Majorca (Mallorca) 6th-14th August 2010
Mid summer trips to the Mediterranean are usually difficult with regard to finding amphibians and reptiles with the very hot weather conditions, however the Balearic island of Majorca is home to some endemic species that can still be found regardless of the temperature. The endemic Lilford’s wall lizard (Podarcis lilfordi) is easy to observe, the challenge however is finding someone to take you to the uninhabited islets dotted around Majorca where they live. Another endemic species in the Balearic islands, which I have observed before, the Ibiza wall lizard (Podarcis pityusensis) has been introduced at several localities on Majorca. But my main target was the beautiful, and rare Majorcan midwife toad (Alytes muletensis), only found in the serra de Tramuntana mountain range in the west of the island. The toads live in deep gorges, where an introduced predator, the Viperine snake (Natrix maura) cannot reach them, and getting there is very difficult indeed as we would find out during our trip. Special breeding programmes over the last few decades since the discovery of the species in 1980 have meant that there are now 35 breeding sites for the species in the serra de Tramuntana. Some have been colonised by the viperine snake and the Iberian water frog (Pelophylax perezi) and the toads have quickly become extinct or very rare at such localities.
The Majorcan midwife toad usually breeds from March until the end of July, so our August visit would be just after the toads breeding season. The weather, as expected, was very hot indeed, usually between 31-36C, which meant finding two additional species on our list, the Algerian false smooth snake (Macroprotodon mauritanicus) and the endangered Spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca), would be extremely difficult.
Our team on this trip was very small, only three of us, myself, and fellow British herper Kevin Byrnes and his girlfriend Suzanne, who like on our trip to Crete, proved to be great travel companions. As always our trip would not have been as successful as it was without invaluable assistance from the following people: Marten Van den Berg, Maria del Mar Comas, Carl Corbidge, Daniel Escoriza, Joan Mayol Serra, Jeroen Speybroeck and Ivan Ramos Torrens. We must give an extra special thank you to Samuel Pinya, who gave us a unique look at one of the most special and a very secret locality for the endemic toad or ”Ferreret” where the amphibians are found in very high numbers. Our thanks also go to ”Rafa” for taking us to two islets on the south coast of Majorca during our stay.
I flew from Liverpool airport early on friday morning and arrived an hour after Kevin and Suzanne had arrived from Bristol. We immediately set out in our hire car to the island’s capital, Palma, where we were hoping to see an introduced population of the Ibiza wall lizard (Podarcis pityusensis). The town was extremely busy due to a visit from the King of Spain, and after some time we eventually managed to park and walked to the Palma cathedral. With lots of people around, lizards were not seen in great numbers, and were very shy, however we probably observed around 15-20 individuals. Also here we found some day basking Moorish geckos (Tarentola mauritanica), which we would see in vast numbers for the entire week. After the King drove past us, we went for some dinner before setting out in the afternoon to a place hinted to us by Carl Corbidge. It was very hot, and lifting the first hundred or so stones we found many Moorish geckos, but not the False smooth snake we had hoped for. After this we drove to the east coast to the resort of Cala Bona which would be our base for the trip. We came to the conclusion that we have never in our lives lifted so many stones without finding a snake during our stay on Majorca, however searching in August certainly does not help.
Day 2: Serra de Tramuntana
We decided to get up early and drive across the island to the beautiful Serra de Tramuntana mountains, home of the elusive Majorcan midwife toad. The first stop was a long hiking area that passes by a natural ‘torrent’ or stream. Midwife toads can still be found here but the presence of viperine snakes and Iberian water frogs was only too clear when we arrived. After some climbing around, we reached the water, and found many Iberian water frogs (Pelophylax perezi), and the large slough of a Viperine snake (Natrix maura). In general this did not seem an easy place to search for midwife toads as there was little ground cover that could be lifted and the toads probably take refuge in the gaps of the dry stone walls that border the stream. After this hike, we drove on and stopped at the Cuber artificial lake, finding a small ditch with some water down below the reservoir we found many more Iberian water frogs and our first Viperine snake (Natrix maura). It was now very hot indeed and we headed for the shade as walking around was becoming very difficult and tiresome. After admiring some wonderful scenery we had some lunch and made the very twisty drive down to Sa Calobra. Waiting for it to cool down some more, we decided to bravely attempt the deep gorge of the Torrent d’es Pareis. We started from the sea and made our way deeper into the gorge than I thought would be possible, we saw signs indicating to hikers to remove any Viperine snakes they see to help the ”Ferrerets”. Again we found many Iberian water frogs, and after climbing rocks for several hours we came to the conclusion we could not venture any deeper into the gorge without climbing gear, and it would be dark in a few hours. Such isolation really is the best protection for the midwife toads here, as not even the snakes can reach them deeper into the gorge.
