Thursday, 14 February 2019

The Ecological Park Varzea in Quinta Do Conde in Portugal

A lot more to the town of Quinta Do Conde
Map of the Ecological Park (Photo: Steve Andrews)
If you were driving through on the main road through the town of Quinta do Conde in Portugal you might not think there was much to see there. You might think it was merely a typical Portuguese town with plenty of houses, apartment blocks, local businesses, a share of restaurants and bars, as well as shops, roads, and all the usual urban ingredients.  A pleasant enough place if you lived or worked there perhaps, but not a lot else there, and not much to see. However, you would be very wrong. If you are interested in nature, ecology and gardening, Quinta Do Conde has an amazing Ecological Park known as the Parque Ecológico da Várzea da Quinta do Conde. This park is actually right next to the main road, and just minutes from the busy local Continente and Pingo Doce supermarkets, but it is a real haven for wildlife, a wonderful place for relaxing, and it even has an allotment area where local people can grow fruit and vegetables.
Turtle Lake and White Storks
Lagoa Cagados (Photo: Steve Andrews)
The Ecological Park has a lake known as Lagoa Cagados, which means Turtle Lake in Portuguese and presumably refers to freshwater terrapins that can be found there. I didn’t see any any when I visited but I did see a number of frogs jumping into the water. They were Iberian Water Frogs, a species that is common here. There is a large area of swampy meadow where I have seen flocks of White Storks gather. They are easy to see from the main road and I have noticed them on my way to the shops. I expect these large birds are hunting frogs that are plentiful in the park. I saw more of these amphibians in a reedy pool but the creatures were too quick for me to get any photos.

According to an information plaque, Grey Herons also frequent the wetlands provided here. I am not surprised because there are many ponds, water canals and reed-beds. In one part there is a lookout point for birdwatchers.

Swampy Meadow Where Storks Gather (Photo: Steve Andrews)
Walking Areas
There is a system of paths and walking routes around the park, as well as areas with tables and benches where you could relax or enjoy a picnic. I was impressed with the number of small birds I saw and heard in the park, and also there were plenty of honeybees collecting nectar from the catkins of the Sallows, or “Pussy Willows” as I also know them.

Pussy Willow (Photo: Steve Andrews)
I noticed a lot of Fennel sprouting amongst the greenery, and this plant is eaten by the caterpillars of the Swallowtail Butterfly, which breeds in the park. I found a clump of Salad Burnet too, which is another edible herb.
Salad Burnet (Photo: Steve Andrews)
There are plenty of trees and woodland areas in the Ecological Park and many of the trees are labelled. I saw an Alder covered in catkins, and there are also Cork Oaks, Pines, and at least one Strawberry Tree. In one part of woodland I noticed a large pile of rocks. It had been fenced off and I wondered if this was intended as a place for reptiles and amphibians to shelter and hibernate in winter. It would make a great place for this. According to an information board I saw, the Viperine and Ladder Snake can be found there, as can Fire Salamanders and the Common Toad. I would not be at all surprised. It is simply a wonderful location for wildlife of most types.
Fish and amphibians (Photo: Steve Andrews)
The Allotments
Allotment (Photo: Steve Andrews)
Continuing my walk around the grounds of the Varzea Ecological Park of Quinta Do Conde, I had a look at the area given over to allotments. This area is very much for wildlife as well as people, and I noticed nest-boxes were in use to encourage nesting birds.
Nest-box (Photo: Steve Andrews)
Here in the allotment section, local gardeners grow cabbages, kale, onions, leeks and many other vegetables.
Vegetable Plot (Photo: Steve Andrews)
The plants all looked very green and healthy, and the plots of ground are watered with water from the ponds and water channels. These pools and areas of freshwater provide further areas for aquatic life, amphibians and water birds, and I could see thousands of the Mosquito Fish (Gambusia holbrooki) in one of the larger ponds. This is a fish I was used to seeing in Tenerife when I lived there some years ago. Mosquito Fish have become naturalised in many subtropical parts of the world where they were originally brought, as their name suggests, in an effort to control mosquitoes. These little fish are very adaptable and can tolerate high and low temperatures, polluted and brackish water.
Pond with water used in the allotments (Photo: Steve Andrews)
I saw a few dragonflies too and would think the park would have loads of these insects later in the year. I am lucky to have this park near to where I live so will be making many more visits and seeing what goes on there in spring and summer. I imagine the ponds will have a loud chorus of frogs and plenty of tadpoles will be swimming in the water. I love the sound of frogs croaking!
Iberian Water Frog (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Being a Butterfly

