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Portuguese Exploration

In Search of the Two-tailed Pasha – Pat Bell

Two-tailed Pasha, Spanish Festoon, Southern Scarce Swallowtail – exotic names to conjure with as I headed to Portugal in the last week of October to catch up with some old friends in Lisbon, grab some late-season sunshine and maybe get an opportunity to extend my butterfly year as I was feeling a bit deprived after a somewhat disappointing year. I was travelling light without a camera or my Collins Guide to European Butterflies but I had used its distribution maps and flight times to short-list some possible new sightings. Also, I came to rely a lot on the wonderful www.algarvebirdman.com website where, in the butterfly section, there are pen pictures of no less than 79 different species known to have occurred in the Algarve.

I based myself in Faro for the first four nights and headed for the city park on my first Sunday. Over what became my standard lunch for the week, of presunto (smoked ham) on rustic bread washed down with a bottle of beer and finished with a coffee (always less than €5), I took in my surroundings. I find that whites, being easy to spot from a distance, are a good indicator of butterfly activity. Unfortunately there wasn’t much else but more than there would have been in Ireland in late October. But the day was saved by a Red Admiral landing on my white shirt as if to welcome me to Portugal! That night a storm wrecked Faro airport – I think it may have been the same storm which caused the extreme flooding at home – I slept through it though and the next day was bright and sunny as I took the train West to Lagos. This is a town with a lot of history and I spent a pleasant day sightseeing but not much butterfly activity. With time to kill before catching my train back to Faro, my eye being caught by some kite surfers, I wandered towards a beach on the other side of the estuary not too far from the railway station. Again, nothing much until, when walking along a boardwalk joining two beach bars, I realised that there was quite a lot of Lepidoptera activity in the dry Marram Grass.

What was catching my eye were Crimson Speckled moths, a beautiful day-flying moth which apparently turned up in large numbers in Southern England during the late-September heat wave. I left the boardwalk to explore further. The terrain was rough enough as there was quite a lot of dry prickly sea holly but I was rewarded by sightings of several Common Blues, a couple of Small Coppers and then my first big ‘catch’, a Spanish Brown Argus (Aricia cramera). Algarvebirdman says that some authorities consider this as Aricia agestis cramera, ‘a mere subspecies of Brown Argus’, but as I’ve never seen either I was more than happy. The Brown Argus is supposed to be difficult to tell from the Common Blue but as I had plenty of close encounters with the latter on my Royal Canal transect this summer I was fairly confident in this identification.

Spanish Brown Argus. Photo Simon Wates.

My destination on Tuesday was the quiet inland village of Estoi about 10km north of Faro in the Serra do Caldeirao which separates the Algarve from the neighbouring region of Alentejo. Subsistence farming is still common with fields, and olive and citrus orchards, worked as they have been for centuries. I headed off in a country bus, always an interesting way to travel, drawn by the promise of the famed gardens of the Palacio do Estoi which these days is a pousada (similar to a parador in Spain). However, the extensive walled garden which links the village to the Palacio via a palm-lined avenue is no longer open to the public and looked to me to be in need of some restoration. I made my way by a more circuitous route to the Pousada which had quite impressive formal gardens in its immediate environs and yielded two new species, a Bath White and Cardinal Fritillary [the southern European equivalent of the Silver-washed Fritillary] and the biggest grasshopper I’ve ever seen in the wild!

Despite its name, the Bath White is only a migrant in Britain but is abundant in this region where it flies up to November. The Cardinal is rare in the Algarve due to a scarcity of Violet species so this was a nice catch although I could not be 100% sure about my identification in this case.

Cardinal Fritillary Photo Simon Wates

Bath White. Photo Simon Wates.

For my last evening in Faro I availed of suitable tide times and took to the water. Faro itself doesn’t have any beaches, which is probably why most tourists don’t linger too long here, but it has a wonderful tidal archipelago in its bay. This important wetland, the Ria Formosa Natural Park, is well placed to catch many migratory birds hosting more than 20,000 birds during Winter. My fellow companions were from New Zealand and our boatman/guide was knowledgeable, had good English and provided us with binoculars and bird guides. Most of the birds we saw could be seen in an Irish estuary in winter apart from the odd solitary spoonbill. However, our main objective was something much more exotic, migratory flamingos who linger here to feed. Our guide was well clued in to their movements, knew all the channels like the back of his hand and found us a feeding flock without too much difficulty. However, possibly reacting to our excitement, he ran us aground in the shallows in attempting to get even closer but we easily pushed our way out to deeper waters! It was a beautiful evening with the sun beginning to dip into the Atlantic and this seemed to accentuate the pink colouring of the flamingos even more. I’m grateful to my travelling companions for this photo.

The conference I attended in Lisbon was on sustainable transport and Lisbon is a great city for transport buffs with ferries, trams (old and new) and its amazing funicular which I took on Saturday morning up to the elevated part of the city. My quest was the Botanic Gardens which I thought might be a likely place to see butterflies. Can you imagine my surprise when paying the modest entrance fee of €1.50 to discover that €1 extra would give me access to the Borboletário or butterfly house. Of course this was where I headed to first trying to ignore the rest of the gardens for now and a passing Clouded Yellow.

Monarch. Photo Simon Wates.

Southern Scarce Swallowtail. Photo Simon Wates.

It turned out to be a large outdoor enclosure which was well planted with a variety of food plants with pathways through them, lots of excellent information signs in Portuguese and English, a ‘chrysalis shelter’ and many other delights including larva displays and a fully equipped laboratory. The first thing that caught my attention though was the fact that there were Monarchs everywhere – what a joy to be able to study them close up at my leisure. It appears that the Monarch has established itself on the southern Iberian coast (possibly via the Canaries) where Asclepias shrubs (milkweed family) are planted in gardens and parks. It was a little too late in the season for Swallowtails to be on the wing, even though they have three generations in Portugal, but their larvae and chrysalides were on display and I did get to see a Spanish Festoon, albeit in a mounted display!

All week I had been surprised at how easy it was to see Wall Browns. On my Royal Canal transect I had scoured Pike’s Bridge and surrounding stonework every week for a glimpse of one but to no avail yet here they seemed to be everywhere. The solution of this little mystery came with the help of the student on duty via Portuguese (Malhadinha), Latin (Pararge aegeria) and English (Speckled Wood). Apparently, this species over most of Europe is not brown coloured as we know them but very similar to a Wall Brown – at least to my eyes.

Sunday, my last day, was very hot and I was just going to take it easy and have a last wander around a few of my favourite haunts. Walking across a paved area behind my hotel to get a coffee, suddenly a large powerful-flying butterfly flew past me. I knew immediately that it was a Southern Scarce Swallowtail as it is featured prominently on Algarve birdman’s website. I could see it disappear across the street but it had no intention of stopping.

Not long later, down near the waterfront, a small butterfly caught my eye. It was moving swiftly along a footpath stopping briefly where there were bits of ‘weeds’ growing in cracks or crevices. I got close enough to see that it was quite similar to our Small Blue. I saw a couple more but couldn’t get even a poor photograph. I have subsequently come to the opinion that this was most likely a Lang’s Short-tailed Blue. Funny how things just happen sometimes without you even trying. As for the Two-tailed Pasha?  Well, there’s always next year…