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A young master at work

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This is flycatcher month in Extremadura. Fresh from broad-leaved forests in central and northern Europe, Pied Flycatchers are the most abundant. With their urgent, metallic alarm call, they are easy to locate and on my regular walk along the lane from the house I can expect to find five or six in the space of twenty minutes. At this time of year, all are in plumages similar to that of spring females, a satin brown above with whitish underparts and a bold white flash on the wing. The males are no longer the striking "pied" black and white excitements of spring. My morning's tally in September will exceed the total number of spring passage birds that I will see in a normal year here. There are several reasons for this. The numbers of migrant birds will always be greater in the autumn than the spring because the population is larger - there being adults and young birds on the move. In spring, one sees only those birds that have survived the migration route there and back. A…

Wandering minstrels

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Nature tells me that by 15th August autumn has arrived in Extremadura. There is something about the freshness at dawn, after nights that have now lengthened to almost ten and half hours long. The turquoise midday sky is now bereft of Black Kites, most of which are already in Africa. And the arrival of a tiny bird from northern Europe marks the change of season with certainty. This morning I watched a loose group of four of these lemon-soft sprites foraging along our driveway. In tireless fashion they popped in and out of view amongst the narrow leaves of an almond tree. It was an exploration with a search-image of miniscule arthropods, to be found on the underside of the leaves. These were reachable by peering from a perch, or by making a short, fluttering hover just bill-distance from the foliage. Exhausting possibilities there, they flew across the drive onto a patch of lawn and then onto the gravel. So engrossed were they in their morning foray for food, that they ignored me comple…

A swift appointment

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Standing in Trujillo's main square one evening this week, loud screams distracted my quiet contemplation of the socially-distanced groups dining at the pavement cafes. The disturbance came from above. At the rooftops, small bats rolled out from their roosts and fluttered over the tiles. But the sound came from higher still. Only then, squinting hard into the disappearing light of when evening turns to night, did I make out the culprits. A swirling gang, wheeling and dealing swifts, growing in density as if by vortex, others were sucked in. Perhaps there were sixty or so, it was hard to tell. I glanced back to cafes and realised that no one else was peering, stiff-necked, upwards. I was the only one mesmerised by these aerial barracudas. Perhaps no one else had even heard the screams.

Gravity sucked these long, stiff-winged birds downwards, plunging towards the cavities and cracks in the masonry in the 16th century palaces cornering the square. There they would roost. Some of the sw…

Secret pools

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Just over forty kilometres from home, the place could have been on another continent. Standing in the shade of a grove of alders and strawberry trees, amongst water-smoothed boulders, a deep dappled pool fed by a gushing torrent, I felt bourne away to a sub-tropical Andean mountain stream. The water in the pool was so clear that I watched shoals of small fish twisting in silver flashes. We were tucked into a gorge, a strip of lush green squeezed between the thrusts of ancient quartzite. The crests of the cliffs above us were the eroded splinters of these vertical planes, extraordinarily held in place by gravity. The high-summer blue sky was constantly criss-crossed by Griffon Vultures, along with flutters of Crag Martins and Red-rumped Swallows. A group of four nimble White-rumped Swifts chased each other in front of the rock face. 

The stream entering the gorge had long ago dried-up. The gushing cool water now at our feet seemed close to miraculous. There was no visible source. Neithe…

A moving feast

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The rice fields are at their most uniform. A vast spread of small rectangular plots, all with lush lime-green growing crop, are fed by a hierarchy of canals, channels, ditches and plastic-lined breaks in the bunds. The water is gravity-carried from the Sierra Brava Reservoir. Bare-earth bunds retain the paddies, their upper part baked by the 40º heat, the lower half of the bank darkened by the osmotic rise of moisture. These bunds are alleyways for the birds hanging out here: freshly arrived Northern Lapwings, gangs of Tree Sparrows, rows of White Storks and Cattle Egrets and the clay-coloured Collared Pratincoles. These anomalous waders shuffle on their short legs, but maintain an elegance thanks to their long wings neatly folded over their forked tails. When at rest at a distance they appear rather dowdy, but when closer, my attention is carried to their heads and necks: their short, curved bill, reddish at its base, a creamy throat neatly defined in black.
In the thumping heat, the …

Melting into a shadow

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As dusk approaches, a dark and long-legged sprite bounds into view. Its effortless long hops  make the bird seem weightless, or at least as light as a feather. As it lands it holds its slender body upright, wings droop slightly and the tail raises just above the horizontal. It peers quizzically sideways and leans forward. Changing its mind, with its tail making a hesitant quiver, it springs into another three hops. A pause again, but this time a peck and its tweezer-like bill nips up an ant from the stone paving.  
The tail is burnt sienna in colour, its upperparts duller brown with a greyish paler wash below. The combination of pale buffy spots on its back and wing-coverts and its mottled head and breast suggest a young bird. It is indeed a juvenile Nightingale, just starting to venture out on its own. It is not bothered by my presence, hopping to within two metres from me, and then only diverting away thanks to the distraction of the harvester ant trail nearby. 

It is the offspring of…

A land of extremes

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There is a popular misconception that the name of our region, Extremadura, is derived from the union of two Spanish words which translate as "extremely hard". It is a belief that reinforces another misconception: that the region is  tough and inhospitable. An area that people have sought to escape from rather than to arrive in. Sure, on the vast plains in central and southern Extremadura, spring peters out early by mid-May. Thistles have seeded and grasses have hauntingly become dust-yellow and brittle. By then, these landscapes have indeed become extremely hard. The view north from the village of Peñalsorda in the deep south-east of Extremadura offers a panorama with undulations recalling desert dunes, with the remote castle of Puebla de Alcocer, marking a northern limit. Over much of the plains of  La Serena the soil is so thin that slaty dog's teeth of crooked, jagged rock break the surface.

Hidden from that view, spidering through the topography to mark historic water…