The Trials and Tribulations in the Life of a Butterfly

Speckled Wood (Photo: Pixabay)
You may think that a butterfly has an easy life because all it looks like it needs is some sunshine to fly around in and some flowers to feed from. Whilst these are requirements for the insect’s life it actually needs a lot more than that. I watch butterflies in the wild and often wonder about them. Do they manage to find mates? Will they survive the very bad weather?
The most important issue in a butterfly’s short life, which for many species is just a few weeks, is to find a mate. For a mated female, she then has to find the right plants to lay her many eggs on. Both of these seemingly simple needs can become very difficult in the world today. It doesn’t surprise me at all that very many species are experiencing a terrible decline in numbers.
Every day I walk to the local shops and my route takes me through some waste ground and woodland. I get some exercise by walking and I get to check out what is happening in the world of nature. Today I saw only one butterfly. It was a rather ragged Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) that was out and about despite the cold wind. At least it was dry and sunny. Now, this is a very common species still, and my butterfly book for Portugal tells me they can be seen all year round here, but nevertheless, it was the only one of its kind flying in the area I walked through. Imagine if this was a very rare species. What would its chances be like for finding another of its type, and one of the opposite sex?
Spanish Festoon
Last year I saw a Spanish Festoon (Zerynthia rumina). I had never seen one before, apart from in books. If it was a female and if it had already mated its job in life was to find some Birthwort (Aristolochia longa) to lay its eggs on. I have been here nearly four years, have a very good eye for spotting plants, and have not seen any examples of this plant, or any related species in the pipevine family that the butterfly can also use as a foodplant. This Butterfly Corner website about the species says: “Because of the rarity of larval food, the Spanish Festoon is not common.” This doesn’t surprise me at all, and is a very good example showing how dependent butterflies are on having the right plants available for their caterpillars.
3-winged Monarch (Photo: Steve Andrews)
When I lived in Tenerife, I remember seeing how strongly a female butterfly is driven to laying her eggs on the correct plants. My cat had caught a female Monarch (Danaus plexippus) but I was quick enough to rescue it. Only one big problem: it now only had three wings. Nevertheless, once it had recovered it flew away, only to return an hour later to the potted Tropical Milkweed I had now moved up onto the wall. The butterfly was laying her eggs and she came back every day for the next two weeks. She ignored the danger of my cat and she managed to fly despite losing a wing.
Mallow Skipper
Yes, finding the right plants and finding mates can be a real problem. I remember, last year, I saw a Mallow Skipper (Carcharodus alceae) in the garden. I know this is a fairly common species, although I had not seen one before, but what struck me was that we were in hot drought conditions, and any mallow plants had long shrivelled up in the heat. If this was a female butterfly where would she lay her eggs? Certainly not in the garden here or on local waste ground where mallow plants are common earlier in the year.
Red Admiral (Photo: Pixabay)
If you are a male Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), you are driven to look for a female of your species. I watched one last year that appeared to have set up territory in a patch of scrubland that borders on a small forest. Every sunny day I walked through this patch of ground I saw him. I guessed he was waiting patiently in the hope a female Red Admiral would fly into his territory. I am pretty certain it was the same butterfly because it was always in the same location, and there was always only one. Did he ever find a mate, or did he die a failed and lonely batchelor butterfly? I shall never know but it is something I have wondered about.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Living With A Feral Cat

Can a Feral Cat Become a Pet Cat?

