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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…

Emergence

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It was an emotional reunion. After over six weeks away, I had missed its prime. But with huge gratitude I was there to witness the evensong of spring on the plains, as it ebbed away. Summer comes early on the steppes of Extremadura.

Lockdown was still in place, but I carried a government authorisation to work as a volunteer to monitor the classic steppe species, all confronted with a challenged future. On getting out of the car, I instinctively did the most simple thing. Standing facing east, I soaked in the very first rays from the rising sun in a landscape which seemed unlimited and eternal. Backlit feathery Retama bushes providing perches for singing Corn Buntings, emerged from the mist. Pondering forms of grazing cattle shuffled in the mist. Everywhere larks were singing.

With a weaving buoyancy a Montagu's Harrier tracked over the vast meadow beside me. A dawn and dusk hunter, searching the ground for a vulnerable nestling or oblivious rodent. This raptor is on the verge of …

Lockdown Birding Part 14

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Only infrequently seen at the start of the lockdown, Red-rumped Swallows are now close confidents of our confinement. They are happy to sit on the balcony railing as I stand just a few feet away by. They chortle in their friendly budgerigar manner whilst perched in the shade next to our open kitchen door.  I am not sure where this pair has chosen to nest. The old nest beside the kitchen still stands but over the last years has seen other occupants: Blue Tits and Wrens. It is now full of holes and stuffed with moss, an alien nest-lining for the Red-rumped Swallows, which gather small feathers floating airbourne.

The Stonechats must now be on their second brood, and the Barn Swallows in the toolshed are using the same nest from which their three first-brood chicks successfully fledged. There are family parties of Blue Tits working the bushes. Their ashy-smudged juveniles inquisitively picking at the bark of the twigs. The Nightingale is paired up and I suspect nesting at the edge of th…

Lockdown Birding Part 13

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From the balcony I can see gentle hills to the east, south and west. I stand with my back to the house, so there is no view northwards. Ignoring the wall of the house behind me and the floor I am standing on, this means that almost half of the bird habitat offered to my view is the sky.

My good friend David Lindo's message is to "Keep Looking Up". So much happens above, but when walking it is too easy to keep focused on just the ground and vegetation, During the lockdown, standing on my balcony, there is no excuse. Sightings in the sky have granted me surprise and action. The arrival of a Black Kite swinging low overhead is usually announced by the swearing of Iberian (Azure-winged) Magpies. They lift from their hidden perches, sometimes two or three in unison to engage the raptor in pursuit. The Black Kite makes a subtle adjustment to its rudder through a twist of the tail, and changes course. The Iberian Magpies want the sky kite-free. The intruder seems nonchalant as…