Searching for Butterflies in The Montes Universales
A Week in the Eastern Spanish Mountains of The Montes Universales
close to Valencia Searching for Late Season Butterflies
The holiday was organised by Greenwings Wildlife Holidays and was late in the summer to find specific butterfly species including Zapater's Ringlet which has a flight period beginning at the very end of July and the beginning of August.
The trip was designed to catch some of the other late butterfly species on the wing in this beautiful area of Spain.
We were met at the airport in Valencia by Dave and Jon, our tour leaders from Greenwings and headed off in two minibuses across some extremely dry and barren looking farmland to our destination of Albarracin in the mountains of the Montes Universales.
After having a long chat with Julian and Matt on the Greenwings stand at the Rutland Birdfair in 2018, Helen and I decided we would try one of their holidays and plumped for a butterfly trip to The Montes Universales in Eastern Spain not far from Valencia.
After meeting Dave and Jon at Valencia airport we were introduced to the other nine participants of the tour and after grabbing a quick drink and a bite to eat we headed off on the two hour drive to Albarracin, our base for six days in the mountains.
The landscape looked extremely barren during the journey until we hit the mountains where we drove along the River Guadalaviar with its lush green floodplain.
Dave and Jon halted the minibuses at a parking area beside the river where a Rambla (a dried up riverbed) joined the main river. Here we were introduced to some of the more common species of butterflies to be found in the area as many of them puddled in muddy water traps beside the river.
Species such as Cinquefoil and Sage Skippers were new species for me along with the massive numbers of large pale Spanish Chalkhill Blues and in comparison the dull brown Oberthur's Anomalous Blue butterflies.
After familiarising ourselves with these fairly common species, which were however new to me, we headed off to our base in the beautiful town of Albarracin.
Day 1 - Xavier's Rambla, Pozondon Road and The River Guadalaviar
After a good nights sleep and a coffee the group headed back to the parking spot beside the River Guadalaviar but this time we initially headed up Xavier's Rambla, a now dried up river bed, that when wet would have passed under the main road into the Guadalaviar. The habitat of the dried river gulley contained a surprising amount of flowers including Spanish Golden Thistles and Globe Thistles amongst others.
The main objective of this walk up the Rambla was to find the rare Southern Hermit which can only be found in Spain out of all the European countries.
Common species seen puddling the previous day were now warming themselves and feeding along the Rambla, including some of the Skippers.
The other numerous species I hadn't seen before, Spanish Chalkhill Blue and Oberthur's Anomalous Blue were also found feeding along the dry river bed.
As we searched the Rambla other new local species were found like Bath White and Southern Gatekeeper. The latter being another new species for me.
The search continued along the sides of the Rambla with many more species being found such as Clouded Yellow, Berger's Clouded Yellow, Grayling, Adonis Blue, Long-tailed Blue plus a few others. However, our target species was still eluding us. As the Rambla began to heat up most of the group were heading back towards the road whilst I was filming one of the beautiful Striped Graylings along the Rambla.
Suddenly Dave's whistle was heard, a sound that signified he'd found something of note. It turned out to be the first Southern Hermit for the group. Everyone crowded around the insect to get a better look at a new rarity and take photographs.
We all wandered back down the Rambla after getting our fill of the Southern Hermit and also watching a lone Spotted Fritillary. Back at the vehicles Helen found a Bishops Mitre Shieldbug and someone spotted a European Dwarf Mantis on the back of their minibus.
After a good cold drink of water we left the Rambla and headed off to our next spot, that was known as Pozondon Road, basically it headed from the River Guadalaviar towards the village of Pozondon. We actually stopped at a point where this minor road crossed Xavier's Rambla upstream a mile or so from our previous stopping point.
At the point where the road crossed over the Rambla there had been a small pool of water the previous year but on this occasion all was completely dry. However, we had a wander round the dried up stream bed along both sides of the road and found various interesting butterfly species found in this type of habitat.
The most interesting for me were Tree Grayling and Black Satyr which, although not rare species are normally found at the back end of summer and thus were new to me.
Some of the commoner attractive butterflies included Common Blue, Painted Lady, more Southern Hermits which was a real bonus, a Lang's Short-tailed Blue, an attractive Blue-spot Hairstreak and one or two Mallow Skippers.