Can a feral cat become a pet cat? Do feral cats ever adapt to a new life as a domesticated animal companion for a human? I had never asked these questions but am in the process of finding out. It all started about 18 months ago when a she-cat who was clearly feral turned up in the garden of the house I rent the ground floor of, and brought with her four kittens. This is why I ended up calling her “Mum!”

First of all she put the kittens behind some Physalis bushes and then moved them behind a large clump of Agapanthus in the front garden. One day she decided another move was needed and they all followed her to the back of the house, where she settled on putting them behind some large gas bottles in the barbecue area. This became their home for weeks from which they would venture forth, but if anything threatened, such as a human like me approached, they would all disappear behind the canisters under a large shelf built on to a back wall.
I already had two cats: Cuddly a neutered tom tuxedo cat that I had adopted when a girl living in a maisonette at the back started leaving him out when he was a kitten and because her puppy kept attacking him, and Bianca an abandoned grey tabby she-cat who turned up in heat with a gang of toms after her. I got her spayed with the help of the Bianca Animal Shelter, hence her name. To take on another five cats was out of the question, and illegal here. I told my landlord and he thought the kittens would end up “wandering away” when they were older. I was sure he was right but thought that that would be a recipe for future problems because they would end up fathering or giving birth to more unwanted kittens. It turned out there were two boys and two girl kittens.
By this time, I had started to feed Mum and as the kittens grew bigger I fed them too. They were all very wary of me and ran whenever I went out the back. Everyone I told about the situation said that I must get the kittens used to interacting with humans, or otherwise no one will want them. This was worrying. I began feeding them all on a table outside the kitchen window and after weeks, Mum let me touch her gently on the back and I could do this with the kittens.
She was a fantastic mother and it was a real delight watching her each day as she looked after them. As they got older they would all play chase and fighting games. They began going in the front garden and I got worried they would be in danger of cars in the road. Fortunately they all stayed safe, although one day, one of them went missing for many hours, which distressed the mother a lot, and she kept looking for him and calling out. He eventually turned up with his fur all wet and some dirt in it. To this day I have no idea where he had been but was relieved he was OK. I think maybe he went in a neighbour’s garden and had fallen in a pool or maybe someone had squirted him to drive him away. The road I live in is on the outskirts of a large town. There are very many detached houses and a similar road runs parallel behind it, and over the road from it is woodland and scrub.
The pure joy of watching the kittens grow was tempered by my very real worry about where they were going to go and could I get them friendly to humans in time. I posted lots of photos on my Facebook wall and there were loads of people saying how cute they were and how they would love to take one.
Unfortunately everyone who wanted a kitten lived in America or the UK. After daily efforts I made at playing with them, trying to pet them and touching their mother as much as she would let me, the kittens were losing their fear and I could pick two of them up with no trouble. But they couldn’t stay living here and were making attempts to come in. I had to do something and after problems with waiting for one person who failed to arrive and failed to rehome them, as she had promised, the kittens all ended up going to the Bianca shelter. I was really sad about them going but it really was impossible for me to keep them here.
