Friday, April 30, 2010

Saline Lagoons of Spain's Costa Blanca

We arrived in Alicante on their first really warm day of the year, and for the first time, were among many northern European English speakers enjoying the beach. We had crossed all of Spain and reached the Mediterranean Sea. Melanie Frinke-Craig, a student friend from Mammoth, showed us the sights and the best place to buy ice cream.

Not far to the south we explored the 38th parallel at Torrevieja (38°02'; 0°42'), an old town known for its salt works and singing competitions. There are two immense saline lagoons cradling the town, one green and one pink. At La Mata, the green lagoon, brine flies and bright red brine shrimp (artemia salina), eared grebes, osprey and avocets (with blue legs!) were in residence. So much like home!

Ranger Antonio Saez explained that the 2 lagoons are natural, but have been managed for salt production for centuries. A canal, controlled by the salt company, lets in the sea when the water level gets low. The pink lagoon, colored by bacteria, is hyper-saline. We were told it is the only place in the world where salt is harvested by scooping if off the lagoon bottom and drying it in huge piles on the shore. A colony of the rare Audouin Gull was using the salt works area as a nesting site.

The Mar Menor ("small sea" at 37°49') is the largest lagoon on the Spanish Mediterranean coast. Though surrounded by condos and beach development, the warm, calm waters serenely reflect the Mediterranean sun. Mud bathing is encouraged here, with a boardwalk infrastructure to get the people to the mud. How strangely enjoyable it was to coat ourselves in the smooth black stuff, hoping it would help our skin cope with salty years at Mono Lake. The Mar's buoyancy also reminded us of swims in Mono.

Spain's water issues are very similar to California's. They move water long-distance from the wetter north to serve farms and resorts in the south. A few years ago, the government decided to not transfer any more river water, but instead focus on construction of two dozen desalinization plants. The largest in Europe is under construction now at Torrevieja, but seems to be stalled. The guard at the gate of the complex just shrugged and rolled his eyes when we asked when they might finish. The usual issues of energy costs and environmental damage in the ocean are part of the problem, but Europe's economic crisis is also affecting things right now.

We have finished crossing Spain now, and tomorrow fly from Barcelona to Sicily. During our days with Javier and Virginia Grijalbo, Javi's list of bird sightings grew past 120 species. An amazing country.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Sierra Morena; Last Refuge of the Iberian Lynx

The dunes , scrub and pino pinyero ( Spanish pinyon pine) habitats of Doñana all seemed to be thriving after an exceptionally wet winter in Spain. In fact, it was harder to see birds since they could spread out so much. The Guadalquivir River delivers loads of sand and nutrients to he ocean here, forming the basis for the entire estuary.
Strawberry cultivation has converted some of the private land scrub habitat, but much of the "dehesa" (woodland) is providing a refuge in the Sierra Morena for the last stand of the Iberian Lynx. These mountains closely follow the 38th parallel across Andalucia from the west coast in Huelva to beyond Andújar.
. A tremendous amount of the landscape has cultivated olive trees (plus cork oaks) and areas managed for hunting grounds and raising pigs. Pata negra (black footed) pigs provide the finest ham in Spain. This is the watershed of the Guadalquivir River that passes by the ancient city of Cordoba (37°54').
North of Andújar (38°07'), we were fortunate to spend a day with German Garrote Alonso, of the Consejeria de Medio Ambiente; Junta de Andalucia ( environmental and conservation arm of the regional government). A half-million people were in this area on an annual pilgrimage just the day before. German works with the remaining wild Iberian Lynx population there and can individually recognize all of the animals older than a year, because he has photo points with motion-sensor cameras for every 100 hectares of the 2000 hectare project. Much effort has been put into expanding the rabbit population in this last stronghold of the wild lynx, which now number about 230. Rabbits are the main food source of the lynx and are critical to their survival. Disease has been decimating the rabbit population, dramatically impacting the lynx. It has not been easy to increase the rabbit population quickly, so instead relocation of wild lynx has occurred recently to expand their range. Of the 3 pairs relocated last December, one female has had 3 cubs and another is pregnant. We asked German what he would most like everyone to know about the lynx program.
His answer: "We have in our hands the power to restore the lynx-- they are flexible and will respond. They just need to have the chance with the protection of their habitat. In fact, since the lynx program began in 2003, numbers have increased by 40% in the wild". The area German showed us north of Andújar is one of the largest undeveloped areas in the country (really the first expansive, truly wild lands we've seen) and was at its spring best of flowery green.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Marshes of Western Spain

On April 22 we left Portugal for Huelva, in southern Spain, where we met Javier and Virginia Grijalbo. Javi is an old friend of Janet's from her student days in Madrid, and it had been 35 years ! What a great moment to see each other again after so long. Not to mention that Javi is a well-known naturalist and illustrator in Spain-- the perfect guide for the Spanish 38th parallel. The marshes of Doñana and Huelva are renowned for their water birds (including flamingos, spoonbills, egrets, and chaffinch, shown int these photos) and for the wetlands at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River (we will be following that major river upstream from here). The birds and wetlands did not disappoint. We also visited the Iberian Lynx Captive Breeding Center in Acebuche, inside Doñana National Park (37°09'; 6°29'), and met with Director Antonio Rivas. The lynx is the most endangered cat in the world; and the breeding adults and cubs are definitely off limits to visitors but we were privileged to see the action on the video screens that are monitored night and day (check the photos at their website: Breeding and births have been occurring here and at several other sites and the plan is to move adult lynx into the wild. In fact, in the days ahead, we will follow the Guadalquivir River upstream and visit the site along the 38th parallel in the Sierra Morena mountains where several reintroductions have occurred in recent months. Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Transported Town and Solar Donkey