This day would be dedicated to the endemic Lilford’s wall lizard (Podarcis lilfordi), so we decided to drive to the Colonia de Sant Jordi on the south coast. After walking around the harbour I started asking about getting some transportation to the uninhabited islands were the lizards live. Shortly afterwards we managed to hire a boat for a very low price and we set of out with our new friend Rafa to Sa Guardia islet just off the south coast. The lizards here are quite small and are melanistic, they belong to the subspecies Podarcis lilfordi jordansi. We could already see many lizards climbing among the rocks before we arrived on the islet, and intially they seemed very nervous and had a high fleeing distance. It wasn’t until I sat down that I saw some truely unique behaviour, as many lizards came and crawled onto me and started tasting my skin with their tongues and sometimes giving me a little bite. The lizards were truely amazing and after a few hours our we went for a swim as it was very hot before setting out at a slightly bigger islet, Sa Moltana. Here there were a few people sunbathing so we didn’t stay too long but again witnessed some very tame behaviour from the lizards found there, I also saw a Moorish gecko on this islet. After this fantastic morning we went back to Sant Jordi, were we could observe some translocated Podarcis lilfordi around the harbour, that were larger than those found on the islets and not entirely melanistic. In the afternoon we drove to Cala Mondrago Natural Park, it was still very hot, but under a large stone near a ruined house I found the first Turkish gecko (Hemdactylus turcicus), and after exploring some more Kevin found a Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni) trapped in the water at the bottom of a well. The tortoise looked to have drowned but to our delight once picked out of the water it was alive and in good condition. We also found many Moorish geckos at this locality, after lifting about another 200 stones…
In the morning we drove to the south-west part of the island in an attempt to find the endangered Spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca). We searched for a couple of hours but no tortoises, only several Moorish geckos and a single Turkish gecko. Local biologists now estimate that there are less than 5,000 Testudo graeca on Majorca. After this failure we drove to Sant Elm and took a boat across to Sa Dragonera islet which is a Natural park. The Lilfords wall lizards on this island are very large and are generally a light brown colour, they belong to the subspecies Podarcis lilfordi gigliolii. The lizards were extremely common on this island, and many fellow visitors were feeding the lizards with fruit, and they would all come rushing out of a drystone wall for an easy meal. After spending a couple of hours with the Lilfords wall lizards we took a boat back to the main island where we did another few searches without anything but the ever present Moorish geckos.
In the morning we went to the S’Albufera wetland reserve, where we hoped to find the European pond terrapin (Emys orbicularis) which is only found at two localities on Majorca. After exploring some time we only found a few water frogs and two Red-Eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta), as well as Moorish gecko. After this we visited Capdepera in the north-west a town which now has populations of Horseshoe whip snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis) and Ladder snake (Rhinechis scalaris) which have been introduced from the mainland in recent years coming in via olive trees. We found a nice ruined building that seemed good snake habitat, and searching here for quite some time we again found many Moorish geckos. Kevin then found a juvenile Hermann’s tortoise, which I did not know was found in this area of the island.
In the morning I phoned local Herpetologist and Majorcan midwife toad expect Samuel Pinya about visiting a site for the species with him as access without a local guide is forbidden. He kindly agreed to meet us in the late afternoon in the serra de Tramuntana. Before this we again drove the mountains and stopped at the Cuber lake, this time Kevin caught four Viperine snakes swimming in a small pool together and of course the ever present water frogs and Moorish geckos. After this we drove to Valldemossa for some dinner before meeting with Samuel at his office. Samuel is one of the most important people in the conservation of the Majorcan midwife toad, and every year studies all 35 breeding sites in great detail, counting tadpoles and measuring and taking data from adults for his doctoral thesis on the species. He proposed we visit a site at 900m above sea level, on a property bought by the Balearic government, the area is also home to some rare birds of prey and is a beautiful scenic area. After parking the car by some old abandoned buildings we start a very tiring and steep hike up to the site of the Ferrerets. After about an hour and a half of steep hiking we were dehydrated as the weather was very hot. The site itself consists of an ancient cave-like water cistern that has now been fitted with a gate to keep out goats. Much to our delight on entering the cistern the water was ice cold and very refreshing after our hike up hill. All around us in the water were huge tadpoles of the Majorcan midwife toad (Alytes muletensis), walking further into the cistern there were a pile of stones petruding from the water. Carefully lifting some of these stones we found a total of 23 Majorcan midwife toads!! Taking them all outside we helped Samuel to calculate, measure and weigh each specimen. This site has the largest individuals of the species ever recorded including the record specimen of 4.4cm which we enjoyed meeting! Of course afterwards we made many photographs of this truely amazing amphibian that was only known as a fossil until 1980. Leaving this special place we went for a few drinks with Samuel to thank him for helping us to see the Ferrerets.
The remaining two days:
We again decided to try and find Spur-thighed tortoise, but despite searching for many hours we could not find a specimen, again only many Moorish geckos, and under what was probably the last of 1000 pieces of ground cover lifted we found a very dead Algerian false smooth snake (Macroprotodon mauritanicus). I am sure if we had lifted this many stones during the springtime we would have found this elusive snake. On our last day before going to the airport we stopped at Cala Rajada on the east coast and found some Ibiza wall lizards before again seeing the species at Palma cathedral before Kevin and Suzanne flew home. I had to sleep on the airport floor for 10 hours before my flight to Liverpool with thoughts of midwife toads and Lilfords wall lizards helping pass the time.
All three of us were very happy with the trip considering how hot it was and the limited number of species found on the Balearics, seeing the midwife toads was without doubt the highlight for myself. In the end we didn’t find a living Algerian false smooth snake (Macroprotodon mauritanicus), but we tried VERY hard indeed to find one, I cannot recall ever lifting so many stones in a single trip as I did in Majorca with very little reward, except Moorish geckos! However after speaking with Samuel, he informed us that in the spring the species is observed quite often, so a trip to the neighbouring island of Menorca in the spring will certainly be something I’ll be doing in the near future. We also failed to find Testudo graeca, Emys orbicularis and the Green toad (Bufo viridis) which would certainly have been active as I was sleeping in Majorca airport as it was raining heavily that last night. The introduced colubrid snakes from mainland Spain were also not observed in any form by us.
Species we did observe: