, I explored two of the barrancos on this day and very productive they were - 45 species seen, impressive for such an arid locality.

Hardly surprising given the change of habitat, but also quite a different butterfly selection to the previous day - all absent or rare at Noguera, these hillsides were absolutely choc-a-bloc with hundreds of Spanish Chalkhill Blues, Southern Gatekeepers and Sage Skippers. The Spanish Chalkhill Blues in particular were a treat indeed - ghostly white, they very much appeared to be Pierids in flight, but upon settling were most co-operative, even taking salts from my hands. In both barrancos, also many Cinquefoil Skippers and Silver-spotted Skippers, plus dozens of Long-tailed Blues and a good number of Chapman’s Blues (and Common Blues). By contrast however, opposite to Noguera, almost no Gatekeepers, limited numbers of the big fritillaries and very few Azure Chalkhill Blues.

I spent most of the morning along the first barranco, this one broad, wide and lacking any form of shade. In the lower areas, along with the Spanish Chalkhill Blues and Southern Gatekeepers, and abundant Bath Whites, Clouded Yellows, Berger’s Clouded Yellows and Iberian Marbled Whites, I also encountered a few Queen of Spain Fritillaries, three Lesser Spotted Fritillaries and a nice bunch of graylings - Graylings, Rock Graylings, Tree Graylings and Great Banded Graylings all common, a couple of Striped Graylings and one False Grayling. Adding to this mix, lots of Dusky Meadow Browns, a single Meadow Brown, several Dusky Heaths and one Wall Brown. Also two Ilex Hairstreaks here and one Bluespot Hairstreak. I had hoped to find Southern Hermit somewhere here, but no sign. Occasional glances upwards however added Booted Eagle and Griffon Vultures, plus common birds of the dry Mediterranean such as Black-eared Wheatear, Rock Sparrow and Rock Bunting.

Later in the day, specifically in the heat of early afternoon, I shifted to the second barranco, about four kilometres further east. This was quite different in nature - pretty narrow and steep sided, very soon I was following the bed of a dry stream as it twisted through the valley. I initially thought this wouldn't be so good for butterflies, but not bad it turned out - not only plenty of Azure Chalkhill Blues and Sage Skippers again, but also several Iberian Scarce Swallowtails, about ten Cleopatras and my first Spanish Gatekeepers of the trip, rather battered individuals suggesting they were nearing the end of their flight season. Also a couple of standard Gatekeepers here, plus ever present Southern Gatekeepers - the full Spanish trio! A couple of kilometres along I happened across a couple of very small remnant pools in the stream bed. The largest pool barely 20 cm or so across, the damp edges nevertheless proved a magnet - butterflies galore, it was a puddling mix of a hundred or so Azure Chalkhill Blues, a couple of dozen Cinquefoil Skippers and plenty of Sage Skippers and Silver-spotted Skippers. In among, a Turquoise Blue, four Oberthur’s Anomalous Blues, several Lang’s Short-tailed Blues, a few Holly Blues and several Southern Brown Argus. No sign of Southern Hermit again, I had to presume their flight season was over.

By late afternoon, with the temperature sitting well over 35 C, butterflies became decidedly less active, many simply retreating to shade. I retraced my route without major addition, so then decided to try greener areas near the Guadalaviar River - wanders along the brambles and grassy meadows added a few new for the day, Wood White and Speckled Wood most notable.

Decided it had been a pretty good day, hadn't expected this most arid of areas to produce so many butterflies. Spent the evening in the walled town of Albarracin - very quaint indeed, well worth a visit.

Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
7 August. Moscardón, Ojos del Cabriel & El Vallecillo.

Day to search for Zapater's Ringlet, endemic to the Montes Universales and one of my main targets of the trip. Flies late in the season and, even here in the heart of its range, it is a localised species. I however had high hopes - not only was the timing of my trip just about perfect to coincide with the peak flight season, but I also had approximate localities of some sightings in earlier years. So it was, an early departure from Albarracin and a drive of about 25km to a valley just south of Moscardón, the habitat being a series of meadows bordered by coniferous forest rising up the slopes.

