Monday, 30 September 2019

Signs of hope

A Spotted Flycatcher on migration (Martin Kelsey)

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 European woodlands linger with us on their journey south. They are everywhere, but for most people they pass unnoticed, a flicker out of the corner of one's eye. A Pied Flycatcher pausing on a fence, a Spotted Flycatcher on a branch, a Willow Warbler at the base of a solitary shrub on the plains. Northern Wheatears curtsey on dried cowpats, flights of Pintail pause on lonely pools. On massive dam walls, vast numbers of House Martins congregate, this photo shows at least 1300 (I counted them) gathered this morning at Alcollarín.

Over a thousand House Martins at Alcollarín dam (Martin Kelsey)

And at my feet, there are signs of hope and rebirth. Brave autumn flowers that draw sustenance from the energy they carefully stored in the spring, as their erstwhile leaves, unremarkable and ignored, photosynthesed under the March sunshine and their bulbs and tubers swelled with sugars. In September these leaves have long-since withered and crumbled, but fragile, yet stoic stalks have emerged to carry the tiny delicate flowers aloft. A miracle from the dust.

Autumn Snowflake (Martin Kelsey)

Saturday, 31 August 2019

A bequest from the drought

Emerging for the first time in 50 years from the drought-stricken Valdecañas Reservoir, the five thousand year old Dolmen of Guadalperal (Martin Kelsey)

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 from this drought. For the first still since the reservoir filled over 50 years ago, the water level is now so low that a megalithic site, a dolmen hidden from view for so long is now visible. Built about 5000 years ago on the banks of the Tagus, comprising 140 granite stones, the site was known by the Romans but was only subsequently rediscovered by a German priest and amateur archeologist, Hugo Obermaier in the 1920s. Transportable finds were sent to Munich, but the stones were left and within 40 years were submerged under the rising waters of the new Valdecañas Reservoir.

Although the monument's reappearance had reached the newspapers, there was not much we could easily find regarding specific advice on how to visit the site itself. So we set off this morning as early as possible to avoid the heat of the day, forecast to reach the high 30s. The most direct route to the site was impossible because our way was barred by a padlocked gate and entrance to the large private estate of Guadalperal, on which the dolmen was located. Reservoirs are state-owned and their immediate banks are public-rights of way, but we could not cross this private land to reach the shoreline. Eventually, we found a road which led to a pumping station where we could leave the car and walk.

The trek took us across varied terrain: flat sandy bays, damp green zones and treacherous gravel banks. We had spent too much time finding this access point and the sun was already high in the utterly cloudless sky. Migrant Common Sandpipers and statuesque Grey Herons were the only signs of life beside the water on the right of us, apart from the slap of breaching carp on the surface. To our left the land rose and disappeared into the cover of the holm oak dehesa. It took us a full two hours hike to reach the site itself, we had passed four couples of people returning, whilst a similar number were spread ahead of us and behind.
The standing stones surrounded by a an embankment (Martin Kelsey)

The site is marked by a ring of stones lying flat on the ground and a bank of gravel (which would have been turf-covered before submergence), with an entry passage from the east. The bank is so high that as I approached I would not have imagined what lay behind it. Indeed it was only because there were a handful of people standing there looking down that I suspected (and hoped) that we had arrived. Once on the bank we could admire the standing stones below us, set in concentric rings. Some have described this Dolmen of Guadalperal as the Stonehenge of Spain.

The site has been under water for over fifty yeras (Martin Kelsey)

As I stood there I tried to imagine the landscape five thousand years ago. The brooding Gredos Mountains to the north would have looked pretty much the same. The Tagus River would have meandered across this plain before reaching a rocky gorge where the dam now stands. Perhaps there would have been marshes beside the river, whilst the wood pasture now on the rising ground would have been denser Mediterranean forest, still dominated by holm oaks. Perhaps there would have been small clearings and areas for grazing on these gentle slopes, with the livestock moving down to the river to drink.