After lunch we retired to the lush vegetation surrounding the banks of the Guadalaviar River where two interesting butterflies were found. By checking through the masses of Cinqufoil Skippers I managed to find a Rosy Grizzled Skipper and Dave's keen eye found an unusual blue which was identified as our first Mother of Pearl Blue.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon at a different spot downstream along the River Guadalaviar where there was a bridge over the river which lead to a site covered in hundreds of mud puddling butterflies.
As well as many species of butterflies including a mud puddling male Meleager's Blue other insects were found alongside the river including a Green-eyed Hooktail dragonfly.
There were masses of Spanish Chalkhill Blues with Cinquefoil and Sage Skippers, smaller numbers of Silver-spotted Skippers and even lesser numbers of Southern Marbled Skippers. A single Lang's Short-tailed Blue was also noted.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon watching the mud puddling butterflies before heading back to our base in Albarracin for a quick lemon beer in the town square before meeting up with the rest to go through the days sightings.
Day 2 - Noguera and Sierra Alta
Our second morning was spent along a small stream close to the village of Noguera where plenty of lush vegetation bicsected the dry hillsides. Our first walk was upstream from a steep gorge where the minibuses were parked in the shade.
Helen and I had a slow pleasant walk up the stream where we saw Tree Grayling, Rock Grayling, Silver-washed Fritillary and High Brown Fritillary. We also came across both Dusky and Oriental Meadow Brown although I struggled to differentiate between these two.
The second half of the morning was spent downstream from the gorge where the ground opened out a little and the stream crossed the main path. Here we discovered a blue Southern Skimmer Dragonfly and several Spanish Swallowtails coming to drink.
In the grasses beside the stream the group found two interesting butterfly species. The first was the endemic Azure Chalkhill Blue. This is a similar species to the Chalkhill Blue of which it was considered a sub species of in the past. However, this butterfly as its name suggests is much more azure in colour than the Chalkhill Blue and it has probably become a separate species due to its isolation in the uplands of the Montes Universales being surrounded by huge barren lowland plains.
The second butterfly of interest we found was an Iberian Sooty Copper which was given species status even more recently sometime around the end of 2018 or the beginning of 2019.
Other species found in the long grasses were our first Damon Blue of the holiday, a Small Copper and my only Spanish Gatekeeper which was unfortunately very tatty as it was at the very end of its flight period.
The afternoon was spent at one of the highest points of the region, Sierra Alta, a prominant peak just poking out of the forested slopes of the mountains with spectacular views of the surrounding landscape.
Up here hill topping Swallowtails were buffeted around by the wind whilst smaller butterflies like Purple-shot Coppers and Mountain Argus stayed close to the ground to avoid the strong winds. On the more rocky areas were numerous grasshoppers that matched the colours of the rocks. I later identified these as Nodulose Sand Grasshoppers.
In the late afternoon the group explored some open grassy areas in the woodland below the summit where there were many more Purple-shot Coppers, Sloe Hairstreaks plus Southern Brown Argus and Mountain Argus which were difficult to tell apart although the Mountain Argus has a more pointed apex to the forewings. The individual pictured below didn't appear to have this feature and was considered to be a Southern Brown Argus.
We didn't manage to find Zapater's Ringlet which was the reason we searched the wooded glades along the mountainside as this is the habitat that this butterfly prefers. We headed back to Albarracin saving this species for another day.
Day 3 - Moscardon and El Vallecillo
The morning excursion was to Moscardon, an open grassy area between the woodland and a set of livestock watering troughs close to the road for when the sun became hot in the middle of the day.
We began by walking into what I can only describe as a triangular meadow which ended where the woodland either side of it met at the end.
Initially we noticed hundreds of Great-banded Graylings with lower numbers of Rock Graylings and Graylings. Next to warm up in the early morning were good numbers of Azure Chalkhill Blues quickly followed by Spanish Heath and High Brown Fritillary.
Then came a species I'd only seen once before in the south of France, the False Grayling, of which there were many.
Another species new for the holiday was Esper's Marbled White that we found hunkered down in the grasses before the sun tempted it out to bask on some rocks.
Other species were found nectaring on Field Eryngo plants and included four Iberian Sooty Coppers, three males and a deformed crumpled female. Damon Blues, both males and females were also found nectaring on the spikey Eryngo plants.