Arrived to find the sun had not yet penetrated the valley, so I started a little lower and was soon clocking up the first butterflies of the day - Gatekeepers, Cinquefoil Skippers and Dusky Heaths. Around 9.30 am, a rogue band of clouds suddenly appeared and I began to have some fears that my day might come to a crashing halt! Fortunately it never succeeded in knocking out the sun and the clouds had vanished by 10 am and I was then in the Moscardón valley surrounded by simply amazing numbers of butterflies. Truly was staggering - hundreds of Great Banded Graylings, Rock Graylings, Dusky Meadow Browns and Iberian Marbled Whites, oodles of Gatekeepers, loads of Cardinals and Silver-washed Fritillaries, literally thousands of Azure Chalkhill Blues. Just masses of butterflies everywhere! And in among them, soon the species tally began to rise - both Ilex Hairstreak and False Ilex Hairstreak, Long-tailed Blue and Lang’s Short-tailed Blue, a few Oberthur’s Anomalous Blues, a mix of Common Blues and Chapman’s Blues, three Spanish Chestnut Heaths and a bevy of additional graylings to stir the passions - 30 or so Graylings, three Tree Graylings, five Striped Graylings and six False Graylings. And then, perusing the abundant Iberian Marbled Whites, I found another of the targets of the day - Esper’s Marbled White, a slightly larger species with a diagnostic cross bar in the cell of the forewing. Found five in the end.

After an hour or so, despite immense numbers of butterflies along both the woodland edge and in the open meadows, there was a certain butterfly that was conspicuous by its absence ... Zapater's Ringlet! I had checked all the areas that seemed perfect, but had found not a single one. 'Hmmm', thought I, 'not very good'. For no particular reason, I then decided to follow the track back down the valley for a kilometre or so - still butterflies in abundance, including Damon Blue and Silver-spotted Skippers. A good move it turned out to be - on a steep grassy slope to the side of the track, I caught a brief glimpse of a fairly small dark butterfly that seemed to land in the grass. In the grass out of sight and on the wrong side of an electric fence! Well, I waited a while and nothing flew up, 'maybe I had imagined it' I thought to myself and prepared to continue walking. But it nagged me just enough to persuade me to check it out - I crawled under the electric fence, climbed the slope and stared down into the grass …one Zapater's Ringlet happily sunning itself!

And that particular slope seemed to be the bee’s knees for the species - soon I had at least six Zapater’s Ringlets floating around the slope, sunning on vegetation and generally being most showy. Success, the main target of the trip well and truly seen!

Plenty of Clouded Yellows and Berger’s Clouded Yellows here too, plus a Swallowtail. And if that were not enough, one more treat before leaving the Moscardón area - a little further up the slope, flying with several Lesser Marbled Fritillaries and Queen of Spain Fritillares, one very nice Twinspot Fritillary. Not renowned as a late season species, I had not expected this butterfly!

As it was still barely past midday, I then decided to continue to Ojos del Cabriel and El Vallecillo, a couple of localities an hour or so further south. Kilometres of hot dry pine forest followed, no shortage of Graylings, Great Banded Graylings and Rock Graylings, but little else. And turning to the rocky track to Ojos del Cabriel, I had doubts that it would be very different. Leaving the car, a couple of Swallowtails drifted by, plus a Wood White, but overall still not many butterflies in this rather parched landscape. Things however got considerably better when I reached the relative greenery of the Cabriel River a kilometre or so down - first several smart Southern White Admirals nectaring at streamside flowers, then a fantastic number of butterflies puddling at the river's edge: at least 30 Iberian Scarce Swallowtails at one spot, a mass gathering of hundreds of Azure Chalkhill Blues and at least 50 Cinquefoil Skippers at another. Quickly added a few more species, not least about 30 Turquoise Blues, several Holly Blues and Lang’s Short-tailed Blues, both Damon and Oberthur’s Anomalous Blues and several Silver-spotted Skipper. Highlight of this locality, I then bumped into a real classic - feeding on flowers hanging over a several metre high waterfall, two very nice Spanish Purple Hairstreaks, a new species for me! Had visions of plunging into the depths of the water photographing these, somehow avoided it. For good measure, one Ilex Hairstreak here too.

