Sardinia – Dragonflies and other wildlife

Having enjoyed the trip to The Camargue so much in 2009 looking for Dragonflies, I decided to follow on searching for Odonata in another part of Europe, this time for a week in Sardinia leaving in June 2010. 

Hibiscus flower

Sardinia is often referred to as the ‘Jewell of the Mediterranean’ and is the second largest island of this area with diverse habitats of forests, mountains and white, sandy beaches with sharp rocky coves. The clear blue waters are pristine and full of colourful fish and this unspoilt island provides a habitat for wild horses, white albino donkeys, reptiles such as tortoises, tree frogs,lizards and gecko, some impressive raptors including gryphin vultures and over 30 species of dragonflies. My interest was primarily Dragonflies and other insects and as it is so close to Africa Sardinia has some brightly coloured species to search for including the Violet Dropwing and the much sought after Green Hook-tail and Blade-tail species.

This trip was led once again by Dragonfly expert Andy McGeeny who is an excellent field guide, there to ask questions if needed, yet generally you are left alone to do your own thing; which suited me well. Andy spotted me at Heathrow airport so I sat with him on the plane journey over and talked to him about his books and what we might see in Sardinia.

Also on the plane were three other members from the trip to the Camargue, two of which I was delighted to see, Jan and Harvey, as we had got on so well in the Camargue, there only being 8 in the group for this week that meant that 50% of it had already met.

We arrived at Alghero and while waiting at the airport for the hire vehicles I photographed some House Martins flying in and out of their nests on the ceiling of the airport where they had nested in each light all the way along the building. The female birds faithfully flew in to feed their demanding young, which we could hear squawking for feed constantly.

Housemartin leaving its nest

Once the vehicles arrived we headed off to check in at a hotel in the town of Porto Torres, which is an industrial port, I was glad that the single supplement was within my budget this time so that I did not have to share within anyone; it is pot luck who you get and can often make or break a trip.

The grounds were surrounded by stone walls covered in bright red Hibiscus flowers which I photographed, these showy flowers are edible and are often used in salads or added to syrup and drinks. Hibiscus flowers have a range of colours, but the red ones really stand out and are so striking to the eye, some of the flowers are scented, yet just as many are unscented. There was an underground car park which had baby spotted flycatchers in a nest, I decided to watch them as much as I could in the short time at this hotel.

Baby Spotted Fly Catcher on its first flight landed on a car window wiper

Once unpacked and settled we drove up the road to a lake on a nature reserve called Lago Platamona, it was a beautiful area surrounded by pine woods. We had a picnic under the cool pine trees at a long wooden table and then scattered in different directions along the wooden walkways to look for Dragonflies and other wildlife. I saw a Western Whip snake within minutes of being on a trail and also many rainbow green lizards which shot away into the undergrowth as I approached them on foot. There were tiny pale green tree frogs, some the size of a thumbnail which clung to the reeds and grasses, the Tyrrhenian Tree frog (Hyla sarda) which is abundant in Sardinia, Corsica and the surrounding areas.  These tree frogs are minute and looked like plastic toys, it is only when they jump away that you really believe they are real.

Tiny Tree Frog

Further along by the water I saw my first Violet Dropwing Dragonfly (Trithemis annulata), it was a beautiful a blaze of pink to mauve in colour and was perched with its body protruding outwards on a twig, its abdomen looked iridescent and as though it was lit up from the inside. These species are seen in parts of Africa and with Sardinia being so close have flown over to populate the island, they are one of the prettiest and most exotic of these areas.

Violet Dropwing

I moved on up a hill into more forested area and found a Small Red Damselfly on a twig, it was a lovely specimen and I just got a photos of it before it flew off. Back down by the water I found an endemic Island Blue Tail Damselfly, the tail was so bright it looked as though it was lit up like a neon blue sign. After spending the afternoon alone exploring the area I re-joined the group and we headed back for the evening meal to discuss the day and the species seen.

Small Red Damselfly

It is important to get the identification of what we see correct as the findings often go into scientific reports to help monitor numbers of species in the specific areas. We note numbers of species seen each day and precisely where they were seen, only if we are 100% sure that we can identify the species correctly can we count it.

The next day after an early breakfast we took a ferry across from Stintino to the small island known as isola del asanara, meaning ‘inhabited by donkeys’ in Italian, over a calm sea, which was so clear you could watch the fish from the side of the boat. This wild island is marked as uninhabited as in 2001 there was only one person listed as living there. We hired a local guide for the day who told us about the history, geology and wildlife of the island while she drove us round, mostly off the beaten track to see less explored parts of the island. We focused on wetland areas where I would jump out of the vehicle and scrabble off alone to look for Dragonflies and other insects. I came across a few Praying Mantises as well as many colourful grass hoppers, whose wings displayed a flash of bright colour when jumping away, only to disappear back to the dull, camouflage of the grass hopper when it closed its wings on landing; a clever distraction to any predator.  

