Rain and wind bring autumn wildlife surprises

This month I was torn between writing about two topics. I couldn’t make my mind up so decided to include both. Later in the article, I bring you information about an extremely rare American visitor, but first a creature I’ve been asked to identify many times over the last few weeks, the Fire Salamander (scientific name: Salamandra Salamandra).

Although seen infrequently, this species of salamander is a very common European species, particularly in Portugal. This semi-aquatic amphibian spends most of its life hidden on the ground amongst foliage and dead wood. They become active at dusk but, after rainfall, they become very active and can occasionally be spotted in daylight as they search for water pools to reproduce.

Recent rainfall in the Algarve has brought them out in numbers after dark, raising many questions from identification to concerns about danger to pets.

The Fire Salamander appearance can vary, but most are black with yellow spots, although it is not uncommon to find them with additional red or orange spots. Less commonly found are those predominantly yellow or even completely black.

Growing up to 25cm, they can live for many decades with a recorded life of 50 years in captivity. Their preferred landscape is forests, particularly hilly terrain which is why I often see them in my local area in the northern Algarve hills.

As with most salamanders, their diet consists of insects, worms and slugs. These gentle, slow-moving creatures pose no real threat to humans or pets, however, they do produce a toxin called samandarin. The toxin glands usually correspond to the coloured patterns on the skin.

Samandarin is potentially dangerous to both humans and pets causing muscle convulsions and hypertension, however, you must consume a large amount for any real effect.

Pets are safe as Fire Salamanders taste terrible, meaning any cat or dog wanting to play would soon leave it alone. I have both cats and a dog who usually show little to no interest in them. I have often handled them bare-handed, but, of course, a thorough handwash follows.

Next up, our American refugee. The Green Heron (scientific name: Butorides virescens) is a small heron found only in North and Central America. Imagine the excitement in the bird-watching community when one was found feeding in the lake at the San Lorenzo Golf Course in Quinta do Lago. It is believed that this bird arrived with last month’s Hurricane Leslie, literally blown here.

The Green Heron is similarly sized to the Little Bittern but, whereas the Little Bittern is extremely shy and difficult to spot, this species is quite relaxed around human presence. I managed to get within a few metres to photograph it.

It’s uncertain what the future holds for this bird. Its new home is the perfect location with plenty of food (pond life and flying insects), but, of course, it has no breeding possibilities. Remarkably, further north in Aroeira (just south of Almada), another Green Heron has been spotted, so maybe there are others yet to be discovered.

By Craig Rogers
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Craig Rogers is a Wildlife and Nature photographer from Wales now living in the Algarve offering Photography Workshops. More information, photographs and blog can be found on his website at www.craigrogers.photography