10km southwest of Ronda, (as the Griffon Vulture flies), near the eastern edge of the Sierra Grazalema Natural Park in Andalucia lies the Llanos de Libar, an area of karst at the head of a limestone valley. Amongst other things it is a great area for reptiles and amphibians, so with that in mind we headed for the village at the gateway to the Llanos de Libar, Montejaque.
The drive beyond the little village of Montejaque, up through the valley that divides the Sierra de Juan Diego & the Sierra de Montalate, is fantastic for bird watching with Rock Buntings, Stonechats, Black-eared Wheatear (black throated race), Woodchat Shrikes, & Short-toed Eagles all easily visible from the comfort of the car.
Perhaps the highlight on this occasion was the remarkably close views of a magnificent Egyptian Vulture, even though I somehow still managed to fail in my efforts to get a good photograph of it!
Higher up the valley the dramatic forms of the many huge old Holm oak trees with gnarled trunks became the focus of our attention, but a brief stop to search along a little spring line for the Stripeless Tree Frog - Hyla meridionalis proved unsuccessful, though it is known to occur here.
At the Fuente de los Libar the fertile valley of the Llanos de Libar opens out into an extensive area of grazed meadow with a dry stream running to a marshy pool, all hemmed in by the rugged limestone mountains.
Under the rocks along the dry stream bed we found a number of Fire Salamanders – Salamandra salamandra, their striking black and orangey yellow colouration really standing out. It's amazing to think that the Fire Salamander may live for up to 20 years in the wild and will only be sexually mature after 2 to 4 years.
Some of the Salamanders shared their hiding spot with an impressive Natterjack Toad – Bufo calamita which like so many amphibians had beautiful eyes contrasting with it’s warty skin. This is a rare species in the UK so it was a delight to find it here.
As we approached the pool we were greeted by an amazing chorus of mating calls from a group of 40 to 50 Iberian Water Frogs – Pelophylax perezi giving it there all in an attempt to convince the ladies where the real action was! All around the pool there were males inflating their vocal sacs like a set of water wings as they called out loudly in broad daylight. Click on the play button below to hear a sample. It sounds like a good way to attract predators as well as potential mates!
Initially the frogs did go quiet when we crossed into their vision, but having sat still at the edge of the pond for a while they soon seemed to ignore us. It really was an impressive crescendo of sound.
Under a rock near the edge of the marsh, in a damp, but not wet, part of the meadow, I was delighted to find my first ever live Mole Cricket – Gryllotalpa species. These elusive burrowing insects have short, flattened, and enlarged claw like front legs which they use to push aside the earth while tunnelling below the surface. As we watched this striking insect trying to hide in it’s exposed tunnels it was easy to see the power with which it excavated new galleries so remarkably quickly. The robust head and thorax looked well designed for a life of digging, but this individual lacked wings of any sort which some other species of Mole Cricket have.
Like other species of Orthoptera it will also stridulate. The song, which is performed at night in spring and early summer at the entrance to the burrow, is a sort of continuous one note churring "rrrrrrrr".
In spring the female lays her eggs in an underground chamber and stays with them until they hatch after 2 to 4 weeks, before continuing to give protection to the young nymphs for a short period. Development may take up to two or three years to for some individuals.
Having only found the odd remains of Mole Crickets in the past from both southern Portugal & Andalucia over a period of 15 years it was a real treat to see the live insect in the wild, particularly as the only British species Gryllotalpa gryllotalpa, which has fully developed rear wings & is capable of flight, is extinct in my native Cornwall and, in all probability, the rest of the UK mainland. Sadly it is considered an horticultural pest in places where it is abundant.
In the drier areas away from the pool we spotted a Spanish Psammodromus – Psammodromus hispanicus, a rapid smaller cousin of the much more common Large Psammodromus – Psammodromus algirus, but the lizard proved a little too quick to photograph on this occasion.
With a flock of 40 or more Choughs overhead I walked over towards the lower slopes of the valley sides, exploring the limestone outcrops that form the backbone of the karst landscape. Lifting large flat rocks and hoping for snakes, eventually I found my reward in the form of a young Southern Smooth Snake - Coronella girondica, sharing it's hideaway with a few Armadillidium species of woodlice. It was great to see him tasting the air with his forked tongue.
Not far away from the Southern Smooth Snake, under another rock , I came across one of Europe's most impressive reptiles, a male Ocellated Lizard - Lacerta lepida. This is the largest European lizard and can grow in excess of 80cm long. This individual, though small by comparison was still about 30cm long and was not to happy about being disturbed! While I tried to get him to pose for the camera he was lunging at me in disapproval! So the best I could do was to get close ups with the camera staring down his hissing throat while he bared his teeth, something I wasn't expecting to see. Given his obvious alarm I allowed him to sneak off while I gently replace the rock with him clear.
If you enjoy exploring the hidden wildlife of remote wilderness areas in the mountains of Andalucia I would thoroughly recommend a trip to the Llanos de Libar. The valley itself is 980 metres above sea level and even in relatively bright conditions, with a bit of a breeze it can be surprisingly cool in spring so do take extra layers just in case!