Thursday, 21 June 2012

The Improbable Ladies Slipper Orchid

The amazing Ladies Slipper Orchid Cypripedum calceolus is in bloom (Usually the first half of June but later this year due to a cold snap in May) in the Tena Valley near Sallent de Gallego.   This site, one of three in the Pyrenees,was first discovered in the 1980´s by a french school teacher who glimpsed them from a bus while on a school trip!

On our nature trips in June we always go for a look at this super rare and flamboyant orchid. 

All that show is designed for pollination.   Bees  of the Andrena family are attracted to the flower.  They perch on the edge of the the big yellow sac and slip into it.  Once inside they can´t exit the way they have arrived as the inside of the sac is slippery and has an overhang preventing exit.  However the flower has a translucent ´window´ which the bee heads for, climbing up some hairs and into a narrow tunnel where it picks up and/or deposits pollen on the orchid´s pollen sacs. Then the bee squeezes out of the tunnel and flies away.  A complex process!  For a great explanation of how Ladies Slipper pollination happens see the excellent blog 

The Ladies Slipper also replicates itself vegetatively and at Sallent there are many plants over quite a large area.  It takes about 9 years from when the plant first emerges to when it first flowers.  The orchid lives about 30 years though they can live much longer.  There is an example in Estonia that is over 190 years old.

The site is guarded during flowering season.  In the valley are found many more orchids and higher up towards the Portalet pass the alpine flowers are magnificent and easy to see near the road.  The geology of the area - metamorhic transition zone between limestone and granite favours a big diversity of flower species.  There are some great hiking routes in the valley once you get away from the ugly Formigal ski resort.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Marmots in the Pyrenees

Marmot, Hecho Valley
Last week out walking with a group I was lucky to get close enough to a Marmot for a decent photo.  We see them very often but usually in the Pyrenees they are very wary and shoot down their burrow at any sign of danger.  This is unlike some places in the Alps where they are practically tame.

Marmota marmota - The Alpine marmot, is Europe´s biggest rodent and was present in the Pyrenees until about 10,000 years ago when the end of the ice age and temperature increases wiped them out.  This could also have been exacerbated by hunting by an increasing human population which moved in as the glaciers retreated.  Marmots were re-introduced on the French side of the Pyrenees from 1955 as a way of increasing prey for Golden eagles.  Since then they have spread over both sides of the range and, year by year, you can observe new colonies being established.  For more info on the spread of Marmots in the Spanish Pyrenees see:   .

The animals live in family groups with the young staying for two or three years after birth before moving away.  Their ideal habitat is mountain pasture at between 1400 and 2900 metres usually with rocks under which they dig their burrows and hide from predators.   They eat grasses and herbs and, during the winter, hibernate and reproduce in their burrows, occasionally emerging - sometimes in winter when we are out ski touring or snow shoeing we see tracks around their burrows.

Marmots are an important prey of Golden eagles and foxes and when a group of Marmots is grazing there is always one animal on guard duty - usually standing on top of a rock - looking out for danger.  At the first sign of danger it will give a high pitched call to warn the family.  The greater, or more imminent the danger, the louder and more intense the calls.

The Greek historian Herodotus (circa 484 - 425 B.C)  told of gold digging ants in the Himalayas.  This ´legend´ could have been based on fact. On the India Pakistan border the closely related Himalayan Marmot´s burrow digging reveals dark soil sometimes containing gold dust.  Local tribal peoples apparently still collect the gold.  See an article on this at :

On a more sinister note the Marmot could have been (and still be) the primary carrier of Bubonic plague which killed over 25% of the Eurasian population in the 14th Century.  They, like other rodents, carry the Yersinia bacteria responsible for the plague which is transmitted to humans and other mammals by flea bites.  Bubonic plague was spread by Bobak Marmots in Siberia in 1910.  Marmot pelts were in high demand and hunters caught and spread the disease which killed 60,000 people in Siberia and Manchuria.  See:

In 2010 a chinese man died of the plague after eating an infected marmot. see:

Probably best not to eat Marmot!

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Timeless Jobs - De Vecinal

Every year people who use the village irrigation system get together de vecinal (communal job) to clean the ditches before water is channeled into them. In teams of two or three, one person cuts the grass, brambles etc and one or two others rake up and remove the debris so it doesn´t block the channels. Gravel and sand is also shovelled away so it doesn´t cause an obstruction.

In the ditch
We have to construct a small dam to channel water into the acequia (irrigation channel) - If only we could have a permanent structure! Unfortunately the river authority isn´t keen to let us. One day...
A hot discussion topic on the job is always the people who use the irrigation but won´t pay/work their quota for upkeep of the system.
Today it was hot sweaty and dusty, but it´s fun to be out with the ´old boys´. - At nearly 50 I´m the youngest!
Now at last I can irrigate my veg garden rather than water by hand. watch this space...........

Checking the ´´dam´´


Friday, 15 June 2012

Green Lizard Hecho Valley

Green Lizard
I´ve just finished guiding a nature photography trip for Naturetrek here in the Pyrenees.  We found   this beautiful European Green lizard (Lacerta viridis) - the second largest of the Iberian lizards after 
the Ocellated Lizard found at slightly lower altitudes.  This one was seen at 1100 metres.  As the sun hadn´t been up for long it was still sluggish and allowed me to get close enough for a decent photo.

Ocellated Lizard.  Photo by Josemi
For more pics and info see my colleague, photography teacher, Sergio Padura´s page at: and Naturetrek´s page at:

On this tour we stay at the wonderful Casa Sarasa in Berdun.  See:

Magical Places in the Foothills #1

On a walking trip recently in the Foothills we descended a rocky gully into a river gorge and came  
  upon this cave cut into the cliff by the river.  An amazing spot - blue green water reflecting             
  patterns   onto the honey coloured rocks.  Above us Griffon vultures soared and Nightingales            sang in the  undergrowth.  A magical moment in a wonderful week.

20,000 years ago these Foothill canyons were inhabited by early man who hunted deer and horses and found refuge in the many cave shelters around.  You can still see paintings in some of them.   More info on our tailor made trips at

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Good Year for the Poppies - apologies to Elvis Costello

Poppies Berdún.  Bisaurin (2670 metres) in the backround
This Spring there have been more poppies in the Barley fields than for years.  Farmers sprayed to control them.  This year with costs going through the roof - fuel, herbicides, fertilisers (any fossil fuel based product) they have chosen to save money and not spray against poppies - I imagine the tiny seeds don´t seriously contaminate the grain which around here mostly goes for animal feed and brewing.
Anyway, the economic recession -25% unemployed and counting here in Spain- may have some positive environmental benefits!
Good to return to the blog again!