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Dragonflies+ in Madrid & Extremadura: June 2014 Trip Report (Part 1)

John Muddeman
06/07/2014 22:23:40

Part 1 of a 4-day tour to maximise the chances of seeing some of Spain's most interesting dragonflies and damselflies, as well as a wide variety of other wildlife in the western Sierras of Madrid and in Extremadura

Posted in: Butterflies and Moths, Dragonflies and Damselflies, Reptiles, Birds | Extremadura, Madrid | Mainland Spain, Western Spain, Central Spain

Dragonflies+ trip report (part 1) Male Small Pincertail - Onychogomphus forcipatus © John MuddemanMale Small Pincertail
Onychogomphus forcipatus
© John Muddeman

Madrid & Extremadura 28 June – 01 July 2014

Martyn & Gillian had tried to come on the Extremadura dragonflies+ tour in June 2013, but as it hadn’t run due to an advertising error, decided to come on an abridged version instead. Fortunately, this ran in near-perfect weather, and with slightly cooler than normal temperatures, and clear skies on days 2 and 3, was ideal. That said, it still got hot in the sun on occasions! The second half of June and first week of July sees the best time frame for looking for the rarest species, as well as overlap in flight period between the earlier species and those emerging later. With over half of Spain’s species present in each of the two areas visited, the plan looked good, but would just 4 days be enough?

With an early start from Madrid capital, the trip started in the low mountains and dehesa of western Madrid. A mixture of two very different rivers –one temporary open one with a sand bottom and another permanent and mainly forested one over granite– and some shallow natural pools house a fine suite of species, from rare Pronged Clubtails and ever active Small Pincertails and Western Spectres to tiny Iberian Bluetails, cryptic Common Winter Damsels, elegant Mediterranean and Dainty Bluets and showy Western and Copper Demoiselles. We then moved in the afternoon W to the Las Hurdes mountains in the far N of Extremadura, where the clear mountain rivers, which over eons have carved out deep, tortuous steep-sided valleys, house a Male Splendid Cruiser - Macromia splendens © John MuddemanA patrolling male Splendid Cruiser
Macromia splendens
© John Muddeman
fantastic variety -and number- of some of southern Europe’s most emblematic species, in lovely surroundings. With extensive areas of natural scrub and managed forest covering almost all of the mountainsides and small villages producing little pollution in this warm region, the variety of rare species is impressive. The difficult Splendid Cruiser is ‘the’ main objective here, but Orange-spotted Emerald, Western Spectre, Pronged and Yellow Clubtails, Large and Small Pincertails, Western and Copper Demoiselles, White and Orange Featherlegs, Blue-eye and the ubiquitous Iberian Bluetail make for a very impressive supporting cast! The majority of Extremadura is markedly lower and hotter, and supports a rather different suite of species, with permanent pools and reservoirs and temporary rivers and streams being home to Green Hooktail, Epaulette Skimmer, Broad Scarlet, Violet Dropwing, and very locally in the far south, the colonizing Orange-winged Dropwing.

Day 1 Mediterranean Bluet - Coenagrion caerulescens © John MuddemanMediterranean Bluet
Coenagrion caerulescens
© John Muddeman

Leaving central Madrid around 0830 we reached the first river site in W Madrid around an hour later. The early hour, despite a powerful sun meant it was a lean start, despite intensive searching. Finally the first dragonfly appeared along the sandy and rocky river edge, as a fine Small Pincertail male posed well, despite a rising breeze. Several more, then our first (and only) Mediterranean Bluet plus a couple of teneral Common and Red-veined Darters also put in a show, as did a colourful immature Ocellated Lizard, the first of numerous Large Psammodromus lizards, a young Spanish Imperial Eagle being mobbed by a Common Buzzard, a pair of Eurasian Golden Orioles showing in a Western Holm Oak and passing Great Spotted Woodpecker and Little Ringed Plover.

