Sunday 23 February 2020

Natterjack Toads are very rare in the UK but breed in pools at the side of the road in Portugal

Natterjacks like temporary pools and puddles
Natterjack Toad (Photo by Bernard DUPONT)

The Natterjack Toad (Epidalea calamita) is one of the rarest amphibians in the UK and only found in several scattered colonies in coastal areas in England, Scotland and one in Wales where it has been reintroduced. It is the only native species of toad in Ireland where it lives in a few locations. In many parts of Europe, however, it is far more widely distributed, and in Portugal it even breeds in temporary pools and puddles at the side of the road near where I live.
Roadside pool (Photo by Steve Andrews)
Pool with tadpoles (Photo by Steve Andrews)
Unlike the Common Toad (Bufo bufo), which likes large ponds and lakes, the Natterjack uses pools that are likely to dry up later in the year. This is a great danger for its tadpoles because the water may all evaporate before they have grown big enough to become toadlets and to leave. Many tadpoles perish when the pools become no more than cracked mud. Lucky ones will be in pools with deeper water that takes longer before it has all gone. There is an advantage to this seemingly reckless breeding behaviour though, because the pools the Natterjack chooses have no predators, such as newts and dragonfly nymphs in them. The Natterjack actually favours pools that do not even have any vegetation, and are just a few inches of water covering sand or mud. Somehow they manage to find enough to eat in these conditions.
Natterjack Toad Tadpoles (Photo by Steve Andrews)
The tadpoles are much smaller than Common Toad tadpoles too and they can complete their metamorphosis in as short a time as six weeks. It is a race against time when warm weather dries up the water they depend on. Last year, where I live, this species was unlucky because drought set in with hot sunny weather and all the pools dried up totally. I had moved some of the tadpoles to pools with more water but even my effort to help them was in vain because none of tadpoles had even developed their back legs when all the water was evaporated in the heat. This year, I am hoping that some, at least, will survive. We have had a lot or rain earlier on and the temporary pools where I find tadpoles of this species currently still have plenty of water, although it is starting to go down. In the UK, the Natterjack is mainly found in coastal locations where temporary ponds form in dunes and sandy areas by the sea, on the continent and Portugal, however, it is also found inland. The male Natterjack attracts others of his kind to a suitable stretch of water with a loud and rasping call but only does this at night. By day, these toads hide in burrows in the sand, and they favour sandy locations, such as dunes and heathland.
The Natterjack can be recognised because it has a yellow stripe down the middle of its back. It cannot jump well and tends to walk fast, which has led to it also being known as the “Running Toad.” When I was a boy I always dreamed of finding a Natterjack Toad but never did. It was very rare all those years ago too. I am amazed to find this very rare amphibian breeding in muddy pools by a main road near where I live.

Wednesday 19 February 2020

Searching for Birthwort with the Spanish Festoon Butterfly

Searching for Birthwort with the Spanish Festoon Butterfly

Spanish Festoon (Photo: Steve Andrews)
The Spanish Festoon (Zerynthia rumina) is a very pretty butterfly in the Papilionidae or Swallowtail butterfly family. It has strikingly patterned wings of yellow, red and dark brown with zig-zag markings on its hindwings. It is found in Spain, Portugal, North Africa and southern France. I have seen the butterflies in scrubland and pine and oak forest near where I live, but until today I have never seen any of the Birthwort species (Aristolochia spp) this butterfly uses as food-plants for their caterpillars.

I have lived in Quinta do Conde in Portugal for the last five years but have never managed to find any type of Birthwort growing here so it has been a real mystery for me, as to how these butterflies survive here. Today after a lot of searching, I discovered a clump of Round-leaved Birthwort (A. rotunda) growing amongst trees and heather at the top of a bank.
Spanish Festoon habitat (Photo: Steve Andrews)

I had to climb up to find it, and this is why I had never seen it before, although I often walk through this part of the woodland. A female Spanish Festoon has to find this plant or other Birthwort species on which to lay her eggs. There are no other options. The distribution of the food-plants, as is the case with most butterflies and moths, is one of the main factors responsible for the distribution of these insects. In fact, if you find a colony of a particular butterfly or moth, you can be fairly certain that the plants the larvae of that specific species need will be growing nearby. 
Round-leaved Birthwort (Photo: Steve Andrews)