Praying Mantis

Back in the vehicle we later passed a ruined Spanish castle and a huge, long prison building once used for prisoners of the First World War 5,000 of whom sadly died there. Later it was used as a sanatorium as well as to imprison some of the most dangerous and notorious Mafia members. One of the men imprisoned here was the notorious Salvatore Toto Riina who was one of the most dangerous men in the Mafia who not only killed many people but organised the deaths of hundreds of men, he was known by many as ‘the beast’ for his violent lifestyle.

Prison building and Sanitorium

We passed rocky cliffs with drops looking down onto clear, turquoise seas and saw a family of albino donkeys with their foals, wild horses, a wild goat and a pair of Mouflon sheep high up on the mountainside though too far away to photograph. The wild albino donkeys are common in Sardinia and are a very attractive breed, though they always looked so sad, more than once I saw the adults kicking each other if another got too close as they defended their space. 

We had many stops around the island which was wild and totally unspoilt and saw some Tyrrhenian Wall Lizards on rocks as well as the more common Italian wall Lizard. We later came to a small dammed reservoir that was buzzing with Dragonflies and I took some time out to photograph them in flight. We had lunch in the shade of juniper trees by a steep, rocky beach before continuing our exploration of the island and its spectacular scenery.

We came to a river and wandered around in the scrub looking for wildlife, some wild horses were drinking by the waterside and I wandered a little close to them which caused one of them to react, rear up and chase me away. It was being protective of its group, I backed right away, well in fact I ran away, and stayed further off leaving the horses to their water. I rejoined the group for the ferry crossing back to the hotel where I re-charged my camera batteries, wrote up my notes and joined the others for dinner.

Just before I started to run!

The next morning after breakfast we went to Capo Caccia to see the spectacular steep cliffs and an off shore rocky island. We watched Alpine Swift and Common Swift, a pair of Peregrines flew over the blue skies and there was a cool sea breeze for such a hot day. We drove on to Lake Baratz, a secluded natural lake surrounded by pine wood and Mediterranean scrub with a shore line of rushes and reeds. A rare Two-tailed Pasha Butterfly flew round the bushes a few times and there were hundreds of dragonflies flying past in the hot sun. It was a naturalists paradise for unspoilt habitat teaming with wildlife.

I photographed some Banded Groundling Dragonflies here which seemed to enjoy resting on the Bankside soaking up the very hot sun.  I really loved this area and it was lovely having a picnic sitting on logs under the scented pine trees. Afterwards the group split into two as some of them wanted to go and look at historic buildings, which held no interest for me, Harvey or George as we three wanted to continue looking for rare Dragonflies and other wildlife in this wooded area. So the others headed off on their outing leaving us with Elisa the local guide and Dragonfly expert to comb the area and see what we could find.

Broad Red Chaser

We were extremely lucky as we saw a pair of Hermanns Tortioses (Testudo hermanni) walking slowly in the undergrowth, these wild Tortoises are small to medium in size with beautiful markings, it was good to see them in their natural habitat, they looked to be a male and female as the male has a longer tail. They use their sharp beaks for feeding off plants as they do not have teeth and enjoy sitting under the shade of the bushes. Elisa carefully picked one up for closer inspection before setting it back on its path.

Hermanns Tortoise

We were then rewarded further by finding a rare BladeTail Dragonfly this dragonfly is large, yet a superbly graceful flyer with four ‘blades’ on its tail earning it its scientific name; we took as many photos as we could until it flew off.  We had a brilliant afternoon there, in fact that was my favourite day of the whole trip, there is something great about being with like-minded people who are as enthusiastic as you about such things as Dragonflies and other wildlife and being in the company of Harvey, George and Elisa worked extremely well.

Bladetail

On the way back Elisa stopped the car as George spotted a Little Owl sitting on a telephone wire high up, it was really exquisite and serene looking and we took some photos then respectfully moved away and left it in peace. The drive back was great as we listened to music and the open windows in the car started to cool us off, this day had been exceptionally hot out by the lake.