Mum was upset for a day or so and kept calling out for them and wandering about looking for them but then she settled. By now she was coming inside on a regular basis. I knew I had to get her spayed and tried a local vet based with the Pet Planet store. I was told they had to do a physical examination before an appointment for the spaying could be arranged. With the help of a friend I took Mum to the clinic but she freaked out as soon as the vet got her out of the carrier. She jumped up on some high shelves, hid under benches and nearly knocked a PC monitor over when the vet and her assistant tried to catch her. After chasing her around eventually Mum was back in the carrier and the vet gave up on the examination. I thought this was very unprofessional, but could understand their point of view. I am sure they don’t get many customers bringing in feral animals for treatment.
Eventually I got help from Animais De Rua, a Portuguese animal welfare group, and it was explained to me that they would be taking her away for three days and that I would have to pay for petrol costs for Artur their driver. I agreed to this, and after a lot of difficulty catching her she was taken away and brought back days later. It had been decided that I was going to be keeping her in my bedroom for a week, and I had been told I was to try and ensure she didn’t jump about. This failed because the first thing Mum did after being let out of the carrying box was run up my curtains and leap onto a wardrobe. You can but try!
After her period of being confined to the house was through, she became a new member of the family here and went in and out just like Cuddly and Bianca. A new problem was about to begin though because Mum took a dislike to Bianca and attacked her on a daily basis. This really wasn’t fair because it had been Bianca’s home before Mum, and she was a smaller and gentler cat. Mum would run at her and scream or pounce on her. After several weeks it hadn’t got any better and one night Bianca went out early evening and never came back. Bianca had sometimes stayed out all night before but always came back for her breakfast but not this time. I know she was getting food elsewhere in the neighbourhood because on one occasion she had returned late and been sick. She vomited fish and I had not fed her this. Also before I had taken Bianca on she had been a stray. I was left wondering and am still wondering whether she had found a new home because she couldn’t stand any more attacks from Mum?
Cuddly and Mum squabbled a lot too but they were a fairer match being around the same size. Cuddly, at first was getting chased around, but then he turned and started to attack back.
The months have flown by since then and Mum has become a normal pet cat in many ways. She likes to play games with toys, she loves being petted, likes to curl up on my lap and sleeps in or on my bed. She is really affectionate and purrs loudly. BUT this is only when it comes to me. Other humans she remains scared of and will run away if anyone else comes here.  I have had to leave house-sitters to look after Mum and Cuddly on several occasions when I have had to go to the UK for a week or 10 days. Every time, I get told that Mum stays outside or out of the way when I am not here and does not let my house-sitter touch her. One managed to stroke her fur after a week of trying to make friends. Another friend of mine who helped me by looking after my place and cats, called Mum “the Wild Cat.” In keeping with this title, Mum is an excellent hunter and often catches geckos, lizards, Egyptian locusts, mice and sparrows. Many I rescue in time but others I am too late to save. She eats the birds and mice, though leaves the heads of birds. Cuddly is a hunter too and will sometimes try and steal what Mum has caught. As an animal lover I wish cats wouldn’t kill so many wildlife but I know it is instinctive behaviour. I think it would be cruel to stop my two going out because both had spent a lot of time outside before they came my way, Mum especially.
A lady I was talking to from Animais De Rua told me she had a she-cat that was formerly feral and that this cat didn’t like other humans too. I can only hope that one day Mum will accept other people, though I suppose it keeps her safe from anyone who might harm her, and sadly there are cruel people out there.
To conclude, I would say that in my experience a feral cat can become your friend and live like a normal domestic cat, but that there can be a lot of problems with them as well. Is it worth it? I would answer, yes!

