Royal visitors at the northern limits

There are moments and places in Extremadura which take me far from the familiar dehesas, plains and Mediterranean scrublands close to home. Indeed, one of the profound attractions of Extremadura's landscape diversity is quite simply that. I do not need to travel a long way for fresh encounters. Yesterday through winter banks of fog I headed north to the very limits of the region. Just shy of the border with Castille y Leon, I took a narrow winding mountain road through the village of La Garganta, whose population of about 400 people live at an altitude of over 1100 metres, the second highest settlement in Extremadura. Many of the inhabitants work higher still, as my route ascended I passed smallholdings and mountain meadows, patches of forestry land, a goatherd with his animals.

Now well above the fog, I had a view westwards across the mountains of Las Hurdes and Gata, as far as distant Portugal. The classic temperature inversion was easily measureable: my car thermometer had sho…

Chuffed by choughs

A windswept wild call echoes across an acoustic arena of cliffs and ravines. A keen, embracing sound kyyaaah...kyyaah, it rolls and pitches in the same way as its author flies. Red-billed Choughs mirror the waves below western rocky coastlines, with their swell and tumbles and equally in their exploration of the funnels and uplifts of crags and deep valleys in the great mountain chains across Europe, North Africa and Asia and the highlands of Ethiopia.

In Extremadura, the bird finds its home in the Gredos Mountains and Sierras of Badajoz province, as well as the sublime Villuercas-Ibores-Jara range in the east. The latter is designated by UNESCO as one of its global networks of Geoparks, for the significance of its landform and geology. The Villuercas (as the entire range is sometimes known in shorthand) breaks above the tablelands south of the Gredos in a series of gigantic ripples, waves which break into dramatic rocky crests of ancient hard quartzites. As I headed to my destinatio…

They're back

Yesterday as evening approached, I stood beside the Alcollarín Reservoir, near home. The sky was cloudless and the air still. Black-headed Gulls caught the low sunshine like reflective snow as they started to gather on the mirror-smooth surface of the lake. They mingled with Great Crested Grebes, which rolled to flash their white bellies and with the more sombre, pensive Black-necked Grebes.  Beyond, near the far shore and in shallower water, a flotilla of Shoveler shuffled in vortex.

I was there to watch the gulls. but within minutes I swung to look southwards to determine the source of an unmistakeable bugling sound. It provides the wash to all winter soundscapes here. They heralded my first Common Cranes of the season. For days now, with persistently favourable weather conditions I have been especially tuned-in to pick up this sound, but to no avail. This has been the latest arrival of the "ladies in grey" as cranes are sometimes referred to here (the noun "grulla&q…

Signs of hope

An obession drives the sun-beaten people once the equinox has passed, and this year especially. Yes, I find a sense of conclusion at this, the end of nature's year. Flaxen gold swathes of crisp dry vegetation have locked-up the story of last year's autumn rains, winter mists and spring luxuriance.   Summer's end is the epitaph of the annual cycle. And rightly it feels as a time for rest, stasis and reflection, deep as the shadows left by the holm oaks in the dehesas. But we are getting fidgety and slightly nervous. Save a couple of days of rain a fortnight ago, the summer has shown no sign of breaking. The overgrazed pastures on the plains are dustbowls, shrivelled olives lie wasted on the ground and water bodies stand shrunken. We wait for autumn's reward.

But whilst the landscape is on hold, deeper, more fundamental cues of change are all around us, the silent tsunami of migration, on cue and unstoppable. For a few weeks denizens of boreal forests and central Europea…

A bequest from the drought

We are facing the third worst drought of this century and it could become much worse if the autumn rains on which we depend to break the drought fail. Whilst many of the small rivers here are habitually dry by late summer, the impact is telling on the farm pools which provide water for livestock. Even those which are reliably holding water in August have water levels which are far below normal. Perhaps the most dramatic images are the reservoirs. The Valdecañas reservoir is the fourth largest in Extremadura in terms of water capacity and was created in 1963 with the completion of the dam across the Tagus River, the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula. But because of the drought the reservoir holds just over a quarter of its potential and the water body, although still vast, appears shrunken and bordered by vast margins of bleached pebbles and sand, the surface shimmering in the late summer heat.

We were there on an impromtu family trip to see for ourselves a remarkable bequest fro…

Countdown to a late summer dawn

I arrive at 07.00. The eastern horizon, which gave an eggshell blue hue as I left home twenty minutes earlier, now glows apricot. This smoothly fades into the blue-black inky wash of the rest of the sky. Within seconds I hear the first bird calls, the wheeldee-eee of Crested Larks, closely followed by abrupt tics from Corn Buntings. Both are unseen, the pre-dawn gloam just sufficient to mark the open horizon here on the plains, and the proud outline of the Gredos Mountains to the north, but there is no contrast to pick out movement over the dusky barren grasslands. That is until a party of twelve Calandra Larks rise above the skyline, twanging in their bounding motion across my view. The combination of gradually improving light and my eyes tuning-in helps me to pick up the direct flight of a Corn Bunting, barely two metres above the the ground, no-nonsense and purposeful. A stocky outline on top of the chimney on an outbuilding identifies itself as a Little Owl. Its mate sits on top …

Flight paths at the riverside

Late June and July are when things really take off. I am sitting on a water-worn rock in the shadow cast by a single-arch stone bridge. My body adjusts to its smooth contours and I relish its coolness and the shade: a respite from the heat surging from Spanish-blue sky. The ancient bridge, which is just wide enough to walk across, also carries a stone channel along which clear cold water races, on its way to irrigate vegetable gardens  on the other side of the deep valley. Water dribbles from the rim of the arch of the bridge, leaking from this channel, creating  a silvery cascade dripping down to the river below. Dodging this constant trickle, a pair of Red-rumped Swallows bring food every couple of minutes to young hidden in the bowel of their mud-built nest at the apex of the arch. The adults give their friendly budgerigar-like chortle. A pair of White-rumped Swifts zoom up the valley, somewhere they will be using an abandoned Red-rumped Swallow nest like this for themselves.