Little Owl

Today after breakfast as we were leaving the hotel, I ran down to the underground car park to see what the baby Spotted Flycatchers were doing and was so pleased to see that today they were learning to fly out of the nest. I stood quietly and watched them, took two discrete photographs of them, one baby tottered up to the edge of the nest and flew straight down onto a van window wiper, it then clung on to the wiper not really knowing where to fly to next. The mother soon appeared and began squawking orders and eventually it plucked up the courage to fly towards her, it was a shaky little bird, but I am sure with practice it would improve, it was its first flight after all.

We left Porto Torres a 9.00am and drove to the hotel outside Abbasanta near the middle of the island, it was a very long drive and on the way a large bee like insect flew through the window and hit me in the face. I picked it up carefully as it fell onto my lap and kept it safe until we reached the next destination to release it. The drive was well worth it as the hotel here was set in a quiet rural location amongst cork oak groves. From the car park we could see many flowers still in bloom and we heard Woodlark and Chaffinch singing. I took my bee and set it outside on a fence where it could fly off at ease, Andy thinks it is a Bee Mimic of some sort, it had the most striking blue eyes.

Bee Mimic

We were met by very pleasant hotel staff who were bemused by our interest in wildlife and one of the boys that worked there wanted to see pictures of things and so we showed him what we had seen and promised to send him some on our return, which we did. After a quick check in we went off to Su Gorlogone Spring across some dramatic scenery of mountains and wide plains, stopping for coffee and pizza on the way. The last set of high limestone mountains beyond Nuoro were particularly steep and high.

We arrived at the spring and had a packed lunch of french bread, cheese, olives and salad under some eucalyptus trees and then went off to explore the spring and river. The beautiful spring with its deep clear blue waters had Copper Demoiselles in courtship, trout swimming in its depths and some lively lizards scuttling over the rocks.  The Copper Demoiselles were beautiful to watch from the side of the water and their colours showed up well against the dark tree branches.

Copper Demoiselles in a wheel

We also saw Swallowtails and Great Banded Grayling as well as Blue Emperor, Violet Dropwing, Keeled Skimmer and Black-tailed Skimmer flying about. I wandered off on my own to walk along by the water further up and kept hearing a loud gasping sound, eventually I discovered it was a huge cat-fish that was coming up and gasping in air at regular intervals. I found lots of the Tyrrhenian Wall Lizards, bright green with rainbow colours running through them. 

I met up with the group who were having a coffee and we headed back to the hotel, I joined Jan and Harvey for a cold glass of wine and sat chatting to them about the day. Suddenly Alison, a member of the group jumped up screaming and ran into the hotel, we looked down to see a Western Whip Snake (Hierophis viridiflavus) slithering behind our chairs, we think it was trying to get a sparrows nest directly above. Elisa expertly caught it and we had the opportunity to get a close up look at this beautiful creature, she then released the snake out in the orchard and we were able to photograph it as it moved away. These diurnal snakes were originally named for their quick speed in ‘whipping along’ and are social snakes often hibernate in groups, they hunt by sight and the females are larger than the males. If handled these snakes will bite and in defence will also try to enlarge themselves and hiss at the predator, they can also of course move away at hight speed.

After a late evening meal a few of us went for a night bug walk in the grounds in the moonlit night. We rescued a Tyrrhenian Tree Frog and also a praying mantis that had fallen in, it looked stunning with its silvery wings out, which it was attempting to swim with, we got the poor thing out and left it to recover on a wooden post. We listened to Scops Owls calling to each other and also heard a Tawny Owl. The lights along the driveway attracted many moths, praying mantis and tree frogs, field crickets chirruped outside the hotel and various bush cricket songs filled the night air.

Praying Mantid in pool, quickly rescued

The next day I decided to have a day to myself and so the group went off on their days outing, I often do this as I find time alone to be an essential occasionally. I had a great day listening to the sounds of the leaves in the cork trees and later looking for insects. I found some really odd-shaped grass hoppers and a fantastic praying mantis on a flower, that I watched for a good hour or so. The day was extremely hot, but I cooled off in the pool at regular intervals and thoroughly enjoyed the freedom of the day and the quiet of the orchards with not a soul around. It was nice to catch up with Jan and Harvey and the rest of the group on their return and hear about their day, many of them said that they had wished they had stayed back too as it had been stifling hot out in the field with no relief and little wildlife had been seen that day, which is a shame. 

Great Bush Cricket

After the meal some of us took an evening walk down the drive and along some country lanes under a full moon accompanied by singing crickets and chirping tree frogs; moths and praying mantis were seen on the drive lights.  A ghostly mist hung in the fields lit by the moonlight whilst a Scops Owls was calling in the distance which made the night even more atmospheric.

