SW Iberia

Southern Portugal and Southwestern Spain

From the 29th of December 2017 until the 5th of January 2018

As every year, I was eager to go somewhere after the usual Christmas family stuff. When Laura and I saw flights to Faro weren't that expensive, we knew what to do. Moreover, there are some seriously cool Fire Salamanders to be found there. Sadly, both Southern Portugal and Southern Spain experienced a record drought and practically no rain worth mentioning fell in autumn. These conditions meant that amphibians were going to be tricky to find. We thought reptiles were going to be easier but they were also affected by the drought and harder to find. Besides, when the temperatures are favourable throughout the winter they are not so eager to bask. 

Overview of prospected sites (click to enlarge).
Overview of prospected sites (click to enlarge).

29th of December 2017

We flew with Transavia from Amsterdam to Faro and had a very smooth flight. Also picking up the rental car didn't take long and before we knew it we were already standing in the Ria Formosa NP. While we were actually hoping to see some active West African Fiddler Crabs (Uca tangeri) we weren't so lucky with those which fits with their activity pattern according to Wolfrath 1993. Anyway, I did spot a tiny Horseshoe Whip Snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis) basking next to the salt marsh which was a very nice first herp of the trip! Also the first Moorish Gecko (Tarentola mauritanica) was seen here. On a nearby spot we found several basking Mediterranean Chameleons (Chamaeleo chamaeleon) and Moorish Terrapins (Mauremys leprosa). Birding was also pretty good with many duck species along the first Black-winged Kites (Elanus caeruleus), Purple Gallinules (Porphyrio porphyrio) and Azure-winged Magpies (Cyanopica cooki).

After buying some food and drinks we drove to Lagos to visit the Ponte de Piedade with its spectacular cliffs. After sunset we drove to Raposeira and checked in in our cozy AirBnB. We had a tasty dinner at the Pizza Point in Raposeira after which we were ready to venture into the night. The whole area was even drier than on my last visit in 2016 and we had a hard time finding our first amphibians. Two large ponds still had large numbers of Iberian Water Frogs (Pelophylax perezi), Iberian Newts (Lissotriton boscai) and Southern Marbled Newts (Triturus pygmaeus). On land we only found a single Spiny Toad (Bufo spinosus) and one big female Western Spadefoot Toad (Pelobates cultripes). Still, all in all a rather successful day!

30th of December 2017

After a nice breakfast of fruit and yoghurts in our apartment we drove in the hills around Raposeira again. We explored a very nice place with many small manmade bassins and a small dam. We found several species such as Southern Marbled Newt, Iberian Water Frog, Moorish Gecko, Moorish Terrapin and some calling Stripeless Tree Frogs (Hyla meridionalis) from thick bramble bushes. After enjoying the sun at this tranquil place we went shopping at the Lidl and drove north to Carrapateira. Several places which were rather rewarding in 2016 only delivered the ubiquitous Moorish Geckoes, Algerian Psammodromus (Psammodromus algirus) and a single Spiny Toad (Bufo spinosus). At another more urban spot we found a Bedriaga's Skink (Chalcides bedriagai) and an Iberian False Smooth Snake (Macroprotodon brevis). During the drive south the sun was getting lower and lower but we were just in time on our target beach to catch the sunset. In complete darkness we explored some sea facing valleys. Not for long we found lots of larvae, but also an adult Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra crespoi). A rare sight to see an adult individual in this harsh environment so we consider ourselves extremely lucky! Rather hungry from a busy day we had dinner at Eira do Mel, a rather posh place but we had deserved some proper food. Exploring ponds after dinner didn't deliver too much but a last desperate stop did give us two individuals of Fire Salamander of a population living on sandy soil. Another strange place to see these urodeles!

31st of December 2017

Today we did some touristy things in the morning such as visiting the famous Benagil Caves and the Praia da Marinha. In the afternoon we traded the coastal scenery for the rolling hills of the Serra de Monchique. A slight drizzle came down while we were driving up and it suddenly stopped raining at the moment we finally found the oldest Cork Oak (Quercus suber). The weather conditions were favourable though and in a nearby stream it didn't take us long to find a few Spiny Toads (one was sitting in a tree!) and many Fire Salamanders. While Tawny Owls (Strix aluco) were hooting in the trees overhead, we could see our amphibian friends leave their hiding places and emerge from rocky walls. Back at Raposeira we had hoped the slight rain would make amphibian life stir, but it was too little to make a difference. Also finding something to eat was impossible with all shops and restaurants closed so we ate our leftover bread in the car at the parkinglot of the Lidl. Back to the B&B. When the fireworks started we shortly left the comfort of our apartment, but as the festivities only lasted for two minutes, we were soon back in bed. 

1st of January 2018

On the first day of the new year we drove east to a new destination. Progress was good on the excellent Portuguese roads and before we knew it we were in Spain. Shortly past the border we herped in some excellent looking habitat where we flipped a million rocks. Strangely we couldn't find much, near some ephemeral puddles we found some Southern Marbled Newts, Iberian Water Frogs, Moorish Geckoes and a Natterjack Toad (Epidalea calamita). On our drive north we had some scenic stops along the way including the Río Tinto. Along this river mining has been going on for centuries. Nowadays it is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, whose waters are coloured deep red from dissolved iron. It has an otherworldy feel to it. The same goes for the Embalse de Gossán, a water reservoirs which contains polluted waste water from the mines. It is the haunt of extremophile anaerobic bacteria which form huge colonies on the dead trees in the bassin. We were lucky to have low water levels and to see the strange colonies these bacteria form. 
In the late afternoon we arrived in the city of the Jamón Ibérico, the city of ham. Jabugo proved to be a lovely little city but in wintertime restaurants only open at 20:30. So we had to settle for a simple dish of potatoes and meat instead. In darkness we explored a good looking streambed nearby in the hopes of finding reddish Fire Salamanders for which this city is also famous (at least to herpetologists). At first we only found some curious foxes (Vulpes vulpes) and skittish Red deer (Cervus elaphus). Back at the car we decided to have a small look at a rock wall and again these proved to be good to find salamanders. A small but pretty subadult was looking out of the wall.