A boatman appeared, bringing some visitors across from a village on the other side of the reservoir. We agreed a fare for him to take us back to the start of our trek and the breeze as we sped back across the water was a welcome respite against the heat of the midday sun. We clambered back through the woodland and I was distracted by the call of a Pied Flycatcher. These autumnal migrants would also have been passing through these same woods in late August five thousand years ago.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Countdown to a late summer dawn

Little Bustards at dawn (Martin Kelsey)

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 of a nearby fence post, a stoic blob. There are more contributions to the soundscape: a chatter of Magpies, distant Collared Doves, an Iberian Grey Shrike, along with a rooster and distant cowbells.

Apricot sky on the plains at dawn (Martin Kelsey)

At 07.13 scattered clouds to the north-west are becoming roseate-tinged. Small parties of Corn Buntings continue to pass, urgently like commuters. Half-way up a windbreak tree sits the broad-shouldered shape of a Spanish Imperial Eagle. It looks almost wholly black in this light, even with a telescope the emulsion white on "elbow" of the folded wing barely discernible. Beef cattle ponderously move across the field (what can they find to eat where even the parched sparse grass stems have crumbled?), with Spotless Starlings sauntering at their hoofs. At the top of a distant rise are farm buildings from which are delivered the yelled commands of a shepherd and his dogs bark in response. From a similar distance issue the ringing pprrrt calls of invisible Bee-eaters.

At 07.26 it is "sunrise", but the topography of the land  means I have yet to witness its appearance.  It is now the coolest time of the day and feels distinctly fresh at 19ºC (compared with the 36ºC twelve hours earlier). Whilst I have been here, four vehicles and a large truck have passed me on this rough dirt track, wheels crunching on the gravel and billowing dust. Here the farmers live in the town and drive to their work each day, greeting their dogs that have guarded the corralled sheep during the night. At my feet, there is another track, and it too has become used by agricultural workers. Harvester ants are setting out from their burrow, meeting some early risers negotiating their passage back with awned grass seeds.
Harvester Ants (Martin Kelsey)

The growling purr of Black-bellied Sandgrouse distracts me from my ponderings on the ants and I watch three flying low over the field, in fast direct flight, swerving as if on a hand-brake turn and swinging in to land. There their aerial dynamism is transformed to a trundling, shuffling gait.

At 07.30, the sound of the Bee-eaters is becoming incessant and far across the field a flock of over fifty birds emerges, spreading across the sky in long shallow glides. Three minutes later, the sun finally breaks the horizon. At that moment, I hear too the more strident calls of Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Spanish Imperial Eagle starts barking. I turn but the eagle has already flown. It must have dropped in a long glide into the valley that is hidden from my view.

It is 07.41 and I hear a high-pitched hissing sound above me ssiissiissiissii. It heralds the wonderful sight of a group of Little Bustard, 13 in total, which pass overhead, turn and offer me a second fly past. The males still bear the nuptual black and white chevron on their necks. More Pin-tailed Sandgrouse are calling, as they make their dawn forays for water. Some I find, but others pass over heard but not seen: to locate them in the sky is a challenge with a call that has surely evolved to deceive. A Roller sits on a fence, hunched with its blue plumage brightening perceptively as the light improves.

A male Montagu's Harrier patrols the top end of the field at 08.00. A level flight, two metres above the ground, its slender tail held perfectly horizontally giving the bird a linear appearance, propelled by slow deep wingbeats which pushes it into a long, graceful glide. High above three Cattle Egrets pass over, seeking to join the starlings with the cattle.

At 08.16, three Black-winged Stilts noisily approach a pool that has shrunken so much in the summer drought, that from where I stand I see no water. Only the quacking of Mallard has betrayed its presence. Two sandgrouse fly to the west of me. Although together, they are two difference species and it is satisfying to see clearly the difference between the stocky Black-bellied and the slimmer Pin-tailed.
A Pin-tailed and a Black-bellied Sandgrouse flying together, distantly (Martin Kelsey)

I have stood here now for a hundred minutes and it is time to leave. I have seen about 420 individual birds of 25 species on terrain that has the feel of a dustbowl. All have been local breeding birds, there was no sign of any autumn migrants, although the flocking of the Bee-eaters was a presage of their imminent departure.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Flight paths at the riverside

Watching dragonflies with Mark (Martin Kelsey)
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.