A short transfer via a couple of villages (including a snacks and water stop) brought us to a lovely natural pool in a grassy meadow, where apart from abundant Spanish Marbled Whites and Great Banded Graylings, plus several tiny and exquisite lime green Common Tree Frogs, several dragon- and damselflies appeared in succession. A couple of Blue Emperors Migrant Spreadwing - Lestes barbatus © John MuddemanMale Migrant Spreadwing
Lestes barbatus
© John Muddeman
patrolled the open waters where a couple of flaming red Broad Scarlets appeared briefly, while tiny Iberian Bluetail and Dainty Damselflies, Robust and Migrant Spreadwings and a rather cryptic Common Winter Damsel sheltered from the stiffening wind in the club rushes and other emergent fringing vegetation where numerous Common Darters were also emerging. What looked in the field like a young male Violet Dropwing looked odd and, though difficult to see well as is blew around in the wind and refused close approach from photos turned out to be a Ruddy Darter, a new species for the Western Sierras of Madrid!

With time running on, we passed on on site and headed for another river site, this time with abundant trees lining the banks and immediately found two lovely species, Western and Copper Demoiselles, the latter a very special species for Gillian, and we watched and photographed these for some time. A fine Black Stork cruised over for extra quality!

Lunch was finally taken in a bikers’ bar close to a large Green Hooktail - Paragomphus genei2 © John MuddemanThe small but colourful Green Hooktail
Paragomphus genei
© John Muddeman
and noisy rally, then a long run then followed which took us almost along the full length of the S flank of the lovely Gredos mountains to a ‘stake-out’ beside a very unprepossessing fishing pool. In the very warm but also very windy conditions, things were not looking too good, but by following the indications almost to the meter and by dropping into a tiny gully, where it wasn’t quite so exposed, we struck gold in the form of a diminutive male Green Hooktail. This flew up onto the tip of a dead twig and sat in full view for us to admire at length and another of the ‘most wanted’ was also in the bag! A few female Keeled Skimmers sheltering among the bushes almost rounded off the day’s ‘dragonflying’, though a few minutes looking down from a bridge almost at our accommodation in the Las Hurdes mountains also added our 17th species for the day, a brief Western Spectre.

Day 2
Schreiber's Green Lizard - Lacerta schreiberi © John MuddemanSchreiber's Green Lizard
Lacerta schreiberi
© John Muddeman
One of the great things about odonates here is that unless it’s extremely hot, they get up late. So we did too, but still got out well before the vast majority were on the wing! A walk along a lovely track close to a river quickly produced a male Schreiber’s Green Lizard and a few butterflies, including the endemic Spanish Copper, which is restricted to the C Spanish mountains, while more Copper and Western Demoiselles, and then in quick succession both White and Orange Featherlegs were found and then observed at close range. However, given the advancing time late morning it was now crucial to be watching the flatter sections of the river for two of the key and most-wanted species on the trip: Splendid Cruiser and Orange-spotted Emerald. While Gillian sat watching a good stretch where I’d seen a male of the former just a week earlier, I set about checking the local meadows. Teneral dragonflies move away from the rivers to mature in peace away from territorial males and clubtails preferentially select these habitats to rest and feed. A few Small Pincertails, and then the first of at least three female clubtails, which from photos were two Pronged and one (relatively late) Western, had us chasing them carefully round some meadows and scrub, but the complete lack of Splendid Cruiser drew us first back to the river and then back towards the car to consider trying a new site. Remarkably, a female Splendid Cruiser suddenly appeared just below some rapids, dashing back and forth as it laid eggs with ‘tail’ flicks into the water, but was too distant and down some difficult bank for anyone but me ?. Martyn then saw a large dragonfly rush past towards a small beach. Walking down he stood in the shade, and a teneral Western Spectre Dusk Hawker - Boyeria irene © John MuddemanThe 'camo' marked Dusk Hawker
Boyeria irene
© John Muddeman
taking its first flight fluttered down in the breeze then turned to land on his jacket! A fraction of a second from getting the picture it was sadly off again, and Gillian never even saw it!

