Friday, March 22, 2013

Photos of some wild orchids found in León (Cantabrian Mountains).

Deze post in het Nederlands: klik hier.

Photos of some wild orchids found in the province of León (Spain).

General introduction.

In Spain, the Cantabrian Mountains (Cordillera Cantábrica) are widely known for its rugged and unspoiled nature and its great abundance of animals and plants. Some of the most emblematic animals are: the brown bear, the wolf, the capercaillie, the golden eagle, the griffon vulture, and  the bearded vulture, which has returned three years ago. Also the recollection of medicinal herbs and herbs for the kitchen is a centuries-old habit.
Less known is the great wealth of wild orchids. In a recently completed study, conducted in a relatively small part of the Cantabrian Mountains (in the province of León) by J.M. Diez Santos, no fewer than 55 species and 10 hybrids have been determined.
Since the wild orchids are my favorite plants, they will certainly feature prominently in this blog about the nature of the Cantabrian Mountains.


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Anacamptis picta is a species very similar to the green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio).

Description and photos of the Anacamptis picta.

The Anacamptis picta, which is very similar to the green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) and who some consider to be a subspecies (Anacamptis morio subsp. picta), is one of the most common orchids of the Cantabrian Mountains. It flowers from April to June depending on the amount of rain and temperature, and the altitude and orientation of the habitat. The unspotted and lanceolate leaves grow in a basal rosette with some leaves sheathing the stem almost up to the flowers. The inflorescence has normally between 6 and 25 flowers, although it can be slightly less or much more, which are distributed in a linear or pyramidal bunch on top of a stalk. The dorsal sepal and the lateral petals form together a helmet, covered or "winged" by the lateral sepals which have a prominent green or sometimes purple veins, much like the features of the green-winged orchid (A. morio). The three-lobed labellum or lip has a pale center with purple spots and the side-lobes are clearly folded backwards, which is one of the characteristics which distinguishes it from the green-winged orchid, which has a broad lip. The spur is relatively long and straight or slightly arched upwards with a dilated and flattened apex, which contains no nectar.
The colour is red-purple to pink, although very pale specimens can be found occasionally. The Anacamptis picta has normally 2 sessile tubers (meaning that they are attached to each other), with a great similarity to two testicles.


Monday, March 18, 2013

In the footprints of the Roman legions.


  Walking in the Cantabrian Mountains: Fuentes de Peñacorada.

General introduction.
This post will give a description of an easy and beautiful marked route near the southern border of the Central Cantabrian Mountains. The importance of the route lies both within the spectacular landscape and the cultural heritance.

This route is called "La Huella de las Legiones", which means literally "The footprint of the Legions". The designers of the route are completely convinced that we are dealing with a Roman way, which was constructed during the Cantabrian Wars (29-19 BC) to reach the local Celtic settlements called "castros".
Those "castros" were invariably built in inaccessible places, very difficult to conquer. The general idea is that the Romans built some main ways following the mayor river valleys and many smaller sideways which led from a main way towards the Celtic settlements in the mountains. In this case, our route is interpreted as a sideway of the main way along the river Esla (generally recognised as a Roman way), which led to a castro situated at the Campurrial pass.

According to the historians Eutimio Martino and Siro Sanz, this way has all the same characteristics of some closeby and widely recognised Roman ways in other parts of the Cantabrian Mountains. Considering the fact that the region has been under roman control for more than 400 years, since the Cantabrian Wars till the beginning of the 5th century when the Suevi, the Vandals and the Alans entered Spain, it is not far fetched to imaging that they also constructed a network of roads in the Cantabrian Mountains. Because those ways were the "natural" connection between the villages, they have been maintained and repaired in the centuries since, which means that they are only partially original (in the meaning that not all the slabs of stone were literally laid down by the Romans). In medieval writings of before the year 1000 this way is already mentioned, which at least proves a minimum age of more than a millenium.

Other cultural aspects are the ruins of a medieval castle, "el castillo de Monteagudo" on top of a steep mountain and traces of a Celtic settlement.


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Some photos of the Cathedral Cave

The Cathedral Cave.

Marius van Heiningen

Within the Cantabrian Mountains there are an awful lot of places which are virtually unknown, especially to tourism. But this aspect is not restricted to the surface of these mountains, below ground there is a very rich subterranean patrimony. The deep caves of Picos de Europa, with depths of over 1500 m and the extensive caves of Cantabria and northern Burgos (eastern Cantabrian Mountains) are world famous in the speleological community. For instance, the Mortillano system, the Gándara system, the Alto Tejuelo system (all in Cantabria) and the Ojo Guareña (Burgos) each have over a hundred kilometrers of galleries. Nevertheless, in the rest of the Cordillera Cantábrica there are lots of less notorious caves and even quite a few which are totally unknown. That some caves keep being unknown to the public, even after they are discovered for the first time, is sometimes due to their incredible vulnerability. Some caves have large amounts of delicate formations which would suffer irreversible damage if they were visited frequently. In this post I will show some photos of the Cathedral Cave, named for the untouched formations and grandiosity of this cave. This cave was discovered some 20 years ago and the pictures are taken some 5 years ago. In all these years we have entered the cave only 4 times, and always with only 2 environmental conscious speleologists. The photos are taken by my speleo companion Julian Benito. To take clear photos in a cave is very difficult, among other reasons because of the great humidity inside the caves and because of the frequent awkward small passages which not invite to bring the most luxurious cameras. So considering I think these photos are quite good. There will be no explanation by the photos because the different cave formations will be treated in other posts, just enjoy the report.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Winter in the Cantabrian Mountains