Today these are but delightful distractions, because I am becoming totally absorbed by action at the water's edge. From my perch I can see half a dozen species of Odonata, both dragonflies and damselflies. I leave the photography to my companion Mark. My defective camera has been a blessing, and I am granted the sheer freedom to put it aside and to observe. I am engrossed.

Around me is a community of these extrordinary insects, busily meeting the demands of their brief adult lives. What I start to see are differences, each species behaving in distinct ways. I can identify each species simply on what I am learning through these minutes of careful observation. Some of the species indeed bear common names based not on their appearance, but on their behaviour. Thus the chunky-bodied Splendid Cruiser sweeps past me on a circuit that takes it over the quiet water to my left and back again across the boulders and torrents to shady pools to my right. Almost the whole time it is on level flight, cruising as it were, and repeating this flight path every five minutes or so, only deviating from it when a chance encounter with a neighbouring Splended Cruiser sends them both skyward so fast that I can barely follow them.

Western Spectre (Martin Kelsey)

A Western Spectre, less showy and a bit smaller than the Cruisers, lurks close to the water, right next to the bank, pausing where vegetation hangs down, disappearing briefly from view as it explores the shade under the fronds. On the very same leaves hang Western Demoiselles, their pigmented wings in semaphore. Into view comes an Orange-spotted Emerald, hovering at the entrance of a small bay, stationary in mid-air before chasing off a much larger Splendid Cruiser or a Keeled Skimmer. It is feisty and pugnacious, keeping its patch clear of all intruders. This constant aerial motion contrasts with the behaviour of the pincertails which sit, abdomen raised with the heat, atop mid-current rounded stones, making just the briefest of sortees out across the water before returning.

Looking for Hooktails with Mark (Martin Kelsey)

The next day we are at a very different river, wide and slow-flowing with tangled vegetation spreading across the gravel banks mid-stream. Instead of a mountain stream, it is a languid, almost tropical river. Another community of Odonata is there to be enjoyed. Violet Dropwings perch on Typha stems, making forays and returning to their perches where they obelisk with the heat. Tiny White Featherlegs shift from hiding places in the vegetation as I struggle through it. They have a slow, gravity-defying bouncy flight, as if suspended by fine elastic.
White Featherleg (Martin Kelsey)

Across the water, another dragonfly darts at great speed, just above the water level. It crosses the width of the river in what seems like a fraction of a second, and then zooms back again towards me. As soon as its path leaves the water and crosses the gravel bank I lose sight of it, not knowing if it has landed or simply done a large loop, because soon it is back over the river. For minutes on end, this action is repeated but I remain frustrated at not being able to work out what it is doing. Mark and I carry on walking, putting up Little Ringed Plovers and finding a singing Western Olivaceous Warbler in the gallery woodland of willow shrubs.
Green Hooktail (Mark Ferris)

We return with renewed impetus to see this dragonfly. It rushes in from the water, but this time I am better positioned and spot where it has landed. I approach it carefully, immediately identifying it as a male Green Hooktail, a particularly striking species, bearing an almost prehistoric demeanour. Perched on a piece of dry vegetation, it watches me. Something drives it to be airbourne again and off it goes on his zigzag flight path across the water. But this time I am patient, I know this species too and anticipate its return to the same perch. I do not have to wait long for its re-appearance there. A reward for patience and for figuring it all out, understanding and intepreting these myiad of marvel.

Friday, 31 May 2019

Reaching for the sky

Gredos landscape (Martin Kelsey)

On the plains spring is over and the vegetation is blanched blond. Hay has been cut and gathered and harvest is underway. On more lightly grazed land, the dominant shrub is now in flower. A wispy grey-green untidy plant, commonly mistaken by visitors as tamarisk, it is in fact a type of broom called Retama sphaerocarpa. As I drove north from Cáceres, I entered a landscape turned lemon yellow by the sheer abundance of this species, growing on otherwise sparsely vegetated, thin-soiled badlands. It offers a final respite, along with the thistles, before summer closes in, for nectar-seeking insects.