Sunday, 13 January 2019

How A Council Estate Like Ely Can Be A Haven For Wildlife

Gardens in Ely

Small Tortoiseshells on Butterfly Bush (Photo: Pixabay)

The Ely council estate in Cardiff can be a great place for wildlife as I found out when I lived there for 24 years. The gardens attract a lot of birds, butterflies, moths, amphibians, and at least one reptile, which is the Slow-worm. "Slowgies" the local kids used to call them. This legless lizard was very common in gardens and you even saw them in the streets at times. They are no longer so commonly found in Britain.

Slow-worm (Photo: Pixabay)

Many of the species that can be found in Ely are now recognised as being in an alarming decline in the UK, so anywhere they are still thriving is important as a conservation area. Anyone who is actively helping these creatures is doing a great job in helping preserve the world of nature. Gardens can easily become mini nature reserves! You just need to grow some wildflowers, leave some parts untended, and a garden pond always works wonders! A Buddleia Butterfly Bush will help attract these pretty insects and other pollinators as well.

Choice TV showing of my house and garden back in 1998

When I lived in Ely, I had a makeshift pond I created from an old bath that had been thrown out. I sunk it in the ground in the back garden and within a couple of years it supported a colony of Common Frogs as well as Palmate Newts.

A pair of Common Frogs in my hand (Photo: Steve Andrews)
I know Common Toads could be found fairly near where I lived too because a man I knew called Graham used to complain about male toads strangling his goldfish, which can happen. The unattached male toads will grab onto anything they think might be a female of their species.

A mated pair of Common Toads (Photo: Pixabay)
The Common Toad is one amphibian that is known to be experiencing a decline in Britain and elsewhere. All amphibians are under threat worldwide though, due to loss of habitat, pesticides and herbicides, pollution, invasive species that predate on them, and Climate Change. I am proud to be a member of SAVE THE FROGS! Charity set up to help these creatures.

Steve Andrews with SAVE THE FROGS! banner (Photo: Kerry Kriger CEO of SAVE THE FROGS!)
One of the last times I was in Ely I went to visit Parker Place the street I used to live in and was saddened to see that what used to be my front and back garden had been ruined by the Council workers, who had removed the hedge, tree, lawns and flower borders in the front, as well as the Virginia Creepers I had growing on the wall. In the back my pond had gone, as had trees I had been growing for the many years I was there, as well as a grape vine that used to attract flocks of starlings, as well as blackbirds that used to eat the fruit each year. My nettle patch for butterflies had, perhaps not surprisingly, also been removed. It was very sad to see how all my work in helping wildlife had been wrecked but I was heartened to find that Jess, who had been my neighbour, was still there and she told me she now had a pool in her back garden. It was good to know I had helped inspire this!

Moths and Butterflies

Garden Tiger Moth (Photo: Pixabay)
It is a well-known fact that many species of British butterfly and moth have been doing very badly in recent years. Once common species, such as the pretty Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly and the large and gaudy Garden Tiger Moth are no longer commonly seen.
Small Tortoiseshell (Photo: Pixabay)
They need all the help they can get. I used to have Small Tortoiseshell and Red Admiral caterpillars on a patch of Stinging Nettles I had growing at the bottom of my garden. I also had Painted Lady larvae feeding on Hollyhocks I had growing in the back and front. Garden Tiger Moths needed no help then and I often saw the large furry “Wooly Bear” caterpillars and the striking orange, creamy-white and chocolate-brown moths with dark blue-black spots on their hind-wings.

Cinnabar Moth (Photo: Pixabay)
The attractive day-flying Cinnabar Moth with red and black wings and orange caterpillars striped with rings of black were a common sight. They feed on Ragwort and Groundsel, both of which were common weeds. The Cinnabar has been declining as well over the past decade. I also remember having Comma Butterfly caterpillars one year on my gooseberry bushes, and Common Blue butterflies used to frequent the front lawn of one of my neighbours, who had Bird’s-foot Trefoil growing in the grass. Now I live in Portugal I often see the same species doing well on lawns between housing blocks in built-up areas. The reason being they find trefoils, clovers and Sorrel (Oxalis species) growing amongst the grass. Butterflies need food-plants for their caterpillars and nectar from flowers for their adult stage. If we supply both we will probably attract butterflies to our gardens.

Are all the species I have mentioned still to be found in Ely? I don’t know because I no longer live there but if they are, then residents of the estate can help them survive and can have something to be proud of. I am sure there must be lots of people in this vast estate who are interested in nature. Perhaps a local group could be set up? Ely is also surrounded by some excellent countryside for wildlife, with Plymouth Woods being a deciduous forest that used to have a pond and marshy area. I know frogs and newts used to live there and many birds are attracted to the wooded parts and undergrowth. Ely is an example of a council housing estate that I know, and that I also know could make a great contribution towards nature conservation. The same conceivably goes for all the other estates in the UK.

Young people need to learn about the wonders of the natural world. It gives them something to take a real interest in, and interest that can stay with them for life. All the famous naturalists, like Sir David Attenborough and Chris Packham, began learning about nature when they were children. I started when I was four! I hope this article encourages more people to learn about plants and animals living on their doorsteps, so to speak, and most importantly to help conserve the natural world by making their gardens wildlife friendly.