Snow in Spain

Marius van Heiningen

Spain is known for its good weather with a lot of sunshine, which of course is true, but in the mountainous areas of the north thick layers of freshly fallen snow are quiet normal. Although on the higher and northwards orientated peaks several meters of snow can accumulate, normally the snows disappears rather quickly due to the strength of the Spanish sun, which even in winter is appreciable. This year the snowfall came at the end of January and the beginning of February, which gave me the opportunity to click the “white” photos of the following photo session. These photos serve to give a general view of the mountainous character of the Cantabrian Mountains. Of most photos mountain names and direction of view are given, with the heights and the place from which the photo is taken in parentheses.

The southern border of the Cantabrian Mounatins, as seen from the meseta of the Duero basin. The view is to the north.This mountain massif is called Peñacorada (1835m). To see the same picture full screen, click on the small photo to the right.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Orchis purpurea or the lady orchid

Description and photos of the lady orchid (Orchis purpurea).

Marius van Heiningen

Personal introduction.
The usual way of most plant books to describe a species is by means of a picture of the flower and a description of the details, which is understandable because colour photos are expensive. On internet a lot of websites follow the same patron, which is less understandable because the capacity of blogs and webs is actually quite big (for instance, the capacity of a “blogspot-blog” is 5 Gb). When flower hunting in the field, an accurate description of the details is very welcome, because you can check them right at the spot, with the book in your hand. But when searching on the web for more information I would like to find detailed descriptions with lots of photos. For this reason I´ll try to write my posts showing the characteristics in various photos. I hope this way the information will be of use to the reader.

The lady orchid or Orchis purpurea is a conspicuous orchid, both due to the height of the flowering stalks (25 – 100 cm) and the dense inflorescence with lots of purple-white flowers. It even may be too conspicuous, because it makes them prone to flower picking. It is a perennial plant who´s leaves appear above ground in the winter, normally in January or February. These more or less lanceolate leaves, this is with a rounded base tapering towards the apex, are relatively big and parallel-nerved (like all orchids). In the Cantabrian Mountains flowering takes places during April and May. The flower has a spur without nectar, so it is a food-deceptive orchid, but they produce a sweet odour and are pollinated by bumblebees or butterflies.
In the southern Cantabrian Mountains this orchid is not very common, but I have been able to locate several groups of about 30 – 40 of adult orchids with inflorescences and much more scattered exemplars have been found alone or in small groups. Most grow in full sunlight, others grow between (evergreen) oaks or even in poplar plantations, but none has been found in heavily shaded forests.

Photo 1 shows the general robust aspect of Orchis purpurea, the lady orchid, with long and broad leaves and a thick spike with a dense inflorescence, which may have up to a hundred flowers or more. They grow on calcareous soil, often in full sun but also in partly shadowed habitats.


Thursday, March 7, 2013

White Storks nesting on castle ruins

 The White Stork (Ciconia ciconia)
Marius van Heiningen 
I think everybody knows the White Stork, a large white bird with black wings, which builds enormous nests on buildings, electricity masts and trees. And “large” isn´t exaggerated if you look at its dimensions: a standing height of 100 - 125 cm and a maximum wingspan of 215 cm. When I still lived in the Netherlands I remember that the White Stork was one of the most popular birds and that very great efforts were made to encourage them to make their nests in Holland, even appearing regularly on the TV news. When I came to Spain I was stunned by the overwhelming amount of White Storks in the direct neighborhood of my new home, which most certainly surpasses the total population of my native country.  It was very easy to spot colonies of 15 or more nests close together or seeing over 50 Storks foraging in a meadow alongside the road. For data about behaviour, breeding, description, conservation, etc., I refer to a comprehensive report in the Wikipedia.

The White Stork is a migrating bird which stays the winter in Sub-Saharan Africa and breeds mainly in Europe and the Middle East, with a subspecies wintering in India and breeding in Turkestan (map 1). In Europe the storks have two strongholds, the first in Poland and Eastern Europe (about 150.000 pairs) and the second in the Iberian Peninsula (about 40.000 pairs) with very few pairs in western and northern Europe (map 2). In Spain most storks breed in a 250 km wide strip parallel to the border with Portugal (map 3). In the southern Cantabrian Mountains they are common and in the northern part even rare, but in the foothills directly to the south they are extremely common. This great concentration is possibly due to the much sunnier climate, compared with the northern Cantabrian Mountains, and the common practice of irrigation in the form of flooding the meadows, which forces all small animals to crawl above ground. It is really easy to observe a flooded meadow with large groups of storks. In Spain most nest are built in trees, churches and electricity masts, although sometimes they use other structures like the ruins of a castle, as is the case in the next photo report. In our region the first storks arrive at the end of January and normally leave in September or October, but most probably due to the relative soft winters of the last years, lately some birds stay the whole year.

Map 1 shows the breeding and wintering distribution of the White Stork. Map taken from the Wikipedia.


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A family of Egyptian vultures.

The Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus).


One day in august last year I decided to observe a family of Egyptian vultures, which had their nest situated in one of the fissures of a great limestone cliff, just about a kilometre away from my village. I climbed a parallel limestone ridge to reach a height slightly above the rock shelters on the opposite side of the valley, where I settled comfortably with binoculars and camera ready. For some exciting three hours I kept observing the flights of a pair of Egyptian vultures with their only young and occasionally some griffon vultures. I tried to shoot some photos, but my semi-reflex camera is better in shooting short distances macro-photos than long distance photos of relatively small objects.


On internet there is already a lot of general information available about the Egyptian vulture, so in this post it won´t be repeated, but instead I like to emphasize on the geographic distribution. A search on bird-websites leads to variable data about the number of adult individuals in Europe and Spain, but all reach the same conclusion of an important generalized decline. In the 2008 SEO/birdlife censoring for Spain the results gives 1452 certain pairs and 104 possible pairs, while the whole EU population is estimated at between 1700 and 1800 pairs (Environmental website of the European Commission). So it doesn´t seem unreasonable to consider Spain as the European stronghold of the Egyptian vulture (see map 1).  In recent years the Iberian population has declined more than 25%, mainly because of poisoning caused by the consumption of illegal baits used for predator control. Also the loss of food supplies caused by the sealing of municipal waste dumps, a great decline of the Spanish rabbit population and the current controlling of the disposal of animal carcasses (2002 regulations, trying to avoid the bovine spongiform encephalopathy  (BSE) or better known as mad cow disease). Other important causes are electrocution when colliding with power lines, lead poisoning (from gunshots), collisions with wind turbines, disturbance and habitat loss. Decline in Africa, the Egyptian vulture is a migratory bird, is likely to be caused by loss of food availability (extinction of the African wildlife) and of direct hunting in some places. Therefore the Neophron percnopterus has become in the unfortunate situation of being considered an endangered (EN)-species, which means that there is a high risk of extinction in the wild.
The distribution map of the Virtual Atlas of the “Avifauna Terrestre de España” (Terrestrial Bird-fauna of Spain, map 2) gives a high concentration of pairs in the central and eastern Cantabrian Mountains, together with a general high concentration for the inland of north-east Spain. A 50x50 km frequency grid gives information about the percentage of 10x10 km grids occupied with the species concerned. For instance, when a 50x50 km grid has a frequency value of 60-80%, it means that between 30 and 40 grids of 10x10 km have at least one pairs of Egyptian vultures. From the six 50x50 km grids which together cover the Cantabrian Mountains, the grids number 6 (88%), 4 (80%) and 3 (72%) are placed second, third and fifth in the national rank of grids with the highest frequency (map 2), which highlights the Cantabrian Mountains as an excellent place to spot these beautiful birds.


Sunday, March 3, 2013

Structure of an orchid flower

The structure of an orchid flower

Marius van Heiningen

I decided to write this post because I personally had some difficulty in finding clear pictures which explain the basal anatomy of an orchid flower. It seems that in every picture some basic parts were missing. In this entry I first give a brief summary of the basic parts of a common flower (stamen, carpel, sepals and petals), to continue with the basic parts of an orchid flower and followed by a more detailed description of the gynostemium (column). The structure of the labellum (lip) will be treated in another post because of its great complexity and diversity and its importance for indentifying the exact genera or species.

Very brief summary of a typical flower. 

A typical flower has stamens, carpel(s), a whorl of sepals (calyx) and a whorl of petals (corolla).
A stamen is the pollen-producing male organ of the flower and normally consists of a threadlike filament with an anther on top. It is the anther which produces the pollen. All the stamens together are collectively called the androecium (man´s house).
A carpel is the seed-producing female organ of the flower and normally consists of an ovary, style and stigma. The ovary is the basal part of the carpel where one or more ovules are formed.  The style is a stalk through which the pollen reach the ovules in the ovary. The stigma is usually on top of the style and is often sticky to capture the pollen.
 In many plants the carpels are fused into one or several carpel-like structures. All the carpels together (fused or unfused) are called the gynoecium (woman´s house). In almost all flowers the gynoecium is located in the centre, surrounded by the androecium. Both are surrounded by the perianth.
The perianth is the outer part of the flower consisting of the calyx (the sepals) and the corolla (the petals).  When the sepals and the petals are very similar they are called tepals.

Photo 1 shows a flower of the Turk´s cap lily (Lilium martagon) with a 6 of stamens surrounding a single style with stigma. The flower has 3 petals and 3 sepals which look very much alike (tepals).