But my journey was taking me further, rising a thousand metres more onto open country, the rounded granite mountain tops of the Gredos. Rising through the soft greens of the deciduous Pyrenean oaks, I arrived at a place where spring was just starting. Indeed, the white brooms so characteristic of the granite berrocal near Trujillo, which is in full bloom in March, were only just starting to flower at this height. Before me was an artist's palate of colour: whites, russets and purples, but predominantly the rich yellow of the mountain broom species Cytisus oromediterraneaus. Locally know as Piorno, it gave its name to the highest town in Extremadura: Piornal, which was founded in the middle of the 13th Century.
Ortolan Bunting (Martin Kelsey)

The birds too were exuding spring passion. Most characteristic of this terrain is the Ortolan Bunting, whose poignant song, carries in its tone and its simplicity an evocation of space and depth. Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush delivered a more embellished fluty song. As I stood, I could hear the song of no fewer than nine species of birds. As instruments in an orchestra, they melded into a exaltation of the mountain, but for many their performance became even more exuberant. Positioned at this mountain top, an interface of the earth and the heavens, birds launched themselves into the sky, parachuting down with tail and wings outspread. Rock Thrushes and Wheatears, Water Pipits, Whitethroats and Bluethroat all deployed the same technique, carrying their song to join the continuous offering of Skylarks, so high that they were hard to locate against the blue of the sky. Only the Ortolan stayed put, stoically atop a granite boulder, its haunting song filling the horizontal dimension, mingled with a tapestry of colour.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Milestone for an icon

Peña Falcón in Monfragüe National Park (Martin Kelsey)

Erupting as a ribbon of parallel ridges across an ocean of dehesa, the hard quartzite strata stand as proud relics to the turbulance of the Variscan orogeny, the tectonic movements that formed the supercontinent Pangea. The results of this collision between the ancient masses of Euramerica and Gondwana can be found in the form of the Pyrenees, some of the Alps (including Mont Blanc) and here in Extremadura, the syncline that shapes the Monfragüe National Park. Standing amongst the visitors at the viewpoint in the southern entrance to the park, I look across onto the the massive Peña Falcón (the Falcon's Rock: which indeed does host a pair of Peregrines). The rock strata laid horizontally as sand on beaches and under the sea about 500 million years ago were metamorphosed into quartzites and slates, violently folded 200 millions years later and pushed vertically as waves across the Earth's crust.

"Think about geology to understand landscape" a geologist once told me. Below me the Tagus (Tajo) River flows from the right. There it had sought the route of least resistance, smoothing a valley through the softer and friable layers of slate until she hit the wall of quartzite. Gravity drew her direction of travel southward and it was at this point where through a long-gone fault or weakness in the rock, the water pushed through. Over millions of years of erosion, the gateway or Portilla, was formed, creating this iconic gorge.

Prehistoric rock art in Monfragüe (Martin Kelsey)

The overhangs and crevices in the quartzite offered refuges for the first human visitors to Monfragüe and thus started the agency of the human hand and mind in shaping this landscape. The rock paintings just below the castle in Monfragüe date back 11,000 years. The name Monfragüe itself is derived from the Roman "Monsfragorum" which means a rocky zone with abrupt relief, but also lush: describing perfectly the vast Mediterranean mixed forest which still covers the north-facing slope of the castle ridge. In medieval times a bridge was built crossing the Tagus, visible to this day when the water level is low enough, but travellers were at risk from attack by bandits hiding in the steep, wooded terrain. The rocky hillsides and impenetrable vegetation also provided cover for groups of maquis, guerrilla fighters who maintained resistence against the Franco regime for several years after the Civil War.

The Cardinal's Bridge, built in 1450 and today only visible when the water level is low enough (Martin Kelsey)

The dehesa wood pasture was developed across the vast latifundias, the estates bestowed by the monarchs after the Reconquest, and which still define much of the land tenure around Monfragüe. For centuries the landscape would have changed little. This was until the 1960s when a dramatic new chapter in Monfragüe's history opened. Dams were built across the great Tagus (one inside what is now the park) and another downstream at Alcántara. The result was to change forever the way in which the river passed through the gorge, replacing waterfalls and rocky torrents with the sluggish feel of a backwater. And then, at the end of the decade, work started to convert the hillsides of native Mediterranean woodland into vast and sterile eucalyptus and pine plantations for pulp and paper production.