2nd of January 2018

After a small breakfast in our cozy AirBnB we drove north in the search of good looking habitat for fire salamanders. In the evening we would return then in the hopes of seeing some. Next to a big stream we just went out to check out a little waterfall and stretch our legs. Not entirely awake yet I smoked a cigarette and enjoyed the sun. Then my eye fell on an animal moving at the shoreline. When it emerged from the water I realised what I was looking at. A European Otter (Lutra lutra)! We could observe the animal for quite some time but sadly we didn't bring any suitable lenses for such distant animals. But what the hell, we saw an otter! In one of the picturesque little mountain villages we went for a small beverage and some sightseeing. While doing so we noticed a few tiny streams and springs which looked promising. We would return here later. 
We wanted to go for dinner in the town but that proved impossible, as the only restaurant that was open served food from 21:30(!) on. Again we had a dinner of bread in the car and went out to check the promising looking spots first. It wasn't for long until we spotted a Turkish Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus) which was out on this windy and cold evening, weird... But also a first Fire Salamander was found leaving its hiding place. Practically all little streams and springs in and near the town had Fire Salamanders emerging from their hiding places. Despite the unfavourable windy, cold and, moreover, dry conditions salamanders were out in big numbers inlcuding some very pretty reddish ones. Also many Iberian Newts and some Spiny Toads were seen. What a night! 
Trying to find some food again we were less lucky. The restaurant apparantly also closes within two hours, so it was another night without some proper food. Back at our B&B our hosts learned of our misfortune and warmed up some leftover food up for us. Along with a sweet white wine and a super mega extra orange, this meal was a lifesaver!

3rd of January 2018

Today we drove south and out of the mountains. It was a smooth drive and not for long we were checking out a famous industrial spot which is flipping heaven. Although our findings were confined to Algerian Psammodromus and Moorish Geckoes unfortunately. While driving to the visiting centre of NP Coto Doñana we saw the devestating effect the fires of the past summer had. Blackened and charcoaled trees abound. Luckily some areas escaped the forest fires and the area around the visiting centre looked just as it did during my previous visits. Here we were a bit more lucky and found a few Algerian Psammodromus but also a Maria's Worm Lizard (Blanus mariae) and a Western Montpellier Snake (Malolon monspessulanus). It was a bliss to walk again through this beautiful area with the sun in your face and parasol pines as far as the eye can see. Dinner was again not so easy to find but in the same burgerplace as two years back we stuffed ourselves on cheeseburgers. Near El Rocio we explored a little before going to the hotel and it didn't take us long to find Natterjack Toads, a small Western Spadefoot Toad and two pretty Iberian Midwife Toads (Alytes cisternasii). Several individuals were calling and it was great to see this wonderful species once more. We spent the night in the Casa Rural Arenas de El Rocio and fell asleep happily in our cozy room. 

4th of January 2018

The first thing we noticed when we woke up was how dark it still was. While we expected sun for a full day of viper searching around the visitors centre, it was heavily overcast. We slept a little longer and after a nice breakfast we finally hit the field. First birding around El Rocio where we enjoyed seeing huge flocks of Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) and Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus). Afterwards we tried to find some amphibians and reptiles at two different visitor centres but only found another Western Montpellier Snake, a Stripeless Tree Frog and several Iberian Water Frogs. The predicted sun never showed up and instead the weather forecast predicted rain now. Just what we needed for amphibians and just now we were about to leave this magical place. We drove on to Monte Gordo where we again stayed in the fine Hotel Baía de Monte Gordo and had a fabulous dinner at the Burger Ranch. The evening was not very productive and only at the coast we managed to find a single juvenile Mediterranean Chameleon.

5th of January 2018

We had called Transavia to postpone our flight till the next day, but they weren't so flexible this time. With heavy rain predicted for the evening we would have loved to stay a little longer to observe the amphibian bonanza. With heavy hearts we left the lovely Algarve behind and flew back to Holland. Despite the unfavourable conditions we made the most of it and can look back to a trip which was full of fire salamanders, chameleons, fantastic scenery and a lot of nice surprises. And we saw an otter!


Iberian Newt (Lissotriton boscai)

Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra ssp. crespoi & morenica)

Southern Marbled Newt (Triturus pygmaeus)

Iberian Midwife Toad (Alytes cisternasii)

Spiny Toad (Bufo spinosus)

Natterjack Toad (Epidalea calamita)

Stripeless Tree Frog (Hyla meridionalis)

Western Spadefoot Toad (Pelobates cultripes)

Iberian Water Frog (Pelophylax perezi)

Moorish Terrapin (Mauremys leprosa)

Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon)

Moorish Gecko (Tarentola mauritanica)

Turkish Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus)

Bedriaga's Skink (Chalcides bedriagai ssp. cobosi)

Algerian Psammodromus (Psammodromus algirus)

Maria’s Worm Lizard (Blanus mariae)

Horseshoe Whip Snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis)

Iberian False Smooth Snake (Macroprotodon brevis)

Western Montpellier Snake (Malpolon monspessulanus)


Many thanks to Sebastian Gomez Ramirez, Andreas Nöllert and Jeroen Speybroeck.