The next morning the others went out to look at some old ruins, however I loved the grounds of the cork tree orchards so much that once again I chose to remain behind. I had a lovely relaxing morning, did some washing which I hung out on a tree to dry quickly and talked to Alison who also stayed behind and was in the next room down, she was sat outside drawing images in water-colour pencils. The pictures were excellent, many of colourful Dragonflies that George had photographed, it is another way to appreciate the beauty of the wildlife in drawing it.

The group came back to pick us up by which time my clothes had dried and were all packed ready for the next destination to the other side of the island. I was reluctant to leave this area and should I ever visit Sardinia again I would go to this area and stay there for the week. Anyway, leave it we did and drove to Lago Oristano where we stopped by a road side, climbed over a barbed wire fence and walked down a steep thorny bush hillside to some water where we explored the area looking for dragonflies. We found several male and female species of Banded Groundling sunning themselves on the beach which were stunning to look at and complimented each other perfectly in their light and dark brown colourings. These elegant little Dragonflies enjoy hunting for insects around the feet of grazing cattle and so can be seen fluttering about low down rather than soaring high in the air like the darters and chasers.

Male Banded Groundling

Female Banded Groundling

I teamed up with Andy and Harvey and we walked round the water edge and through the dense vegetation where we were treated to a sighting of the rare Green Hooktail (Paragomphus henei) perched on some grasses. I was so excited about this as this was the Dragonfly that I most wanted to see, it is a tiny species with the most impressive shaped tail that I have ever seen, the green colouration on it is rich and pleasing to the eye.  This stunning little Dragonfly is covered in patterned stripes and spots of green, yellow, beige, brown and black markings with its prominent hooked tail.

We re-joined the others and did the walk back up the steep embankment in the searing hot sun then drove on to the shade of some trees in the village for a picnic of bread, cheeses and olives. The village here was really picturesque, I enjoyed the picnic and sat on the steps talking to Jan and Harvey about the trip so far and what we had seen. Later I saw a Brimstone Butterfly on a flower, these striking insects are thought to be the original ‘Butter-coloured flys’ and are the longest living, often living for a few months from March throughout the summer.

Brimstone Butterfly

After lunch we had a very long drive to the other side of the island, on the way we stopped off at Arutas beach which is made up of thousands of white quartz stones, the beach was fairly packed with sunworshippers whose oiled skin shone in the afternoon sun. There was little to see here wildlife wise so left for Pula to the final hotel which was set in beautiful gardens of flowering trees and palms with a Nightingale and Turtle Doves calling as we arrived. It was a luxurious place to stay with very interesting grounds, however what bothered me about this place was that I could not find any insects in the plants. I soon discovered that the hotel staff were spraying all the plants in the gardens to keep them free of insects, this did not rest well with me at all, finding many dead insects underneath the plants.

We arrived late in the afternoon, almost tea time so after the evening meal some of us explored the area and saw Nightjars feeding around the trees, we also heard tree frogs and Scops Owl calling. I walked on ahead of the others and through the dark gardens which went on a long way, there were maze like hedges and after going through them I came to a large iron gate, I tried it and it opened, through I went onwards and came to an infinity pool with its water shining in the moonlight which also reflected on the sea behind it. It was a beautiful setting.  I ran back and told the others, three of them came with me to check it out and I went in and had a swim fully clothed with the moonlight on the sea in the background providing a beautiful back drop to a midnight swim. It was lovely just floating there, the others sat on the sun chairs at the poolside and chatted about the day and I floated looking out at the moon over the sea. Suddenly a car drew up and stopped by the gate, we all watched as a man got out, locked the gate, jumped back into the vehicle and drove off. Ooops. I quickly got out of the pool and the others got up and we quickly ran over to see if there were any other ways through by the gate area, there were not, it was closed off completely; it was now about 01:15am.

Moon reflected on sea

There was nothing for it but to get round the edge of the infinity pool and climb down some steep, jagged rocks onto the beach below and try to navigate a route back into the grounds of the hotel, we would literally have to try and break back into the grounds as they looked to be well sealed. Two members of the group could not swim and were nervous about falling into the pool as it was out on a drop and the edge was not really designed to be walked on, so I had to lead one person by the hand and take down, then go back up for the next.  Once we were all down on the beach we scanned the area to check out the best route in, we had a little walking to do back up the beach before we could find an area that looked accessible. We finally managed to get through some high wired gating and then through a hedge and made our way back in through the gardens, to walk round to the main entrance was simply not accessible by that back path, so we only had the back part.