The Spanish Festoon is flying very early this year. Most sources say that it can be seen from April onward, although the excellent Collins Butterfly Guide, which says this butterfly flies from late March to May, also points out that it has been recorded in February. With the Climate Crisis making the weather a lot warmer, and leading to droughts and the very real danger of forest fires in Portugal, butterflies and other species of flora and fauna are directly affected by changes in the weather. 
The Birthwort species are poisonous plants that are dangerous for humans to consume, because poisoning from these plants can lead to kidney failure. These plants were once used to cause uterine contractions, hence the name “birthwort,” but their usage as a medicinal herb has mainly been abandoned due to the dangers of the toxins these plants contain. For the caterpillars of the Spanish Festoon, as is the case with the larvae of many butterflies that have poisonous food-plants, the poisons in the plant become a form of defence for the caterpillars. Because they become toxic too, any predators that try eating them are likely to get very sick. The European Birthwort (A. clematitis) is the species I was expecting to find, so I was pleasantly surprised to find the Round-leaved Birthwort was the local species. Birthworts tend to be straggling plants that need other vegetation or support to climb over. The Aristolochia species have unusual tube-shaped or pipe-shaped flowers, and one species, the Dutchman’s Pipe, which has very large and attractive blooms, is grown for ornamental purposes.

Sunday 16 February 2020

The Angel of Death

The Angel of Death
Angel of Death (Azrael) by Evelyn De Morgan (Public Domain)
It was in the not too distant future when the nightmare scenario devastated the western world, and led to the final collapse of life as we know it. A 100% lethal mutated virus had been spawned in the labs of insane scientists. There was no known cure for the Angel of Death, which spread by contact, as well as via the air and in water supplies. An even more insane subversive group within the ranks of the the evil germ-warfare-mongers had infiltrated to the highest echelons above top secret, and in a final doomsday effort had unleashed the killer virus upon an unsuspecting world. Death came to everyone infected with it within weeks, and there were no recorded cases of survival. 
Throughout the entire civilised world, throughout all the teeming cities, and even to the smaller towns and villages of the whole globe, the silence of the fatal germ had come. Only humans were infected, so once again the world of animals and plants had a chance, for it appeared that the reign of mankind was finally over for good.
Ten years had elapsed and the passage of time had brought many changes. In once Great Britain, the cities with all their accompanying industrial and urban sprawl had reverted back to a more natural environment that was gradually and not so gradually displacing what humans had created. Rooftop gardens of small trees, brambles, briars, and assorted weeds and grasses greeted the sky, and the hungry flocks of sparrows, starlings, pigeons and finches. Barn owls bred again in large numbers and circled the dark night skies, seeking out their choice from the teeming rodent hordes that had multiplied without check feeding on the vast quantities of stored foods in shops and warehouses.
Branches of trees poked skywards through crumbling and ruined buildings. Roads, streets, pedestrian precincts, shopping malls, and even the once mighty motorways lay cracked by the ever-advancing frontline troops of armies of the vegetable kingdom.  Grass grew waist-high in fields, parks and open spaces, and masses of wildflowers adorned these meadows providing a feast for the butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Mongrel dogs prowled and hunted in packs. Hawks and other birds of prey had a field day with all the vast numbers of small birds, and rats and mice, now to be hunted.
The seas and lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, and other waterways and wetlands had once again come into their own and teamed with fish and other aquatic life, which in turn supported huge breeding colonies of waders, herons, ducks, and other water birds. Massive patches of brambles, nettles, briars and assorted scrub in sprawling growth reclaimed the once cultivated and civilized land. Broken human skeletons lay covered or partially exposed to the elements, or rotting away in the empty rooms where they fell. Forests too were starting to reclaim the land in an effort to return to days gone by.  Foreign flora and fauna vied with natives for space in the battle for survival under the laws of Mother Nature.
In the rest of the world, the picture was much the same, and the land so devastated by mankind’s short and tyrannical reign of destruction was being fast taken back by natural forces as the balance became again restored to the Earth.
The end of mankind had not, however, arrived for small pockets of survivors continued to live in their ancient tribal ways in the mountains and jungles of South America, Asia, and deep in the rainforests of Africa. These tribes had survived, because although they were aware of the civilised world they had chosen to live in isolation from it, shunning all contact, and so preserving their ancient culture and traditions.
So the planet was once more open for colonization as those tribal peoples grew in numbers, and an almost Garden of Eden type situation presented itself with the ruined technological cities and factories of destruction still there to maybe be discovered like the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. 
Only the tribal elders really understood the dangers that lay ahead, but as to whether they were able to prevent enquiring minds from prying into these secrets only time would tell. If the circle was to run its course, several thousand years more had to elapse, but for the time being all was well upon the Garden of Earth.