After wandering the woodland meadow for a couple of hours we headed back towards the livestock troughs where Dave was blowing the whistle. On hearing it we speeded up, hoping he may have found Zapater's Ringlet.
Unfortunately no Zapater's Ringlet but Southern White Admiral, several fritillaries included an old female Twin-spot and the whistle blowing was for a male Nettle Tree Butterfly perched beside one of the water troughs.
Several of the group found Chalkhill Blues that were not of the Azure variety and were considered to be be a hybrid or possibly, in my opinion anyway, Provence Chalkhill Blue. They were less colourful than the Azure's but not as big and pale as Spanish Chalkhill Blue. Here's a couple of photos of a male and female.
We moved to an area known as El Vallecillo in the afternoon where Dave had previously seen Zapater's Ringlet. There was a large grassy boggy area close to where we parked up and a gravelled path which led through some pine woods with a few small open glades amongst the trees. Definitely my favourite site of the trip.
We initially walked through the boggy meadow checking out a muddy pool full of Honey Bees taking on water. There were a few butterflies here including common whites, Oberthur's Anomalous Blue, Damon Blue, Azure Chalkhill Blue, Red Underwing Skipper and our first and very worn Silver-studded Blue.
Iberian Marbled White and Lesser Marbled Fritillary were encountered around the edge of the boggy field.
After working the field and having lunch at the side of the track we wandered slowly down the track through the small sunlit glades amongst the trees. This was my idea of heaven, beautiful scenery, birdsong and wonderful butterflies with only a few grunts from passing lepidopterists.
Along the track on this occasion we encountered Blue-spot Hairstreak, Sloe Hairstreak, Silver-studded Blue, Common Blue, Idas Blue, Turquoise Blue, Mother of Pearl Blue, Purple-shot Copper, various Skippers and the occasional fritillary.
At the end of the afternoon Dave managed to find a Panoptes Blue which everyone managed to photograph.
Day 4 - Huelamo, Tragacete, Nacimiento del Rio Jucar and Puerto de Castillo
Our fourth day out in the field began on a barren hillside amongst some beautiful scenery near Huelamo searching for a butterfly normally found in Eastern Europe. The Sandy Grizzled Skipper.
Unfortunately the Sandy Grizzled Skipper was the only butterfly to evade us during the holiday even following extensive searching of the area. Cinquefoil and Rosy Grizzled were the only skippers noted.
Even though we missed the target species there were some beautiful Dusky Heaths and False Graylings flying around.
The next site was a roadside stop near the village of Tragacete following instructions from a Dutch lepidopterist who had given Dave details of an area where he'd seen Zapater's Ringlet in previous years.
We didn't find any new butterfly species here but numbers of Azure Chalkhill Blues were high with Rock Grayling, Great Banded Grayling, Small Skipper and Oriental Meadow Brown frequenting the roadside and woodland glades. A hoverfly Volucella splendens and an Iberian Wall Lizard were also encountered.
Not a sign of Zapater's Ringlet so we headed to our next site El Nacimiento del Rio Jucar which translates to the source of the River Jucar. We ate our lunch by the beginning of a stream then headed down the road to park in the shade.
Here I found my first Niobe Fritillary and Cardinals wafting around on thistles growing along the stream. Along a gravelly stretch of the stream that crossed the path we found Mother of Pearl Blue, Azure Chalkhill Blue, Adonis Blue and what I think was a hybrid between the latter two.
Other species included Dusky Heath, Clouded Yellow, Safflower Skipper, Sage Skipper, Cinquefoil Skipper and my only Apollo of the trip which was a fly by along a nearby ridge.
As we were wandering along the stream the sound of Dave's whistle could be heard and this time he'd managed to find a Zapater's Ringlet in the trees along the stream just beyond where we were all walking. The butterfly posed nicely on the ground with its wings closed until it was blown away by a very strong gust of wind and was lost to view.
The final site of the day was a high point called Puerto de Castillo for which Ken had some information about Spanish Argus. The site was where a road passed over the mountains where a radio mast of some sort was positioned.
We began to search the dry grassy hillside and initially found what looked like our target species but on closer inspection was identified as a female Azure Chalkhill Blue. We discovered a mating pair a few minutes later.