I got back to my room bedraggled, soaking wet with the shivers having been out of the water into the cool night air for too long, but could not help but find the whole thing really amusing. At least there were no guard dogs on the grounds, but there seemed to be barking dogs everywhere else that we had been to.

Barking dog in village

The next day I joined the group for breakfast but again opted for a day alone to explore the area outside the grounds and also the beaches and see what I could find. I had a great walk outside and came across some fantastic multi-marked crickets and lots of huge blue bees which I am still yet to identify.

Later I went down to one of the white sandy beaches, hid my clothes and key behind a rock and went in the sea for a swim in my bikini.  I was really enjoying my time in the water as a few jellyfish were around me and I played with them using a small stick I found, if I moved the stick through the water they would follow it and grab onto it with the tentacle, it was lovely to experience.

Two men walked onto the beach, they were obviously Italian and got in the sea for a swim, I continued floating and playing with the jelly fish. To my horror one of the men got out and started throwing things up onto the sharp rocks on the cliff opposite. He was hurling jellyfish out of the sea, which is their home, onto the rocks to die. I started shouting at him to stop it, he ignored me and carried on. I got out of the water and started to climb the jagged rocks, I climbed the rocks bare foot (I had not brough shoes to the beach) and carefully picked up two jelly fish at a time and took them back into the sea. Then I would return to climb and repeat the process. He stopped and watched me in disbelief, the other man who was with him was talking to him, he then started to shout angrily at me. I walked towards him and said in English “why?” gesturing to the rocks. Again he shouted at me and I calmly said “stop, enough”.  The other man understood my English and was telling him what I was saying, he was so angry, but I stood my ground and for each one he threw I would climb those damned rocks and get it back. Surprisingly they got out of the sea, collected their things and walked away, though the angry man wanted to argue still, but his friend I think was saying ‘lets just leave”.

I spent the next hour climbing up and down those rocks cutting my feet all cut up to rescue each and every one of those jellyfish. Of course many did not survive, the impact had sadly killed them, but I still I took them all back to the sea; I detested the cruel bastard for what he did. However, there were  a handful of jelly fish that did survive and as I gently floated them in the water they drifted gracefully off, so at least some were saved. I was upset by the cruelty of it and it hung over the rest of my day, its one thing that really makes me angry, I will never understand how someone can behave like that. The group returned from their day trip and we had a late dinner outside in the hotel gardens, as we ate I jumped up and ran off to get my camera as there were some Moorish Geckos (Tarentola mauritanica) by some flowers lit up by a lamp. These little spiny Geckos are mainly nocturnal however being greatly attracted to light, at night-time they will always be found hunting insects on walls near light sources and in the daytime like to be near sunlight and will sometimes be active then also.

Moorish Wall Geckos

That night I could not settle or sleep as it was the last night in Sardinia, so I went for a midnight swim, but this time inside the hotel grounds, it was great, just me the moon and stars with the odd Scops Owl calling from its tree, it was a nice final memory of the place and I went to bed around 3:30am still with the sound of the Scops owl calling from its tree.

In the morning I got up early and arranged for the tables to be put together to make one long table so the group could be seated in one place. Once everyone arrived we had a communal breakfast then I made a thank you speech to both guides and gave them the tips I had collected from the group the night before. Later we set off to the airport via a small town called Pula as we had plenty of time and the group went off shopping while I went off alone looking for some local scenes to photograph and really enjoyed looking round that little town.
We later met for lunch and had some delicious pizza before I had a quick final run around the small town to admire all the colourful buildings. The buildings are quaint, interesting and beautiful to look at, many were painted bright colours and those that were left a natural stone would have brightly painted doors and window shutters. 

Town building

Painted letterbox, Sardinia 2010 by A.K.

We continued heading on and stopped by a lake to watch a dramatic thunderstorm over some mountains. Later we stopped again by some salt lagoons and the group were happy to see three flocks of flamingos out in the water, I was far more excited by a tiny praying mantis that I found in the dry grass, no one else shared my enthusiasm for it though. We then headed off to the airport and flew back to Heathrow, at the other end, we had some time to kill so I hung out with Jan, Harvey and Andy and the four of us had a drink, they were my favourite people of the group so it was great to see them again at the end. We have since become firm friends and often meet up for the odd trip out somewhere, that is one of the great things about travelling, you often meet some great people who become friends.

On reflection, if I were to compare this trip to that of the Camargue for Dragonflies I would say that the Camargue wins hands down for sheer numbers of Dragonflies, however Sardinia wins on having the rarer, more interesting species.

Thanks for reading this piece, to view the full Gallery of images please go to:
www.amanda-king-akimages.com