Another nearby site required a short walk, but the sunny banks with abundant scrub slightly away from the river were alive with teneral Large Pincertails. Indeed they were clearly too fresh to be holding territory along the river itself, unlike some Small Pincertails, though activity over the river suddenly started to increase as the temperature rose. Martyn then suddenly exclaimed that he’d seen a large dragonfly cruise down, turn and then disappear upstream again… A short, tense wait and suddenly, there in front was a fantastic male Splendid Cruiser, patrolling at speed along a long stretch of the river, here in a small ‘natural’ swimming pool, powering down the river Male Orange-spotted Emerald - Oxygastra curtisii © John MuddemanA gorgeous male Orange-spotted Emerald
Oxygastra curtisii
© John Muddeman
and then turning just before the fall of the water over the leat. Wanting more views, and possibly even photos (ha ha!), I went off upstream and watched it pass a few more times before it disappeared upriver under some overhanging Alders. Trying to see where it went I climbed down, and just below me were two superb Western Spectres! Returning with Martyn and Gillian drew an annoying blank, but then suddenly a dragonfly started patrolling up and down a short section just below us… The green eyes were striking and our first male Orange-spotted Emerald came past repeatedly within just a foot or two! How good could this get?!

We finally decided to leave, though at the bottom of the flat section by the leat was a fine Orange-spotted Emerald patrolling the far bank, which I paddled over to see, while more White and Orange Featherlegs and Western and Copper Demoiselles vied for attention! Another short drive and we decided to have a celebratory drink at a riverside bar, even though it was already very late to eat our packed lunches. Looking down at the river I commented that it looked ideal for Male Splendid Cruiser - Macromia splendens2 © John MuddemanMale Splendid Cruisers are impressive if almost
impossible to photograph in flight!
Macromia splendens
© John Muddeman
Splendid Cruiser and incredibly, despite various swimmers present in and along the banks, a fine male appeared just seconds later and over the next 45 minutes or more, intermittently appeared as it cruised relentlessly up and down, sometimes coming almost to within inches of us when knocked back by the gusting wind! Though we never saw more than one at a time, we were certain that two were present, and when considering that while having a drink here one could watch this magnificent dragonfly, plus patrolling Black Storks and wandering Two-tailed Pasha butterflies simultaneously, this has to be one of the best wildlife bars I’ve ever been to!

We decided on a change of tack and so headed to a different nearby river, and hunted for a promising-looking site, both for a 4 p.m. lunch (!) and hopefully some more dragons… In the shade of some pines over our sandwiches and Spanish tortilla we could easily see a male Blue Emperor patrolling the river and also the dashing flights of pincertails over the river, but we were taken aback by the sheer variety present along Male Pronged Clubtail - Gomphus graslinii © John MuddemanMale Pronged Clubtail
Gomphus graslinii
© John Muddeman
a 4-500m section of the river here. A Small Red Damsel was in emergent vegetation, several Keeled Skimmers made dashing sorties out to chase food or other passing males, a couple of Orange-spotted Emeralds cruised the edges and then the first of a few Western Spectres did the same, passing repeatedly with inches of our feet. Two brief male Pronged Clubtails sadly failed to show themselves off as well as they can, but stunning adult male Broad Scarlets and a Violet Dropwing (unusual here) did, despite the unwanted attentions of the larger dragonflies present! This was a really lovely site, with clumps of wild Thyme, Soapwort and Bedstraw covering the gravel beach, smoothed bedrock etched into a myriad forms by tiny waterfalls and gurgling rapids between the deeper pools and the hot sun drawing out abundant dragonflies over the river.

We tried again, a little upstream at a couple more sites. The first site beside a village was very poor (even though there were a few Orange-spotted Emeralds! ), but the second, despite being just a little swift channel between clumps of Purple Moor-grass in a very open section, was amazing. In the afternoon heat only Western Spectres and ever-increasing numbers of Orange-spotted Emeralds were present, but while the former disappeared, the latter gradually increased in number until numerous fights broke out, and even mating was observed. Female Copper & Western Demoiselles - Cal-haemorrhoidalis & xanthostoma © John MuddemanFemale Copper & Western Demoiselles
Calopteryx haemorrhoidalis & C. xanthostoma
© John Muddeman
Females were clearly dropping down to the river from the surrounding hillsides and the territorial males were becoming almost frenzied towards intruders. We finally left after 7 pm when our legs and minds gave up from the day’s excesses and we headed back to the hotel elated!
19 species of 28 in total

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