Some other common species were found along the hillside including Small Tortoiseshell and Comma.
A slightly smaller brown butterfly was then found by myself and Helen amongst the grasses with bold spotting on its underside, a dark spot in the middle of the upper forewing and some orange lunules on the back of the hindwing. Definitely a Spanish Argus.
We took a look over the other side of the road where Dave had found more of this species feeding on its larval food plant the Storksbill which covered the barren rocky area along a high ridge.
So ended another interesting day searching for butterflies in the Montes Universales.
Day 5 - El Vallecillo and Los Ojos del Cabriel
The morning of our last full day was spent at my favourite site, the meadows and woodland walk of El Vallecillo. I wish we could have spent the whole day wandering along the path through the woodland and beside the little meadows, especially as we managed to find four or five Zapater's Ringlets here. They were all found at the bottom of rocky slopes and areas of scree up which they soon disappeared when disturbed.
We wandered through the grassy meadows where Damon Blues and Gatekeepers were abundant.
After filming a Zapater's Ringlet in the grass below a small rocky outcrop we wandered along the path through the woods and meadows where many butterflies were busy looking for plants on which to nectar. Here we found hundreds of Blue-winged Grasshoppers plus new trip species such as Wood White, Knapweed Fritillary, Large Blue and Large Grizzled Skipper.
There were the usual hairstreaks and blues along the path including the oddly tiny Common Blues. There seemed to be good numbers of skippers around including some freshly emerged Lulworth Skippers.
After finding a lone zapater's Ringlet at the side of the path as it disappeared up the wooded slope we headed back for lunch and a trip to the Ojos del Cabriel.
This was a difficult walk down to a lovely spot on the river. It was a big surprise for the two naked ladies sunbathing beside the river when 12 camera toting blokes turned up. They soon put their clothes back on.
Here we managed to find a Holly Blue mud puddling with Cinquefoil Skippers and Koenraad found a Jersey Tiger moth on the walk down. I found a single specimen of our target species the Spanish Purple Hairstreak sitting in a tree above the water.
We ended the last full day out, searching the hillside above the valley where several Black Satyrs were found being blown around by the strong breezes on the hillside. We headed back to Albarracin for beers in the square followed by a good meal with a few glasses of wine to celebrate a great holiday.
Leaving Day - Albarracin and Xavier's Rambla
After breakfast we packed our belongings into our suitcases and headed for the minibuses. Prior to this Helen had taken a walk around the town to take some photos.
As we had some spare time before leaving for the airport in Valencia we spent the morning at Xavier's Rambla to catch up with the species we'd seen at the beginning of the holiday including the plants and other insects.
It was good to catch up with the Marbled Skippers and their relatives feeding on the many flowers along the Rambla. Graylings and Hermits were also seen including the rare Southern Hermit.
There were plenty of the large Spanish Chalkhill Blues along with a few Long-tailed and Adonis Blues.
Our old favourites like the Spanish Chalkhill Blue and Oberthur's Anomalous Blue were again found in good numbers along the dry river valley.
There were huge numbers of Striped Graylings which were possibly my favourite butterfly of the holiday and amongst the bushes Southern Gatekeepers warmed up before heading off to find flowers.
Other species included some Tree Graylings that were posing nicely beside the path and of course we can't forget the main reason why we visited Xavier's Rambla, the Southern Hermit which was again zooming around the stones of the dry river bed occasionally settling on the ground for us.
Before leaving we sat beside the River Guadalaviar to eat our last packed lunch. I sat beside a Striped Grayling on a rock overhanging the river before packing my camera away and jumping on board Dave's minibus to head back to Valencia airport and home.
To see a complete trip list of the 100 species we saw personally please click here
If you're interested in seeing these butterflies on film I've made a DVD of the trip to the Montes Universales. A trailer for this hour long DVD can be seen below with instuctions on how to purchase a copy if you so desire.
The DVD production was filmed in broadcast quality digital format using a Canon XL-H1 High Definition video camera. The footage has been captured onto DVD and shows approximately 1 hour of high quality uncompressed digital video with complete menu accessed using your DVD players remote. The disc includes a full narrative which is not included on this trailer. The film can be purchased using PayPal with an account or credit card see below
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