Footnote: I wrote this depressing story many years ago but had not done anything with it until now. I am hoping it remains just a story! With the Corona Virus or Covid 19 virus in the news, it seemed a good time to publish it though.

Saturday 15 February 2020

Where Does All The Plastic Go? Gets Media Coverage

My protest song about plastic pollution entitled Where Does All The Plastic Go? has had some great media coverage, but it needs a lot more. The song has been featured in a national newspaper in Portugal and in a recent book from Italy. It would be wonderful if the British mainstream media would report on it too.

The Portugal News

Last September, The Portugal News included an article about my song after I was interviewed by Kim Schiffmann, who is one of the newspaper’s writers. There was a photo of me on the front page too and a caption which said: “Singing Against Pollution p11.” The Portugal News is a national newspaper in the English language and read by many an expat.

My song also received airplay in Portugal on Roque Duarte’s Sonic Fine Cut show on (Eclectic Sounds Radio) and Nação Sónica. The video for Where Does All The Plastic Go? had been made in Portugal by Filipe Rafael, and the song is included in my album Songs of The Now and Then, which is available as an environmentally packaged CD with a recycled egg box CD tray, or as a digital release on bandcamp. On Facebook, the video has had over 19,000 views. 

Where Does All The Plastic Go? is also available for streaming and downloads at Reverb Nation. 

SPAM: Stop Plastica A Mare and Ocean Aid

Meanwhile in Italy, Where Does All The Plastic Go? Has received some wonderful publicity thanks to Filippo Solibello, who is a top radio presenter and author there. He has included an entire chapter about me and my song in his book SPAM Stop Plastic A Mare, which he has been touring extensively to promote. He even got a copy of his book to Pope Francis.

Filippo has been showing the video of my song to audiences in Italy and also spreading word about my idea for an Ocean Aid concert to raise awareness on an international level, and as a fund-raiser for charitable organisations that are working to save the oceans and marine life in them. I think some very famous names would want to be involved if a massive concert could be organised, like Band Aid and Live Aid but this time it would be Ocean Aid. Many stars from the world of music, such as Ed Sheeran, Mick Jagger, Kanye West, Cerys Matthews, Chrissie Hynde and Brian May, have spoken out about plastic pollution but I think I am leading the way when it comes to songs on the subject. 

Music Interview Magazine
I am very grateful to Music Interview Magazine for publishing an in depth interview with me in which I explain about how I became alarmed about the ongoing threat from plastic. I mention David de Rothschild and how he sailed The Plastiki across the Pacific Ocean back in 2010. This was when I started following his work as an environmentalist and learned how bad the plastic pollution problem really is. Sadly, in the years that have gone by since then the size of the problem has multiplied on a mind-boggling scale, and we really do need to find ways of stopping it getting any worse and of getting as much of the plastic that is out there in the oceans out of them. Plastic is now everywhere. As micro-plastics it is in the air, soil and water. The environment worldwide has been contaminated by plastic pollution and plastic has entered the food chain which goes right up to us. This is why I sing: “Plastic kills the turtles and is eaten by the fish, plastic’s in the food chain and the dinner on your dish!” Please help me spread the word about my song and idea for an Ocean Aid concert. Plastic pollution affects everybody!