From the little town of Moura (38°08N; 7°27'W), where we appeared to be the only tourists, we visited the Alqueva Barragem ("reservoir," see last blog) up close and personal. The countryside is lovely, rolling hills carpeted with wildflowers of every color and hillsides of olive trees. The dam itself isn't huge, but the reservoir behind it is the largest in Europe. Much land was inundated in the process of filling the lake. The town of Luz was directly in the path of the rising water, so a whole new town was built and 300 townspeople moved to a higher spot. Rumblings were heard from several people we talked to that the new town just wasn't the same. A movie in the new museum brought tears to our eyes as stories were told of losing fruit trees, rose bushes and vegetable gardens to the lake. The old town and its surrounding forests were totally razed in anticipation of the filling of the reservoir. A reality check of what is really lost when waterways are changed and manipulated. (see photo of before, top, and after towns from the museum exhibits).

From the reservoir, we turned eastward and crossed into Spain and the province of Extremadura, the "extremely hard" land that produced so many of those extremely "hard" men, the conquistoadors. Jerez de los Caballeros (38°19') was the birthpalce of Henan de Soto and Vasco Nunez de Balboa. We circled south and back into Portugal to see the world's largest solar generating array not too far from Moura (38°12'N; 7°14'W). Each of the panel groups had 92 panels. Of course, this is a central utility approach; it makes so much sense to put them on every household and business roof. Maybe someday we'll get there, but right now, Portugal is a leader. Beside the solar facility we photographed our "solar donkey," a donkey cart driven by father and son with a load of hay. We have been amazed at how many storks are nesting on telephone poles and chimney tops all over this countryside. Next, Espana!

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Really Big Barragem

We flew from the Azores to Lisbon, 2 hours late perhaps because of all the air delays due to volcanic ash in northern Europe. Got our rental car and drove south to rejoin the 38 degree latitude line at Sines (pronounced "seench.") and stayed nearby in the small fishing town of Porto Covo. Sines (37°57'N; 8°52'W) is the birthplace of Vasco de Gama, the seafarer who actually FOUND the ocean route to India from Europe. North of here is a major wetlands area with white storks and signs about nesting least terns (later in the year)...shades of California's coastline. A surf competition and a big bike race in the region livened up the weekend.
We drove across Portugal today (on the 38th parallel) to Beja (38°01'), where we met with Jose Martins, director of the regional Quercus office; that is the "Sierra Club" of Portugal, the major NGO environmental group of Portugal. Jose educated us about water issues, especially the "barragem" (reservoir) on the Guadiana River, which is the largest in Europe. The river has most of its watershed inside Spain, where there are about 40 dams before the water ever reaches Portugal. The new reservoir (completed in 2002, but just filled for the first time this year, which has been wet after years of drought) has not yet delivered any water, because the canals to move it around are still being built. It does not serve urban use, but like California's federal Central Valley Project, primarily serves farms. There are lots of issues and concerns, as always, with such an approach to water management. Many new olive orchards are being planted anticipating the water deliveries, which is interesting because olives, grown in the traditional way, do not require irrigation. Intensive olive growing has become the new way to boost production, with applied pesticides and water; a worrisome new trend in an industry that had been traditionally well-balanced with the Mediterranean climate. The wildflowers are beautiful, since this year the rain has been plentiful.
There is also a huge solar array near here, one of the largest in the world, which we'll visit tomorrow. At the moment, we are sitting on a skinny little sidewalk outside the Espacio Internet, picking up a wireless signal. World travelers must make do with what they have!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Volcanic Islands of the Atlantic-- the Azores

The first thing we learned was how to pronounce the name of the Azores-- “eh-shurs” in Portuguese. The second thing was getting our heads around the fact that here, on Sao Miguel Island (the most populated island of the archipelago), we are WAY out in the Atlantic (at 37°46'N; 25°19'W), 940 miles from the Portuguese mainland, and over 2,000 miles from Assatague Island, the closest land to the west. One can't go more than a few miles without a glimpse of the ocean, a constant reminder that this is an island in a very big sea. It is very welcoming and comfortable here, the people extremely hospitable even though our Spanish seems a mystery to them.

Reminders that these islands are volcanic are everywhere: lava rock is used for building, hot springs and fumaroles abound, and people cook meals in holes dug into the steaming ground. We visited Furnas, the thermal capital of Sao Miguel, full of steam and bubbling pots. A huge thermal pool in the park welcomed swimmers. We plunged in, and now Janet's white shirt is a nice shade of orange from the minerals! Geothermal power is a force on these isolated islands. The geothermal plant, which looks a lot like Mammoth's geothermal facility at home, provides 40% of the island's power.

Sete Cidades (Seven Cities) despite its name only has one small village in the center of a huge caldera accented with 2 lakes, one blue and one green. The story goes that a princess and a shepherd were in love, but not allowed to marry, and cried 2 colors of tears from which each lake gets its distinctive hue.

A local fisherman at Mosteiros, on the island's far western shore, explained that the fishing boats can only go out when the sea is calm, and one never knows when that may be. There are natural pools along the rocky shore, protected by lava ridges from the crashing waves, that local swimmers use when it is warm, but not during this mid-April visit. In fact a woman hiker told us that it was warmer back home in Finland!

The island archipelago reminds us of Hawaii, and as in the Hawaiian Islands, there are lots of flowers—azaleas, in particular. Also, like in Hawaii, there are wetter and drier sides to the island depending on the wind direction, but (though they grow pineapples in greenhouses here), this is definitely not a tropical latitude with tropical temperatures and vegetation We are at 38 degrees north, after all!