Then for the finale of the day, I drove a few kilometres more to El Vallecillo. Initial exploration one side of the village added little, but the other side of the village was simply fantastic. Here, arid agricultural terraces gave way to a fairly lush valley bottom, this choc-a-bloc with butterflies - again hundreds of Azure Chalkhill Blues and other assorted blues, including my first Silver-studded Blue of the trip, plus an abundance of big fritillaries (30 Cardinals most notable), my first Large Tortoiseshells and Grizzled Skippers of the trip and other notables such as Mallow Skipper, Bath White and Oriental Meadow Brown. More or less concluding the afternoon, a dripping irrigation pipe added one more spectacle - no new species, but a highly concentrated gathering of puddling butterflies with about 25 Iberian Scarce Swallowtails, up to 40 Clouded Yellows, dozens and dozens of Azure Chalkhill Blues, about 60 Cinquefoil Skippers and a whole host of other species in varying numbers, these including Wood Whites, mixed blues, Iberian Marbled Whites, Tree Graylings and Silver-spotted Skippers.

A very nice day it had been, 60 species of butterfly in all, spectacular numbers of many.

Adey Baker

Excellent report, Jos. 60 species in a day - compare that to what you might get with a considerable amount of travelling around and a lot of luck with the weather in a whole year here in the UK!

Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
8 August. Albarracin.

Barrancos east of Albarracin again, attempt number two on Southern Hermit. An excellent day all in all, but not a hint of a Southern Hermit, I guess I confirmed my earlier suspicion that their flight season had already concluded.

Pretty much similar butterflies to my visit a couple of days earlier - hundreds of Spanish Chalkhill Blues most prominent, along with dozens of Long-tailed Blues, Southern Brown Arguses et al, plus a nice scattering of added extras such as Oberthur’s Anomalous Blues and Turquoise Blues, both Bluespot and Ilex Hairstreak, 15 or so Striped Graylings, at least 40 Tree Graylings and all three gatekeepers (abundant Southern Gatekeepers, about 15 Gatekeepers and three Spanish Gatekeepers, the latter faded and near the end of flight season). Also of note, both Spotted and Lesser Spotted Fritillaries and five species of skipper - abundant Cinquefoil Skippers, reasonably common Sage Skippers, at least 20 Silver-spotted Skippers and singles of both Grizzled Skipper and Southern Marbled Skipper.

Dragging my eyes from the butterflies, a few typical Mediterranean birds this day too - Dartford Warblers, Black-eared Wheatears and Rock Sparrows on the hillsides, one Western Orphean Warbler too, plus Spotless Starlings in an adjacent settlement and both Booted Eagle and flocks of Bee-eaters overhead.

By mid-afternoon however, with the temperatures edging towards 40 C, bird and butterfly action was subsiding quite considerably, so I departed and drove the short distance to Torres de Albarracin, another quaint town and base for the next couple of nights. Other than the pretty amazing view from the window of my accommodation, the highlight here was a dead cow just outside the village. Or rather what was attracted to it - a sky full of Griffon Vultures, magnificent birds as they gathered, circled and eventually dropped down to begin their meal.
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Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
Excellent report, Jos. 60 species in a day - compare that to what you might get with a considerable amount of travelling around and a lot of luck with the weather in a whole year here in the UK!
My highest ever day total in Lithuania where I live is 58, but generally I only get one or two 50+ days a year in Lithuania.

This was a joy in Spain
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