It was at that time when perhaps Monfragüe's most significant visitor first set foot in the area. Jesús Garzón was studying Spanish Imperial Eagles and was staggered to experience a place where it was possible without leaving the road to obtain  unequalled views of timid species like Black Storks, five species of eagle and nesting vultures. These deep impressions are shared even today by the numerous visitors that gather at the viewpoints in the park. But he saw too  how this extraordinary place was being ripped apart by the conversion of land underway, and with much more under threat. He spearheaded a campaign in the early 1970s, involving conservationists, activists and, significantly, local schools to oppose the spread of eucalyptus. These were times of great change in Spain with the death of Franco and the transition to democracy. The campaign struggled against what was then government policy and the interests of big business. But the public voice triumphed - indeed Garzón says that "Monfragüe was saved by the local children".

Campaign material from 1973 to mobilise people to save Monfragüe (from the historic archives of Monfragüe National Park)

Exactly 40 years ago the objectives of the campaign were realized with the declaration of Monfragüe as a Natural Park and a change in government policy to prohibit the planting of eucalyptus in the Mediterranean region of the country. Over a decade ago, Monfragüe was further upgraded to a National Park, covering over 18,000 hectares, sitting in the middle of a Biosphere Reserve of over 110,000 hectares. This vast buffer zone is crucial for the integrity of the park, offering foraging ranges over dehesa farmland for the breeding birds of prey, most notably the world's highest density of Black Vultures, a species that has increased tenfold in Extremadura since Jesús Garzón's first fell in love with Monfragüe.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Town park birding

Little Ringed Plover (Martin Kelsey)

There is nothing quite so dapper as the ringed plover Charadrius species in breeding dress. Neat and precise black bands crisply border the front half of the bird, contrasting with pure white underparts and, in a modest concession to their surroundings, smooth mud-brown upperparts. Their rotund bodies, rather short legs and simple short bill give them an appealing cuteness, strengthened further by their  typically tentative demeanour. They are hesitant birds, foraging by means of a few paces in one direction, a pause to peer and peck, followed by a few more steps in what seems to be a random trajectory. They seem both endearingly vulnerable and friendly at the same time.

In its full nuptual plumage, the Little Ringed Plover blasts its European congeners away with an almost alarmingly swollen ring of bare-skin around the eye. This ripe lemon yellow orbital adorns the dress uniform of the bird like parade-ground braid. Little Ringed Plovers are common breeding birds in Extremadura, found at the edge of water bodies, along rivers and even nesting along the farm tracks in the rice fields. It is an increasingly familar sight in winter too (see the Spanish blog by Javier Prieta).

I know of no better place to get better views of this little wader than the San Lazaro park at the edge of Trujillo. Here there is a body of water of about two hectares in area, with a perimeter path and footbridge going right across its centre. In places there are small gently sloping patches of bare ground on its shore, elsewhere reduced clumps of reed mace. At its far end there is a children's playground and bar. It is a favourite spot for dogwalkers, joggers, families and those simply out for a paseo. And for me, an ideal drop-in spot before heading to do some shopping nearby.

On my visit there yesterday, I counted four pairs of Little Ringed Plovers, each quietly keeping to favoured zones, where they trundled and paused, almost as if by clockwork. They were a total contrast to the chic dainty elegance of Black-winged Stilts (three pairs were present), with their absurdly long red legs, needle-like black bill, acting like pincers to lift prey from the water.

Black-winged Stilt (Martin Kelsey)

From the Typha a migrating Sedge Warbler had stopped off and was singing loudly, right beside the footbridge. The same patch of emergent vegetation is cover for wintering Chiffchaffs, that fly out in short hovering motion to feast on yuletide midges. Barn Swallows hawked the open water, where Coot, Moorhen, Little Grebe and Mallard all pootled around, and all nesting around the pool. Serins performed their buoyant songflights above me.

The San Lazaro park in Trujillo (Martin Kelsey)

From my vantage point, on the path beside the water, I  look up towards the centre of the town and to the Moorish fort crowning the heights of the granite foundation of Trujillo. A building a thousand years older than the concrete silo dominating the skyline to my left. But the latter too featured in my town park birding, a dozen Lesser Kestrels wheeled in the sapphire sky above it. Thanks to installation of nest boxes on its roof, this monolith  has become one of the most important single Lesser Kestrel colonies in the region.